Three out of four voters have backed the Turnbull government’s signature welfare reform to trial a drug-testing scheme for welfare recipients, in a blunt rejection of Labor’s and the Greens’ vows to block the move on the grounds it “demonised” the disadvantaged.
The overwhelming public backing for a drug-testing trial has exposed the opposition’s rejection of the policy, with 67 per cent of Labor voters in favour of the move, which would force those who tested positive onto cashless welfare cards.
Support was strongest among Coalition voters (85 per cent) but surprisingly, a majority of Greens voters also said they backed the trials to drug-test 5000 Newstart or Youth Allowance applicants, according to an exclusive Newspoll conducted for The Australian.
It follows the findings of a federal government health report, tabled in parliament in late September, which claimed that drug abuse was significantly more prevalent among the unemployed than those who were working.
A three-yearly Australian Institute of Health and Welfare drug and alcohol survey found that unemployed people were three times more likely to use ice and other amphetamines than those who were employed. The disparity had increased significantly since 2013.
The report also revealed a rise in the number of unemployed people using cannabis. The jobless were considered to be two times more likely than those in paid employment to use cannabis daily.
Human Services Minister Alan Tudge seized on the health study’s findings to support the government’s claim that the policy was soundly based and aimed at getting drug users off welfare, off drugs and back into work.
Analysis of the report’s data conducted by the Department of Social Services suggested that 23.6 per cent of unemployed people used illicit drugs in the past 12 months and that 8.5 per cent of welfare recipients took drugs in the past week.
The report found that addiction and dependency accounted for only 6.5 per cent of cases of habitual drug use compared with more common reasons such as enhanced experience, “excitement” and “influence of family and friends”. Mr Tudge said this showed that the majority of regular drug-takers could stop taking drugs if they wanted to.
“Welfare is there to support the basics, not someone’s drug habits,” Mr Tudge said. “I cannot understand why Labor fails to understand this concept, and won’t even support a trial to help people get off drugs. The trials are aimed at getting people off drugs and into work. If you have a drug problem, you effectively exclude yourself from so many jobs which require you to be drug-free.
“My hope is that our trials will not just help with those who are addicted, but encourage non-addicts to stop taking drugs.”
Social Services Minister Christian Porter has flagged dropping the drug-trial measure from a broader package of social services reforms, as the Nick Xenophon Team is emerging as a roadblock to the measures being passed when they come before the Senate in two weeks. However, the government has indicated it would continue to
pursue the policy.
The Newspoll of 1623 voters, conducted from October 26-29, showed overwhelming support for the scheme, with 73 per cent of those polled backing it when presented with the question of whether they supported a two-year trial that required new welfare claimants (Newstart and Youth Allowance) be subjected to drug tests. The scheme would subject those testing positive to drugs to an income-management plan that diverted 80 per cent of their welfare payments to a cashless credit card.
A spokesman for opposition human services spokeswoman Jenny Macklin said Labor remained opposed to the policy in its entirety on the grounds drug-taking should be treated as a health issue rather than a welfare issue.
The government has refused to reveal how much the scheme would cost. The trials were due to begin in January across three sites, beginning with 5000 new welfare recipients. It would run for two years before being assessed for broader rollout and would use saliva, urine and follicle testing.
Mr Porter blamed Labor and the NXT senators for standing in the way of moving more people off welfare and into work.
He said yearly growth in unemployment payments had shrunk from 13.5 per cent under Labor to 3.5 per cent under the Coalition “and now for the first time in a long time the actual number of people on Newstart is shrinking in real numbers”.
“We have achieved this through job growth and trying new things in the welfare space,” Mr Porter said. “So with the real track record of getting people from welfare to work, it is very disappointing for hard-working Australians that Labor and Nick Xenophon’s team are standing in the way of trying another new approach to help people move off welfare into work.”
Bill Shorten has accused the government of seeking to “demonise” welfare recipients. “They’ve never seen a welfare recipient who they don’t want to sort of demonise and we’re not just going to join in the baiting of the unemployed,” the Labor leader said when the policy was released in the May budget.