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Centrelink drug testing risks "dooming" unemployed to homelessness

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The Federal Government's plans to to withdraw Centrelink payments from unemployed people with drug dependency risks “dooming” many to homelessness and crime, welfare groups have warned.

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A trial announced as part of Treasurer Scott Morrison’ budget yesterday will force 5000 people on Youth Allowance and New Start unemployment payments to undergo random drug tests to continue receiving income support.

Those who fail the test will have their income quarantined, while those who fail more than once will be referred to medical professionals for assessment and treatment.

“We’re just dooming people,” Shelter SA executive director Alice Clark said of the policy.

She told InDaily the drug testing trial ignores harm minimisation principles and risks sending already impoverished people onto the street.

“It is, I think, a very punitive measure,” she said.

“A simple threat of punishment is not enough [to discourage drug use].

“There will be people who do turn to crime … [as a result of] having no income over four weeks.”

The trial will begin in three yet-to-be-announced locations over two years starting in 2018.

In his budget speech last night, Morrison said that the Government wanted to  “support job seekers affected by drug and alcohol abuse, but to protect taxpayers – it has to be a two-way street”.

“We will no longer accept, as an excuse from repeat offenders, that the reason they could not meet their mutual obligation requirements was because they were drunk or drug-affected,” he said.

However Anglicare SA CEO Peter Sandeman said new policy risked pushing those with serious drug dependency further into criminality.

“People who are seriously addicted will simply move further into criminality… not only to pay for their drugs, but also to meet their living expenses,” said Sandeman.

For those on “the heavy end of the [drug use] spectrum, it certainly won’t be a deterrent or a preventative measure,” he said.

Sandeman said, however, that the policy may have a small deterrent affect for those with low-level substance abuse issues, and may be effective as part of a more comprehensive anti-substance abuse strategy.

“As part of an overall comprehensive approach, it may be of benefit,” he said.

“As a stand-alone measure, other than as a [political] signal … this will have very little effect.”

A spokesperson for the Anti-Poverty Network SA described the policy as “a radical, invasive move, that will likely discourage those with addiction issues from seeking help”.

“Coercion simply does not work – the best approach is voluntary, empowering and respecting the autonomy of those battling addiction, and allowing them to seek support without fear of punishment.”

However Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said taxpayers had a right to see those on unemployment benefits getting themselves to a position where they could work.

“You are not going to be ready for work if you are drunk … (or) smashed on drugs,” he said.

But Greens Leader Richard Di Natale – who has worked as a doctor with people addicted to drugs and alcohol – said the testing would only make the problem of substance abuse worse.

He said relapse was the natural cycle for people dependent on drugs.

The Australian Greens are seeking advice on whether to mount a legal challenge to the proposed drug tests.

– with AAP

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