Liberal Senator Eric Abetz is reported to be in favour of drug testing welfare recipients to ensure they are ‘job ready’. An idea originally raised by the Tasmanian MP Brett Whiteley.
But this is hardly ‘news’. That the slack and feckless amongst us (ie welfare recipients) should be drug tested is an article of faith amongst the far right wing. The idea resurfaces every now and again for just long enough to cheer up the party faithful before once again being ruled out due to commie-pinko-civil-rights.
Last time around the idea was floated by George Christensen, then Abbott. Before being passed on to Kevin Andrews who considered it for a good long time and then ruled it out. Of course Senator Jacqie Lambie also indicated that she also thought it was likely a good idea.
It seems almost churlish to argue with such an illustrious group of moral philosophers.
Predictably Senator Abetz wants to go even further than just drug testing welfare recipients; he recently floated the idea of widespread random drug and alcohol testing on Australian building sites. For the safety of the workers. He was quoted as droning that: “Safety is a paramount consideration on construction sites. It is simply an unacceptable risk to the health and safety of employees and the public to have workers affected by drugs or alcohol on construction sites.”
So why does this dead horse cop such a flogging? Eternally. After all: the Health and Safety advice is that legal recreational and prescription drugs are the ones that are doing all the damage in the workplace, on our roads, and in people’s lives. Every day 15 people die and 430 others are admitted to hospital just due to the abuse of alcohol. When you add to this the people who are dying from tobacco abuse, and from abusing prescription drugs, that accounts for 98% of drug deaths in Australia. When you add up all the columns, for every death due to the use of an illegal drug in Australia there are at least forty-one deaths due to the use of a legal drug. So why the focus on illegal drugs?
One of the bedrock assertions motivating this proposal is the assertion that welfare recipients are morally weak individuals who are therefore more likely to use and abuse illicit substances. How true is this proposition?
The available research comes to the astonishingly logical and obvious conclusion that really poor people don’t actually spend a lot of money. While many of our politicians like to constantly intimate that all the Australian unemployed habitually engage in drink and drug fuelled satanic orgies until late in the night – it appears that this is not the case. Apparently the unemployed simply can’t afford to spend a lot of money. Who could have guessed?
It also seems that in the real world testing welfare recipients for illicit drugs costs a lot of money but does not seem to catch many welfare druggies. In those forward looking and progressive states in the US where the drug testing of welfare recipients has been tried (Arizona, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, Florida, and Missouri) it has failed to catch anyone much despite it costing a fortune. After a year of drug testing in Tennessee welfare assistance was denied to around 30 people – out of 28,559 welfare applicants. Last year a report on the website Salon indicated that: ‘Out of 38,970 welfare applicants, 48 people got positive drug tests in Missouri. Utah blew $64,566 to catch 29 people who did illegal drugs. Arizona found 3, and Mississippi just 2.’
So why do people like Abetz, Christensen, Abbott, Andrews, and Lambie seem to remain forever immune to comprehending any of this factual information? Yes everyone agrees that illegal drug use can have deleterious effects. But surely it is impossible to accidentally ignore the actual proportion of welfare recipients who are harmed by illegal drugs, in comparison to those who are harmed by legal drugs as there is a huge avalanche of factual data available?
Unfortunately for all the rest of us the theological argument is undeniable and unequivocal. It makes absolute sense in a superficial and fascicle manner. To the rabidly religious folk in our federal parliament it is apparent that, because those who use illegal drugs are morally decrepit, and those who are on welfare are also morally decrepit, then those who receive welfare must be more likely to use illegal drugs than are ‘normal’ Aussie citizens. It doesn’t matter what the facts might say. This is a religious belief so facts do not matter.
So while the rhetoric of the drug war warriors may sound shrill and largely incoherent to the majority of the population their dedication to their nonsensical arguments is undeniable, as is their air of desperation. This is because currently our drug laws represent the last moral cannon left in the legal armoury of those who deem themselves to be our moral superiors. All the rest of our laws are now designed to stop Aussies from getting harmed. Our drug laws are the last laws left that are based on protecting our moral rather than our physical health. So in the modern age the far right wing are fast running out of moral ‘outrages’ to be outraged about in public. Just about every other ‘moral outrage’ has become legal. Without the ‘drug laws’ the morally superior among us would be largely bereft of a weapon to use to bash the ungodly with. Therefore they clutch at their arguments despite the evidence and regardless of the obvious harm inflicted on individuals and the society at large.
In every other way except for in our drug laws we have largely ditched our victimless ‘crimes’ and excepting for those on the far right we all feel so much better for doing so. In the Australian context it now feels positively vulgar to even think about protesting against providing gays with the same suite of rights as any other member of society. Prostitution has long been decriminalised almost everywhere, and pornography seems not only ubiquitous but even rather passé. Plus virtually everything up to and including Satanism is now recognised as an acceptable lifestyle choice. So unfortunately for those who really want to get outraged; most of the good old legal snubs have slowly ebbed away. The only morality laws left standing are our drug laws.
Criminal laws are crafted to protect people while morality laws are crafted to control them. So of course Abetz, Christensen, Abbott, Andrews, and Lambie all remain immune to any rational scientific evidence regarding drugs. For these individual this is a moral question: not a scientific or social one. The attribute they all share is a belief that they are all duty bound to look after our moral health. They feel they are obliged to outlaw anything that fails to accord with their spiritual beliefs. They also have another thing in common – they have all been failing to keep us ‘pure’. So they continue to fight for their drug laws despite any amount of evidence.
Their sense of desperation can be explained by the growing gap between the opinions of the political class and those of the majority. It’s becoming ever more difficult to deny that the sole reason that illegal recreational drugs remain illegal is because our politicians continue to wilfully refute the evidence in front of their own eyes. So despite all the evidence and against the oft stated wishes of the majority, Queensland is currently doubling down on the drug war by increasing the penalties for using cannabis to the same as those for using heroin. Similarly our federal government is currently in the process of setting up a huge bureaucracy to protect us all against the evils of anyone taking cannabis for recreational rather than medicinal purposes. It would all be laughable if it was not so tragic.
Until we finally confront this ‘third rail’ of Aussie politics nothing will change. Misinformation will continue to be paraded about as apparent fact. Citizens will continue to be demonised and their lives destroyed for no rational reason and for no apparent social benefit.
If we must have fools in our parliament then at least let us have honestly misguided fools rather than the wilfully ignorant. Individuals such as Abetz, Christensen, Abbott, Andrews, and Lambie have every right to preach from any pulpit in the land, but when they do so in our parliaments they do our democracy a gross disservice.
Also by James Moylan:
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