Australia’s peak body for psychiatrists has warned drug-testing welfare recipients will not address drug or alcohol addiction and is at odds with 50 years of evidence about behavioural change.
The criticisms of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists add to a growing weight of concern from physicians, drug policy researchers, frontline support workers and welfare advocacy groups about the Coalition government’s plan.
President of the college, Kym Jenkins, said the evidence generally suggested punitive approaches to drug addiction were ineffective.
She said the college was opposed to the measure, which was a “very simplistic approach” to a complex problem.
“Generally, it’s recognised that motivation rather than punishment is the way to go with any behavioural change,” Jenkins told Guardian Australia.
“Fear of adverse consequences and withdrawals of privileges, which is basically what this is, is a real poor motivator for behavioural change,” she said.
The drug-testing trial, part of a suite of welfare reforms, will involve 5,000 recipients in three locations next year. If recipients fail the test twice, their welfare will be quarantined, likely using a cashless welfare card-style arrangement.
The recipient will be referred to a support service and will face financial punishment if they fail to engage.
Jenkins said the department’s estimate that 425 of the 5,000 recipients involved would test positive was a “gross overestimate” and at odds with experiences in New Zealand and the United States.
The college warned the money spent on the trial would be “much better utilised” in expanding drug and alcohol treatment services, which are currently unable to meet demand.
“If the trial has to go ahead, there have to be so many more resources put in place, to ensure good clinical care for people who show a positive test,” Jenkins said.
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians was similarly sceptical of the trial. The college said evidence and clinical experience suggested punishing drug and alcohol users was ineffective in changing their behaviour.
“Enforced, and potentially disempowering and punitive, measures such as those described in this bill are unlikely to bring about sustained changes in patients’ drug use behaviours and may even be counter-productive – potentially demotivating patients from actively engaging in treatment,” the college said in a submission to an inquiry into the reforms.
But the social services minister, Christian Porter, said international experience showed drug testing would drive behavioural change.
Porter said drug testing abroad showed rates of positive testing were often lower among tested welfare recipients than the general population, which he said was “evidence of behavioural change amongst welfare recipients”.
He also said Australia’s approach was unique, and that the point of the trial was to test whether it would work.
“What we can be absolutely sure of is that leaving people who have drug issues on jobseeker payments with no requirement to do anything to address their addiction will not help them at all,” Porter said.
“At present, people with drug abuse issues don’t have to do anything to address their issues whilst they receive jobseeker payments,” he said.
The Public Health Association of Australia said the proposal ran contrary to evidence showing mandated drug and alcohol treatment does not “reduce drug use or incarceration”.
The association warned the bill, through unnecessary stigmatisation, may cause welfare recipients to disengage from the system and cease jobseeking to avoid the tests.
“Genuine jobseekers may be deterred from seeking the support and assistance available to them through Centrelink and therefore be unfairly disadvantaged through no fault of their own, but simply because they are actively avoiding being labelled as a potential drug user,” the association’s chief executive, Michael Moore, wrote in a submission.
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