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Thursday, 11 September 2003
Page: 19945

Ms HALL (11:08 AM) —My involvement in the Road to recovery: report on the inquiry into substance abuse in Australian communities of the Family and Community Affairs Committee was in the last parliament. This was an inquiry that a number of us fought very hard to see come to fruition. We recognised the fact that there was a problem in our community with both licit and illicit drugs. Looking at the terms of reference for this inquiry, I see that licit drugs are mentioned—alcohol, tobacco and over-the-counter prescription medicines—which are causing much more pain, hurt and cost to our community than illicit drugs. But it seems to me that members on the other side of the House are ignoring these important drugs and the impact they have on our community.

To see the impact these drugs have on the community, you only need to refer to the costs and the burden of the different drugs. The Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia points out that one in five deaths in Australia is drug related, but tobacco and alcohol are responsible for the vast majority of these drug related deaths. The use of tobacco accounts for 80 per cent of related deaths and around 60 per cent of all hospitalisations, while the use of alcohol is responsible for around 16 per cent of drug related deaths and 30 per cent of all drug related hospitalisation. The illicit drugs are responsible for four per cent of these deaths and hospitalisations, and I will also be talking about that in my contribution.

I have to say that at the start of this inquiry I was very unprepared for what I was going to encounter. I went into it like a babe in the woods. I have children of my own, and none of them have any drug or alcohol problems, although at times I am sure that I have seen them drink a little bit more than I would approve of. I am a very temperate person; I have a very occasional glass of wine, as Deputy Speaker Corcoran can attest, and I did smoke when I was younger. My family has never been touched by a person suffering harm from illicit drugs, but my family has been touched by people suffering from alcohol and tobacco addiction. One of my aunts, a very respectable woman and a person who would never have thought of voting for anyone in the Labor Party and who had associated herself strongly with the other side of this House, died because of her alcohol addiction. My father had his voice box removed and he died from cancer related to his nicotine addiction.

These are enormous problems in our community, and I really think that to a large extent the focus of this committee's report has been on illicit drugs and the impact that they have in the community but ignored that bigger picture. I suspect that with its statements of zero tolerance for any form of drugs it is not referring to zero tolerance of tobacco or zero tolerance for alcohol. I think that, to some extent, the committee has really missed the point in the final report that it has brought down.

As I said, when I was involved in this committee in the 39th Parliament we put together a discussion paper titled `Where to next?' I felt that we were then linking to the real issues in the community: we had linked to alcohol and cigarettes, and we had also spoken with people from Indigenous communities—there was a wide range of people. But the committee in the 40th Parliament seems to have changed direction. I do not know what happened. I do not know how the members of that committee missed the all-important things that we saw in that committee.

I would like to now turn to the issue of illicit drugs and the recommendations that have been brought down by this committee. I do not see how you can actually separate prevention from harm minimisation. I do not see prevention as having police on every corner, I do not see that prevention is being just tough on drugs; I see prevention as being a lot different from that. When you are looking at prevention you have got to look at our society as a whole. I actually think that the problems that we have with people abusing all sorts of drugs are linked very strongly to the type of society we live in. We need to be a society that is inclusive, and I think we are failing there. There are so many people that are being excluded from our society these days. If a person is finding it difficult to find a job, it is their problem; if a person has some type of problem, quite often it is turned back on them. Rather than us as community embracing them and trying to help them through the problem, we are blaming them for the problems that they have.

Until we look at the causes of all forms of drug abuse—the dislocation, the unemployment, the homelessness and what causes those problems—I do not think anything will change. I think the problem will continue to grow. There is also the fact that feeding people's addictions, no matter what kind of addiction it is, is very profitable—be it for the tobacco company, the hotel owner selling the alcohol, the distiller of the alcohol or the Mr Bigs out there on the street exploiting people's weakness. They are making enormous profits out of the hurt and pain of people who are suffering from one kind of addiction or another. It is very sad that, in its report, the committee has failed to home in on that and to make some strong recommendations that could lead to social inclusion rather than social exclusion.

I would like to spend a couple of moments talking about what was for me the most moving part of the committee hearing—a part that made me realise how lucky I was as a parent. At Fairfield council we heard evidence from a group of parents who had lost their children. I forget exactly how many members of parliament were there—I think at least six—and I can say that there was not a dry eye amongst them. You hear the stories of these young people and of their parents' plans and dreams for them; you see the photos of children full of hope—and then you see the results. Julia Irwin had to leave the room, because she felt exactly the same way I do. And then you see a report like this come down, recommending that you punish these people—not recognising the kinds of treatments and strategies that could be introduced and that would really impact on changing things for the better.

To say that harm minimisation is not the way to go is ignoring all the evidence. Countries that have gone down the track of introducing very strong harm minimisation policies have had a much better outcome than those countries that have followed the tough on drugs approach. This is evident when you compare the outcomes of Sweden's policy with that of other countries. It is very important that we have a policy that works towards prevention, but it is also very important that we look at the evidential base that shows the value of harm minimisation programs. The methadone program is one such example. It is our most successful program in Australia. It does not result in a person being drug-free but it does result in a person being able to function in our community and being a meaningful member of our society. I know that people on the other side of the House feel that that is not the way to go, but the evidence supports that it is the way.

I know this report comes out very strongly in favour of naltrexone. I have to say that it is very much a quick fix solution—a person has a rapid detox, goes onto naltrexone and then they are supposed to be able to go out and function. But it is actually quite dangerous because people will stop taking their medication and then use the drugs again and have a much lower tolerance. I will not go into all the details but those people who have read anything on the matter know that is true.

Years ago I was involved in working with people who were alcoholics. They were on a program called Antabuse where they would take their tablets and then they would not drink. I was working with them helping them get back into the work force. It was great, you had these people who were functioning very well and you would get them a job. But within a week they would be drinking again and they would be in a worse situation than they had been in at the beginning. That happened with all of them. One of them was murdered. I got him a great job but he started to drink and ended up in a situation where he was murdered. Antabuse is very similar to the naltrexone program.

I would argue very strongly that the way that you need to treat a person who is suffering from an addiction to narcotic is through detox and rehab. But it does not finish there. You need ongoing support. You need a long-term program. You do not need any sort of quick fix. The life of a person who has a drug addiction, and the lives of their friends, family and fellow addicts, revolve around that drug addiction. What you need to do is bring about a total change because by giving up that drug, addicts are giving up their family and their lifestyle. They are, to an extent, giving up who they have become. They need to find a whole new group of friends and a new lifestyle. It is a major life change.

I am so disappointed with this report. It was a unique opportunity to take us forward in Australia and look at the things that underlie this enormous problem facing our society. I think the report has missed the point. I hate to say this but I am very sorry that I argued so strongly for this inquiry. I wish it had never happened because I believe it has taken us backwards rather than forwards.