The Politics    Friday, September 6, 2019

Return of the Undead 1: The Drug Test

By Russell Marks

Return of the Undead 1: The Drug Test

Minister for Families and Social Services Anne Ruston. © David Mariuz / AAP Image

The government resurrects punitive and pointless bill to drug test welfare recipients

In flagging the return of a bill that would establish three trial sites for drug-testing welfare recipients, Social Services Minister Anne Ruston has revived the first of the Morrison government’s inevitable “zombie policies”, which were previously killed off.

This particular zombie has its immediate origins in the United States, where since 1999 as many as 15 states have introduced drug-testing requirements for some welfare recipients. New Zealand also has some limited drug testing, for people who are about to move off welfare and into work in certain key industries, such as fisheries and horticulture. In New Zealand, if people fess up about their drug use, they become eligible for rehab, and their payments aren’t cut.

But cutting payments has always been central to the idea whenever it’s been raised – and quashed – in Australia, despite former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull declaring it’s ultimately “all about love”. First given life in Australia by George Christensen in 2014, it was quickly killed off by then social services minister Kevin Andrews.

Then in June 2017, the Turnbull government introduced the harsh Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) bill into the lower house, which aimed to force yet more groups of previously exempt social-security recipients to look for paid work – including volunteers over 55 and people with addictions – and to get even tougher on people who failed to attend appointments with employment services providers or to report income. It wanted more of the information that social security claimants are forced to divulge to be used against these claimants in criminal proceedings. And it sought to create a two-year drug-testing trial for 5000 people.

Recipients who tested positive and failed to attend mandated treatment, or who refused to take the test, were to have their social security payments cut off. A subsequent Senate inquiry into the bill attracted 52 submissions. Only one – from the Department of Social Services – indicated any support for drug-testing social security recipients. Experts called it “wacky”, and anticipated the obvious consequences – poverty, homelessness and illness for individuals; increased crime and other antisocial activities for the community.

The government eventually agreed to drop the drug-testing trial from the bill in exchange for the support of the Nick Xenophon Team, and the rest of the bill narrowly passed the Senate – against resolute objections from Labor and the Greens – in March last year. Undeterred, the Turnbull government reintroduced the drug-testing trial provisions, but the Senate numbers hadn’t changed. The Social Services Legislation Amendment (Drug Testing Trial) Bill languished and ultimately lapsed.

Now, it seems, the drug-testing zombie will lumber back into parliament next week. Its substance is likely to be the same – welfare recipients will be selected at random in Logan in Queensland, Canterbury-Bankstown in New South Wales and Mandurah in Western Australia. A positive test would see a recipient’s income quarantined to a cashless welfare card, and refusals to take the test are likely to result in recipients being cut off.

Assuming that Labor and the Greens continue to oppose the bill, the government will need the support of four crossbenchers in the Senate. We can expect Pauline Hanson, Malcolm Roberts and Cory Bernardi to be three of them. Jacqui Lambie voted against drug testing in 2017, but there may be a twist: she said then she’d only consider voting for it if federal politicians were also drug tested. As if to emphasise the unadulterated lunacy of the whole enterprise, Mathias Cormann indicated today that he’s open to that idea.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

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How support for a Tamil family in Biloela blindsided the government and caused the prime minister to panic.


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The list

Jawline, a documentary so named for the razor-sharp one of its subject, follows 16-year-old Austyn Tester on a quest for fame – not any specific type of fame but a nebulous, all-consuming desire to be known, and to outgrow the working-class Tennessee town he calls home. Perfectly anodyne, with hair almost as high as his hopes, he bids for success through nightly broadcasts on livestreaming service YouNow, where he repeats cheesy clichés of inspiration (“be yourself, love yourself”, and a thousand other variations) to an enamoured audience of teenage girls.”

“On a commercial fight to Brisbane in 1985, Geller was noticed by another passenger, an up-and-coming politician in his mid 40s. John Howard was the new Liberal Party leader and the father of three young children aged five, eight and eleven. He sent the celebrity illusionist a note, asking if Geller could provide an autographed photograph for his kids. ‘We duly met and I bent a spoon for him in the usual way,’ Geller wrote later, adding that he took the opportunity to predict that Howard would one day be leader of the country.”

“Even if you don’t know his name, it’s likely you’ve glanced at one of Peter Drew’s creations. The Adelaide-based artist is responsible for multiple poster campaigns, including “Real Australians Say Welcome” and the portrait of the emigrant hawker, Monga Khan, titled “Aussie”, both of which have become ubiquitous in Australian cities. Seek and you shall find them.” 

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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