Budget 2017 was released with much fanfare and back-slapping by the Federal Treasurer, Scott Morrison, who described it as a fair budget. Certainly, compared to the budgets that were released under the Prime Ministership of Tony Abbott and his feckless Treasurer Joe Hockey, this one was pretty tame. Some described it as a Labor-light budget because of its high taxing elements on the banks and the increase in the Medicare levy.
However, it still had the hallmarks of a Coalition budget with its attacks on students and the unemployed while providing businesses with a $65 billion tax cut(1). How much of this saving will be converted into jobs is debatable, considering the massive profits some companies are already making, but who aren't creating jobs anyway. University fees will rise by 7.5% and the repayment threshold for HECS will drop by around $11,000 to $42,000.
In relation to the unemployed, Morrison decided the big issue was drug use. The 2017 budget will introduce a two-year trial of random drug testing of 5000 recipients of Youth Allowance and Newstart. If someone fails the drug test, they will no longer receive cash payments, but instead be given the paternalistic cashless debit card. This card can only be used for certain purchases, like food.
Alex Wodak of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation stated that the unintended consequence of this, would be that users will move to other often more dangerous drugs that can't be detected through these tests. For instance, the tests will not detect cocaine and heroin, but will detect cannabis and speed. Wodak pointed out that the drug with the biggest social impact, alcohol, will not be tested. For those who fail the tests multiple times, they may be referred to treatment programs, however, existing programs are greatly underfunded(2). So the drug tests themselves will fail to fully address drug and alcohol issues, while potentially causing even more problems.
The United States already has drug testing of welfare recipients in some of its states. The results are startlingly dismal. A Think Progress survey of seven states spending more than one million on drug testing programs, found that welfare recipients were testing positive at a much lower rate than the general population. The results ranged from 0.002% to 8.3%, however, the national drug use rate is 9.3%. Of these states, all but one, had results less than 1%. (3)
Arizona's results were even more disturbing. Out of 87,000 welfare recipients tested, only ONE returned a positive result. With that person removed from welfare, the state of Arizona saved $560 out of its $200 million welfare program. (4) What an amazing return on investment.
Perhaps the reason for the lower rate of drug use in the unemployed, is because of the cost of drugs in the first place. If you want to stop drugs, create more unemployment and poverty. (That's a joke, Coalition ... not a challenge!).
So why would Morrison think Australia's results will have be any different to those in the US? What is he hoping to achieve? The tests might reveal evidence of drug use, but not the extent of it. The tests won't detect whether someone is a recreational user or an addict.
And so what if someone on welfare uses drugs? If they are an addict, yes, this should be treated (not punished), but taking their cash away isn't going to fix this. If anything they will turn to crime to get drugs. For those who are using recreationally, the chances are that this isn't impeding their ability to work. There are plenty of recreational users who still function well in their jobs, not turning up to work wasted. If the drug use isn't impeding their ability to work, then why test it? Morrison will argue that it is tax payers money so welfare recipients shouldn't be using drugs. Many would agree. But so what if they can budget enough to buy a small amount of herb, or if their mates give it to them. Is Morrison saying those on welfare can't have fun? Perhaps check people's welfare status before they waste tax-payers money at a theme park or the movies. Hell, they shouldn't even be eating McDonald's. Welfare recipients should be a dour lot, eating nothing but bread and broth. Is this what Morrison envisions of welfare?
Welfare is a safety net, which has a massive return on investment. It is one of the main factors that reduces crime. If people have no money, they will resort to crime in order to live. Welfare prevents this. One only has to see the levels of crime in America where they have far less effective welfare programs.
Interestingly, a number of federal politicians, including Labor's Sam Dastyari, Green's Sarah Hanson-Young and Independent Jackie Lambie, have argued that if welfare recipients are to be tested, then politicians should be too(5). After all, it's not like pollies haven't been caught using drugs.
