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Tuesday, 26 June 2001
Page: 28585

Ms ROXON (5:23 PM) —I would like to speak on this very important issue. Obviously, alcohol abuse and related education and rehabilitation programs are things that all in this House think are incredibly important. I can agree with some of the sentiments of the speaker before me, the member for Boothby. What is worrying, however, is that the Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Account Bill 2001 that we are debating includes neither the assurances nor many of the aims that he discussed. It is very worrying to the opposition that the government has essentially been forced into taking this action and, by acting with some haste to try to cover up the mistakes that it has made in this area, having broken its promises in relation to the price of beer, has put together an unusually shoddy piece of legislation. I am sure that the draftspeople would have been quite able to draft provisions that did actually include the detail that would reflect the memorandum of agreement between the government and the Democrats, had they been directed to do so. It seems to me more likely not that there has not been time but that there has not been a will to actually set up a foundation in a way which makes it truly accountable to this parliament.

This is of great concern, because when we are dealing with an issue as important as this—and we are going to expend a lot of public money—it is important that we actually make sure that there is some strategic way that the money is spent, that we actually have principles that are applied and that the parliament can review that in some way. To suggest that the accountability procedures that are in the current bill are sufficient is just ludicrous, and I intend to take the House through that in a little bit more detail.

The member for Boothby did quote some figures about alcohol abuse. I also had some figures provided in some material produced by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare in Canberra, published in March 2000, although the statistics are based on drug use in Australia in 1998. This material makes the point—and this is fairly obvious to a lot of people—that alcohol is second only to tobacco as the major cause of drug related mortality in Australia. It states that in 1997 approximately 3,700 deaths were attributable to the excessive use of alcohol. That is an extraordinary number. Coming from the electorate of Gellibrand where, unfortunately, we deal day to day heavily with issues relating to heroin use, both street use and other use, to be reminded that the deaths that occur from alcohol abuse far exceed even our most horrific figures, last year's in particular, of heroin overdoses in this country keeps things in perspective.

It is very important that we deal with the issues of both illicit and licit drug use at the same time. One of my concerns about the way this legislation is being rushed through and the way this extraordinary amount of money is going to be allocated to treating alcohol related problems is that there seems to be no consideration given to how this should fit in with a whole national strategy for drug prevention. That is worrying when we know that many of the causes that lead people to excessive alcohol abuse or excessive drug use—illicit or licit—can actually be linked. We cannot continue to look at these issues in isolation.

At the start of the year I undertook an electorate swap with my colleague the member for McMillan and spent some time in the Latrobe Valley, where one of the issues that we share in common are some concerns with drug abuse, both licit and illicit. Raised with both of us during this swap, something that newly came to our attention, was the growing problem amongst young people of chroming. This is the equivalent of petrol sniffing, although with spray paints. The same problems that occur with regulating petrol sniffing occur with regulating chroming, because the purchase of spray paint is not in itself unlawful. The regulation of it is very difficult. Chroming can cause great damage to our young people, who seem to be particularly attracted to it as a cheap form of drug use, and it is not one of the things that we even seek to deal with in this bill. This would not perhaps matter if we actually had some guidelines that dealt with the potential to treat alcohol or drug issues—licit or illicit—that related to young people and some sort of criteria upon which the foundation is going to provide grants to community organisations. But the objectives, because they are very brief and because they do limit the way this money might be able to be spent, are limiting in a way that is not necessarily going to be constructive. If we are going to deal with alcohol abuse and other licit substance abuse, we need to make sure that we actually set up a structure which deals with new problems as they arise, and if chroming is one of those then it is something that the community needs to look at too.

I am concerned that this bill, brief as it is, does not have any proper accountability process—and not just in the way that the foundation is set up. I am concerned that the member speaking before me, on the other side, indicated that one of the ways that accountability would be enforced when the foundation spends this money is through funding agreements tabled in the parliament. I think that we do need to bother to go to the provisions of the bill, to sections 9 and 12, which make clear—when you read them with the definition—that the funding agreements that are going to be tabled will essentially only detail the handing over of money from this particular account, which is being set up by this bill, to the foundation. The funding agreements are not the agreements that are actually going to provide funding to the community organisations. So the terms of any grant made to a community organisation, the way that the foundation might be assessing those grants and who it is providing money to are not actually going to be able to be checked. That is, the parliament itself is not going to be able to check where these grants are going, who they are going to and on what criteria they are being assessed.

