Photo by US National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

When, if ever, is it acceptable for governments to restrict citizens’ liberty for their own good? In other words, can paternalistic intervention by government be justified?

This question is key to the controversy surrounding many interventions targeted at social security recipients. This includes the Australian Government’s proposal of drug testing social security recipients in recent years.

Paternalism and Australia’s social security system

To some people, paternalism is a dirty word. It makes government interventions immediately suspicious. And this makes sense: respect for individual autonomy is a fundamental value in a liberal society.

Yet compelling people to do things ‘for their own good’ has been a familiar aspect of Australia’s social security system since the 1990s, when the Howard government embraced the message of American paternalist Lawrence Mead. Mead argued that people who are ‘dependent’ on welfare are not competent judges of their own best interests. More supervisory approaches are therefore required to actively shape behaviour.

Over the years, Australians have had their social security payments threatened if they did not do “Work for the Dole” or attend playgroups. In 2017, the Coalition government led by Malcolm Turnbull took paternalism a step further, proposing that recipients of Newstart (Now JobSeeker) and Youth Allowance should be forced to undergo drug-testing.

Drug testing social security recipients

Other countries had already tried the same thing with little success. Illicit drug use is seen to be problematic – for health, social, psychosocial, and economic reasons. As a result, efforts to reduce illicit drug consumption around the world often have paternalistic overtones. Despite the Coalition’s tenacious commitment to the idea, the proposal for a drug testing trial never got off the ground.

An omnibus bill introduced in 2017 (Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017), contained provisions for the trial. It was to involve the testing of 5,000 randomly selected recipients of Newstart and Youth Allowance for specified illicit drugs in three geographic locations. If those select recipients did not undertake the drug test, then they would have their social security payments sanctioned.

Recipients who tested positive were to be subject to income management for 24 months, meaning 80% of their social security payments would be quarantined onto a ‘basics card’ which could only be used in select ways at select stores. For this 24-month period, these welfare recipients would be subject to further drug tests and if they tested positive for a second time, they were to be referred to medical experts who would set out compulsory treatment activities (such as rehabilitation and counselling).

After significant opposition in the Senate, the Government removed the drug testing trial schedule from the omnibus bill. The revised bill passed in March 2018. Later in 2018, the Government reintroduced a bill containing a substantively identical drug testing proposal, but they still couldn’t get enough support in the Senate and it lapsed at the end of 45th parliament.

In 2019 the new Federal Government, led by Scott Morrison reintroduced the proposal in a new bill, but again it got nowhere.

Paternalism in parliamentary debate

We wanted to know how paternalism manifests in political debate in Australia. The speeches made in parliament in support of the drug testing trial gave us a great opportunity to investigate this.

We searched Hansard for all the speeches in 2017 and 2018 concerning the drug testing proposal and found that 39 of them used paternalistic arguments. These speeches shed light on how Australian paternalists think about drugs, unemployment and liberty. (In an earlier paper we analysed the other moral lenses through which parliamentarians – including members of the Opposition – viewed the same proposal.)

Some philosophers have argued that interfering in involuntary behaviour is more justifiable than interfering in voluntary behaviour. We found many examples of parliamentarians advocating ‘soft paternalism’, in other words, coercion aimed at stopping an involuntary behaviour. They tended to assume people who are unemployed do not have voluntary control over whether they use drugs.

We were interested to know whether the aim behind the trial was represented to be improving income support recipients’ morality or their welfare. In the vast majority of paternalist speeches, it was the latter. Drug testing was meant to improve people’s welfare by helping them address addictions, gain employment, and improve their self-esteem. Advocates of the trial didn’t say that taking drugs was sinful or immoral. But a few parliamentarians mentioned the moral improvement that comes from paid employment: to them getting a job meant becoming a virtuous citizen.

The potential benefits of drug testing to people receiving income support were the central focus of the paternalist speeches.  But these parliamentarians relied on common sense understandings of people who use drugs or receive income support instead of using empirical evidence to support their claims. One of the intriguing things about the drug testing proposal was that the government was so wedded to it despite drug and health experts lining up to say it would be harmful to people who use drugs.

All about love?

A key challenge faced by paternalists everywhere is: How do they know that restricting someone’s liberty will really make that person better off?

Advocates of drug testing got around this challenge by stating that drug testing would only be introduced initially as a ‘trial’ aimed at improving the evidence base. They also tried to put the onus of proof on people who were against the proposal. They argued that coercion should be tried unless it could be proven that this specific proposal would do more harm than good. Showing that similar ideas had failed in other countries wasn’t enough.

We looked for evidence of parliamentarians carefully weighing up the competing values of liberty and wellbeing. But what we found in these speeches instead was a cavalier attitude towards the freedom of people who receive income support. It was as if the suffering they were presumed to be experiencing meant their autonomy didn’t matter. If they were suffering, surely they had made bad choices before and couldn’t be trusted to make choices about their own lives. The poor contexts in which people make choices were ignored. People who are unemployed were said to be ‘crying out for assistance’. But what kind of assistance were they actually seeking? Paternalists seemed uninterested in listening to them to find out.

The disregard for research evidence and clinical expertise, as well as the failure to listen to people directly impacted, all suggest a lack of care. This is ironic given that drug testing was meant to be “all about love” and about “looking after our fellow Australians”, according to then Prime Minister Turnbull.


This article has 1 comment

  1. Dr Terry Dwyer

    Taxpayers, especially those financing their own old age or their dependants, tend to be rather less than tolerant about paying to support ner’do wells. I know. For my sins, I had to read letters to the PM about tax matters for a few years. Little old ladies on fixed incomes or pensions definitely do not like what they often termed promiscuous sluts etc etc. I did resist the temptation to write back that I was supporting them too!

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