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Wednesday, 7 March 2001
Page: 25386

Mr QUICK (12:47 PM) —Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2000-2001 and cognate bills give all honourable members the opportunity to raise issues that are pertinent to their electorate or their state. Before I concentrate on the major theme of my appropriation speech, I want to mention some of the issues that have been raised by honourable members, especially those on our side, during this debate. Having sat in the chair you are currently occupying, Mr Deputy Speaker Nehl, I have heard quite a few of these appropriation speeches. People on our side have raised serious and immediate issues that are impacting on their constituents, issues such as the impact upon the Australian citizenry of the GST and its obvious inequity, especially for people on fixed incomes.

If you look at the socioeconomic breakdown of the electorate of Franklin, you will notice that I have huge swathes of broad-acre public housing intermingled with large tracts of rural areas of Tasmania, in the Huon and in the channel, and small middle-class sections. I can tell all honourable members that the implementation of the GST has had an impact, especially on people on fixed incomes—pensioners, sole parents and the unemployed—and, probably just as importantly, on the families who are at the bottom of the wage earning ladder, struggling to keep their heads above water and desperate to try and stay in the work force. Other honourable members have raised that and I wish to put it on the public record as well. In my electorate office and when I am outdoors talking to community groups and mixing and mingling—as all of us do—I have found that the impact is very obvious.

There is also the issue of the impact that the increased petrol price has had on the people I have just mentioned. Believe it or not, like any impact or drain on their budgets when they are almost down to dollars and cents on a Wednesday night before their money is in the bank on the Thursday, this has forced them to readjust their lifestyle. While I was sitting in the chair waiting to take my turn here, I decided that, as a former schoolteacher, I would do a bit of multiplication on that 1.5c a litre discount. I figured out that, on a basic 40-litre tank of petrol, people would be saving 60c. If people fill up each week, they are saving $30 a year. In all honesty, the 60c a tank that these people are saving does not buy them very much at all. I honestly cannot think of what you could buy with 60c. You could buy lots when I was a kid, but you could not in this day and age. So to offer these people 1.5c is a bit of an obscenity and it is not a realistic solution to the impact that the increased petrol price is having on these people.

Another issue that has been mentioned continually on our side is the impact of this government's education funding on our local government schools. I stand here today as a federal member, proudly wearing my old school tie, which is that of a public school in Melbourne. I feel a bit of a hypocrite because I know that the school where I proudly spent my last school years, the Haileybury College in Melbourne out at Keysborough, is a beneficiary of millions of dollars of funding under this government. As a teacher in the Tasmanian education system before I came up here, I spent most of my life teaching in disadvantaged schools. I know that every dollar that is taken away from the local government school system has an enormous impact, and the main issue that I want to raise in this appropriation speech today has to do with family support, early intervention and community cohesiveness. I think this government has got its appropriation wrong because there are greater priorities.

I guess it is appropriate that one of my colleagues on the other side, the honourable member for Grey, is here to hear some of the things that I am going to raise today, because he is the chair of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs. He and I and 10 others are busy at the moment looking at the whole issue of substance abuse. Despite the issues that I raised initially, they are obvious and are having a huge impact on Australian society. This issue of substance abuse is a real sleeper. It is devastating our communities. It is no respecter of social status. It is at the stage where, unless we do something really innovative and out of the square, we are going to end up with some of the horrendous happenings that we see when we visit places like south-east Los Angeles.

As I said, I am a member of that committee, and the 12 of us—two have been coopted; we were a team of 10 but we now have 12—have been charged with the awesome responsibility of reporting on and making recommendations to the parliament on the social and economic costs of substance abuse. This is particularly with regard to family relationships; crime and violence, including domestic violence, and law enforcement; road trauma; workplace safety and productivity; and, finally, health care costs. That, in my mind, encompasses everybody in society. It is a daunting task—one that has already taken us 12 months of travelling across this nation. We have taken evidence and seen first-hand the many faces of substance abuse and its impact upon individuals, families and society as a whole. One wonders what sort of society we are willing to accept and tolerate when we visit so many of our cities—as we do in this job—and witness the degradation, misery and personal worthlessness of so many of our citizenry, as these people struggle to exist within the confines of substance abuse.

Over the years, governments of all persuasions have attempted to tackle the problem of substance abuse—licit and illicit drugs—and, sadly, we are failing to address this issue. To my mind, hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into countless schemes in a futile attempt either to address the obvious social problems festering on our streets or to stem the take-up of drug use by our young people. At the same time these very same governments, both state and federal, reap huge tax benefits from cigarette and alcohol sales to refill their Treasury coffers. Substance abuse, licit or illicit, is not a moral problem for society at large to address; substance abuse, licit or illicit, is a huge social issue that must be confronted head-on by everyone, from the most disadvantaged to the most powerful in our society.

