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Wednesday, 10 March 1999
Page: 3685

Mrs CROSIO (11:51 AM) —In speaking today on the appropriation legislation I focus again on a subject of great importance to my electorate, to me and, I believe, to all honourable members: our continuing struggle with the illegal drug trade and the effect it is having on our communities and the nation in general. I want to pay particular attention to what steps we can take in order to tackle this insidious problem.

Over 18 months ago I stood in this chamber and called on the Prime Minister to convene a national drug summit in order to discuss new approaches to confronting illegal drugs and, in particular, to look at uniform national solutions to the heroin problem. It was and still is my belief that convening such a meeting between federal, state and territory political leaders, representatives from our local government, the judiciary and the various police services around the nation, and experts in the fields of health and of drug and law enforcement, along with, perhaps, reformed drugs addicts and the families of addicts, could be beneficial in the charting of new courses and raising of new ideas in regard to dealing with the ever-spiralling illegal drug problem we have now in this country.

A national drug summit could be a catalyst for reform—a catalyst for a nation committing itself wholeheartedly to new, long-term strategies aimed at fighting the effects of illegal drugs and their trade. It could also be a time for recognition—recognition of how some of the old strategies have failed and also recognition of the new strategies that are available to us.

I was not the only person to raise the idea of a national drug summit. Within a very short space of time my call was followed by similar requests from such a diverse range of organisations and people as the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the directors of public prosecutions in New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia, the premiers of New South Wales and Western Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald, Age and Daily Telegraph newspapers, and members of the Liberal Party, including the honourable member for Bradfield, who happens to be in the chamber at this moment.

However, to my disappointment and to the disappointment of so many others, both the Prime Minister and the then Minister for Health and Aged Care said that they considered such a summit `wasteful of resources' and `unnecessary'. A spokesman said that such a summit would mean `zilch' and would be nothing but a `talkfest'. The minister for health himself later said that a summit would just be a `cheap stunt' and would only amount to `window-dressing'.

As pressure for that summit grew, the Prime Minister appeared to change his mind somewhat by saying:

I have an open mind on the subject of a national drug summit if there could be public benefit in holding such a meeting.

And that was where the subject was left until early February this year.

It was in early February that the Premier of New South Wales displayed the leadership and the foresight necessary to call his own drug summit—to be held with the support of the Liberal opposition and away from the political heat of the New South Wales state election campaign— featuring the same experts and authorities that I have mentioned earlier. I congratulate him on his initiative; it is not a moment too soon.

Despite the government's Tough on Drugs strategy, despite the record drug seizures in recent months, things in our area are getting worse, not better. I am not trying to take a swipe at the government by making that observation; I am stating what appears, from my research, to be an absolute fact. I am sure many of us opened our daily papers recently to read that the number of people dying from heroin overdoses has risen to its highest level ever in Australia, leaping 10 per cent in just one year to 600 deaths. In New South Wales—the state that accounts for over half of the nation's deaths from opiate overdoses—deaths rose by 13 per cent in 1997. In Victoria, the death toll from heroin overdoses in 1999 has so far outstripped the road toll there: 60 people died from heroin overdoses in the first 46 days of 1999—15 more than had died on that state's roads in that time.

In my own area of Sydney, despite the successes of the New South Wales Police's Operation Puccini, we are still feeling the weight of the heroin trade on our shoulders. Large numbers of addicts, from both inside and outside our area, still congregate in Cabramatta and Fairfield in order to obtain their heroin. To a certain extent, the police have chased the dealers away from the main streets of Cabramatta, but they have simply regrouped in all our other areas.

The Prime Minister, when answering a question on 9 February on the success of the Tough on Drugs campaign, unintentionally laid open for all of us to see just how serious a problem we now face in regard to illegal drugs in this country. As the Prime Minister said, federal agencies have seized 565 kilograms of heroin in the first seven months of 1998-1999. That is compared to 113 kilograms seized in the six years between 1990 and 1996. He said the same agencies have seized over 274 kilograms of cocaine over the same period, compared to 127 kilograms between 1990 and 1996.

And yet, despite these massive, record seizures, the street price of heroin and cocaine has not increased. On the contrary, it is now even lower. So what does this suggest about the so-called success of our supposed `war on drugs'? Similarly, what does it suggest about the volume of drugs that we are missing out on that are still coming into this country? Certainly the sheer volume of drugs seized gives us cause to reflect on the size of the demand for heroin and cocaine that exists in Australia.

