Drug-test­ing wel­fare re­cip­i­ents an 'ab­so­lute dis­grace', Aus­tralian of the Year says

The Guardian Australia - - News - Christo­pher Knaus

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.

Pho­to­graph: Alan Por­ritt/AAP

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.

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