POLITICS

Budget 2017: The War On Welfare

If you're on Centrelink, and take drugs, the government has you in its sights.

09/05/2017 7:53 PM AEST | Updated 09/05/2017 9:17 PM AEST

Drug testing for welfare recipients. Expanding the controversial Cashless Debit Card to more communities, and to those who fail drug tests. Cutting disability payments for alcoholism and drug addiction. A speeding-style "demerit" system for missing appointments.

Welcome to the new normal for Centrelink recipients, as the government backs in a wide-ranging crackdown on the welfare system.

As leaked on Tuesday morning a new demerit system will penalise "deliberate non-compliance" with Centrelink requirements, such as missing jobseeker appointments. Racking up four demerit points in six months will put recipients on an "Intensive Compliance Phase", with three strikes. First strike will see recipients lose half their fortnightly payment; strike two, lose 100 percent of the payment; and strike three, have their payment cancelled for a month.

Strikes will be avoided if the recipient has a "reasonable excuse", but we haven't been briefed as to what "reasonable" includes. The plan is forecast to save $632 million over five years, $126 million per year – not an insignificant amount of welfare payments to be held back due to missing appointments. It is unclear how vulnerable welfare recipients would be able to survive having their payments cut off for a month, and the budget papers don't outline what extra support – if any – would be provided in the absence of regular payments.

You'll also lose your disability support pension if your disability is "on the sole basis" of drug or alcohol abuse. Treasury expects around 450 people each year to be affected by this change, which comes into effect in July, but that "90 percent" will be eligible for Newstart or Youth Allowance instead. This is expected to save $21 million over five years.

Then there's drug testing, with Morrison announcing 5000 welfare recipients would be included in a "modest" trial. A Department of Social Services official told HuffPost Australia the trial would be set across three locations (still to be confirmed), with recipients to be given surprise random drug tests during routine Centrelink interviews. The test would screen for ecstasy, methamphetamines and cannabis, and operate similar to roadside saliva tests conducted by police. The official assured us, however, that welfare recipients who use medical cannabis for legitimate reasons would not be penalised when the drug shows up in their system, and their medical status would be considered.

On the first drug detection, recipients would be directed into a drug program and their payments would not be affected. Only on a subsequent detection would they be directed to some form of "quarantining" of their payments. Morrison's speech said these recipients would be put onto the Cashless Debit Card, the controversial program which gives welfare recipients a special debit card instead of depositing income into their bank account. The card is pre-loaded with money, but cannot be used to pay for alcohol or gambling, and the amount of cash that can be withdrawn from an ATM is limited.

The debit card program, which has been met with mixed reviews since rolling out in Ceduna and East Kimberley, will be continued and expanded to two new sites by September. Another Department of Social Services official told HuffPost Australia the sites had not been selected, but areas including Bundaberg and Broome had expressed interest. The expanded trial would include 8000 people across the two sites. Ceduna and Kimberley communities have both praised and criticised the trial debit card program – some say it has helped with alcohol and gambling issues in the towns, others say people are being penalised by not being able to withdraw cash to purchase food or essentials at community markets, among other complaints about accessibility issues – but the government seems fixed on pushing ahead with the program.

Elsewhere, payment categories are being streamlined, with a new payment called Jobseeker to become "the main working age payment" and seven current payments to be "consolidated or ceased". The Newstart and Sickness Allowance payments are to be rebadged as Jobseeker, with treasury assuring that people will be paid "at the same payment rate" they are on now. Several other categories will also be shifted. People currently on the Wife Pension will be moved to either the Jobseeker, Age Pension or Carer Payment, at the same payment rates; Bereavement Allowance will also become Jobseeker, but without some of the obligations. Widow B Pension, Partner Allowance and Widow Allowance will also be ceased when the current recipients get old enough to qualify for the Age Pension.

Things are about to get more difficult for Australia's welfare recipients.

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