By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
Things are about to get tougher for welfare recipients under a new demerit point programme unveiled as a part of the federal budget this week.
The scheme requires Newstart recipients to spend more time looking for work, and their benefits may be cut if they accumulate “three-strikes” for failing to meet obligations such as attending appointments, actively seeking employment or “working for the dole”.
And thousands of recipients will undergo random drug testing in a trial which will be set down for selected locations.
Plans for such testing have been mooted for many years – the last one canned before it got off the ground in 2015. But now, Malcolm Turnbull is adamant the regime will be implemented.
Under the scheme, those who fail their first test will be placed on the cashless welfare card and have their payments quarantined from purchasing certain “non-essential” items such as alcohol. A second positive test will result in referral to a doctor for treatment.
In addition to testing, those who are considered to be dependant on alcohol or drugs will no longer be able to receive exemptions for not turning up to appointments as a result of their addiction. Nor will they be able to qualify for the disability support pension.
Health experts have called the regime “short sighted” – warning that if welfare recipients lose their payments, they may end up on the streets or turn to crime to support their habits.
Others are concerned about the impact of the measures on families, especially children, and that they may place additional pressures on police and the legal system.
It has also been suggested that habitual users of cannabis could turn to “harder” drugs like heroin or ice which flush through the body much more quickly, in an effort to avoid detection.
Human rights advocates have long argued that drug testing does little more than further stigmatise drug users and those who are unable to live without welfare.
Social workers who see the effect of drug and alcohol addiction on a daily basis, believe the government’s focus should be on rehabilitation programmes and mental health initiatives, rather than punishing individuals for their problems. This, they believe, would assist many habitual users to break the cycle of addiction and become productive members of society.
The government also plans to adopt recommendations by the McClure Review to reduce and simplify the number of welfare payments available.
This would result in a single “Jobseeker Payment” which combines the Newstart allowance with the sickness payment, wife pension, partner allowance, bereavement allowance, Widow B Pension and widow allowance – saving the government an estimated $84 million.
However, many believe the tough new rules and streamlined payment categories will do more harm than good for the community in the longer term.