Why We Shouldn’t Drug Test Our Pollies

Last week the Federal Government handed down the budget. It has been largely understood as a relatively beige attempt to bury Abbott’s zombie measures once and for all and reframe the government as one of fairness (eleven hits in the budget speech), family (six hits – which is kind of remarkable for a government that tried to ram legislation through the senate to cut payments for single parents and slash family tax benefits earlier this year) and stoic optimism (Scott Morrison implored no less than three times that there are “better days ahead,” which is only marginally less jarring than telling young people who can’t pay rent, or 2.3 million Australians struggling to find work, that “there has never been a more exciting time to be Australian.”)

However, one measure in the Budget that has caused some furore is the government’s proposal to trial drug testing for welfare recipients.

Their proposal is to roll out a trial in certain locations (determined by testing sewerage water for high drug use) whereby they subject folks receiving centrelink payments to random drug tests. If you pass, you keep getting your cheque. If you fail, you get frog marched onto the Cashless Basics Card.

It is so absurd that I can’t help but think that the Liberal Party dumped an intern in the basement with printouts of all their key demographics, and said “we need a policy that will appeal to the fiscally conservative, but also make George Christianson, and his three friends in Mawson, happy.”

A government’s subjecting its citizens to random drug tests is scary stuff. It’s morally repugnant, it’s definitely legally dubious, and there is heaps of evidence that it won’t work.

  1. It is an invasion of your privacy.

One of the most fundamental principles of a liberal democracies is privacy* — your right to do what you want, so long as it does not hurt yourself or others, in the privacy of your own home (or other private place). Under the International Convention of Civil and Political Rights and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights the right to be free from “arbitrary interference with his privacy” is protected.

Now, we don’t have a protected right to privacy as such in Australia (*cough* let’s get ourselves a Bill of Human Rights people), but the recognition of a qualified right to privacy was instrumental in overturning the discriminatory and punitive “sodomy laws” that criminalised (predominately) gay men and threw them into prison for their consensual, private acts of sexuality.

Just like the argument with metadata, the response ‘if you’ve done nothing wrong you’ve got nothing to fear’ is a stupid one. None of us have any idea what this (or another) ideologically deranged government will decide is “wrong” or “right,” or what ridiculous lengths they will go to to try and weed out the wrongs.

Much drug use is criminalised in Australia (not the ones that have the biggest toll on the health system, mind you). And, precisely to stop a situation where you may be subjected to random knocks on the door from the men in blue, there are only certain things the police can do in order to try and rid society from the scourge of illicit drug use. For example, they need to have a reasonable suspicion that you may be in possession of drugs before they can search you, and they need to be able to show reasonable cause for arrest.

Reasonable suspicion isn’t sewerage water testing that shows drug use is high in your local area — that’s profiling to catch and punish certain groups of people with no due process.

In a country like Australia where we lack a Bill of Rights and our Constitution is largely silent on individual rights, we have limited capacity to defend the rights we may think we have — that’s why it’s so important not to let the government start encroaching on them in the first place.

  1. It will hurt people.

The Prime Minister has defended his plan to randomly (except that it’s actually quite carefully and not randomly targeted) drug test people as “based on love.”

You know what would be based on love? Properly funding drug and alcohol treatment services so that people who are struggling with addiction can get help. Right now only one in six people suffering from addiction is getting treatment. “Love” would be helping the other five get some help if and when they want it.

You know what else would be based on love? Not using marginalised people to pander to your rabid back bench.

The only thing this policy will do is hurt people. It will hurt people who are addicted to illicit drugs who sacrifice their welfare payments to avoid doing the drug test. Who does that help? Now they’re still using drugs, hungrier and potentially having to resort to other means of making money. Means that may very well see them hauled in front of a court and locked behind metal bars all at the taxpayer’s expense.

This policy will hurt people who aren’t addicted to illicit drugs but use them sometimes. Like, I don’t know, one of the FORTY percent of Australians who have used illicit drugs before. These people are probably going to be young because the government’s *random* drug testing is actually *specifically* targeting people on Youth Allowance and Newstart.  Fun times.

  1. It’s a dog whistle. Don’t dog whistle back.

This ridiculous excuse for a policy is a blatant dog whistle. It is devoid of both moral and medical substance and it exists only to serve Malcolm Turnbull’s political purposes. But, it’s also really dangerous, for all the reasons above. That’s why our response can’t be “well, drug test the politicians then” because whilst the hypocrisy of those smug-faced men drug testing the poorer and less powerful is galling, it’s really not the main game here.

I care so much less about whether those men are shoving white powder up their noses, than I do about the fact they are trying to use public policy to weed out the people they think are undesirable and stamp them out.

Because at the end of the day even if you did get politicians to submit to random drug tests, and even if they were caught out doing something they shouldn’t be, they would be fine. They might have to give a mea culpa to the press, their colleagues would huddle in front of TV cameras and talk about what a great bloke and politician he really was, and he’d either join the festering mess that is the government’s backbench or pick up some sweet public position elsewhere.

None of us should have our privacy invaded by overzealous, ideological governments — but getting pollies to agree to be drug tested only makes the scheme look a tiny little bit fairer when the entire thing has been setup to punish the least powerful.

* It’s worth mentioning that the right to privacy has come under a substantial (and I think very valid) feminist critique about the way in which it effectively creates two tiers of rights — those in the public sphere (and the sphere often dominated by men) and those in the private sphere (and the sphere often occupied by women).

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