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Thursday, 11 September 2003
Page: 19957

Ms GEORGE (12:23 PM) —I became a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Services halfway through the task that the committee had started in the previous parliament. Essentially what I wanted to get out of my work on the committee was a sense of what I could do to assist my constituents and the families in my electorate who have come to me with problems predominantly to do with substance abuse and opioid dependency.

When I came into the parliament I put some fairly basic questions on notice to the Minister for Health and Ageing. I wanted to know the service providers in Throsby and the wider Illawarra area who were offering treatment for people with a drug dependency and the nature of the treatment and the services. I wanted to know, dealing with these issues on the ground, about the correlation between mental illness and drug dependency. So I asked what facilities existed for the treatment of people in this category—that is, those with a combined mental illness and dependency on drugs. I wanted to know how many detoxification beds were available and how many residential rehab beds were available locally so that when people came to me seeking assistance I could put them in touch with a range of services and know that those facilities existed and were available when people wanted to access them. I was quite shocked to get a response from the minister which basically said, `There's not much we can do at the federal level to answer your questions. You'd better direct your inquiries to the state government because it is primarily their responsibility.'

I was quite alarmed by that and, when I started to work on the committee, I was even more alarmed that in the course of the work that we were doing we were not as a committee able to get access to any national drugs database which could comprehensively show the range, capacity, nature and location of drug treatment services across this nation. So, despite the millions of dollars that have gone into this very important issue for our nation, we were not even able to access the most elementary data to inform the work of the committee.

The committee was told in May 2001 that the national body was seeking to commission a project to provide such basic information. In recommendation 14 the committee expressed its dismay at the inability of the `system' to provide a comprehensive approach to the issue of practical support for people with a substance abuse problem. We further recommended, just to ensure that in future we have a more comprehensive body of information to work from, that any organisation, non-government or state, in receipt of Commonwealth funding for drug related programs be compelled, as a condition of receiving that funding, to provide relevant information for the national database. So that very lack of basic information was one issue that really disturbed me.

The second issue that disturbed me as a member of the committee was the inadequacy of funding and the unavailability of basic services when people desperately need access to them. Wherever we went, the issue of shortages of detoxification and rehabilitation places was very evident. The committee makes the point that it is vital that places be readily available to those who need them in a variety of settings, both residential and non-residential and, very importantly, that the services be able to be accessed wherever people live. We believe that there should be a balance between residential and non-residential assistance.

The basic funding levels that have gone into this very important area are too low and the outcomes sometimes not clear or certain. I say that basic funding is too low because, wherever we took evidence and heard from people, we were constantly faced with the problem of waiting lists for treatment. We were constantly faced with the fact that people who sought assistance were often not able to get it in a speedy and timely fashion. We were also concerned about the impact of low funding levels on staffing in the sector and on the possibilities for staff to upgrade their skills and undertake further training. We go to the body of the issue of staffing in the sector in recommendation 23.

The gaps that were identified in the course of our work urgently need additional funding and commitment from all levels of government. We also believe that there is an urgent need for better coordination and integration of services. We have to break down the silo mentality and make sure that services across the board are coordinated and integrated to provide the best possible outcomes for people seeking assistance, whether it be for licit or illicit substance abuse.

I want to say little bit about the issue of opioid dependency because, as I indicated, I have had to try to assist local families to get access to services and assistance. Let me begin by saying that opioid dependency is a chronic, relapsing disease. It is an issue that must be addressed within the framework of health services and not, as some would have it, by a zero tolerance approach. In that regard, saving lives and minimising harm will always continue to play an important part in an overall strategy dealing with this issue and, in recommendation 54, the committee makes several important recommendations for the attention of government. We are saying that there is an urgent need for further research and trials of promising new medications and techniques and, in particular, we talk about the need for more research into the impact of treatments.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—Order! The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting. The honourable member will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.