Bankstown Press Conference – Drug Testing Trial
Subjects: Drug Testing; cashless debit card;
I’m here with the Human Services Minister and David Coleman, the Member for Banks, and we’re announcing the Canterbury-Bankstown region as the first area selected to be the first of what will be three trials for the drug testing of welfare recipients.
We’ve been asked several times today, why this area in particular? There are three essential reasons – the three things that we were looking for.
First of all we had to be sure there were a sufficient number of on-the-ground service providers who are able to cope with any uptake in demand for treatment services around drug use and substance abuse. The second thing is, we were looking for a high volume catchment area, where on a quarterly basis there are large numbers of people coming into the unemployment system onto NewStart payment. The third thing, and perhaps the most important, is that we were looking for a region where there is a clear and identifiable problem with drug consumption which is creating barriers to employment – this is no criticism of the Canterbury-Bankstown area, and certainly it’s no orphan in this respect across Australia – but what is evident looking over a range of the best available data is that there are clear problems around us, particularly in the consumption of amphetamines and ice which are leading to very substantial barriers to employment and causing a whole range of secondary problems in the community.
We’ve seen an increase in police reporting of convictions for amphetamine related offences – in some areas of about 27 per cent increase per year. There’s one remarkable statistic that applies to hospitalisations for the areas around us physically today, where hospitalisations for use of ice have increased over the last (six) years by 2000 per cent. That’s a problem with the consumption of amphetamines that can’t be ignored. What we are trying to do here is find ways to use the very important lever of the welfare system to drive behavioural change to identify people whose drug use is creating a barrier to employment and get something done about that problem, to address the problem and to address the barrier to employment.
And what we are looking at here is a very simple process, where after a first positive drug test the individual concerned will go onto income management using the BasicsCard technology – which Alan Tudge will talk about in a moment – within 25 days of that first positive test the person can be subject to a second test, and if that test is positive the person will be assessed by a medical professional that will appoint, at our expense, and if a treatment program is the appropriate course, that will be devised and the conditionality of the welfare system will be used in a way which will compel that person, require that person to undertake the designed treatment as a condition of further receiving welfare.
Where drug testing has been run internationally, either as trials or in states in America on a permanent basis, it’s generally been about identifying people to cut welfare off – that is not what this testing is about. This testing is about using the conditionality of the welfare system to identify people with a problem, to ensure that cash just doesn’t flow out the door in a way that perpetuates that problem, but rather move the people with these problems – barriers to employment – into treatment programs, where the welfare system can be used as the lever to compel people to undertake that treatment.
Thanks for being here today, very pleased that this will be the first site for the trial.
Alan’s got some things to say about how the BasicsCard technology works and that, of course, will be the first step after a first positive drug test.
Thanks very much Christian.
Everything this Government is doing is aimed at creating jobs. We’re growing the economy, we’re putting in place important programs – like the PaTH program, which offer opportunities for people – but as well we’re introducing important initiatives like this, which address key barriers to unemployed people getting into work.
Now, if you’re on drugs you clearly have barriers to employment. Because so many jobs, these days, require you to be drug free. When you think about the construction industry, the mining industry, the transportation industry, border protection, emergency services – if you’re working just down the road at the Sydney airport, you are required to be drug free and you will be regularly tested. Now, if you’re on drugs you effectively make yourself unavailable for those jobs.
So the design of this initiative is to identify those people who may have a drug habit and get them assistance to get off drugs and back into work.
As Christian said, if you tested positive the first time you will be placed onto the BasicsCard. Now this is effectively a cashless welfare system, and 80 per cent of your welfare payment will be placed into an account which is accessible via the BasicsCard – the other 20 per cent will continue will go into your ordinary savings account. This BasicsCard technology is not new, in fact it already applies right here in the Canterbury-Bankstown area, where about 80 people are already subject to income management.
So it’s a structure and an infrastructure already in place here which we will be leveraging for this trial. Now the purposes of that, of course, is that there’s less money available for a person who may have a drug problem to be able to spend on their addiction, and more money available to pay for the basics. And after all, that’s the purpose of welfare, is to pay for those essential basics, not to support a drug habit.
Now I might hand it over to David now to say a few words as one of the local members here.
DAVID COLEMAN MP:
Thanks Alan, and it’s good to be here this morning for this important announcement.
This is an initiative which will help those people who are welfare recipients who do have a drug problem, by offering them that support that they need by providing them with that income management tool to help them to spend their welfare payments, not on drugs – which frankly isn’t good for them and it certainly isn’t what taxpayers would expect – and to be able to spend that welfare money on those more important basic items.
So I think this will be very widely supported in the community. There are concerns about drug use in the broader community and this will be an important step in helping to ensure that those people who are receiving welfare payments who do have drug problems are identified and given the assistance that they need to get rid of that habit. And that is good for the recipients and it’s also what I think our community would expect of the welfare system
Thank you David.
I would like to particularly thank David for his assistance in helping us understand the local community, particularly in the services that are available, but also the needs of the community and some of the challenges that have been faced here.
