Transcript: ABC Sydney, Interview with Richard Glover

22 August 2017

The Hon Alan Tudge MP

Minister for Human Services
Topics: 
Drug Testing
E&OE

RICHARD GLOVER:
To the Minister, Alan Tudge, the federal Minister for Human Services. Minister welcome.

ALAN TUDGE:
Good morning, Richard. Sorry – good afternoon.

RICHARD GLOVER:
Afternoon. I am going to test you. What is the idea? What is the plan? Why are you doing this?

ALAN TUDGE:
The idea is to try to identify those people who may have drug problems and provide the assistance which they may need to get off drugs and hopefully back into the workplace.

You mentioned in your introduction, that if a person tests positive the first time they will be placed onto a form of income management. They will then be asked to be tested again within 25 days.

If they test positive a second time, then as part of their mutual obligations for the ongoing receipt of welfare, they will be required to undertake drug treatment programs, which will be done by experts, they will be directed by experts.

But the aim of that of course, is that hopefully we get people off those drugs, in which case they are better prepared to enter the workforce.

RICHARD GLOVER:
There has been a form of this in New Zealand where they tested a whole lot of people, got very few positives and really it does not sound as if much has changed in terms of the people on drugs or actually not on drugs.

ALAN TUDGE:
It is interesting, the New Zealand example. They did have very few positives. In Australia we know that about 25 per cent of people on unemployment benefits took drugs last year. About 8.5 per cent took drugs last week.

If those statistics are similar in New Zealand, then it sounds as if the drug testing in New Zealand actually changed people’s behaviour and actually prevented them from taking drugs in the first place because they were worried about being tested positive.

If that is the outcome, I think that is a good outcome. We want to stop people from taking drugs who are on welfare payments and more generally of course. If they do have an addiction, we want to identify them, get them the treatment, get them off drugs and hopefully back into the workforce.

RICHARD GLOVER:
Taking drugs is already against the law…

ALAN TUDGE:
It is.

RICHARD GLOVER:
…the virtue of leaving it to the police of course, is that then it is kind of, class neutral or job neutral. Somebody who might be wealthy in the Eastern suburbs has got just as much chance of getting caught and reprimanded as those who are poor and on welfare.

That is the way it should be. Isn’t it? It should not have anything to do with whether you have got a job or not got a job. You are breaking the law. That is the beginning and end of it isn’t it?

ALAN TUDGE:
Richard, as you would know, if you are driving on the roads these days, it does not matter who you are, you may well be tested for drugs. If you are working in so many industries, these days – construction, transportation, mining, the Defence, emergency services, you name it – they have random drug testing, if not regular drug testing in those locations.

This is a very common thing across our society these days. The aim of this for welfare recipients is to identify if they have got a problem and a problem that might prevent them from getting into the workforce and helping them to get over that problem.

Surely that is a good thing.

RICHARD GLOVER:
With respect, the road and work analogy is slightly different. Driving on the roads is a privilege. We give up some civil liberties driving on the roads because we could kill each other and therefore we allow the police to test us for certain things.

Similarly, if I am driving a big truck for BHP, I might injure my co-workers if I am on drugs. So we hand over certain civil liberties at that point. That is not the case with something like taking welfare, is it?

You should be in the same situation as any other citizen at that point.

ALAN TUDGE:
In some respects, you are of course. You are in receipt of welfare if you are unemployed. But we typically put conditions on welfare payments as well, we do that all the time.

We require people, for example, to look for work. And welfare is paid to the people to provide for the basics, for the rent, for their food, for their transport. It is not paid to people to support a drug habit.

Of course, if you have got a drug habit, it is going to be so much harder to get into the workforce, which is the whole idea of the unemployment benefit anyway to get you through that tough time and back into the workforce.

RICHARD GLOVER:
Alan Tudge is here, the Federal Minister for Human Services. Minister, just hang on for me for a second if you would. Nadine Ezard is also here, she is a Clinical Director of Alcohol and Drug Services at St Vincent's Hospital. Welcome to you, Nadine.

NADINE EZARD:        
Hi Richard.

RICHARD GLOVER:    
Alan Tudge is saying, look, taxpayers do not want to be having their money used to support a drug habit. That is a fair point, isn't it?

NADINE EZARD:        
I think the issue here is, the argument that the Government is giving, which is a good one, it is about identifying people that might have a substance use disorder and helping that group of people into treatment.

The problem that we have with the proposed trial as it stands is that it is not going to achieve those aims. There are a lot of different reasons why that is not going to work. One is that there is a lack of evidence that drug testing income support recipients either helps to create jobs or assist people into treatment.

And also, these measures have been developed without any clinical input from the doctors and nurses and allied health staff that I work with every day and that work in this area around the country.

RICHARD GLOVER:    
Why wouldn't it work? If I did have a drug habit, and then suddenly welfare was my main source of money, if I have only got a welfare card which I can only spend at Woolworth and Target, et cetera, that would effectively stop me spending a lot of money on drugs, wouldn't it?

NADINE EZARD:        
This is the issue around severe substance use disorder or dependence, is that the compulsion to use, the need to use, the need to prevent the withdrawal symptoms actually overrides all the other things that people find important in their life, including paying rent and eating.

That is the definition, if you like, of dependence. If that group of people really does need assistance, they do not need to be actually forced more into poverty and vulnerability and the kind of extreme hardship that we would predict.

That very small proportion of the 5,000 people who are being provided with…

RICHARD GLOVER:    
But as I turn to crime, and maybe that is an issue here, but then as I turn to crime I am not going to have the money for drugs, am I?

NADINE EZARD:        
Well exactly, and that is our concern, is that perhaps we will see an increase, should this go ahead; we would see an increase in crime, and increase in aggression, and increase in things like suicide and acute mental health issues as well.

