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”.
He said there had been a 2,000% increase in hospital admissions owing to amphetamine use in the past four years in Canterbury-Bankstown.
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.
Porter told ABC News Breakfast it 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.
Welfare advocates say the plan will stigmatise recipients and drug experts have warned that the trial could have “unintended consequences” on those in the throes of addiction, including driving them into criminality.
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”.
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