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Britain And Canada Abandoned Plans To Drug Test People On Welfare But The Australian Government Is Still Going Ahead With It

“Our policy makers are disastrously desensitised to how this may hurt people in the community."

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Britain and Canada ditched plans to drug test people on welfare because the policy was found to be discriminatory and unfair.

Dan Peled / AAPImage

However, in the Australian federal Budget this month the Coalition government revealed it would drug test 5,000 welfare recipients as part of a trial.

In 2001, the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario government backed away from a plan to cut off income support to recipients who tested positive to illicit drugs.

In 2009 the British government, led by Labour prime minister Gordon Brown, introduced a policy of mandatory drug tests for people receiving taxpayer funded welfare. Recipients who tested positive would have had their income removed and been placed into a drug rehabilitation program.

Test sites were proposed, however the controversial plan was never implemented by Brown's government. David Cameron's Conservative party came to power a year later and ditched the proposal after a parliamentary committee ruled the proposal was "a step too far".

"We do not believe that drugs tests should be used as a condition for receipt of benefit," the Social Security Advisory Committee report said. "There are already conditions that claimants need to meet in order to receive benefits.

"We believe that the introduction of drugs testing represents a step too far."

The report also found that coercing people into treatment for drug addiction had the potential to "make a bad situation worse".

On Thursday, the Australian government admitted it hadn't sought advice on whether its controversial plan to drug test Centrelink recipients was legal, or discriminatory, before announcing it in the Budget.

Mick Tsikas / AAPIMAGE

5,000 people a year on Newstart and Youth Allowance will be drug tested in three locations across the country from next year.

Anyone who tests positive will be moved onto a cashless debit card – similar to the cashless “Healthy Welfare” card – for up to two years, and have to complete further drug tests. After a second positive test the recipient will be referred to a medical professional and assessed as to whether they require treatment as part of their job plan.

The locations, still to be determined, will be based on demographic data including testing of toilet water, and focus on areas with high drug use.

Last week the human services minister Alan Tudge told BuzzFeed News the welfare crackdown was aimed in part at exposing men under 30 who were "taking the taxpayer for a ride". Tudge described long term welfare dependence as a poison that "sucks the life out of you".

Greens senator Rachel Siewert is urging the government to follow the UK and Canada by dumping a plan to drug test people on Newstart and Youth Allowance.

Mick Tsikas / AAPIMAGE

“At the moment in Australia there is this modus operandi whereby, despite extensive evidence from experts and the community, the government pushes on with policy that hurts vulnerable people," Siewert said.

“Our policy makers are disastrously desensitised to how this may hurt people in the community, and use policy that is not evidenced to work, but plays to their voter base."

The policy, which prime minister Malcolm Turnbull described as "based on love", has been criticised by drug and alcohol experts, academics and welfare groups, and described as "misguided" by Sydney's Wayside Chapel, one of the PM's favourite charities.

Alice Workman is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Canberra.

Contact Alice Workman at

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