As Professor David Penington wrote in the Age recently—and I know the shadow minister for justice and customs referred to this quote when he was speaking on this subject a few weeks ago:

We hear just recently of huge hauls of heroin . . . and we have announcements made by politicians that obviously the system is working, and that will deal with the problem; but the reality of course is that the street price of heroin is probably less than it has ever been and the purity of the heroin higher than it has ever been.

The Adelaide Advertiser made a similar observation in a recent editorial when it said:

The Government boasts of drug busts; the street price remains obstinately low.

Quite obviously, the recent record seizures of illegal drugs, while admirable, are having no effect at street level whatsoever.

Many of us have heard the official estimations in regard to the volume of heroin that escapes detection when imported into Australia. However, for the benefit of this House, I will restate those figures. The National Crime Authority suggests that we only seize 17 per cent of heroin coming into the country, while the Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence suggests that we only identify and seize 10 per cent of it. If the 565 kilograms of heroin that has come into Australia over the last seven months equals only 10 per cent of what actually makes it inside our borders, then all I can say is, `God help us.' Quite simply, whatever its arguable merits, the Howard government's Tough on Drugs campaign is basically defeated before it has hardly begun.

The Premier of NSW has quite rightly seen the writing on the wall and he has seen the hopelessness of the current situation. He knows that the condition will continue to deteriorate unless some bold action is taken, hence his initiative in setting up the drug courts in New South Wales and hence his announcement of the New South Wales drugs summit. Unfortunately, the debate over tackling illegal drugs has degenerated into a war of attrition. Opposing sides have put forth their arguments with little or no respect for differing viewpoints. Our political leaders recognise this and they have commented upon it.

The Prime Minister said recently that he was not interested in political division over the drugs issue and that there were many areas where he could work constructively with Labor towards tackling the problem. The Leader of the Opposition has recently said:

Mindless devotion to positions will merely see the casualty list grow.

In mid-February the Minister for Health and Aged Care said:

I'll tell you what would help—if we took some of the politics out of it, if people had a little bit of respect for people who had different views and if everyone worked together rather than trying to score political points.

I am all for that. I am all for taking politics out of this debate. I am all for people listening to other people's different points of view on tackling illegal drugs and I am certainly all for the people on the various sides of this debate looking for the merit in each other's argument.

It seems to me that our political leaders want to find a level of consensus on this problem. They recognise that we need to break the deadlock that has developed between the different sides of this debate. The question is how we go about doing that. As the Prime Minister has recognised recently, no approach carries all of the answers—neither zero tolerance nor heroin trials, neither a war on drugs nor legalised shooting rooms for addicts.

But perhaps there is an answer that combines all or some of these approaches. For example, one new approach has been advocated by a former adviser to US President Bill Clinton on drug enforcement and currently Professor of Policy Studies at UCLA, Mr Mark Kleiman. Mr Kleiman, while arguing for the maintenance of harm minimisation and education programs, advocates focused drug law enforcement or community policing, as distinct from a zero tolerance approach to illegal drugs.

Rather than conducting a war on drugs with ideological and imprecise zeal, he says we should be focussing our approach as we do to solve the day-to-day practical problems that exist in our community. In a recent interview he gave on Australian TV, Mr Kleiman stated:

The third way simply means . . . . we sit down and address the drug problem as if it were what it is—a serious practical problem like delivering health care or cleaning up a river or engineering a traffic pattern for a city.

Examples of what a third way would be are: designing enforcement, to break up markets and to minimise violence and minimise neighbourhood disruption without flooding our courts and our prisons.

It starts with analysing a local market; asking why is this market where it is; what are the key factors of production; and what can we do to make it impossible to do business the way that the dealers and the buyers are currently doing business in that market?

You can rescue a neighbourhood from being a drug bazaar. That's enormous progress, but that requires a completely different approach. That's not the FBI. That's community policing.

He went on to say:

There is simply not evidence . . . that undifferentiated toughness in enforcement has benefits. I think well done drug law enforcement has enormous benefits but that's a different issue.

We cannot arrest our way out of this problem.

According to Kleiman, by all means the Prime Minister should look to the US for examples on tackling illegal drugs, but certainly not zero tolerance, not the anti-methadone posturing of the Mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani; the Prime Minister should look to those cities that have used effective community policing rather than zero tolerance to combat the local drug trade.

