Drug-testing welfare recipients an 'absolute disgrace', Australian of the Year says
Leading mental health expert and Australian of the Year, Patrick McGorry, has criticised the government’s plans to drug test welfare recipients as an “absolute disgrace”.
McGorry is the latest prominent Australian to voice his concern about the measure, which will see 5,000 welfare recipients drug tested at three trial locations.
He has warned the policy fails to understand the intersection between mental illness and drug and alcohol addiction. The consequence will be to drive vulnerable Australians with a mental health issue away from the welfare system, and most likely into homelessness.
“It’s an absolute disgrace,” McGorry told Guardian Australia. “It fails to recognise that mental illness and drug and alcohol problems nearly always coexist, they’re a health problem and not a lifestyle choice,” he said.
“It shouldn’t be a justification for basically withdrawing welfare support because the consequences could be things like homelessness and major hardship.”
McGorry’s criticisms come after the former Australian federal police commissioner Mick Palmer delivered a scathing assessment of the plan on Wednesday.
Palmer, who was responsible for implementing tough Howard-era drugs policies, told the ABC the plan would simply not work, would harm those least able to change, and risked pushing people into crime to support their addiction.
The legislation containing the drug-testing measure was due to be debated this week in the Senate, but has been pushed back until the next sitting period in mid-October.
That gives more time for negotiations between the government and the Nick Xenophon Team, whose votes could be crucial in securing the bill’s passage.
Some members of the Xenophon team have already expressed disquiet about the bill. The sole NXT lower house MP, Rebekha Sharkie, voted against it in the lower house, after last week describing the drugtesting measure as “devoid of logic”.
The government has previously dismissed criticism from the medical community.
It says the measure is a trial, which will be assessed for its effectiveness once it is up and running.
The human services minister, Alan Tudge, said the aim was to create behavioural change by encouraging welfare recipients into treatment. That would not only reduce drug and alcohol use, he said, but improve employment prospects.
“The overall objective of this ... and this is important, the overall objective is to identify those people who may have a drug habit, to assist them to get treatment and to hopefully get them off drugs and back into the workforce,” Tudge said last week.
The social services minister, Christian Porter, has likened opposition to welfare drug testing to the medical community’s concerns over the “no jab, no pay” policy to boost child immunisation rates. Porter said that policy had proven to be a resounding success, and announced a strengthening of the scheme on Thursday.
Labor remains hopeful it can stop the drug-testing measures in the Senate. The shadow human services minister, Linda Burney, said it was “almost inconceivable” that the government is pursuing the measure in the wake of a broad consensus of condemnation among experts.
“We are hoping very much that we can stop this in the Senate. I understand that the Xenophon team
are looking at this very clearly,” Burney said on Wednesday.
“But when you have every medical expert and when you have law enforcement expertise saying that this is a bad idea, with no new investment, in drug rehabilitation, it is just a nonsense that the government is pursuing this,” she said.
The 5,000 welfare recipients will be tested in Logan in Queensland, Canterbury-Bankstown in southwestern Sydney, and Mandurah in Western Australia.
A first failed test will lead to income management, and a second would see a welfare recipient referred to treatment. If the recipient fails to engage in treatment, they are liable for punishments, including the loss of income support.
Any welfare recipient who fails twice will be required to cover the costs of their tests.
Mental heath reform advocate Patrick McGorry has joined a growing chorus of experts opposed to the Australian government’s plan to drug test 5,000 welfare recipients.