It is a very strange accountability process where this parliament can choose to remove the foundation and replace it with another organisation if the parliament feels that it is not doing its job properly. In fact, I think the provisions allow for the minister to do that if he or she thinks it is not doing its job properly. That means not that there is any way for this parliament to be able to assess the giving of grants but that, should there be a falling out between the people who are appointed to this foundation, should the grants that are made not comply with the government of the day's particular electoral strategy at the time, the minister can haul the foundation in and say, `We are going to replace you with another organisation,' and that is the process of accountability. That seems to me a very strange way of trying to set up what is being described by members opposite as a `separate independent organisation'. All of those nice sounding words do not appear in the bill. There is not any structure which provides that that independence will be maintained. While the words exchanged and the memorandum of agreement between the government and the Democrats might provide some relief to those opposite, it does not provide very much satisfaction for those of us on this side of the House who may be a little more cynical about the way this money is going to be used.

I believe that I have cause to be cynical about the way the government is going to spend its money in the area of drug initiatives. My electorate of Gellibrand unfortunately suffers from some serious drug related issues, but none of the community organisations and service providers in my electorate received a single cent from this government in the last round of the Tough on Drugs funding. There were three organisations that put in very good applications—the Western Region Health Care Centre, the Westgate Division of Family Medicine and the Footscray District Football League—and all these applications were rejected. All three of them sought to deal with drug issues in a completely different way—one involving educating GPs; another involving a mentoring program with young people, trying to use sport as a way to entice young people away from drug use; and the other looking at an innovative primary health care model for drug users. These applications were not successful in receiving grants. The government has spent a reasonable amount of money in this area and has certainly spent an extraordinary amount of money on advertising. The service providers on the ground who need that money in my electorate have not seen any of it. So I am concerned. And this is a process which does provide for a little more accountability than the one being set up under this bill.

It worries me that the provisions that people are speaking about as if they are in the bill, as if we passed this legislation they would become law, are not actually there. Members opposite and the government, if they are supporting this bill on the understanding that those provisions are in it, need to actually go and read the bill. They need to be lobbying their minister, they need to be getting this redrafted and they need to be supporting amendments in the Senate that would make sure there is a proper system set up.

In my electorate we luckily have a lot of community organisations that deal with the range of alcohol and drug abuse issues in a very effective way. Last week I met with the Youth Outreach Team—they call themselves YOT—who deal specifically with young people. They handle concerns of people between the ages of 10 and 21 who work, live or study in the western suburbs of Melbourne. They have dedicated staff for a range of particular areas and they concentrate on people particularly within that age group. As speakers before me have mentioned, this is an age group where there is some concern about increased alcohol abuse, so it is an issue that we need to concentrate on. They have dedicated staff that concentrate particularly on alcohol and drug use by young people from South-East Asian backgrounds and they provide both residential and home based withdrawal programs, including recreation and reintegration programs, where they work with young people and their families. The Youth Outreach Team have an incredibly long waiting list, and they do not seem to ever have sufficient funding to be able to do what is required. The problem with a long waiting list, as many of us would know, is that if the young people who find themselves with these problems and who are prepared to undertake withdrawal programs have to wait for eight or nine weeks for a place—I think they are some of the current estimates from this team—they may well have already fallen back into their using habits. It is something that I think we need to look at. It worries me that I have no way of being able to approach this group to tell them that there is legislation in the parliament, we have no idea of how that money is going to be spent, we have no idea who it is going to be applied to and we have no idea what the criteria will be.