Perhaps the most bizarre part of this policy is the testing of sewage to identify suburbs with high drug use(6). It doesn't take much to recognise the flaws in this. Poo doesn't come with a welfare card, so testing sewage will not indicate whether the owner of the poo had a job or not, nor will it help much that the poo is mixed in with other people's poo. Dare I say it? This is a shit policy.
The idea to drug test welfare recipients is nothing more than the Coalition's war on welfare, war on the poor. It panders to the right-wing who see welfare as a dirty word ... until they are without jobs ... while worshipping big business and the wealthy. It is an effort to placate the right-wing while the Coalition raises taxes that will have their greatest affect on the poor, such as the increase to the Medicare levy. While it is good for the Coalition to fully fund the NDIS (which Labor had already provided for in their budgets), they are expecting low paid workers to take on the burden. In the meantime, they will give tax cuts of $65 billion to big business and remove the deficit levy from high income earners, effectively providing a $16,000 a year tax cut to people earning more than a million dollars(7).
A few years ago, then Treasurer Joe Hockey declared that Australia was a nation of 'lifters and leaners'(8), effectively stating that those on welfare were leaners, while the uber-rich are lifters, even though they screw the poor to the wall through casualisation, not paying penalty rates and down-sizing. Hockey attempted to force people under 30 to wait six months before getting welfare payments. Not surprisingly, that was struck down by the Senate, however, the Coalition continues to punish welfare recipients rather than address the drivers of welfare, namely a casualised workforce, underemployment and unemployment.
Given the evidence demonstrating that welfare drug testing programs do not work, it is unlikely that the trial will proceed and if it does, it is even less likely, that it will continue beyond the trial phase.
The drug testing trial is another waste of tax-payers money by the Coalition to further their ideological demonisation of the poor.
1. ABC News, Henry Belot, Federal budget 2017: Company tax cut to cost extra $15b per year, Scott Morrison reveals, 11 May 2017, http://www.abc.net.au/news/story-streams/federal-budget-2017/2017-05-11/company-tax-cut-to-cost-extra-$15b-per-year-morrison-reveals/8518642. Accessed 12 May 2017.
2. Huffpost Australia, Josh Butler, Here's How the Welfare Drug Tests Will Work, 10 May 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2017/05/10/heres-how-the-welfare-drug-tests-will-work_a_22078785/. Accessed 12 May 2017.
3. Think Progress, Bryce Covert, What 7 states discovered after spending more than $1 million drug testing welfare recipients, 26 February 2017, https://thinkprogress.org/what-7-states-discovered-after-spending-more-than-1-million-drug-testing-welfare-recipients-c346e0b4305d. Accessed 12 May 2017.
4. Mic.com, Gregory Krieg, Arizona Drug Tested Welfare Recipients - Here Are the Shocking Results, 22 July 2015, https://mic.com/articles/122607/arizona-drug-tested-welfare-recipients-here-are-the-shocking-results#.mR3FPpZRK. Accessed 12 May 2017.
5. Huffpost Australia, Josh Butler, People Say Politicians Should Be Drug Tested Too, 10 May 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2017/05/09/people-say-politicians-should-be-drug-tested-too_a_22078611/. Accessed 12 May 2017.
6. The Guardian, Paul Karp, Scott Morrison says sewage will be tested to find areas of high drug use for welfare trial, 11 May 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/may/11/scott-morrison-says-sewage-will-be-tested-to-find-areas-of-high-drug-use-for-welfare-trial. Accessed 12 May 2017.
7. Australian Financial Review, Joanna Mather, Keep deficit levy for 'millionaires': Labor, 26 March 2017, http://www.afr.com/news/politics/keep-deficit-levy-for-millionaires-labor-20170326-gv6oqw. Accessed 12 May 2017.
8. Sydney Morning Herald, Federal budget 2014 - full speech, 13 May 2014, http://www.smh.com.au/business/federal-budget/federal-budget-2014--full-speech-20140513-3887i.html. Accessed 12 May 2017.