SUBJECTS: Mandatory drug testing for social security recipients

LINDA BURNEY, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FAMILIES AND SOCIAL SERVICES: Well good morning everyone and thank you for coming. Today we see the Government again dusting off an old policy and saying that they’ll introduce it to the Parliament next week. And that is the issue of drug testing people who are on Newstart and people who are on Youth Allowance. This is an indiscriminate policy. And what is really needed is more facilities for people to get real help if they’ve got drug addiction.

This is random and it will not be effective. We have seen in the past experts come out and say repeatedly that this policy will not work. It’s been tried in the United States. It’s been tried in New Zealand. And it’s been proved a failure.

Many of the people on Newstart are over the age of 55. In fact, one in four people are over the age of 55. Many of them are people that have been retrenched and will have very little chance of getting back into the workforce anytime soon. Many of them – most of them – have never used drugs in their life. And they are certainly not being treated with the respect they ought to. The demonization of welfare recipients is a tried and true method of this Government. Drug testing of people on Newstart and drug testing of people on Youth Allowance is ineffective. It is expensive. And the money needs to be spent on frontline services, not demonising people on welfare.

We have heard from the experts – from the AMA down; from people that work in the addiction space – that this is ineffective, and it is not the way for a government to actually deal with the issue of drug addiction. The issue of drug addiction is a health issue. It is not an issue that should be dealt with through the welfare system. People in the welfare system are not there because they want to. They are there because they have come on to difficult times, or they are eligible for whatever the benefit is.

Randomised drug testing could see a 55 year old being expected to urinate into a cup somewhere to prove that they are not a drug addict. That is inappropriate.

What the Labor Party is saying – despite the fact that the Government says it’s going to tweak it here and there – what the Labor Party is saying is that this is a health issue. It is not an issue that should be dealt with through the welfare system. If the Government really wanted to do something for people on welfare, they would be out there with real – if the Government wanted to do something for people on welfare they would be out there creating jobs. They would be out there with a proper employment policy. But that is not the case with this Government. They are too busy dusting off old policies, reintroducing them with the hope of creating an agenda.

Labor is very clear – and I’ll finish on this point – Labor is very clear: we want to see employment programs. We want to see jobs created. We do not want to see the punitive measures of using people on Newstart and people on Youth Allowance as experiments in trying to treat a drug addiction. This is ineffective. It is proven to be ineffective in other countries. And it’s expensive. Frontline services are where the money should be spent, not the punitive measures that this government is undertaking.

JOURNALIST: The Government is saying there will be extra money for services for trial areas – [inaudible]

BURNEY: Well the Government said in the last iteration of this Bill when they introduced it in the last Parliament – and it was clearly defeated – that they would put additional money into frontline services in the trial sites. The Government has also said that they won’t be charging people this time for the second drug test. And they say they’ll expand the number of drugs being focused on. None of those issues take away the fundamental problems with this particular approach. It is a health issue. It is not something that 55 year olds who happened to find themselves on Newstart through no fault of their own should be subjected to. And this Government still does not have a jobs creation or employment policy.

JOURNALIST: The Social Services Minister has said it’s not about punishment. It’s about identifying people who need help. What do you say to that?

BURNEY: I hear – I heard the Social Services Minister make the claims that this is about helping people. Let’s be very clear. This is punitive, it’s indiscriminate and there is no focus to the program. There is also no evidence from overseas that this actually works. It’s been trialled in both parts of the United States as well as in New Zealand, and both countries have abandoned those trials because of the ineffectiveness, because of the randomness, and because of the expense and the fact that very, very, very few people in both jurisdictions were found to be using drugs and be on welfare at the same time.

JOURNALIST: The Government has also said that taxpayers expect their money to be spent on things like food and getting their children to school, not on drugs. Do they have a point?

BURNEY: There is absolutely no question from the party that I’m part of, the Labor Party, about mutual obligation. It’s really important. People who are receiving taxpayer funds should meet certain obligations. And that’s very much in place. But this is a dangerous policy. Imagine if someone is found to be a drug user, they have their benefits cut, and they are pushed into desperate and difficult circumstances including homelessness. Now it seems to be that if you want good social policy – if it’s not about punitive measures – then you’ll be thinking of those things about the fact that this could put people, push people into more difficult and dangerous circumstances.


BURNEY: Labor held this position very clearly the last time the Government attempted to introduce this regime into the welfare system. As I have said, I believe in mutual obligation. It’s absolutely important. People have responsibilities if they are in receipt of taxpayer funded welfare. But on this occasion, when it is such an ill-defined program when the program has no evidence of working; where it’s completely random; where people who are over the age of 55 and find themselves on welfare because of retrenchment are going to find themselves subject to this regime, is not acceptable to the Labor Party. This is a health issue.


BURNEY: Well, the issue of income management – there is another agenda running here which we will see played out by the Government over the next little while. The Government understands I believe that this policy does not work. There was absolute disagreement the last time they introduced it. They made a few minor changes to it and are dusting off an old policy in a desperate search for an agenda.

JOURNALIST: Do you support Jacqui Lambie’s idea that – she said she would support this legislation if politicians undergo drug testing at work. What do you think of that idea?

BURNEY: I know that Jacqui Lambie has made that statement in relation to the drug testing of Members of Parliament. My response is that there are many workplaces where drug testing is mandatory. I will leave Jacqui Lambie to have her own views and discussions on that. I don’t believe the issue is about drug testing in other arenas. This is clearly about a very ill-defined inappropriate policy being made to apply to people who need support. They don’t need punishment.

JOURNALIST: Just one on your comment about people being treated with respect, if people who happened to find themselves on Newstart or on welfare – if they are found not to be taking drugs – do you think they would have any objection to this?

BURNEY: I think the issue really is one of deciding whether it’s a welfare issue or whether it’s a health issue. This is a health issue clearly. And you speak to any family that is going through the horrors of drug addiction by a loved one and they will tell you there is a paucity of places for people to get treatment. We believe that this money should be spent on treatment and not pursuing people in the welfare system who are not drug addicts.