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Thursday, 11 September 2003
Page: 19939

Ms ELLIS (10:41 AM) —At the outset, I commend the contribution made to this report by the committee secretariat and by my parliamentary colleagues. Most importantly, I commend the openness and willingness of the families, individuals and organisations in the community to share their experiences with the committee—all, I hope, with the belief that a good and positive outcome would result; although I am not really quite sure that they would all be completely pleased with the result that has been produced.

I also want to put very clearly on the record my absolute and strong support for the contribution made earlier in this debate by the member for Lalor, our shadow minister for health. Much of what she has said I was going to say in my contribution. Instead of taking the time to repeat what she has said, I will just emphasise my agreement with the entire contribution that she made to this debate.

I was a longstanding member of this committee up until 12 months ago; in fact, I was a member for just over six years. It is a committee which I believe has done extremely good work in the past. I can remember back at the beginning of this particular report's journey how hard our committee, across all party lines, argued with government at the time to actually get the reference for this inquiry. I see a previous member of the committee sitting opposite who is nodding in agreement. We had an amazing experience where, across party lines, our determination was absolute. Our view was that, if there was ever a social issue of huge importance to this society of ours, it was this issue of substance abuse; and if ever there was an appropriate time and place for a federal parliamentary inquiry to get into this issue, it was right then and there.

The government took a lot of convincing, I have to say, before allowing us to have this reference—and that is an important point to make. But we persisted. I have to commend the government members of the committee for their assistance at that time because it was only through that, I am sure, that we actually received the reference. We then got on with the job of looking strongly and in great detail at this inquiry. I believe very strongly that the committee at the time had adopted a responsibility to look openly and honestly into the issues and to recognise the variance of views in our community. After a great deal of work, the committee produced a discussion paper, which I have here, called `Where to next?' It was tabled in the parliament in September 2001. That was done with the very conscious decision of the committee. At the time we realised that the issues were so large and so encompassing that we would have been short-changing the inquiry if we had tried to rush to recommendation at that time. The committee considered very carefully the decision to put forward a discussion paper of the kind that we did.

The basis also, I think, for that decision at the time was the committee's previous experience with the Health is life report, which was a report that followed a very similar journey. It crossed over from one parliament to the next and from one committee to the next and, in that journey, produced a discussion paper along very similar lines to ensure that, should the committee in the future parliament pick up the reference and run with it, there was a very good point from which to start. It was exactly the same thought process that went into the production of the `Where to next?'discussion paper.

I was very interested to note that in the new parliament the government membership of this committee had changed dramatically—dramatically to the point where I think only one member of the government retained membership of this committee. It is fair to say that there is probably a variety of reasons for that but, nevertheless, the membership changed. That was quite different to the membership of the committee between two parliaments with the Aboriginal health inquiry.

I am drawing the parallel for a very specific reason. I believe very strongly that our committee processes offer a lot to our parliamentary processes. There have been some wonderful examples of this in the past, where reports have been produced offering direction and certainty, and people have put aside their personal prejudices in those committee processes. I want to briefly refer to the Health is life report, which I believe is no more or less controversial than this one. It was a thorough and absolute example of good committee work. It was the first committee inquiry at the federal level for 20 years into the state of Indigenous health in this country. I can remember very clearly one day when we got off a plane in outback Australia with our committee membership and visited yet another remote community. When we got back onto that plane two hours later, a government member of that committee who had been presenting, fairly predictably, conservative views about the issue said, `Annette, if ever I have had an opportunity to have my views of this subject broadened, it happened to me today.' It was that sort of process that enabled that committee to get over any personal prejudices, which we all held, and produce a really useful, unanimous report.

Sadly, I do not believe that this opportunity has been grasped by some in this particular report. I recall very clearly some pretty emotional, demanding, disturbing public hearings at the beginning of this inquiry's process when individuals came before our committee to tell their stories. I can remember one day in particular, when we had a group of about 12 or 13 individuals in front of us in Sydney. Every one of them was an individual. All of them had different socioeconomic views and different stories to tell. Some were the parents of children who had died through substance abuse, and some were the parents of children who had abused themselves but still survived. I can remember the working man who sat in front of us—I think he was a truck driver—whose son had died. He sat there and was able to tell us it had taken four days for him to be found. There were the two young women that I met in the Adelaide Hills. They were gorgeous young things, so pleased to have the chance to rehabilitate, so anxious to succeed and so happy that they had been reconciled with their families in that process. But they also knew that their journey was oh so tenuous; that they could end up back where they started very easily.

Then there was the young man called Daniel, whom I met in Melbourne at a youth rehab centre on his sixth stay. He had been into that particular rehab centre six times. You could not have met a more delightful, gregarious, beautiful young man. I fear that some people on our committee and in our community would say—in fact, I have heard them say this to me—`Why give him six chances?' Six chances meant he was still alive. Zero tolerance, or anything like it, would not serve Daniel. It would not serve him at all. He would be kicked out on the street. I had that opinion given to me at that time. The point I want to make is that there are many causes and many reasons why people end up in an addictive health situation. That is how I see Daniel. That is how I saw the situation of the gentleman who lost his son. That is how I saw the two young women in Adelaide. In fact, that is how I saw everybody that I met—they have an addictive health problem, and they must be supported.

The point I want to make most strongly here—it may upset some, but I am going to make it because I believe it has to be made—goes to the health of our committee system and the reason it exists. We need to look at why our committee system exists. It is there to have members of parliament participate, learn, experience, change their views and, at the end of their journey, produce reports that give all of the direction that is required to parliaments and governments to actually make decisions. That is why committees exist; that is why they are there—to do the work. I believe that most of the best work of a parliament is, in fact, done in the committee process, because there we can put aside our politics. I honestly believe—and some people could refute my genuineness in this—that I belong to a parliamentary committee not as a Labor member of parliament but as a parliamentarian. That is what is important in this process—that we are there as parliamentarians producing reports for parliament.

I am very sad about the outcome of this inquiry, knowing how hard, how determined and how genuine we felt at the beginning in order to get the inquiry. I really thought, at the beginning of this process, that the committee could have produced a report that would be useful. But we have not. We now see a much divided outcome; we see a partisan outcome and a sad outcome. There is no doubt—the member for Lalor said this, and I want to repeat it very strongly—that in the majority of this report there is some very good stuff. It is all worth supporting; there are some good things in there. However, the government of the day chairs and holds majority on these committees. If we want to see the committee process remain a valued part of our parliamentary process, members must be encouraged to participate honestly. They must not keep their opinions locked up and unassailable. They must take the journey that the conservative colleague of mine took on the Aboriginal health inquiry. They must allow themselves to do it. I know, in my heart of hearts, that there are people on this committee who came with views and have gone away with those views absolutely unchanged. I do not believe they have acted as parliamentarians; I believe they have acted in a partisan fashion. I do not enjoy saying that, but that is how I see it.

I know that the committee system we have in the Australian parliament is highly regarded. But when we see this sort of an outcome on an issue that is so important to the Australian community, then I am sad for the future of the committee process in this parliament—I truly am. To be quite frank, I would have liked to have seen the membership of that committee not change so dramatically. One government member and four opposition members on the committee retained membership; continuity survived. The Health of life report is the greatest example of how opinions can be altered. We all went on a very valuable journey. What a shame that some members of this committee did not allow themselves to participate in a similar journey.