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Wednesday, 19 September 2007
Page: 191

Mr QUICK (12:04 PM) —I, like other members of this committee, welcome the opportunity to say a few words about what has been a somewhat controversial report. At the outset, I acknowledge in the background four members of the secretariat—I should put my glasses on—who have travelled along the road with us, have been there, have heard our discussions, our concerns and our internal debates about whether this recommendation or that recommendation should be unanimous and have seen three members of the Labor Party put forward a dissenting report on six of the recommendations.

I would also like to acknowledge the chairmanship of this committee: the honourable member for Mackellar has done a wonderful job in bringing all this together. The winnable war on drugs: the impact of illicit drug use on families report has an illustration of six faces before and after. It is a bit like those cigarette packets where you have this big warning, ‘Don’t participate.’ Just looking at this and some of the other photos of people who sadly have fallen victim to substance abuse is horrific.

As the longest serving member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services, having been a member since 1993 when I first entered the parliament, I have seen many excellent reports. This is another one of those. This committee has a wonderful reputation for dealing with issues that are important for and to Australian families. Despite our different experiences and backgrounds, the 10 members of the committee have worked cooperatively to produce this fine but somewhat controversial report.

We heard extensively from witnesses, received I think 188 submissions and travelled not quite the length and breadth of Australia. As I said, I have been on this committee longer than anybody and I was there when it produced the Road to recovery: report on the inquiry into substance abuse in Australian communities, an inquiry which went across two parliaments. To her credit, the chairperson said: ‘That report was about drugs, licit and illicit, and the impact on Australian society. Why don’t we look at the impact of illicit drug use on families?’ We saw it, warts and all.

Sadly, I think people on both sides of politics have recognised that the government’s response to the Road to recovery report was a pretty pathetic response to an issue that governments of all persuasions, both state and federal, are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on. It is not an easy issue to resolve, because, once you are addicted, quite often you do not succeed in getting off the drug the first time. You are a repeat offender in the nicest way. As someone who has dealt firsthand with many families of drug addicted young people and, in some cases, drug addicted parents, I have seen them wanting to get off, trying and failing. Sadly, in my state we have the great number of six detox beds for the whole state. If you do want to get off drugs, you cannot get into a detox bed, let alone get into rehab.

In the 31 recommendations, we are urging all the participants, both state and federal, the agencies and the NGOs that are involved in picking up the pieces of these people—there were some wonderful ones that we received evidence from—to work collectively and collaboratively to ensure that those who do want to get off drugs can enter a service as soon as they want to try, rather than be told, ‘Come back in three months and perhaps there will be a detox bed for you,’ or where you may have done your detox, but you cannot get into rehab for another couple of months and you re-offend. I think it was in Darwin that we had someone come in off the street—a young chap if I remember rightly—explaining just how hard it is to succeed.

I guess there are two sides to every story, and we have heard evidence about the arguments between the zero tolerance and the harm minimisation advocates. As the chairperson has said, there is a bit of an industry out there, and it is interesting to see both sides of the spectrum. One of the things I have tried to do in my almost 15 years here is to listen to both sides of the argument, because we are arguing about people’s lives. If we are going to expend a huge amount of money, we need to ensure that that money is spent wisely. I would like to think that none of us have all the answers. We need to work to ensure that not one child in the future decides to pop that pill or to stick that needle in their arm. We need to provide the resources to ensure that those young people—in many cases, young adults and mothers and fathers—do not try those things, because, once you are addicted, it is a huge battle for you to get off drugs.

We heard some horrific evidence in Western Australia—from people who work in the King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women in Perth—about young drug addicted babies. The chairperson and I were the only two members of the committee to go over and hear that evidence, of hundreds of babies born to drug-addicted mothers. I could never imagine anything worse than a helpless child being brought into this world drug-addicted because of drug abuse by the mother. I think that is about the worst case of child abuse you could ever have—a child being drug-addicted from its first breath in this world.

One of the good things about being on this committee is that you hear things firsthand. I would like this report to be in most people’s bookshelves so that, when they think the whole world is going along swimmingly, they can just pick it up and have a read of some of the evidence.

One of the contentious issues is the default option for adoption of children of drug addicts. We heard some wonderful evidence. If people read nothing else in this report, they should read the last 23 pages of the report, and the evidence from Mrs Rowe, one of those people who pick up the pieces and try and give these young children a start in life. All credit to her—someone who has not just done it once or twice but has fostered in three states as she and her husband have moved around.

I would like to read a couple of quotes from our report. The first is from page 79, where a grandparent—another group of people who pick up the pieces—says:

Our daughter fell pregnant and gave birth to a still born child 16 months ago at 20 weeks gestation… During this pregnancy I tried to alert welfare officers at [a medical centre] of my concerns as to the suitability of the couple as parents given their lifestyle however I was reminded of the privacy act and the fact that it was none of my business… My daughter once again was pregnant and gave birth to a premature baby three weeks ago. This child is still in intensive care and all medical expenses are being covered by the public health system. Once again an attempt was made to make welfare aware of the situation and concern as to suitability as parents. This time they did give us a hearing as they too had been building up their own picture at regular check ups and were also concerned. However, the matter was reported by the hospital welfare officer who was told that not enough evidence was available to raise concerns at this stage. I am assuming therefore that until some physical evidence of abuse is available nothing will be done. This child is extremely small and our concern is that a death may occur.

On page 81 there is evidence from Dr Judith Cashmore of the University of Sydney Law School, who states:

Unfortunately, what tends to happen is a lot of children get lost in the foster system. Unless the birth parents relinquish their rights to the child, many children end up in foster care, going from one foster home to another, because the parents do not want to sign on the dotted line to give up their rights but do not want the kid, either. These children would do amazingly in a permanent family but there is such a ‘blood is thicker than water’ mentality out there…. I do not know if it is blatantly anti adoption or just pro blood relation. I personally feel that some of this may be a swing back from the stolen generation pendulum. It was so extreme 40 or 50 years ago—I have a close friend who was one of the stolen generation—and, to me, it is like it has swung so far the other way. Now you put the kids back with their biological parents regardless of the child’s safety.

Mrs Rowe, also on page 81, states:

They just think blood is thicker than water, that the kids should be with their parents. I think they need to know their history. It is not necessarily good for them to be there; in most cases it is not. I cannot see that it is good for children to be with parents in a situation that means you do not know when you come home from school if you are going to be fed or not.

This default option is a contentious issue but I—unlike the other three Labor Party members—agree: I think the child’s interests are paramount. I have seen it firsthand, in my former life as a teacher and now, as a federal member who has an electorate office in what I lovingly call the ‘ghetto’ in Bridgewater, a pretty low socioeconomic area. I have seen firsthand the intergenerational impact of neglect and abuse of children, especially in this area, and I think it is incumbent upon us as members—national legislators—to get it right.

Sadly, in a way, this report is being tabled at the end of a three-year term when we are about to have an election. This probably will not be one of the key issues on the front pages of the papers or on television or radio, but I would like to think that whoever comes back as a government after this election will look seriously at this. I know the honourable member for Mackellar and other members of the committee who will return—I know they will—will ensure that, whoever the minister is, either Labor or Liberal, this report will be addressed, its 31 wonderful recommendations will be taken on board seriously, and discussions with the state governments and the agencies will see that fewer and fewer of our young people and our families are impacted on by the scourge of illicit drugs.

This will probably be my last speech in this place. I would like to thank, once again, the wonderful members of the secretariat, who have been there a long time; they are the unsung heroes. To the other members of the committee: I thank you for your generosity and your support. As I say, I look forward with interest to seeing that lots of these 31 recommendations are implemented. Thank you.