Welfare recipients in Sydney’s Canterbury-Bankstown area will be the first to be targeted by the federal government’s drug-testing regime, which could push them on to cashless welfare cards.
The social services minister, Christian Porter, announced on Tuesday the first of three trial sites for the drug-testing regime to begin in 2018.
Porter told ABC’s AM the area in south-west Sydney had been chosen because of the “real problems with drugs in the community” shown by a wide range of data, the presence of support services for drug users and the “large number of people entering the welfare system”.
About 15% of new dole and youth allowance recipients, or some 1,700 people, will be forced to take a test.
After one positive test, welfare recipients will be subjected to income management with a “basics card” that will limit the amount of cash they can withdraw to 20% of their welfare. Porter said this would stop them from feeding “what might be drug use”.
After a second positive test, the commonwealth will provide a medical assessment that could result in a mandatory treatment regime if they want to continue receiving welfare.
The drug-testing regime is contained in a welfare bill that has been introduced to the lower house but the government is still negotiating with the Nick Xenophon Team to secure its passage through the Senate because it is opposed by Labor and the Greens.
Xenophon said on Tuesday he would continue negotiating “in good faith” with government, but expressed some concern about the proposal in its present form.
“So if we’re going to do this properly, we need to expand rapidly – and well – the sorts of drug treatment programs that are out there because there simply is a massive black hole in patient beds to deal with this,” he said.
Porter told ABC News Breakfast drug testing was a “commonsense approach … to identify people who have this problem and use the welfare system as a lever to require them to move into treatment”.
He said there was “lots of evidence” that compelling people into treatment programs could have a positive result but conceded: “No one has quite done particularly what we’re doing here in Australia anywhere else in the world.” The trial was designed to gather evidence about its effectiveness.
The program includes an extra $10m for drug treatment programs in the trial sites to deal with bottlenecks if services are overrun, although Porter promised that “people won’t be penalised if they’re on a waitlist” and couldn’t get treatment.
Anglicare Australia’s acting executive director, Roland Manderson, said the real problem faced by jobseekers in western Sydney was a lack of jobs.
Manderson said there were now five disadvantaged jobseekers for every vacancy at their skill level in western Sydney.
“That’s the real problem –people are competing for jobs that just aren’t there,” he told Guardian Australia on Tuesday. “Forcing people to take drug tests before they can get help won’t achieve anything.”
Drug researchers, frontline workers, psychiatrists, physicians and drug policy experts have all now warned the policy will not help reduce drug and alcohol addiction.
Manderson said similar measures abroad had proven costly and ineffective.
“The countries that have trialled random drug testing have found that it’s costly and doesn’t achieve anything. In the US, it has cost up to $1,600 USD per person.
“This plan has been rejected in Britain, rejected in Canada, It’s now up to the crossbench to look at the evidence and reject these changes.”
Porter said the program was not designed to stigmatise and millions of Australians worked in industries that require drug tests, such as transport and construction.
Malcolm Turnbull said the drug-testing trial was “all about love … and looking after our fellow Australians”.
“If you’ve got a friend who is on drugs, what do you want to do? You desperately want them to get off it,” he told 2Day FM.
The prime minister said the aim of the program was that recipients “won’t have the same freedom to spend [welfare] on drugs” and would only be able to spend on necessities such as food and rent.
He said the program was not founded on “making assumptions about people” but evidence showed people on the dole and youth allowance were “2.4 times more likely to be on drugs than those in the general community”.
But the chief executive of the Australian Council of Social Service, Cassandra Goldie, said the policy demonised welfare recipients while doing nothing to address addiction.
Goldie said many welfare recipients would try to avoid testing, driving them away from the welfare system and leaving them “destitute without any income”.
“This will risk driving people into homelessness and crisis, exactly the opposite of what is needed to support someone dealing with an addiction,” Goldie said.
“For the people who are subjected to testing for no reason, this will just add further to their humiliation and sense of personal degradation,” she said.
Goldie said putting more people on income management would not drive behavioural change.
“We need the government to focus on addressing the lack of paid work available for people and making sure that people’s incomes are adequate to meet the cost of living,” she said.
“The minister has said he is optimistic that the Senate will support the measure, but I urge crossbenchers, including the Nick Xenophon Team, to consider the evidence that is available from overseas experience and particularly to look at what the drug and alcohol experts are saying,” Siewert said.
Labor’s Matt Thistlethwaite said the policy would not get more people into rehabilitation.
“If there was evidence from other jurisdictions in the world that these sort of programs work, then it would be worth considering. But that’s not the case,” he told Sky News on Tuesday.
“It didn’t work in the United States when they had similar programs. New Zealand instituted a similar program, it didn’t work there, it’s quite costly.”