CANBERRA -- The Senate has blocked a government plan to deny government pensions to people with a disability caused by drug or alcohol use, in the latest controversial welfare clampdown to attract outrage from social agencies.
The government had made the change earlier this week, to take effect from July, but Labor and the Greens moved a disallowance motion in the Senate on Wednesday which blocked the reform.
The May federal budget included a host of measures to tighten welfare access, including a trial program to test welfare recipients for drug use and to push more people onto the cashless debit card. While the drug testing trial has dominated headlines, one which attracted relatively less attention was a plan to bar people from the disability support pension if the disability is "on the sole basis" of drug or alcohol abuse.
The government's plan would have removed a section of the Social Security Act which grants access to the Disability Support Pension to people with "a permanent condition resulting in functional impairment due to excessive use of alcohol, drugs or other harmful substances (e.g. glue or petrol) or the misuse of prescription drugs".
We urge Senate to block cruel changes to eligibility for the Disability— UnitingCareAustralia (@UnitingCare_Aus) June 21, 2017
Support Pension (DSP) for chronic substance abusers. @SenatorWong
The treasury department said it expected around 450 people each year to be affected by this change, but that "90 percent" will be eligible for Newstart or Youth Allowance instead -- which would force them to actively be looking for work, despite their disability. The change is expected to save $21 million over five years. The measure doesn't require legislation to pass, just a regulation change proposed by the government, and was introduced to the Senate on Monday. Labor, however, moved on Tuesday to oppose the measure, and the motion is set to be debated in parliament on Wednesday.
Numerous welfare and social groups have voiced their outrage over the measure, saying it unfairly targets and marginalises people who struggle with addiction and serious substance abuse issues.
St Vincent's Health Australia published a long Twitter thread condemning the measure, arguing that people with disabilities -- even ones from self-imposed alcohol or drug abuse -- should not be expected to be actively searching for work. A selection of their tweets include:
THREAD: Lots on in Canberra today – Gonski, climate – but there'll also be a vote on a measure related to the Disability Support Pension 1/— St Vincent's Health (@StVHealthAust) June 21, 2017
These are people so struggling with the damage caused by years of alcohol and drug misuse they are unable to cope, let alone find a job 4/— St Vincent's Health (@StVHealthAust) June 21, 2017
We fear already vulnerable people, unable to comply with job search requirements, will be at risk of having their income support cut off 7/— St Vincent's Health (@StVHealthAust) June 21, 2017
St Vincent's has grave concerns about how this measure will affect some of the most vulnerable members of our community. We oppose it 11/— St Vincent's Health (@StVHealthAust) June 21, 2017
It's of very great concern to us that this measure is being pursued without any advice or input from addiction medicine experts – none 8/— St Vincent's Health (@StVHealthAust) June 21, 2017
St Vincent de Paul CEO John Falzon said cutting the DSP to drug and alcohol-affected people amounted to an "attack on people with a disability".
"This is a cruel and vindictive attack on a small but extremely disadvantaged group of people who struggle with chronic substance abuse," Falzon said in a statement.
"This measure will simply force people into deeper poverty. It is based not on medical evidence but on meanness. It is calculated to punish and exclude people who are living with a chronic disability."
Sydney Criminal Lawyers, a leading criminal defence firm, called the measure "a new low in its war against drugs".
Nevena Spirovska of Welfair, a campaign against the recently announced welfare drug testing, told HuffPost Australia that the changes were unnecessary.
"The people that would be affected by this have chronic substance use disorder and very significant restrictions on their ability to work. They have been through treatment, some of them many times, with only brief periods of remission if at all. The fact that they meet the thresholds for functional impairment indicates that they are not well enough to participate in work or study, training or job search activities for at least two years," she said.
"Diverting people in this treatment-refractory group onto payments with mutual obligation requirements will not improve their employment prospects. This will force those with substance abuse problems to disengage with the system and seek other means to support themselves."
"Such resources would be better targeted towards supporting our overburdened treatment sector, as metropolitan and regional service providers continue to be understaffed and underfunded."
Other groups including the Royal Australian College of Physicians and UnitingCare also opposed the changes.
RACP President Yelland says reality of drug + alcohol addiction complex. Cutting support to the vulnerable not the answer #auspol— The RACP (@TheRACP) June 20, 2017
Note to Senate:— John Falzon (@JohnFalzon) June 20, 2017
Access to the Disability Support Pension should be based on need,
not stigmatising judgements.https://t.co/yHOPx2btDO
"Many people hold the view that drug and alcohol addiction is self-inflicted and easy to overcome but as doctors we know the reality is more complex," said RACP President, Dr Catherine Yelland, in a statement.
"Drug and alcohol addiction is a serious health problem that can result in many forms of functional and cognitive impairment. A complicating factor in many cases is that patients are often experiencing other issues such as mental health problems, homelessness, trauma, and intergenerational disadvantage."
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