ABC – AM
Subjects: Drug Testing; Citizenship.
The Canterbury Bankstown area, in south-western Sydney, has been chosen as the first location for the Federal Government’s random drug testing trial of welfare recipients. It was announced in the May Budget that from next year, new recipients of NewStart and Youth Allowance at three locations around Australia would be tested for things like ecstasy, marijuana and ice, in a trial lasting two years. Anyone returning a positive result will be forced onto the cashless welfare card; which quarantines most of their income for essential items like food and rent. A second positive test will lead to the recipient being referred to medical treatment.
The Social Services Minister is Christian Porter. I spoke with him a short time ago.
Minister, thank you for joining AM. Why was this area of Sydney chosen?
It’s a pleasure, Sabra.
We looked around Australia for appropriate trial sites. And effectively it was three things. We wanted to first of all make sure that there are enough on the ground service providers to cope with any increase in demand. Secondly there are a large number of people entering the welfare system in the relevant area here in Canterbury Bankstown. The third thing is that across a range of data sets, we can see there are some real problems with drugs in the community.
So there were quite remarkable statistics available, such that there’s been a 2000 per cent increase over the last four years in hospitalisations due to amphetamine use. So those three things in general combination made this a good trial site.
And you’re hoping to test about 15 per cent of new recipients, is that right?
Yeah that’s about right.
We think about 1700-odd people here will be subject to a test. And on the first test, if you tested positive, you’d go onto an income management regime using a Basics Card. So you’d have limited cash available to feed what might be drug use. And on a second positive test, you’d have an assessment by a medical professional that we would provide. And if appropriate, they’d devise a treatment regime, and as part of your job search, you’d be required to abide by that treatment regime.
The trial needs legislation to be passed Parliament first. When will you put a bill to Parliament?
Well the bill is actually already before Parliament.
So this is one part of a very large – I mean hundreds of pages worth of welfare reform – where we turn seven payments into one, we re-write and simplify mutual obligations, such as job search, and we introduce an entirely new simple demerit point system for compliance. And these drug tests do need a legislative basis, and they’re part of that legislation which is before the House of Reps at the moment.
I mean it’s highly contentious. The numbers certainly aren’t guaranteed. You may not get the numbers before January next year.
Well I mean there’s always a question about whether you can move legislation through the Senate; but I’ve been engaged in very positive and constructive conversations with the crossbenchers.
I mean I’ve had some quite long conversations, actually, with Nick Xenophon about this issue. And he has some concerns about drug use in South Australia and particularly the way in which amphetamines and ice is really wrecking a range of communities across the country.
So we’ve started some very positive conversations, and I’m optimistic that we’ll get this through. I think it’s a common sense measure, but it’s a trial. And if you’ve got problems – which we clearly have – where drugs are creating barriers to employment, you can either do nothing and let the system run along as it has – where basically cash is being pushed out and makes matters worse in a lot of instances – or you can try and design trials to structure the welfare system to get people the help they need and not just let welfare push out cash that makes things worse.
How will the trial be evaluated?
Well we’ll run our own evaluation. And we’ll do that on a longitudinal and data basis.
What we’re looking for, obviously, is people to have better employment outcomes, who have been subject to the trial, compared to sample groups that exhibit same problems, but in different areas.
So this is quite different from what has occurred in the United States, where in many of the drug testing regimes that are run in American states, the object is cut people off welfare; that’s not the object here. The object here is to try and identify people whose drug use is creating a barrier to employment and fast-track them into the help that they need. So we’ll be evaluating outcomes in terms, fundamentally of employment.
But what happens if an addict is not able to break their habit? Drug exports say that treatment is the most effective when a person decides they actually need to kick up the habit themselves.
Well also evidence shows that mandated drug testing and treatment can actually have a pretty strong behavioural effect. So no one’s going to be penalised here, for making good attempts.
I mean what we’re trying to do is ensure that where a medical professional on a second drug test devises a treatment program, that the person is under an obligation to abide by the treatment program. So people have to abide by the treatment program. But the point is not simply to cut people off welfare, because they happen to have tested positive.
Victoria won’t cooperate with the Government in holding a trial because it’s concerned that there won’t be enough money to help support recipients to break their addictions and enough money for health services.
You’re providing $10 million for the trial sites over the two year period, to help them with that. But split over the trial sites, it’s only something like $170,000 per year.
But that sits on top of an enormous amount of Commonwealth expenditure in this area.
So we’ve already allocated $685 million over four years for drug and alcohol support and treatment, and that included $300 million for treatment and support for the prevention of the use of the drug ice.
So this $10 million is simply a reserve fund, specific to the trial sites; so that if there are any bottlenecks appearing in any of the on the ground service providers, we can deal with those as they arise.
So people won’t be penalised if at any point they happen to be on a waiting list. The point is that if a treatment program is devised by a medical professional, then you have to do your best to undertake that treatment program.
How many other states have said that they won’t cooperate?
Well none other than Victoria. But in any event, we don’t necessarily need a state governments’ tick off to make all of this work.
But we’ll be announcing the other two trial sites shortly. And it’s been well organised and well thought through. And we’ll be measuring it rigorously.
Don’t you need the states to help with getting drug addicts off drugs? Like don’t you need their cooperation to do that?
I mean the proposition that because a Commonwealth-appointed medical professional has assessed a treatment plan for you that a state-based medical service provider would deny them treatment, I think would actually be against every oath that’s on the books for the medical profession. I think that’s not something that’s been threatened and would be ludicrous if it were.
One of your colleagues – backbencher MP, Craig Kelly – suggested an audit of MPs citizenship details should be done to settle this matter once and for all.
Do you think that’s a good idea?
Well I think that the process we’ve set in place is probably the best process, given all of the circumstances as we know them to be.
So obviously there’s the referral by motion of the House for the Deputy Prime Minister. And then others have joined in what will be hearing before the High Court, and I understand Nick Xenophon is one of those who will join himself into that matter.
I would just simply say that anyone in Parliament who has concerns, or is not perfectly sure about their status, has got this very strong opportunity now to join what will be a High Court hearing in the very near future, and have their circumstances sorted through.
Minister, thanks for your time this morning.
Thank you. Cheers, Sabra.