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Wednesday, 17 September 2003
Page: 20418

Mr EDWARDS (12:21 PM) —Before I get into the substance of what I want to say, I would just like to compliment the member for Denison on what he has had to say in this place. He is very accurate in his assessment of treatment and the needs of people who are drug dependent. As time caught up with him, he was very specifically accurate in the sorts of things that he said about law enforcement and the reduced availability of heroin. This government and this committee, in my view, made a major blue when they started to take credit for what they saw as a reduction in the use of heroin.

There were a lot of reasons for that reduction, but if a government takes credit for a situation that occurs simply as a result of reduced availability—if it goes to the public, thumps its chest and says, `Look how successful we've been'—it is committing the community and itself to the creation of greater problems through false claims of success. We have to look at policies that address substance abuse at its worst—because that is always the bottom of the trough or the pit, and that is where needs are greatest—rather than simply thumping our chests and claiming that things like zero tolerance are the answer. They are not. Indeed, one of the things that this committee found out is that there is no such thing as one simple answer. A range of answers, responses and policies are required to address the issue of substance abuse, particularly when the heroin availability flow begins again, as it apparently has.

I must say that I was one of those who fought strongly for the establishment of this reference. In the early stages, when it was first raised, one of the reasons I raised the need for us to have a look at these areas was the number of parents, carers and grandparents that were coming to my office and telling me that they had just discovered that their son or daughter or another loved one within the family was caught up in substance abuse. They would say, `We don't know who to turn to or where to go.' Indeed, in looking to give them advice, I found that there were many gaps in the services, advice, support and assistance available to these families. In talking to others amongst my colleagues in this federal scene, I found that we all shared the same sort of experience.

There was very strong support for this reference from both sides of the political spectrum. I remember Brendan Nelson, for instance, being very angry at the fact that the previous minister for health had refused our reference in this area. He, I and others insisted that we send the matter back to the minister because we believed that it needed to be addressed by our committee. I must say that, in the end, the minister saw good sense, saw the need and, I think, saw that the committee could go out and do some good work in the community in addressing this very vexatious issue.

That first committee worked very well. Under the chairmanship of the member for Grey, Barry Wakelin, we met a lot of people, we covered a lot of ground and we listened to a lot of heart-wrenching stories from parents, grandparents and carers, and from family members who had seen their loved ones die or suffer or indeed seen their families ripped apart as a result of substance abuse and the lies, the distress and the trauma that go hand-in-hand with it. In my view, that committee worked very well, on a balanced and bipartisan basis, as we endeavoured to come to grips with what was basically an emerging story of horror. It did not matter where we went or what part of Australia we were in, the stories and the depth of the problems were the same. That gave us a measure of what we were up against and it gave us a challenge that we were able to pull together and work together on.

Unfortunately that all changed with the election and this parliament coming in, and there was a change in the people who came onto the committee. As far as I am concerned, the conservatives who came onto the committee came onto it with a narrow political focus, with predetermined outcomes and with an arrogant and belligerent attitude. They made the task of the committee difficult. At times it was impossible for the chair to hide her exasperation at what I saw as offensive and loutish behaviour by people whose only response to this massive problem was to cry that the answer was zero tolerance. Of course that is rubbish. I compliment Julia Irwin, the deputy chair of the committee, on her work and on the way in which she persevered in the face of a number of personal attacks by those opposite who should have been, but were not, part of an attempt to find a bipartisan answer to this incredible problem which confronts Australians, particularly young Australians.

The member for Grey said that he felt this report would challenge people. To some degree he is right but, unfortunately, in the main this report will not challenge people as much as it will categorise them; nor will it challenge people as much as it will marginalise them. That is a sad outcome from a report which could have been well and truly worth while. I look at the years of work and the amount of time that was put into it and I am very disappointed with the outcome. I am disappointed not just with the outcome but also with the way in which the importance of the committee system has been diminished. I like to think that members of committees should have independent approaches and independent attitudes to committees. I hate to think that committees are going to be dominated by the executive in the future as this committee has been, and dominated in the way in which the parliament has become dominated by the executive. If those opposite are prepared to let that happen, in my view the parliament, the committee system and we as members are diminished in our capacity to independently, vigorously and intellectually go about resolving some of the issues that we put a lot of work into as committee members. That is the disappointing side of the report.

We put in a dissenting report, and I am pleased that we did. When I look at the response to this report from important organisations in our community and when I talk to some of the people who are involved in trying to address the issues of substance abuse in Australia and see their disappointment, I am pleased that I was part of a dissenting report. I will quote, for instance, what the AMA had to say about our report. Under the heading `AMA challenges substance abuse report's illicit drugs recommendations' they had this to say:

“According to ADCA (Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia) methadone maintenance treatment has been clearly demonstrated to reduce illicit opiate use. It has been more successful than other options including: no-treatment; drug-free treatment; placebo medication; or detoxification in clinically controlled trials. It is the most cost-effective treatment for opioid dependence available in Australia.

“The Report focuses strongly on abstinence. Evidence shows this is not a reasonable outcome for conditions like opioid dependency, which tend to follow a chronic relapse pattern.

“The AMA supports the discussion of abstinence within the spectrum of treatment options.

“The report seems to replace harm minimisation with harm prevention but there is little explanation as to what is meant by this change in direction.

“The AMA is concerned that this change in direction is a push towards the concept of zero tolerance.

“The public health implications of such a dramatic shift in national policy would be catastrophic.

“Under this philosophy we will see ... the spread of blood borne diseases and an increase in drug related crime and drug related deaths.

“Zero tolerance or it neo-euphemism “harm prevention” is something the AMA believes the Australian community should be very wary of embracing as the sole answer to illicit drug use in the community.

“The zero tolerance option will never be the panacea for all the community's drug problems,” Dr Yong said.

Dr Yong is a psychiatrist who specialises in adolescent health issues.

I thought it was worth recording what the AMA, through Dr Yong, had to say. Just as the community should be wary of adopting zero tolerance as the answer to substance abuse, so too should those in the community who have an interest in this whole issue be wary of adopting this report as a panacea.

If nothing else, I hope that the report will at least create and generate some discussion within the community. There are a number of recommendations which we agreed on and which others, like the AMA, support. I hope that this committee report will find some value in some sections of the community, but my fear is that this report will quickly drop into obscurity—that is probably where it belongs. It is a disappointment. I am sorry that we could not give leadership to the people who looked to us for some greater leadership, and I am sorry that we could not use the opportunities that we had to perhaps better pave the way in the future for us as a community to address the issues in a way which comes up with a range of options, not just one narrow political focus of zero tolerance as the answer to all of the issues.

In conclusion, I want to say that I take a strong interest in these issues. I am the patron of a group in Perth called Cyrenian House who do tremendous work in providing support to drug dependent people. They have some live-in programs and they have extended programs. They do tremendous work. Over the last few years, I have come to admire the tremendous commitment of some of the people in the non-government area who work in these areas to provide support, sustenance and advice, and who nurture not just those who have become involved in the issues of substance abuse but also their families who often feel deserted and do not know who to turn to or where to go. The non-government sector in this nation does a tremendously valuable job as they work with people who have become caught up in substance abuse. I pay them a great deal of respect in terms of the work they do. (Time expired)