Test of compassion?

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FRIDAY FORUM
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It has been described by the Prime Minister as a policy based on ‘love’, but the federal government’s plan to impose drug tests on new welfare recipients is not receiving a lot of love from substance abuse experts.

Under a pilot program announced in this week’s Federal Budget, 5000 new welfare recipients on Newstart and Youth Allowance will be drug tested across three trial sites. Those who fail the test will receive a cashless debit card and individuals who test positive multiple times will be referred to a medical professional for treatment.

While the tests have been described as ‘random’, the program uses “data-driven profiling tools” to target people at higher risk of substance abuse.

A number of mental health, welfare and drug treatment organisations have hit out at the proposal, which they say demonises those who rely on social security. They believe the government is ignoring research-based evidence in favour of a ‘tough-on-crime’ approach that punishes vulnerable Australians.

Uniting Church president Stuart McMillan and UnitingCare Australia national director Claerwen Little have both expressed concerns at the proposal. Ms Little said the “harsh compliance measures” introduced by the government’s welfare crackdown “effectively makes it a crime to be unemployed”.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull defended the policy during a press conference in Sydney today, claiming that the program is based on “plain common sense”.

“It’s pretty obvious that welfare money should not be used to buy drugs, and if you love somebody who is addicted to drugs, if you love somebody whose life is being destroyed by drugs, don’t you want to get them off drugs?” Mr Turnbull said.

Writing in Guardian Australia, Greens leader Richard Di Natale – a former health professional who specialised in addiction medicine – warns that taking welfare away from people in need of support may drive them into criminality.

“Relapse is a natural part of treating someone for addiction, which is exactly why this proposal is so insidious,” he wrote.

“If we take away support payments at exactly the time when those people need it most, we’re writing a recipe for disaster. Those people won’t give up heroin or ice, but many will turn to illegal methods to support their habit, from dealing drugs to prostitution or theft.”

Mr Di Natale said the proposed policy frames substance abuse as a criminal issue rather than a public health concern and fails to address the broader structural causes of drug addiction, such as mental health, homelessness and unemployment.

On this week’s Friday Forum: do you think drug testing is a well-intentioned policy that will help those with a problem or does it risk marginalising and harming the most vulnerable?

Image: Mountview Uniting Church Facebook page

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