CANBERRA -- The government's controversial plan to drug test welfare recipients is under fire yet again, with the United Nations' rapporteur on human rights calling the policy a "cheap shot" that will "stigmatise" the country's poorest and most vulnerable.
Special rapporteur Philip Alston also queried why the government was targeting only the poor with drug testing measures, and not tackling drug use among richer people.
The government announced the plan, to put 5,000 recipients of Newstart and Youth Allowance onto a trial program to screen them for drug use, in the May budget. Since then, the idea has been thoroughly rubbished by drug experts, with a swathe of evidence of similar programs overseas having very limited success, as well as proving to be expensive and ineffective. Just one positive drug test would put people on an income management program which would leave them with access to as little as $53 in cash per week.
The policy -- which would test people in Bankstown, Logan and Mandurah for drugs including marijuana and methamphetamines -- is opposed by Labor and the Greens, but the government has committed to the plan and is expected to formally introduce legislation into parliament on Wednesday. Just hours before the government's bill was due to be tabled, including a number of other welfare reforms announced in the May budget, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights savaged the legislation in a scathing letter to the government.
"Drug testing as a condition of receiving income support is a coercive and punitive measure that lacks any evidence of achieving lower rates of income support, increased income support compliance or decreased community harms related to drug use. Involuntary treatment for alcohol and other drug addictions is not effective," Philip Alston wrote to the federal government.
"There is evidence indicating that denying benefits to people who are drug dependent could result in increases in poverty, homelessness and crime, and also lead to higher health and social costs. Poverty is a major issue for people with alcohol and other drug use issues. There is no evidence that keeping people in poverty decreases consumption of substances, or improves health."
"The removal of welfare payments for affected people would only increase poverty, thereby exacerbating rather than reducing harms related to alcohol and other drug use."
In an accompanying media statement, Alston called the drug testing policy a "cheap shot" which unfairly targets the poor.
"The Australian Government is conflating social protection and drug enforcement policies in a way that is counter-productive, unless the main goal is to stigmatise social security recipients," he said.
"If the real goal is to reduce the use of illegal drugs, why start with the poorest members of society? Will there also be a policy designed to drug test and crack down on the well-to-do who spend far more on drugs, and receive all sorts of tax deductions, social security payments and other government benefits? Or is it only the poorest whose drug use the government feels it should punish through social security-based measures?"
He accused the government of "bad maths", contrasting the costs of administering drug tests against the savings which would be made by restricting welfare payments, and said the money could be better used by supporting more useful employment programs.
"If the main goal is cost-cutting, then the proposals are simply bad maths. Based on experience overseas, only a small percentage of beneficiaries are likely to test positive, but testing will cost between $500 and $900 per individual," Alston wrote.
"Anyone whose benefits are cancelled will only become an even bigger drain on public resources in other ways. The Government should be focusing all its efforts and public spending on assisting those without employment to get back to decent work. Instead it is misallocating scarce resources with this misguided plan."
Alston was not the only human rights expert to savage the drug testing plan on Wednesday, with the Australian-based Human Rights Law Centre also taking aim at the policy.
"The Government has not pointed to any evidence that these measures will help people recover from drug or alcohol addiction or get them into work," said Adrianne Walters, a director of legal advocacy at the HRLC.
"Rather, they will aggravate economic disadvantage, and harmful stereotypes about people who turn to Australia's social safety net in times of need."