Gordon Campbell on drug testing for those on benefits

During the past month, how many people working in the Parliamentary precinct might have engaged in recreational drug use that impaired their performance on the job? In the same period, has any MP ever consumed alcohol to a point where they would have failed a sobriety test if suddenly subjected to one? Given the level of salary involved, the cost to the taxpayer of such behaviours would be considerable, but is forever likely to remain hidden. Only other people, in other occupations, are likely to face such intrusions (and penalties) when it comes to their lifestyle choices.

That is not an argument for universal workplace drug testing. It does underline however the selective nature of the government’s latest round of beneficiary hassling measures that were cited yesterday by Social Development Minister Paula Bennett:

Beneficiaries who refuse or fail drug tests while applying for jobs will have their welfare cut from mid-2013 under the Government’s next round of welfare reforms….

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett [said] the new Welfare Reform Bill would have new requirements for drug testing, but the finer details were still being finalised.

Still, at yesterday’s press post-Cabinet conference, Prime Minister John Key did make some interesting distinctions with respect to this issue. Yes, Key agreed, there were some people now in employment who engage in recreational drug use. Yes, some jobs require drug tests and some don’t. Thus, this question was posed by RNZ’s Brent Edwards:

But there are plenty of people now in work who are recreational drug users and who are in jobs where there isn’t drug testing. Isn’t there a danger that this [measure] could be used to push people off benefits by forcing them to go to a job that’s requiring drug testing rather than possibly to jobs available that doesn’t?

Key’s response was fascinating:

If there are two jobs and one doesn’t require drug testing and one does and the person can get the other job then they’re fulfilling their obligations aren’t they? But the real point here is the person who is saying to the work broker that I will not go along to that job interview because I know I will fail, because I’m recreationally using drugs. And then in the same breath they’re saying they’d like the taxpayers around New Zealand to continue to support me on my benefit. I think to a lot of New Zealanders they’d just say that’s unfair…

So…if you can find a job compatible with your recreational drug use – such as say, in Parliament – then go for it. By declining to take a more reactionary line on drug use, Key rather deftly retains his liberal credentials on social issues – such as say on recreational drug use that is divorced from social liability. (Get high if you like, but don’t get dependent seems to be his maxim.) This stance makes Key not only different from the reactionary National Party welfare bashers of yore, but even from the approach taken by his mentor David Cameron in Britain – who has been far more willing to play to the Neanderthal instincts in the electorate, and who is paying a wider cost in the polls for doing so. Key’s trick is to sound like a liberal while acting like a conservative – partly by leaving the harder edged positions to his colleagues, but partly by refraining from taking the harshest options available. Yesterday, when invited for instance by some in the gallery to take an even harder line on beneficiaries – e.g. by cutting people off benefits entirely if people used their benefits to buy drugs, or not allowing people onto a benefit at all in the first place if they took drugs – Key declined to endorse such measures. “That’s another debate,” he said, indicating that those on welfare were free to use their benefit money for all sorts of purposes, including buying cigarettes or alcohol.

This issue, he stressed, was about the principle of ‘mutual obligation’ – whereby the state supported those in need while in return, those beneficiaries who could work, should work. When asked whether Work and Income didn’t already have sufficient powers to cut off or reduce support to any beneficiaries who refused genuine work offers, Key disagreed: “To the best of my knowledge, not for this reason.” The powers of Work and Income staff on this issue of recreational drug use, he claimed, were “very, very limited.”

Looking ahead, the main impact of enacting this more punitive policy on benefit receipt/drug use will be felt regionally – in those parts of the country where the available jobs are, say, in forestry or in some agricultural jobs that require drug testing. Anecdotally, the result is likely to mean a reduction in welfare income among what are already some of the most economically depressed communities in New Zealand – Kawerau etc – and where recreational use of marijuana for instance, is rife. It is not hard to imagine that any savings from cutting people off welfare in such communities will be more than matched by the uptick in costs associated with crime.

Finally, it probably goes without saying that in playing to the sizeable beneficiary hassling vote out there, the government is choosing to ignore some rather more important aspects of the ‘mutual obligation” that Key talks about so glibly. Mutual obligation tends to be a one way street for this administration, at anything above subsistence level. The government is not so keen for instance, on talking about (a) the state’s obligations to meet the housing and employment needs of the populations most at risk, (b) to enact and to adequately fund proper drug and alcohol deterrence and rehabilitation policies and (c) to promote a strong health and safety regulatory framework in the workplace. All that, as Key would say, is another debate. One he is quite keen to divert us from having.