Of course, we are very happy to take any questions that you may have. First of all on the drug testing location.
I understand that the drug testing involves, not just a saliva test as the police do, but also perhaps a follicle test and a urine test. Is that not rather onerous and are you not, sort of, punishing people in some ways for maybe taking it once, or trying marijuana once and it’s going to come up in urine or hair samples?
So I guess the first thing is there is no safe or lawful amount of drug use. And trying something, only once, if you’re in the position where you’re searching for employment, as Alan noted, it effectively rules you out of thousands and thousands of jobs across Australia.
Equally, millions of Australians work every day in employment conditions where they can be subject to drug tests, and no one argues that there’s any stigma working for Qantas or Linfox or Toll or at Sydney Airport. This isn’t designed to stigmatise or punish or penalise anyone.
And that’s why welfare is not cut off because of a positive test. Rather, welfare is managed if there’s a positive test in a way that limits the amount of cash available. And on a second positive test we will engage in every endeavour to get that person the treatment that they need.
Very often, I think in about 40 per cent of occasions, the first call for treatment is counselling. Sometimes, just having something as simple and structured as counselling can set a person on a completely different path from the path that we know at the moment – which sees cash flow out the door, drug problems perpetuated and barriers to employment made worse.
What evidence do you have that this will be effective?
Well this is unique. And we will be gathering evidence as part of the process.
So we will be having a rigorous evaluation alongside the actual tests and trials themselves. But what we do know is that drug use is very substantially elevated amongst people in Australia who are unemployed. What we also know is that mandating treatment can have better and positive outcomes for people in terms of their drug problems and in terms of employment and this happens in settings all around Australia, particularly in criminal justice settings in drug courts in this state and my state of Western Australia, we mandate treatment.
So we are taking what we know does work, we’re looking at a problem that we know does exist and we are offering a common sense solution that we will measure rigorously.
The three you’ve chosen – marijuana, ice and the other one – the biggest one, according to drug experts of course, is alcohol – this does nothing to help with alcohol addiction.
Well, alcohol clearly is another problem. There is often what they call co-morbidity – where people have alcohol and drug problems at the same time.
This is a trial, unashamedly, about drug use – particularly focusing on methamphetamines and ice which are a major problem in communities like the one that we are standing in today. The fact that it doesn’t extend wider than that is just a decision we had to make about how this can be managed and how it can be rigorously tested and how we can create positive improvements.
Will it be extended if other drugs are found to be used?
Well we’ll be testing for amphetamine based substances such as ice, opiates, MDMA so ecstasy and marijuana.
We’ll be engaging with a tender process, so it will have private, certified, experienced contractors who will be conducting the drug test. And as I say, those types of drug tests are regularly undertaken in workplaces all across Australia.
There’s always going to be limits and the stable way in which we are going to do this is that we will limit the drugs that we are testing.
It’s a very wide sweep of drugs we are testing.
What’s your reaction to the news that a second Victorian council will dump its Australia Day celebrations?
I just think its nuts. I think it’s absolutely crazy.
It’s totally out of step with community values. I think that they should stick to the local issues of providing local services. I don’t think that Australians are going to thank them for this, I think this is absolutely running against Australians’ view about what Australia Day is and all of the great positive things that we celebrate on that day.
I think they should pull their heads in frankly.
Can I just add, as a Victorian as well – this is another council which is dominated by Labor and the Greens. And you see the Labor-Green agenda here with this council as you did at the previous council which is arguing this point.
And frankly, mainstream Australia enjoys celebrating Australia Day on the 26th January, and it’s an inclusive day of our great multicultural community, and we celebrate the great Indigenous culture on that day as well. If people want to have a clear look at what Labor and the Greens are up to from a social perspective, take a look at what they are doing when they dominate local councils in Victoria – because this is a marker of the type of thing that if Labor and Greens get into the Federal Parliament and get into Government again, this is the type of thing that they will do.
Just speaking of Victoria – there’s been some immensely offensive and incorrect posters being put around Victoria in relation to gay marriage and the children of people who are in gay marriages. Would you both like to condemn that, or would you both like to make a statement in relation to the discussion we should be having on this issue?
I hope that everybody will be respectful in this debate. I will absolutely condemn any offensive posters on either side.
Now we are having a plebiscite, a postal vote here in order to engage people’s opinions as to whether or not they would like to see the Marriage Act changed to include same sex marriage.
Australian’s are decent people, I think we can have a decent, reasonable, respectful debate. They managed to do that in Ireland, and it had a particular outcome which many people wanted. I hope that people continue, will also exercise such respect here in Australia as well.
Just returning to the issue at hand – addiction is not a cut and dry issue that you can solve overnight. Are you concerned about what people who wind up on welfare management are going to do when they are desperate and they don’t have as much disposable cash? What they’ll resort to?
This is a criticism that is also levied at the cashless welfare card that Alan Tudge has supervised the rollout of on a trial basis in Ceduna and the Kimberley, and it is not a criticism that has manifest in problems on the ground. Rather, what we have seen in Ceduna and the Kimberley when only 20 per cent of the welfare payment is available in cash is that the sales and consumptions of food and fresh food is increased, children are better clothed, there is less money spent on alcohol, there is less money spent on gambling – but all of the other indicators around hospital admissions are trending in the right direction.
