Just a few days before Scott Morrison’s Hawaii-bound plane rose above the bushfire smoke, the prime minister wished Australians a Merry Christmas and promised a busy 2020. On his legislative agenda is a host of laws set to worsen everyday life. Among them are a “religious freedom bill” (designed to protect bigots), a tweaked set of anti-union laws (already voted down once), and reforms to Australia’s welfare system, Centrelink.
Although the changes announced on January 28 may appear benign, welfare advocates and experts have urged scrutiny and suspicion and have called, once more, for increases to the shockingly low payment, which now amounts to only 75 percent of basic living expenses . This is a good start, but we must go further. We know from the Liberal Party’s track record that whatever Morrison proposes, it will only change a punitive system for the worse.
Morrison Plans More Pain for Welfare Recipients
While the political crisis caused by Australia’s catastrophic bushfires has given Morrison cause to move cautiously, his Liberal Party knows there’s more than one way to peel an onion.
Morrison’s late 2019 to-do list gives us a clue as to what to expect. It includes plans to start drug-testing recipients of Newstart — recently rebranded as the “Job Seeker Payment” — and Youth Allowance. Drug-testing is a scheme that the Coalition has already tried twice to introduce over the last three years, most recently in November. That Senate vote lost by just a single vote, and with a margin so small, there’s every chance the Coalition will try again.
If passed into legislation, the scheme means that recipients would be subject to random drug testing. If traces of any recreational drug — including marijuana — are detected, that person will have their payment transferred onto an “income management” scheme, a punitive program that quarantines 80 percent of a person’s welfare income into a debit card that can only be used at certain shops. In addition to that, that person would then be obliged to seek “treatment” for their drug problem. If someone wants to dispute the results of a test and request another, they will bear responsibility for the costs of both tests.
Welfare advocates and medical experts alike have widely criticized the scheme. But in a country that routinely finds ways to punish its welfare recipients — whether through fines or through mandatory “community-work” schemes — it’s not difficult to imagine the government succeeding in its initiative. Worse, polls indicate a potentially supportive public (including a majority of Labor voters).
Compassionate Conservatism, Hold the Compassion
The government insists that mandatory drug tests are not intended as punishment. They’re a benevolent hand outstretched to assist the journey from addict to citizen, we’re told.
The scheme has its origins in 2012, when the Queensland Liberal-National Party MP George Christensen floated the idea. Two years later, then-PM Tony Abbott ran with the idea, before retreating in the face of a broader backlash against his hated 2014 austerity budget.
But this isn’t just a hard-right fantasy. The so-called moderate wing of the party has been nothing but adoring of the proposal. During his own stint as prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull called the policy a gesture of “love.”
After reviving the plan in 2019, Morrison dubbed it “compassionate conservatism”, arguing that “being on drugs stops you getting a job.” Social Services minister Anne Ruston agreed: “This measure is not about punishing people, it is about identifying people who need our help.”
None of this is true, of course. The biggest barrier to getting off benefits in Australia is not drug consumption, but the scarcity of well-paid, sufficient work. Although the official national unemployment rate is 5.1 percent, an economist from the Centre for Future Work recently estimated that if underemployed and discouraged workers (who are no longer looking for a job) are taken into account, the figure jumps to a staggering 19.7 percent.
This analysis has been confirmed by Greg Jericho, who has tracked a consistent rise in the underemployment rate over the last decade. In the 2017–18 financial year, the number of people receiving the Job Seeker Payment and Youth Allowance (the two targeted payments) added up to approximately 812,000 people. Since then, the number of people receiving unemployment benefits dropped by around 40,000. Meanwhile, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that over 1.1 million people are underemployed. In 2019, only 132,600 full-time jobs were created. Given these figures, it is an offensive lie to suggest that drug use has trapped welfare recipients in a cycle of dependence. Rather, it is clear that Morrison wishes simply to push people off welfare and into poverty.
And of course, drug-testing welfare recipients has nothing to do with help for addicts. If there was any genuine concern there, the services and programs that do offer crucial support for those struggling with addiction would not be so woefully underfunded.
Dismantling the Welfare State
Efforts to employ drug testing for welfare recipients are just one of many strategies in the Liberal Party’s long campaign to dismantle Australia’s welfare state. Malcolm Fraser set the ball rolling with his attempt to dial back the universal health coverage of Medicare, introduced during Gough Whitlam’s short-lived Labor government. It was more significantly hacked at by John Howard’s “Work for the Dole” scheme, which continues to force the long-term unemployed to take up mostly nonproductive work for twenty-five hours a week in order to qualify for ongoing benefits.
The punishment of welfare recipients has been continuing apace since then, working to produce a moralistic split between the good, hard-working welfare recipient, earnestly trying to find employment, and the lay about “bludger.” We need to recognize this as the ideological prop that it is, and defend the absolute right of welfare, inviolable even if a recipient chooses to exchange every payment for illicit crystals, powder, dried buds, or blotting paper.