As is the case with cancer or leukemia, substance abuse is no respecter of social status. To ignore its impact on society and hope it will go away and not visit itself upon your family is foolish in the extreme. Likewise, to insist there are simple solutions to this national scourge is naive and totally irresponsible. However, Mr Deputy Speaker, as you and those honourable members who are listening today will realise, so many in our society—I would imagine probably the vast majority—seem to be in complete denial about over the issue. It is the old case of, `Out of sight, out of mind; it's not my problem so why should I take any interest in it?' As I said, it is a bit like cancer and leukemia: you hope it does not hit you personally or your children or your relatives. Substance abuse is one of those things that you do not want to get involved in if you can avoid it. It is a bit like the good Samaritan: you can pass by on the other side. We have been passing by on the other side for too long. To think that it will not happen to anyone in your family and that drug addicts are just those dirty layabouts you sometimes see hanging around the malls is stupid and naive and will result in our having a fragmented society. The cost to society, just to keep a lid on it, is astronomical and will—and this is the thing that worries me—divert much needed resources from areas that not only are underresourced at the moment but are all obviously crying out for an influx of funding.

Once you raise the issue of substance abuse in this country, the common thread seems to be to mention what is happening overseas to justify either the harm minimisation argument or the total prohibition and `say no to drugs' position. As the honourable member for Grey will know, our committee has been inundated with quotes about what is happening in Switzerland, Sweden, Holland, the UK and the USA. Information is readily available either to support one's position on how to address and tackle the controversial issue or to perhaps formulate new policy. One of the things I have found in the eight years I have been in this place—like the honourable member for Grey, I am coming up to my eighth anniversary next Tuesday, 13 March—is that, for some inexplicable reason, we love looking at what everybody else does but we find it very difficult to come up with a typically Australian solution to so many of our problems. Surely we have the expertise. We are world leaders in so many areas, so much so that our brains are encouraged to go to other countries.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Nehl)—Order! It being 1 p.m., the sitting is suspended. The member for Franklin will have leave to continue his remarks when the chair is resumed at 4.30 p.m.

Sitting suspended from 1.00 p.m. to 4.30 p.m.

Mr QUICK —Before the adjournment, I was talking about the need for an Australian approach to the issue of substance abuse. Issues such as heroin trials, safe injecting rooms, the registration of heroin addicts, free needle exchanges, and methadone and naltrexone programs all have their supporters and opponents who, each in turn, can produce drayloads of statistics and arguments to justify why they will or will not succeed. In my mind, Australia faces two problems when it comes to substance abuse: firstly, what to do with the problem of dealing with those harmed by licit and illicit drugs right here and now; and, secondly, how to institute an educative program to ensure that there will be a huge decrease in the numbers joining the first group. In order to address these two areas, we need an Australian approach, as I have said—something imaginative, well researched, properly and adequately funded, and totally national.

For too long, we as Australians have attempted to address many issues on a national level only to be thwarted by petty state jealousies and interstate point scoring. I have often called it the `rail gauge mentality'—something which prevents a real Australian solution to this huge problem that faces us with substance abuse. The concerns I have on this issue are those relating to the current fixation on the issue of illicit substances and the apparent total disregard for the obvious problems relating to cigarette and alcohol addiction. It is obvious to me—and I would like to think to everyone who has an open mind on the issue of substance abuse; and that is the important thing—that the massive investment in law enforcement has done little, if anything, to stem the flow of illicit substances into Australia.

This concentration on law enforcement is the American simplistic approach to drugs. The evidence that I have read and the research that I have done show that it does not work. I have lived in America, and I can assure you, Mr Deputy Speaker Causley, that jailing two million people, 80 per cent of whom are involved in drugs in some shape or form, does not solve the problem. Families whose members face addiction to licit and illicit substances require the opportunity to access fully funded, interventionist and supportive services wherever they live, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. It needs to be there when they need it. Currently, we have a patchwork approach to the issue: local government initiatives; numerous state government approaches across such departments as education, juvenile justice, prisons, health, sport and recreation, and housing; countless NGOs, with their various approaches to the issue; as well as numerous Commonwealth departments who have their fingers in this issue as well.

As members of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs have wandered around Australia speaking to families whose members have succumbed to the ravages of both licit and illicit drugs—youth heroin overdoses, domestic violence from drunken spouses, child abuse, dysfunctional families and youth suicide—all the families have told us that the safety net has huge holes in it. Former Senator Peter Baume produced a superb report on this issue in the late seventies—I think it was in 1976 or 1977—with many excellent recommendations. However, the problems have worsened.

The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs hope to have an interim report before parliament is prorogued and we have another federal election. That report will highlight what we have seen over the last 18 months and put the facts as bluntly and as plainly as possible to the Australian public. As I said initially, this is an issue—like cancer or leukaemia—that unless it hits your family you do not want to know about. It is a simplistic to say: `Let's move them on,' or `Let's jail them all,'or `It's not really my problem,' or `The only way I can solve it individually is to fortify my house and hope they go and knock the next door neighbour's property off.' They are not real solutions in this day and age. We need a national approach. We need a truly Australian approach, and I would urge all members of this House and all those interested in this issue to put their hands up and to get involved because, unless we have a total community approach to the problem, it is going to haunt us for many years to come.