So of course, that criticism was made, but where we have run analogous programs around the cashless welfare card has not actually come into fruition, but rather the results have been very positive – and we think we will have the same will be here.
And of course we will be testing, watching and measuring. But Alan is very expert in these areas.
We’ve had the cashless welfare card in place now for almost 18 months in two locations. And in those locations 80 per cent of people’s welfare payments is placed onto a card which is only – which you cannot use at bottle-shops, gambling houses and you can’t take cash out from it.
The impact of that card is that about a third of people are drinking less, a third are taking fewer drugs and a third of people are gambling less. An independent evaluation also shows that people are better able to look after their kids, better able to save money – that’s the results of the independent evaluation.
Now, we also have the BasicsCard and income management in place, already, right here in the Canterbury-Bankstown area. And none of those issues which you have raised have evidenced themselves with the 80-odd people who are on that program now.
Is there any information about what happens in terms of regression?
In terms of?
So when they come off welfare management is there regression…?
You mean they come off welfare management and so…
We’re not at that stage yet. So in Ceduna and the East Kimberley where the cashless debit card was introduced, we have extended the operation of the card there, which we did so in consultation with community leaders on the ground, and as a result of the independent evaluation.
Of course, some people come off the card because they get work – that’s the easiest way to get off the card, it’s just like if you’re on income management here in Canterbury-Bankstown or indeed if you’re placed onto the BasicsCard as a result of testing positive under this trial – if you get a job you come off income management, you come off the BasicsCard.
That’s the basis of the trial – in fact it might be a side benefit of this trial that people that do test positive for the first time and are placed onto income management, perhaps it will be a further incentive for them to get a job – lets assess that, I hope it will be.
On gambling actually, this area a bit of a problem with pokies – hundreds of millions of dollars come from the same areas through the pokie machines – would you consider extending this to poker machines as well?
In essence, if you are on the BasicsCard and under income management, you have less cash available to use at the poker machine venue.
So, 80 per cent of all of your welfare payments will be placed under income management – which means that 80 per cent can’t be used on the pokies. Now the other 20 per cent is still available as cash, and of course we won’t be dictating where that 20 per cent is used – we hope it is used for the intent of which welfare was provided, rather than used at the pokies.
The experience certainly in Ceduna, where they have a big poker machines venue there, is that they’ve seen a dramatic reduction in poker machine revenue as a result of the introduction of the cashless debit card, which does quarantine 80 per cent of their welfare payments.
So if you test positive the first time you go onto income management – the BasicsCard. That attaches to you for 24 months, for two years. And that attaches to you for two years, even if you move out of the Canterbury Bankstown area. So that will mean that you’re ability, just in terms of the cash available to you, to expend taxpayers money on gambling, on alcohol or on drugs for two years is very radically decreased.
Now you might say two years is not long enough, but the point is that it’s two years in which we can assist that person in engaging in behavioural change and it’s two years longer than any effort is being made at the moment for people who are taking drugs inside the welfare system.
It might sound silly, but it comes up every time this is mentioned – Jacqui Lambie says that Parliamentarians whose salary is paid for by the taxpayer should indeed also be drug tested. Do you think that’s fair given what you’re announcing today?
That’s not up to me – that would probably run into the auspices of the decision of the Speaker of the Parliament. Look, I’ve got no difficulty with that.
The reality is that millions of Australians work in jobs where potentially they can be subject to drug testing on a daily basis. The point that Alan and I have been making is that if you are taking drugs at the time that you are searching for work – first of all you directly rule out any prospect of being employed in those professions. The second point is that no one considers that there is any difficulty, or any stigma attached to the fact that you work at Qantas or Linfox or Toll or an airport – because in those professions and in those employment settings – mining, construction – you’re regularly subject to the prospect of being tested for drugs.
It’s just part of society now that most Australians accept. So the ideological objections to the trial that we are running around it being a stigma that attaches to people – they don’t bear out with our common understanding about the fact that rug tests, random breath tests, they are just a part and feature of modern, everyday Australian life.
You’ve also acknowledged that gambling is causing direct harm to these most vulnerable people – why is it still legal?
Why is gambling still legal?
Well I must say, I’m not a gambler. I cannot ever remember having ever put a bet on anything in my life, but some people do like to gamble.
Even though there are instances and circumstances where gambling causes a great deal of social grief, I’m not aware that anyone in Australia is proposing that you simply outlaw gambling entirely. And I would imagine that the reason that no one proposes that is because it is completely and utterly impractical.
But we have undertaken a range of measures, many of them that Alan’s been involved with, with online gambling – we’ve also managed to have a ban on gambling advertising during sport, during daytime TV, which no other government has managed before. So what we are doing today is part of an overall sweep of measures which is really trying to tackle root causes of a lot of social grief that engages around drugs, alcohol and gambling.