Mark Kleiman offers Australian authorities just one alternative view that gives us food for thought. How many more are there that we have not even started to scratch the surface of or even read about, let alone examine? We need to bring all of these views together. We need to break the deadlock that separates the opposing views on tackling this problem and we need to seek some common ground. That is why I again resume my call today for the Prime Minister and the Minister for Health and Aged Care to convene a national drug summit at the earliest possible convenience.

I call on the Prime Minister to consult with the Premier of New South Wales and the New South Wales Leader of the Opposition and offer to take over the reins of that state's drug summit which is planned for after the state election on 27 March, and to hold his own national conference. The Prime Minister should offer the Premier of New South Wales the Commonwealth's resources and organisational clout in order to make the New South Wales drug summit a truly national affair.

This is a national problem and it requires national solutions. New South Wales does not operate in a vacuum, and this is a problem that touches families and people across Australia. Let us have a look at the solutions available to us on a national level.

I am well aware of what the critics have said, and will say, in relation to a national drug summit. There will be the usual comments about, `When in doubt, hold a summit.' There will also be those who say a summit will help to entrench the opposing views in this debate. But this does not have to happen. If, for once, we could approach such a meeting with humility, with open minds, if we can listen to the professionals and experts who are making progress with this problem and they can listen to each other, and if the Prime Minister and the minister for health can set some parameters and give the meeting direction, it need not be a failure at all.

The Prime Minister and minister for health have said that such a meeting would be a stunt. I would counsel them not to make such similar criticisms today. According to my research, since the Howard government came to power it has convened 11 national summits on issues as diverse as small business, electronic commerce and rural affairs. Indeed, the Minister for Transport and Regional Services recently announced that he would convene a second national rural finance summit before the end of this year.

Such summits are not a bad thing, they all concern important issues. I am sure the Prime Minister and the minister for health would agree that the issue of illegal drugs is an equally pressing issue, if not a more pressing issue, for this country. I suggest that what really concerns the Prime Minister and the minister for health about a national drug summit, what makes them reticent about holding one, is that they feel they will lose control of the debate and that the government will no longer be able to set the agenda.

But has the government suffered in this respect with the previous national summits it has organised? Of course not. I would venture to say that in some cases it has been given some very valuable insights and ideas to pursue. The Prime Minister should also accept that on this issue, a national drug summit just might be the right thing to do for the good of the country, whether he finds the outcome unpalatable or not.

The Minister for Transport and Regional Services said about his particular planned summit, `I want business and community leaders to sit down, to get focused, and to take a long hard look at the very real challenges faced by country people.' I merely want the same level of determination and concentration to be exercised by the relevant people at a national summit on illegal drugs. What is wrong with that? Why is that doomed to fail?

In calling for a national drug summit I do not seek to belittle the contribution made by the Australian Federal Police, by the Australian Customs Service, or by any other federal or state and territory agency, in their job of regularly seizing illegally imported drugs into this country. And I do not seek to denigrate the contribution made by those experts and concerned individuals who make up the Prime Minister's National Council on Drugs.

I do not seek to belittle the money the Commonwealth has injected into law enforcement or drug treatment programs in recent months. Nor do I seek to glorify or pillory the records of either the previous government or the current government's record on this issue. I do not seek to initiate another summit where hand wringing and political hyperbole take precedence over genuine debate and an exchange of ideas. I think that would be the last thing we need at the present time.

What I do say is that the rot has set in. We are not even scratching the surface of really making inroads in regards to this problem. We can seize heroin coming into this country until the cows come home but as long as the demand for it exists within our borders it will find its way in, and in excess of 600 people will die each year—on the present figures—from overdosing on heroin and other illegal opiates. We can hire extra police; we can shout all we like about zero tolerance. In fact, we can get up on the rooftops and do it, but we will be here with the same, if not worse, death figures next year. I think, deep down, we all know that. Simply throwing more money at the old ways of tackling illegal drugs is not going to fix the problem, or even part of the problem as it now exists. A national drug summit would be a great start in providing us with a catalyst to find new ways to improve this situation and break the deadlock that we find ourselves in, both at community level and as a country as a whole.

It is time now in 1999 to start finding solutions to our problems. We cannot use the concepts of the 1970s or the 1980s, or think we can put into practice what we did in the 1970s or the 1980s or at the beginning of the 1990s. We have to change. We have to look further afield on where we are going to find solutions to our problems. We have to get some commonsense prevailing in this debate and, more importantly, we have to make sure that we combine it not at a community level or local level or state level, but at a national level. We are not individual states; we are a Commonwealth. We are not one single identity; we are all Australians. We should be here defending the rights of all Australians and, more importantly, we can only do that with a problem that has seized our nation by doing it from a federal level.