RICHARD GLOVER:    
But one of the things the Government points out, though, is that they are putting- at the same time as they are trialling this, they are putting some money into treatment.

That shows a real willingness to try to help people tackle the problem, get them into work, doesn't it?

NADINE EZARD:        
We welcome any increase in resources towards the very under-resourced drug and alcohol treatment sector, but it needs to be done systematically. We need to actually build the whole sector, including early intervention.

You know that there is around half a million Australians that would benefit from drug and alcohol treatment that are not actually receiving it. And we know that there is a big treatment delay from when people first start having problems with their substances use to getting treatment.

For methamphetamine, it is up to 10 years. For alcohol, which is a far greater problem drug in this community, it is up to 20 years. And, in fact, the proposed trial does not address alcohol use disorders at all, which is a far more common substance use disorder that would be preventing people from engaging in work.

RICHARD GLOVER:    
But what of the efficacy of this? Isn't that almost a moral point? You say to somebody who is working hard, a normal taxpayer who is working hard and their money is going to support, essentially to support somebody who is taking drugs.

That person might say, I am very happy to support somebody who happens to be unemployed, but I do not want my money going on a marijuana habit, or worse, an ice habit.

NADINE EZARD:        
I think we need to consider the unintended consequences of this proposal. I am concerned that it will actually increase stigma and discrimination, and we know from evidence that stigma actually prevents people from accessing the treatment that they need.

Pushing people with complex issues to the brink does not lead to better outcomes for the community, or for those individuals. It will just lead to increased dysfunction, potentially crime and aggression.

This is a very expensive proposal. Far more people could be helped back into work by increasing funds for treatment services.

RICHARD GLOVER:    
Nadine Ezard is here from St Vincent's Hospital. So is the Minister Alan Tudge, the Federal Minister for Human Services.  Alan can I just go through a couple of those things?

ALAN TUDGE:
Sure.

RICHARD GLOVER:    
Crime, isn't there a chance that people are addicted to these things, they are not taking them for fun, they are really addiction, that if you cut off their money, they will turn to crime.

ALAN TUDGE:
We have not seen the evidence of that in the communities where we have installed the cashless welfare card, in Ceduna and the East Kimberley. And an independent evaluation showed that there has not been any evidence of that. The main point…

RICHARD GLOVER:    
It is more com- there has been in some areas, but not others, I understand.

ALAN TUDGE:
There has not been consistent. We had an evaluation, an independent evaluation. It found there was not evidence of an increase in crime.

It found there was not evidence of a decrease in crime, and when you look at the stats some places went up, some places went down, similar to neighbouring communities which did not have the welfare card.

There is no evidence of that. But I will also say we have got a form of income quarantining in place in Canterbury-Bankstown already, and no one has suggested that crime has gone up as a result of that. I think that one is scaremongering from those people.

The main critique is, that Nadine and some others similar to her, is that there is lack of evidence for this. My argument is, in part, that this is a trial in the very definition of a trial where we are trying something new.

Never been done before in the world – we have learned from other experiences in the world, though with an endeavour to try to get people off this substance abuse, and back into the workforce if they can.

That is what it is about. We will assess it. If the trial works, we may roll it out further. If it does not work, we will bring it to a close. That is what the trial is about.

RICHARD GLOVER:    
Okay. Can I ask you one final question, you mentioned the cashless welfare card, and I know that has been supported very strongly by, say, the Mayor of Ceduna.

One difference though, is if I use a cashless welfare card at a supermarket in Ceduna, people, yes, they know I am on welfare and maybe that is an issue. But they do not really know what sort of welfare. I might be a disability pensioner, I might be all sorts of things.

If I use this card in Canterbury-Bankstown, people are going to know I have got a drug problem.

ALAN TUDGE:
Not necessarily, because there are already about 80 people in Bankstown who have this particular card for different reasons.

As I was saying before, there is already a form of income management in place. It is one of the reasons why we chose Bankstown to do this trial, because the infrastructure is already in place.

RICHARD GLOVER:    
Alright. But 80 is not- well, you are going to roll nearly 2,000 in this trial, so the vast bulk of people with this card…

ALAN TUDGE:
No, well that is not right. You have got to think about, there are 5,000 people which we will test. We estimate that about 425 may test positive the first time and be placed on the card.

And that is across the three sites. And in a place like Canterbury-Bankstown, it might only be 150 people. So it is not a significant number when you have already got 80 people in the area who are on the card already.

RICHARD GLOVER:    
Okay, so the shopkeeper will think, there is more than half a chance he is on drugs.

ALAN TUDGE:
Richard, the whole idea is to trial it, to test it, to try to find out if people have got a problem and to get them that assistance that they need.

I think that is a better outcome than just saying, we know people are on welfare and have got drug habits, and we will do nothing about it. Let's give this a go. See if it does work. I think it will, and hopefully it will get people onto a better pathway.

RICHARD GLOVER:    
And as you say, one point you do make which is a good one, is that lots of places in the workplace require you to test for drugs, so it is a barrier to employment if you have got a habit.

ALAN TUDGE:
It is an absolute barrier to employment, and it is a barrier to all of those jobs which require you to be drug free. You are not going to get a job at the Sydney Airport, for example, or an engine construction company, or the transport agent companies if you have got a drug habit.

Get yourself drug free is our message, and we want to help you to do that. And then you are in a better position to get into those workplaces.

RICHARD GLOVER:    
Okay. And maybe at the end of all this you can come back here and we will talk about the findings and whether it does actually do anything or whether it is just a waste of dough.

ALAN TUDGE:
I will, be very happy to do that, Richard.

RICHARD GLOVER:    
Okay. Minister, thank you very much for your time this afternoon.

ALAN TUDGE:
Thanks so much.