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Monday, 2 March 2015
Page: 1664

Mr CHESTER (GippslandParliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence) (16:44): In continuation, the other issue I wanted to raise today in relation to this bill is one of extreme concern to many people across Gippsland, and, in fact, I believe, to all regional communities. It is the growing impact of methamphetamines, particularly ice, on the community of Gippsland—the enormous social and economic harm that it is causing our community. It has been the subject of a great deal of public debate and discussion in more recent times, and also the subject of community forums, one of which will be held tonight in Sale, in the heart of my electorate.

To begin with I want to refer to some comments from Mr Clive Allsop, the Regional Coordinating Magistrate at Latrobe Valley Magistrates' Court, whom I had the pleasure of meeting recently. Mr Allsop gave evidence last year to a Victorian parliamentary inquiry into the supply and use of amphetamines in Victoria. The evidence he gave is quite staggering. He made an extensive submission to the inquiry, but I will just pick out some of the main points. He said:

I have been in the legal system coming up for 50 years in another three years and this is the worst crisis I have seen in all that time. … There are places, particularly in East Gippsland, where ice is being sold at half the cost of cannabis, which of course makes it directly attractive to young children. In one particular area there are kids of 12 who are starting to use ice because it is easier to get than ganja. … I have never seen anything like the impact of this stuff that I am seeing now. … The problem exists through the whole of Gippsland. Drouin, Warragul, Morwell and Sale are referred to as being knee-deep in ice; to a serious but lesser degree, Moe, Bairnsdale, South Gippsland and Orbost. … Family disintegration and family domestic violence is in epidemic proportions as a consequence of ice.

In answer to the question 'What types of crimes are you seeing coming before the court that have a relationship to ice?' the magistrate replied:

Street violence, property offences, burglaries and thefts, particularly rural burglaries. We had a massive spate of rural burglaries between Warragul and Sale. Of course, most farmhouses have guns and that was one of the targets.

He referred to the serious spike in domestic violence:

There is a direct and palpable link between ice and domestic violence. … The worst part of that story is that there are occasions when victims of domestic violence—and I have yet to do a case where a bloke has been a victim of domestic violence—are forced into prostitution to provide the funds for their 'partner's' habit.

This is damning evidence from Magistrate Allsop to a Victorian parliamentary inquiry. The tragedy of the evidence he provided is that in a region like Gippsland, which already has a significant problem with family and domestic violence, to have a magistrate of Mr Allsop's seniority indicating a further serious spike in domestic violence and suggesting that the partners of ice users are being forced into prostitution to provide funds for their partner's habit is remarkably disturbing and of great concern to me as the local member and more broadly to the whole community and to regional committees throughout Australia.

This is happening today not just in Gippsland but, I would suggest, right across regional Australia. I do not have enough experience in suburban areas to have much to offer in terms of that debate. Our families are being torn apart by this drug. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise. When Mr Allsop was asked about the comparison to alcohol—which is another serious problem in many regional communities, including Gippsland, and particularly in the Indigenous community in Gippsland—he told the inquiry:

It is also a serious problem, but the impact of ice is greater than the impact of anything I have seen in all my years in the legal profession. I have been a magistrate now for nearly 19 years and I have never seen anything like it. I have been through the cannabis days, the heroin days, the upper echelons of the stuff they stick up their noses and all that sort of stuff. Nothing has had the sudden impact on the community at large that ice has had.

I have raised my concerns directly with the Prime Minister and Minister Nash, who is directly involved in combating this issue at a federal level, and I know they understand the pain and suffering this drug is causing in our communities. I commend the government, and I recognise that the previous government did take some steps in this direction as well. The new coalition government has decided to make ice the focus of the work being undertaken by our national drugs advisory body. The Australian National Advisory Council on Alcohol and Drugs has been instructed by the government to provide advice on ice and methamphetamines as its first priority—and I believe that is a good decision by the government. I understand that the Commonwealth and the state and territory governments are working together to revise the National Drug Strategy and make ice the priority target that it needs to be.

I believe this issue needs national attention, state attention and local attention. Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish I could tell you I had all the answers. We espouse our great wisdom at the dispatch box but unfortunately on this occasion I cannot think what the actual answer is going to be. As I stand here today, I can tell you in vivid detail about the impact this drug is having on families close to me and close to people in my office. I can tell you stories of three personal friends whose lives have been impacted and torn apart by this drug in just the past 12 months. But I will respect the confidence of those families and not name names in this place. Do not believe anyone who tells you that this drug is only having an impact on people from low-socioeconomic backgrounds, people from the wrong side of the tracks, seasoned criminals or whatever it might be. This drug is tearing apart everyday families today. These are people who have jobs and who volunteer in my community. These are people whose own children have jobs, and they would never have thought that their child would get caught up in this menace.