The Prime Minister has to get out of his 1970s thinking. He has to get out from behind his picket fence and out of his cushioned chair. He has to start facing reality. He has to start facing the problems that exist in Australia now in 1999. The solutions that he has to provide have to be solutions that are going to take us into the new millennium. We cannot afford to stand back anymore and see the young people of our nation, and the older people, continue to die or suffer because they have had available to them the illegal drug trade that is now so current within our communities.

I know the honourable member for Bradfield has been out in my area. He expressed to me that he was concerned and shocked. I can tell him, `Come out again and I can take you on a tour that would send your hair white.' It is happening now. It has to be a solution now, not next year and not the year after that. It has to happen now and we have to call all of our people together at the appropriate level to make sure that implementation occurs.

Mr ZAHRA (McMillan) 12.12 p.m.)—In the last sitting I mentioned in this place the disgraceful conduct of Croft Health Care Vic Pty Ltd, a private for-profit company which runs the Narracan Gardens aged care facility in my electorate. I referred to the company's decision to reclassify existing residents, relocated from the old LaTrobe Valley Nursing Home to a new building only two streets away, as `new entrants' in order to charge them an additional fee of up to $12 per day. This was despite the Howard government's explicit promise that existing nursing home residents would be exempt from the new fees.

It has been brought to my attention that the new fee of up to $12 per day introduced by Croft Health Care is asset tested and not income tested. I should have referred to a media release of 10 February 1997, issued by the then Minister for Aged Care, Ms Judi Moylan, which stated:

Those who enter nursing homes after 1 July 1997, and can reasonably afford it, may be asked to pay an Accommodation Bond.

For the information of the House, the accommodation charge replaced the accommodation bond in 1998.

Ms Moylan's media release went on to state:

Current residents of a nursing home will not be asked to pay a Bond.

The Aged Care Amendment Bill 1998 clearly states that:

. . . the care recipient who resides in a nursing home, having entered the home after 6 November 1997, will be obliged to pay an accommodation charge . . .

Clearly, those residents who entered care before 6 November 1997 are implicitly excluded from having to pay the accommodation charge.

Graeme Croft's actions in reclassifying existing residents, moved from one building to another, as new entrants for the purpose of charging them the additional fee—

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 12.15 p.m. to 12.26 p.m.

Mr ZAHRA —As I was saying before the suspension, Graeme Croft's actions in reclassifying existing residents, moved from one building to another, as new entrants for the purpose of charging them the additional fee are clearly not consistent with the spirit of the legislation. Mr Croft responded to my raising this matter in the House by publicly accusing me of `bully tactics'. This from the man who sent an invoice to residents' families incorporating the new fee—in some cases an increase of over 50 per cent—and requested payment within seven days, that invoice being the very first indication given to those families as to how much extra they would be up for.

This from the man who withdrew proper adult incontinence aids from the facility and substituted baby nappies, including old cloth nappies, resulting in residents' outer garments becoming soaked with urine. This decision was reversed following complaints to the Aged Care Complaints Hotline. This from the man who has tried to bully nursing home residents and their families into accepting his unilaterally appointed pharmacy provider against the wishes of the majority. He even stated in a letter to frail aged residents that if they wanted to use a different chemist—which they have every right to do—they are welcome to, `providing the nursing home staff are not involved in administering this medication'.

This from the man who responded to concerns about the fee increases and the quality of care being provided at the facility by writing in a letter to the Latrobe Valley Express the highly offensive statement that `some families think that the government should supply all the funding while they seek the windfall from their parents' hard-earned assets'. And this from the man who, in response to concerns expressed at a meeting of the residents and relatives committee on Tuesday, 16 February, made the heartless pronouncement that, if families were not happy with the facility, they could `go somewhere else', knowing full well there was no other nursing home in Moe and that others in the Latrobe Valley had long waiting lists.

Mr Croft must clean up his act. I am not going to sit by and watch while he treats the elderly in our community with contempt. Mr Croft must realise that in a decent society every one of us has a responsibility to ensure that the frail aged, who are at a most vulnerable time in their lives, are treated with the utmost respect and care. We must not allow private nursing home providers to place profit above people in the way that Mr Croft seems intent upon doing. Until Croft Health Care reverses its decision to levy that additional fee of $12 a day, and until Mr Croft starts to demonstrates that he is more interested in the quality of care provided at the nursing home than he is in monthly profit forecasts, he can look forward to a tough time from me and from the Latrobe Valley community as a whole.

