Sky News – AM Agenda
Subjects: Drug Testing
Welfare recipients in Sydney’s southwest could be randomly tested for drugs from the start of next year; the Turnbull Government is poised to announce Canterbury-Bankstown as the first of three locations for a controversial drug testing trial of new job seekers.
We’re joined by the Social Services Minister, Christian Porter. Minister, thanks very much for your time.
It’s controversial because well, the AMA’s opposed to it, addiction experts opposed to it, Labor, Victoria says they’re not going to cooperate with you. You’re running against the tide in many respects here, aren’t you?
Well, I guess the only people who are in support of it are anyone with common sense that I spoke to up and down every street that I walk around.
But look, one of the doctors’ groups that criticised this did so on the basis that they said that use of drugs amongst people who are unemployed is no different from people who are employed. That’s just fundamentally untrue.
What we know is that we have much higher use of drugs like amphetamine – ice – two and a half times more likely to be used by a person who’s unemployed. We know that creates terrible barriers to employment. We know that at the moment the welfare system, unfortunately and very often, simply pushes cash out the door in a way that makes those problems worse.
So what we want to do here is operate a trial, rigorously test it, but see if we can use the welfare system, and the levers in the welfare system, to create a condition where we identify those barriers to employment and compel people to do something about the problem.
Well, the AMA is one of the groups – they’re the peak doctors group – which say that this is mean and stigmatising. What do you say to that?
Well, I mean, that’s a sort of ideological view, not a scientific view. I mean, millions of Australians every day work in workplaces where they can be subject to drug testing as a fundamental condition of their employment – in transport, in construction, at an airport – whole range of industries, yet we don’t see that as stigmatising.
Why on earth would we characterise this as a stigmatising? It’s not designed to stigmatise people, it’s designed to identify people who have a barrier to employment.
On a first test you would go on to income management using card technology so that there’d be less cash available to expend in a way that makes matters worse. On a second test you’d have to undertake a medical assessment by a professional that we would appoint and pay for, and a treatment plan would be devised if that’s the appropriate course. And then the conditionality would be such that to continue to receive welfare you’d have to undertake that treatment.
This is not designed to stigmatise. It’s not designed to cut people’s welfare off. It’s designed to find those people whose drug use is creating a barrier to employment and actually get them into a situation where something’s being done to assist them.
Do you have any evidence to suggest that this is going to work? Or is this just simply a trial in every sense of the word?
Well, there’s evidence throughout Australia that when you mandate treatment programs, that can have a very positive effect. There’s evidence internationally about behavioural change occurring amongst groups that are drug tested compared to those that are not.
But what we’re doing here is genuinely different from things that have been tried overseas, which is why we’ll be running very rigorous evaluation alongside the trial. So, it is novel and there’s no question about that. And it’s trying something new in an area where little has been tried before.
But at the moment, very unfortunately, cash moves out the door in the welfare system in a way that very often makes drug and alcohol problems worse, not better. So if we can try and test ways to use the welfare system to move people into treatment and to make welfare conditional on that treatment being accepted, that’s a positive thing.
And part of this, Kieran, is that for the first time, the law will be changed to ensure that everyone in the welfare system on a NewStart payment who is undertaking treatment for a drug or alcohol problem can have that treatment actually count as part of their job preparation plan, and that’s never been tried before
So this is genuinely about trying to help people with problems that we know exist that too often a wilfully blind eye is turned to.
Minister, I think that the vast bulk of Australians – certainly most of our viewers – would be agreeing and hoping that what you’re doing is going to work; but if you look at it simply in the terms of someone with an addiction who is unemployed and then you remove 80 per cent of their available funds and quarantine those funds to things like food and other essentials, while it makes sense on the surface, where will those individuals go then to fund their habits? Because the habits don’t go overnight, do they?
No, they don’t. But, of course, part of this process is that if the habit continues and there’s a second positive test, then that person, at our expense – the taxpayers’ expense – is going to get assessment and be moved into treatment. Now, that’s a much better outcome than just letting the habit persist.