I have been provided with figures to highlight the increase in methamphetamine use in Victoria—and I sincerely was not aware that the problem had got so bad so quickly. Between 2011 and 2014 there has been a virtual tripling of offences for trafficking, possessing and using methamphetamines in Victoria—and that is all ice. Possession cases have more than tripled and trafficking cases have almost tripled. Unfortunately, the 2014-15 figures indicate that the trend is continuing.

As I said, I do not know what the answers are. I think part of it is undoubtedly about raising awareness, as I am trying to do here this afternoon, and explaining to young people the risks that are associated with a drug such as this and illicit drug use more generally. Of course, we need enforcement. The criminals who mastermind these types of activities and condemn others to a life of misery need to be caught and prosecuted, and we need to support the police in those endeavours. But many of the traffickers in regional communities are victims of the drug themselves. They have been lured into a world of criminality and are forced to participate in order to feed their habit.

We undoubtedly need more resources to provide rehabilitation services in regional areas. I understand that the waiting list in Victoria for publicly funded rehabilitation places is now out to more than 12 months. If you have private funds, you can circumvent that and buy your way into the system at a very significant cost—and only a certain percentage of the community would be able to afford that cost. We definitely need more resources to provide for rehabilitation. Those services need to be made available to us, in regional areas, more. While I accept that the addicts themselves need to be taken out of the environment where they have incurred the addiction, I still think it is good value for regional families if their loved ones are closer to home while they undertake rehabilitation. Also, we need to support the programs that work. To this end, I have written to the government about a program in Bairnsdale which has been successful at diverting young offenders away from jail and helping them to get back on their feet. I hope the government is in a position to support that program into the future. It is about prevention. Undoubtedly, it is about early intervention. And it is about harm reduction and rehabilitation. But it is going to take time and, as I said, the effort of local, state and federal governments, and our communities more generally.

Finally, I want to draw attention to one group in my community that I believe is—potentially, at least—heavily exposed to illicit drug use and deserving of additional attention into the future. I hasten to add in raising this point this afternoon that I have no direct evidence to support the comments that I am about to make, other than the anecdotal information I have received from people involved in country football clubs. I am someone who has had a lot of participation in country football and netball clubs over many years. I think they do an enormous amount of good in our community.

I am concerned that there is a genuine risk—one that requires far more investigation by the relevant agencies and authorities—in the way young men, in particular, are exposed to illicit drugs through the country football clubs in Victoria. This is a high-risk group. It is undoubtedly a target market for those who wish to sell these products. You are talking about young, fit and active men. Most of them have jobs and some disposable income. They are perfect for the market that the criminals are seeking to capitalise on. Ice can spread like a cancer among young men who, almost by definition, have little appreciation of their own mortality.

The high-profile media coverage over the last couple of weeks in relation to the alleged drug use by elite footballers in both rugby league and Australian rules is, I think, a warning siren to our country football clubs in Victoria. If it is happening in the AFL and the NRL, why would anyone think it is not happening in bush football? I continue to be told stories of young footballers using drugs, but I simply do not know how widespread the problem is. As I said, it is anecdotal evidence that is put to me. It is whispered in the change rooms; it is talked about on the sidelines. People point out individual players and say, 'He's on the stuff; he's not'. We need to get to the bottom of this for the integrity of sport and also for the health of these young men.

I want to refer to some comments dating back to October 2013 by a Warrigal police officer, who was actually the Baw Baw police youth resource officer at the time, Kevin McClaren. He claimed then, almost 18 months, that ice use was rife in sporting clubs, particularly football clubs. The article says:

He says he believes many players use ice as a performance enhancer because of its ability to keep the user awake and alert for days on end.

The article went on:

He says drug testing n amateur football leagues should become the norm, as it is in the AFL.

Again, I do not wish to be alarmist, but wherever I go in Gippsland I meet people who are concerned about the impact of ice and the extraordinary efforts that will be required to solve the problem. It will involve all of us in our local communities—from the teachers in our schools and the sporting coaches—right through to the Prime Minister's office itself.

I congratulate Minister Nash, whom I have had conversations with on this issue, for the work, sincerity and effort she is putting into this problem. I congratulate the Prime Minister and his office for their work to date, as well. But I simply warn: there is so much more that we will have to do in the future. I commend members opposite who have also shared discussions with me on this issue. I will not go into naming names, but there are many members who have expressed concerns about the impact this drug is having both socially and economically in regional communities. I commend people like Magistrate Clive Alsop for the work he is doing in trying to prevent the use of ice and also to minimise the harm in the community. I commend members opposite to work with our state colleagues and their communities—in any way they can—to help young people in our nation escape the scourge of what is a very alarming situation. I thank the House.