It is appropriate that I am making these remarks today because yesterday I received from the Aged Care Standards Accreditation Agency a copy of their report into the Narracan Gardens aged care facility conducted on 4 and 5 February of this year. This is a damning report. It is a damning report without question, and it really brings to light the management practices at the Narracan Garden aged care facility in Moe. This report vindicates the families of residents of the nursing home who have come to me with concerns about the financial resourcing and management of this facility.

In remarks made to the Latrobe Valley Express on 25 February this year, the director of nursing of the Narracan Gardens aged care facility, Sandi Lord, said:

Narracan Gardens had recently passed every section of a full standards inspection . . .

This is just not true. The fact is that this assessment report detailed several areas where the management of the nursing home is below standard. They cover the areas of concern that have been expressed directly to me and which have also been contained in recent media reports about the Narracan Gardens aged care facility.

In the area of health and personal care, one of the major areas of concern among relatives and residents, the report rates the performance of Narracan Gardens as `unacceptable'. The report identifies a number of deficiencies in the area of health and personal care, and I just want to mention them to the House for the House's information. The Aged Care Standards Agency report said:

Management has recently introduced a new documentation system for all residents including comprehensive assessment of health and personal care. A number of these assessments were incomplete or not signed and dated. This practice does not ensure that the review and evaluation process is effective in meeting residents' ongoing needs . . .

and again it said:

The assessors observed deficiencies in the development of individual continence management programs. A number of residents were noted to have incomplete assessments . . . In addition a number of residents told the team that they often are required to wait for prolonged periods of time for staff to assist them with their continence needs

and it continued:

There is a lack of ongoing review and evaluation of residents experiencing acute changes to their health . . .

and it went on:

There is ineffective consultation between management, residents and their representatives regarding the supply and administration of medications. This deficiency, coupled with an unresolved dispute, does not ensure that residents' medication is always stored and managed safely.

The assessment report also noted that the communication between management and residents and relatives is below standard, and that a recent dispute regarding Graeme Croft's unilateral decision to change the pharmacy provider from a Moe chemist to one in Traralgon has resulted in the `residents' right to choice being compromised'.

Problems with the meals provided at the facility are also noted in the report. It said:

. . . comments from residents [indicating] that their dissatisfaction was in particular with the variety and quantity of the evening meal.

The report also highlights `deficiencies with the system in place to manage restraint'. The report stated:

The deficiencies include lack of documented assessments that clearly identify the reason for restraint and detail that all reasonable alternatives to restraint have been trialed prior to its application.

I want to make clear that the criticisms I have made of Croft Health Care are directly related to the management of the nursing home and not at all intended to reflect badly on the professionalism and dedication of the staff employed there. What has become apparent is that Narracan Gardens has not passed every section of a full standards inspection as has been falsely claimed by Sandi Lord in her media remarks. And the reason is quite simple: Graeme Croft is clearly more concerned about the bottom line than he is about the people living at that facility.

Aged care accreditation is something which everyone in our community wants to feel more confident about. Everyone in our community wants to believe that the aged care accreditation process has integrity to it. What we have seen here is a very clear demonstration of a nursing home making a public pronouncement about an aged care standards review of their operations which is untrue.

Unless the Aged Care Accreditation Agency is able to publicly state and clarify the true position of what actually happened in that review then, understandably, people in our community, especially in the Latrobe Valley where this issue has been very important for a long time, will lose confidence in that agency. It is imperative that the Aged Care Accreditation Agency actually comes out and makes a statement and clarifies its position.

It is very apparent that this nursing home has not passed every section of a full standards inspection, as Ms Lord said it had, on behalf of her employer, Graeme Croft. As this is the case, I call upon the agency to come out and make a public statement so that people in our community understand that there still are problems at the Narracan Gardens aged care facility.

The care of our elderly and the care of the most disadvantaged in our community define us as a civilised society. I urge the minister involved to seek an immediate review into the operations of Croft Health Care. I would also ask her to request that the Aged Care Accreditation Agency makes a public statement, released to all of the media in the Latrobe Valley, to clarify the fact that Narracan Gardens has not passed all of those guidelines which Ms Lord said they had and that in fact—according to the report which has been released—it failed in a number of areas.