By Joe Montero
Malcolm Turnbull’s reference to the introduction of random drug testing for welfare recipients, as “a policy based on love,” is either the revelation of a cruel mind, or display of incredible ignorance. Whichever, it is damning.
Leave to one side that this is just another means of marginalising and punishing the poorest in our community, because they are soft targets on which to visit a government’s obsession with cutting back on its responsibilities. Here there is an unwillingness to take on the reality of the drug use problem, preferring to use it as another stick to beat the most vulnerable Australians.
As the saying goes, a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable. So it is with its politicians.
Problematic drug use is primarily a health issue, a view shared by doctors, other clinicians and those working in other working capacities at the coalface of the problem. They recognise that drug taking is part of our culture. After all, don’t we all, with few exceptions, at least partake in having that drink, lighting a cigarette or taking that pill when we have a headache? They also recognise that some will develop serious problems. It does not mean that they are evil people. It means that they are sick and like all sick people, need help.
Marginalising drug dependent people is the most effective way to deny help. This is exactly what has happened in Australia and those condemned are pushed into a life chasing the dealer and if it involves illicit drugs, illegal means, to raise the money to maintain the habit. Those whose problems involve alcohol and over the counter drugs are turned away from as well.
Distrust and exaggerated fear are the result. Those with a drug use problem get kicked around so much that they trust no one, often retreat into a sub culture, where there is acceptance and a scrap of dignity. Those outside this enclave get to see its inhabitants as monsters out to do us harm, or at best, a bunch of lazy no hopers, choosing to be intoxicated for kicks.
Not so long ago, it was held that those who presented with tumors, sores, fevers, severe depression or a delusion were possessed by demons and needed to be cast away from society. Have we really progressed as far as we think we have?
By persisting with marginalising the addicted and denying the help they need, we are also forcing people into a life of crime. This affects us all and makes us feel less secure, encouraging us to put more and ever bigger locks on our doors and fear walking the streets.
This is the kind of thinking Malcolm Turnbull is displaying.
Turnbull went on to say,
“I think it is pretty obvious that welfare money should not be used to buy drugs,” he said.
Then he added: “If you love somebody who is addicted to drugs, if you love somebody whose life is being destroyed by drugs, don’t you want to get them off drugs?
Both comments are shallow and this can easily be shown. Addicts don’t use drugs for recreation. They do so, because if they don’t they become very sick. For someone in this boat, there is no other choice. If they are dependent on Centelink benefits, cutting them off will not reduce drug taking, because it will force users into committing crimes to survive.
Turnbull’s second comment is a motherhood statement. Of course, no one would want a loved one to be dependent on drugs, and if it does happen would like this to end. But it is also just as clear that that he has not lived this nightmare. If he had, he would realise just how insulting his comment is.
The relationship between the user and family is a complex one, involving a lot of pain on both sides. All are part of the addiction problem. Making it worse, is that help is almost non-existent. How many hours has Malcolm Turnbull spent on trying to get a booking in a detox centre when it is needed? When it comes to trying to get access to longer term rehabilitation, forget it, unless one has a very healthy bank account. Has he tried to access help, when he feels he can no longer cope? Has he had to cope with the social stigma of having a loved one drug dependent? If he hasn’t had these experiences, he doesn’t understand.
Drug testing to remove benefits will make the problems worse. The only effect will be to drive the victims even further into the margins, so they can be forgotten about even more thoroughly and helped more completely denied. In the meantime, Malcolm Turnbull will order a new lock to be put on his door.
And what about those receiving Centrelink benefits without a drug use problem. They too have had the brand burned into their flesh. The new message from the prime minister is that all on benefits must be suspected of being evil drug users and anything done to them can be justified on this count.
There are couple of other things we can be certain of. Those doing well out of the drug trafficking industry will be smiling, as will the wealthy few getting government handouts from money taken away from welfare recipients. But then again, Malcolm Turnbull is one of them.