The government is telling us that it is all going to be accountable and above board and that people will know what the guidelines are. But I do not want to be in the position where in six months time we have an announcement immediately before the election of all the programs that are going to get money out of this $115 million or so and the community organisations doing the hard yards now in my electorate will not have been able to apply for it. I think it is appropriate to have an expectation, as a local member of parliament, that I will be able to read legislation that is being proposed by this government and be able to talk to people in my electorate and tell them what is being proposed and how it will work. That is not an unreasonable request. This bill really does nothing more than appropriate money for a particular purpose. I think it is legitimate that anyone that is concerned about alcohol abuse and the seriousness of alcohol abuse would want to make sure that there are a few more protections put in there.

I would like also to take the opportunity to commend the work of the Maribyrnong City Council, which has been very innovative in establishing a drugs strategy for the region. It has not been an easy task and they are acutely aware that, in the strategies that they have proposed, we need to deal with a range of issues together. We need to deal with education and prevention, health and social consequences of alcohol and drug abuse, and a number of other issues related to heroin use that do not necessarily arise in relation to alcohol abuse. I would like to commend the work that they have done. I think it is to their credit that they have been working so well with various service providers in the area.

I believe that Labor's drug policy announced earlier this year would give much more scope for areas that do have specific problems, like Maribyrnong, to be able to apply for specific community safety zone status to enable them to work with all the service providers, the councils and state and federal governments to set up a strategy which would be appropriate for their area. I hope that the way this money is going to be spent will be sufficiently flexible to allow organisations that want to work in this cooperative way to apply for that money, particularly as this money is being dedicated to alcohol abuse. The money should also be able to be sought by, and grants should be made available to, those organisations that are going to deal with the range of problems that people might present with. Some of the statistics that people will have seen indicate that often people with drug and alcohol related issues have multiple issues that need to be dealt with. We do not want to create a system where a young person in crisis needs to go to four different service providers or four different health care services to get treatment for their different problems.

I would also like to raise briefly that I have recently met, as I regularly do, with senior school students in my electorate—SRC students and others who are interested in politics. They meet regularly at the same time in my office to discuss issues of concern to them and to raise with me issues they think politicians should be taking up or debating more seriously. One of the things they have urged me to look at are the sorts of drug services that exist in the western suburbs of Melbourne and how we can get better information to people about the services. One of the great challenges for people who are trying to design education campaigns—and I know the government has faced this problem—is the format in which it is provided. The way we make it interesting and attractive, particularly to young people, is extremely important.

With this in mind, those young students have suggested to me that they would like, with my assistance, to try to produce some stickers that can be distributed through the schools, pointing people in the right direction if they want help with alcohol and drug advice or if they need access to rehabilitation or detox services. They were very adamant in their criticism that they did not want material that just told them that they should discuss this with their parents. What they strongly said was this: `Discussing it with our parents isn't much use when they don't know about these issues.' Some of them even said, `They might be the ones who have some of these problems, as well, and we might be the ones wanting information that we can give to them about where they can go to have their problems treated and dealt with.' I think that is a legitimate concern, because people are aware that an enormous amount of money is being spent by the government on their education program, which has one single message: `Talk to your parents.' That message might be fine, but it needs to be backed up by other things: the provision of services, the provision of information to people who cannot get it from their parents, and the provision of information to parents themselves so that when kids talk with them they can provide some more details.

My concern is that it is already a complicated area. We do already dedicate money to it. We should be strategic about the way we spend money in the alcohol and drug abuse area. We should not do it on the run. The government have been forced to do it on the run because they basically could not keep their promise in relation to the beer excise. They have been embarrassed into doing it and we are now grateful that, forced as they are to keep their promise, there is money available for programs that should be worth while. We would like to ensure that the money is going to be spent on programs that are appropriate. We do not have the confidence that that will happen. When we have not seen the constitution for the foundation, when we do not know the membership of the foundation, when the funding arrangements and grant application processes are not going to be public, and when the business plan is not going to be public, it is very difficult for us to have any confidence that this bill will actually deliver something of use to the community at large, which is still very concerned about alcohol abuse and the abuse of other licit substances. They are entitled to have the confidence that that money will be spent properly. I urge the government to reconsider the way this bill is drafted and to pick up some of the points that the shadow minister for health has raised in the debate today and to make sure that, if we are going to spend that money on the treatment of alcohol related problems, we do it properly and in a way that is transparent for the whole community.