ABC News Breakfast
Subjects: Drug Testing; Citizenship; Australia Day
Now, as we’ve been reporting this morning, the Federal Government is today announcing the trial sites for its plan to drug test welfare recipients.
Social Services Minister, Christian Porter, joins us now from Bankstown in Western Sydney, near where that will be announced this morning.
Christian Porter, good morning and thanks for joining us
That’s a pleasure, Virginia.
Should you manage to get this passed through Parliament – and that’s not a done deal yet and we’ll get to that – how will the drug-testing regime work?
So, the drug testing regime is designed to try and find ways to use the welfare system to get people the help they need; rather than just having the welfare system push out cash which so often makes problems worse, particularly when they’re related to drugs and alcohol.
The way it would work is that on a first positive test, the person who tests positive would be placed on a form of income management using some card technology – so they’d have far less cash available to them to support drug use. Then within 25 days, the person could be tested again. On a second positive test, the person will be assessed by a medical professional that we will appoint and pay for, and that person, if appropriate, will devise a treatment plan. And the person who tested positive is going to have to abide by that treatment plan as part of their ongoing acceptance of welfare payments.
So, it’s very much designed to identify people who’ve got barriers to employment created around drug problems and get them to do something to sort those problems out.
Here’s the criticism that’s been made this morning, and it’s been made by the Associate Professor Nadine Ezard, the clinical director of the Alcohol and Drug Service at St Vincent’s Hospital – which as you know is probably the leading provider of those services in the country – she says there’s absolutely no evidence base for this. She doubts you’ve had any clinical input from any of the leading drug and alcohol organisations around the country, including hers, and she can’t see that it’s going to be cost effective, it will be too expensive and also she says it will just simply end up stigmatising those people.
How do you answer those charges?
Well, it’s certainly not designed to stigmatise anyone. And millions of Australian work in industries where on a daily basis they could be subject to drug tests – transport, construction, and a range of other industries – and no one suggests that there’s any stigma around that.
Now, as to the evidence base, no one has quite done particularly what we’re doing here in Australia, anywhere else in the world. But there is evidence out there that says that when you’ve got …
So, can I just jump in there, minister? Can I just jump in to clarify you, given what you have just said then in answer to that specific question, no one’s done it anywhere?
So, you really are proceeding without any base of evidence?
No, well, we are running a trial to gather evidence, particularly on the way in which this precise process will work. And this process is designed to identify people with a problem and get them the clinical help that they need.
Now, I’m not entirely joining issue with some of those criticisms that you raised earlier. There’s lots of evidence that suggests that behavioural change can grow around drug testing regimes. There’s lots of evidence that says when you mandate – so when you compel people into treatment programs – that, that can have a positive result in terms of their treatment and supports for drug problems.
So, when you look at internationally available evidence, this represents a common sense approach, and it’s an approach basically designed to identify people who have this problem and use the welfare system as a lever to require them to move into treatment. And we have set aside specific funds here – a $10 million amount – which can be held in reserve to ensure that that treatment is available on the ground.
To be fair, Nadine Ezard said she welcomed any more money that went into treatment and the like. But I’d like to see your evidence that shows that compelling someone into treatment actually works. All the evidence I’ve ever seen suggests unless you have that person who is willing to embrace the idea of change, and who wants to go into rehab and who wants to shake their addiction, you’re never going to get them there. So it’s simply good government money going nowhere.
Well, there’s lots of programs that compel treatment. So every state in Australia, Virginia, runs mandated treatment…
Yes but whether the outcome is positive is another thing.
Well, just- well, I can answer the question for you?
Every state in Australia mandates treatment through drug courts, i.e., they compel people to go into treatment programs. And overwhelmingly, the evidence around that mandated treatment program that exists in virtually every state in Australia has been positive.
So, when you do have levers available that can use – that you can use to require people to go into treatment, that is a far better outcome – imperfect though it may be – it is a very positive way in which you can deal with a problem, rather than not identifying the people and not making any efforts to require them to go into the treatment that can actually improve their lives.
What’s being suggested here as an alternative is you just do what we’ve always do, business as usual in the welfare system, where cash gets pushed out the door, which only makes matters worse.
Minister, while I’ve got you here, just a couple of questions on some other big topics today. Your colleague, Craig Kelly, has called for a total audit when it comes to citizenship of people in Federal Parliament. Do you agree at this stage now that’s necessary?
I don’t think we’re at that point. So, the process that we’ve put in place was that by motion of the Government, the Deputy Prime Minister has been referred to a hearing in the High Court to sort out the issues surrounding his citizenship status.
A whole range of people will be joining that action. I think that the proper process here is that if anyone’s in any doubt – so Nick Xenophon is the latest one to join potentially that action – that they join in that action. We can hear all of this in front of the High Court effectively as a job lot. So, if there is any doubt amongst people…
Sure, but I know that the government is very, very keen to clarify and to see documents say, for example, relating to Bill Shorten. Wouldn’t a total audit – a fast and sharp audit – actually get you the answer to that?
Well, I think ultimately, this is not a question for an audit so much as it’s a question of both law and fact.
There’s not merely a question of fact that goes on here; which is presumably what an audit would be designed to do. There’s a question of law as to how the proper interpretation of the relevant constitutional section would operate.
So, I’m not sure that an audit does the job.
Okay. And just finally this morning, Darebin Council in Melbourne has also decided to change the date of their Australia Day celebrations: your view of that?
Are we getting now nationally to a bigger and wider discussion about changing the date generally of Australia Day, do you think?
I just think that’s nuts.
I mean, I think most Australians think that that’s just crazy. Australia Day is a unique day to celebrate all the wonderful things that we’ve managed to build here in Australia, for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
I just think this stuff is completely crazy; totally out of step with general community ideas about what Australia Day is and should be. I certainly don’t think it’s going to go into a wider conversation because I don’t think people are really interested.
This is just a few nutty people in local government who should be worried more about providing services to their community than getting engaged in very grand and pretty stupid ideological debates.
And finally, Christian Porter, just for the record, are you 100 per cent sure that you are solely an Australian citizen?
I have a very dull and non-exotic family, I’m safe to say. So yes, I’m 100 per cent sure.
Well, happy Australia Day to you when it rolls around.
Thanks, Christian Porter. Thanks so much.
Indeed, thank you.