CENTRELINK users have hit out at the government's plan to trial drug testing for welfare recipients in western Sydney, slamming the scheme as "unfair" and "unhelpful".
Canterbury-Bankstown is set to be the first of three locations that will see controversial random drug testing trial of new jobseekers from January. The two-year trial will affect 5000 people, including 1750 from the area.
If the drug test was failed, recipients could lose up to 80 per cent of their payment and be left with just $53 cash.
Hany Potrous, 41, told news.com.au he believed such decisions just made life harder for him and his family, since he and his wife are both on low incomes and he is studying. "I don't see any benefit," he said. "I work part time and study full time, my wife works full time. The decisions made, I don't think they are fair."
The IT worker and student said Centrelink's targeting of welfare claimants for overpayments and now possible drug use was the wrong focus. "It's not helping us at all. It puts a lot of pressure on us. I'm thinking of giving up study. It takes a lot of effort and it's not enough for them.
"I don't think there's any relation between drugs and benefits."
Luther Sussain, 27, whose brother is a Centrelink recipient, said he was "not happy" about the plan to drug test welfare recipients. "I think it's unfair. I think it sucks," he told news.com.au. "My brother's on it and he would lose his payment.
"Why does it apply? People who need benefit need benefit. You're not going to stop people doing drugs, people are going to do what they're going to do. This could increase crime."
Suzanne, 59, said she was concerned about privacy and the targeting of innocent people. "A lot of people are unemployed, it's a disadvantage," she said. "They're thinking the majority of disadvantaged people are drug users. There's a lot of uni students who are unemployed, it's tough.
"The positives are you're going to have an overhaul of the drug population. The negative is the invasion of people's privacy.
"Something's got to be done about the ice epidemic. It depends what drugs they're targeting."
She said she would hate to see children suffer because of their parents' substance abuse problem.
Canterbury-Bankstown was chosen for the trial because of the high number of hospitalisations relating to ice use and a growing number of welfare entrants.
Alcohol or drug abusers will no longer be able to receive exemptions from mutual obligation requirements such as turning up for appointments or looking for work because of their dependency issues. Around 11,000 Australians are currently exempt, with a rise of 162.5 per cent in the 18 months to December 2016 in Canterbury-Bankstown.
Social Services Minister Christian Porter says the trial is focused on helping jobseekers overcome drug problems and secure work. "It is not about penalising or stigmatising people who have a barrier to employment which is as serious as drug abuse," he said. "We want to help people in this situation. Failure to do so simply leaves people at risk of a cycle of welfare dependency."
Up to $10 million will be set aside to support job seekers who test positive to drug tests for ice, ecstasy and marijuana more than once.
The plan has been widely criticised by welfare advocates and medical groups since it was announced in the May budget, and Labor and the Greens are opposed, so the government will need support from the Senate crossbench to get the program off the ground.
Abier Bashir, who has an autistic son, said she thought the plan was "good and bad" because "many people need it to survive, for the cost of living" - single mothers like her, and pensioners.
"What's the point of having a payment if you're going to spend it on drugs and cigarettes?" asked the 32-year-old. "They're in a bad way.
"It's costing a lot of money. You've got to make sure it's going to people who need it."
Don Sakijaovski, 64, and his granddaughter Jessica Ilovski, 20, said they had no problem with drug testing. "I don't mind it," said Jessica on her way in to Centrelink.
"It's good because so many people, they smoke everything," added her grandfather, who was collecting his pension.
Stan Hurley agreed. "I don't do drugs so it doesn't bother me," said the 76-year-old. "If you do drugs, you should get help. Yes, we're being targeted, but you've got to start somewhere."
Australian Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said today that drug testing people trying to access support in Canterbury-Bankstown demonises and isolates members of the community and could further entrench poverty.
"Drug testing people trying to access income support recipients is designed more to appeal to the Turnbull Government's conservative base than actually address the issue of drug addiction," she said.
"Overseas experience shows that it is a very costly and ineffective measure that does not reduce addiction.
"Consistent advice from drug and alcohol experts have rejected the approach. This is just a way of saying 'we are being tough on drugs' but with no real substance.
"This is a flawed measure that will further vilify people who need our support. Drug addiction needs to be treated as a health issue in Canterbury-Bankstown area and across Australia."
GetUp campaigns director Natalie O'Brien said the trial could stop people getting treatment and put lives at risk. "Cutting off income support payments creates a barrier to treatment for people struggling with drug and alcohol problems", she said.
"Doctors, nurses, allied health professionals all agree - this is a dangerous program that will only serve to push people into poverty. All the clinical evidence tells us: you cannot punish people struggling with drug and alcohol problems into recovery.
"Everyday people in Canterbury-Bankstown will be the first to suffer this dangerous program. They ought to be worried about what pushing people into poverty will do to the local community.
"Instead of spending money punishing people, the government should direct more funds to frontline treatment programs that have proven results.
"This is a cynical attempt by a desperate government to divert attention away from their own poor performance."
Update your news preferences and get the latest news delivered to your inbox.