But also, these are the sort of complaints that of course were raised against the cashless welfare card that’s running in the Kimberley and in Ceduna, and all of the responses back about that card have been overwhelmingly positive. And we see in those communities more fresh food and food being purchased, children being properly clothed, less being spent on gambling, less being spend on alcohol. And I think that accords with community and taxpayer expectations about how welfare should be allocated but it also offers us this unique lever to try and drive behavioural change.
Now, no system of course will be perfect, but we’ll be measuring peoples’ change in behaviour who are subject to these trials. And in a place like Bankstown, where I am today, we’ve looked at areas where there are clearly problems associated with drug use.
So the surrounding areas have indicated hospitalisation rates for the drug ice increasing over four years by 2000 per cent. So we can keep doing business as usual, keep the money going out the door in cash in a way that fuels drug problems, which create further barriers for employment, or we can try something different, test it, measure it, and try and learn from the experience.
So, Minister, it’s not just about ensuring that those on welfare or job seekers are using their money in a bid to try and get themselves back into the workforce. It’s also a social measure in the sense that you’re trying to help people get off this terrible stuff, like the scourge of ice that you alluded to?
So where drug testing has occurred, say for instance in the United States, the end point of it in most of the areas is to try and cut welfare off. That’s not what we’re doing. What we’re trying to do is use welfare payments as the lever to get people into treatment, if that’s what they need, and also of course, as you note, to try and meet community expectations and decrease the amount of cash available to simply prolong problems around drug abuse.
But on a second positive test, you’ll be assessed by a medical professional that we’ll appoint and pay for, treatment plans will be devised, and then we use the conditionality of payments to get people to abide by the treatment, and the treatment will count as part of the job preparation which is very important.
Why not just do it after one test? Get them treated after one if it shows that someone’s on ice, methamphetamine, just do it after the first?
Well, I mean, that of course was an option. We want to give people that chance early to change behaviour. And what we suspect will happen here is that people who are aware that they’re being subject to randomised drug testing in a place like Bankstown where I am today will actually change their behaviour.
Now, some people, because of addiction problems, are going to be unable to do that, but equally what we find in workplaces where drug testing occurs is that there is behavioural change. So that’s the first point, is to give people the chance to change their behaviour. And those early stages of job search are really critical, because if someone finds a job early, that is a much better long-term outcome, we find, just based on statistics.
And the reality is that millions of Australians are subject in their workplaces to drug testing regimes, and of course if you do take drugs when you are searching for work you automatically rule yourself out of a whole range of really fantastic jobs in transport, in construction, and in a whole range of other industries.
So having a two-step process we think is the best way to try and drive behavioural change.
And as I started our discussion today, I’ll conclude it.
You are facing opposition to this not just from the medical fraternity, but also your political opponents. The caucus, Labor caucus, voted against it; the state Labor Government of Victoria won’t cooperate. Will you simply go around them? While this is in New South Wales today, I understand there are two other trials. You just won’t be doing it in Victoria?
Well, look, we’ll announce the other trials shortly, but we’ve got several hundred pages’ worth of welfare reform before the Parliament at the moment. That includes condensing seven complicated payments into one simple one, re-writing mutual obligations for job search and making them firmer and more consistent, and also re-writing root and branch the compliance system to make the system simpler using a nice, simple demerit point system, and this drug testing is part of that.
I’ve been in negotiations with the crossbenchers, and particularly the Nick Xenophon Team. One of the conversations I had with Nick Xenophon is the way in which ice and amphetamine use is playing havoc in communities across South Australia. So there’s a good amount of goodwill amongst the crossbench. They certainly, I think, see this as a genuine effort to try something different, which is what governments are supposed to do when they’re confronted with longstanding problems.
Social Services Minister, Christian Porter, appreciate your time.
We’ll talk to you soon.