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Tuesday, 26 June 2001
Page: 28608

Mr O'KEEFE (8:53 PM) —Before beginning my contribution to this discussion, I would like to pick up on a couple of comments made by the member for the Northern Territory. I assure him that the point he makes about the issues of alcoholism and domestic violence being more than those for just indigenous Australia and that the same problems exist behind the closed doors of the rest of Australia is an unequivocal and unchallengeable statement. He should rest assured that he has the support of politicians all over Australia—and particularly on this side of the House—to address those issues and give proper recognition to the problem.

I also want to say a couple of words about what was said by the member for Fraser about Senator Heffernan's comments in the Senate last night, because I do not think it was such a surprise to see Senator Heffernan leap in in this way. I remember very clearly the strategy run by the now government in rural and regional Australia in the lead-up to the 1996 election. You have to be a country politician—like you, Mr Deputy Speaker Hawker, the member for the Northern Territory or me—to actually know what gets said in the halls or on the country radio stations, away from the ears of suburban people. Among several very clear themes were two very specific themes which were run in the lead-up to the 1996 election by members of the then opposition, now the government. They were two themes which, to my mind, shall forever be part of a political disgrace in this nation. One of them was Asianisation of Australia—that nice little slogan and everything that it accompanies—and the other was the term `Aboriginal industry' and everything that that entails. And what does it entail? It entails reinforcing among white middle-class voters every possible negative perception that they could have about indigenous people. That strategy was run word for word, line for line, researched and practised, for at least six to nine months in the lead-up to the 1996 election. It comes as no surprise to me to see a Liberal senator seize on an issue that does exactly that—reinforce negative perceptions of indigenous people among middle-class Australia. And guess what? It has happened in the lead-up to the Aston by-election.

I might be drawing a long bow and I will be interested to see what Senator Heffernan has to say, but I will never forget those lines that were run. No-one in this chamber should ever forget that the former member for Oxley, Ms Pauline Hanson, was in fact a member of the Liberal Party in Brisbane and a candidate for the Liberal Party in Brisbane just prior to the 1996 election. What went wrong there was that she actually let it rip in Brisbane. That is when it became an embarrassment for the Prime Minister and that is when he had to unload her. So it comes as no surprise to me that this has emerged in the way that it has at the moment. I make those comments in no way making any judgments or quality or merit statements about what has been raised or how it has been raised—that is a matter for others to work their way through. But I do not think it was an accident that a Liberal senator leapt on the issue yesterday. Let us see where it goes from here.

In relation to theAlcohol Education and Rehabilitation Account Bill 2001, our previous speakers have made known the position of the opposition. We are supportive of the legislation as such but we are bringing forward proposals which give definition to the foundation: what its objectives are and who its personnel shall be. I want to use the little time available to me to talk about three specific issues relating to the broad concept of alcohol education and rehabilitation, which of course is the thrust of what is going on here with the use of this excise funding. First of all, it is clearly intended that there will be more effort put into the issue of alcohol abuse and, as it is further defined, certainly among young people.

I want to recount to the parliament the sad tale of a young 15-year-old boy—his name can now be used in this parliament—who died in Melton, which is in my electorate, two years ago. It now appears, from what the coroner has said in the last week or so, that the boy bought from the shelves of the supermarket essence which was heavily laden with alcohol but which was not described as such, because of the poor labelling laws. The coroner has now deemed that that alcohol that was obtained from the supermarket shelves—not from the licensed section but from the ordinary supermarket shelves—was the major factor in the death of this young boy, Leigh Clark. His father wrote to me not long after the event, raising the fact that people could buy off the supermarket shelves essences which were highly alcoholic, and that the labelling laws and the laws covering description of product and what could or could not be on a shelf seemed to have missed these particular products.

In September 1999, the Minister for Health and Aged Care answered a question in question time on the issue and appeared to be moving into action. He appeared to be using federal authority to try and drive some solutions. He was focusing particularly on changes to the tax laws, working on the premise that, if these products were taxed properly and treated as an alcoholic beverage, the price would go up and consumption would therefore be more difficult for young people. Make whatever judgments you like about that assumption, but that was the minister's assumption. The second pathway he was proposing to go down was to toughen up the labelling laws so that they properly described the product and identified the amount of alcohol in the product.

In June last year, I placed a question on notice to the minister. As I raised with the Speaker under standing order 150 last week in the parliament, that question still remains unanswered. I did, however, receive a written response from the minister to a separate letter on 16 October last year in which he outlined to me that there seemed to be progress with ANZFA and the food labelling laws and that changes would be made. On 7 December last year, the changes were gazetted and the provisions became law. These essence products had to be properly labelled to identify the percentage of alcohol contained in them. That gazettal on 7 December provided for a six-month introduction period for the manufacturers, or providers, to comply with the law.

The Clark family in Melton have followed this issue with the sort of attention that you would expect from parents who believe that their son should not have died, and certainly should not have died from the effects of alcohol purchased from a supermarket where it was on display as an openly available product. On the day of implementation of this legislation, they went to two supermarkets in Melton and bought two more bottles of this essence. After it had been prescribed by law for six months—and the supermarkets and manufacturers had been given six months to comply—the day after D Day, they went to two different supermarkets and purchased the product from the shelves.

With some reluctance, they have now gone to the Victorian authorities and have lodged a formal complaint against the retailers. They had hoped that the matter was over. They had hoped that the assurances given by Dr Wooldridge as far back as September 1999 would have come into effect and would have happened in the supermarket. Mr Clark wrote to me last week telling me that they had lodged this complaint. I call on Dr Wooldridge to discuss the matter with the Victorian authorities and ensure that the assurances he gave to this parliament two years ago actually happen on the street. I do not care, quite frankly, if he never gets around to answering the question on notice from me. I just want to see him make it happen, because this family have been through a terrible trauma. They do not deserve to have all this happen and then find that the problem still has not been solved.

The second issue I want to raise relating to this legislation is that of alcohol education, particularly among young people and young drivers. I hope that the foundation, when it works through what will be its target areas, understands one thing—that is, when Labor left office in 1996 there was an organisation in place called the Federal Office of Road Safety within the Department of Transport. It was specifically funded to provide a coordination and leadership role in the national road safety strategy and it was working cooperatively and highly successfully with the various state authorities. There was research on young driver education, particularly alcohol related driving, following the period when young drivers were no longer required to display P plates and to observe the zero alcohol requirement. Some problems were clearly identified because they were inexperienced drivers—with any alcohol in the system. But big progress was being made. The road toll had come down dramatically, and the road toll among young drivers had come down—with an concerted and comprehensive national strategy in cooperation with the states and allowing them plenty of leadership. In the cuts of 1996, that was one of the areas that was hit and, as I understand it, the Federal Office of Road Safety no longer exists. Certainly that leadership and coordinating role that the federal government played no longer exists.

In Melbourne yesterday the Herald Sun ran a huge feature, one of the largest I have seen them run for a long time, on the increasing incidence of deaths of young drivers, and called for the politicians to do something about it. I do not lay all of the blame on the government—and laying blame does not really matter much—but the fact of the matter is that this is another one of those stupid decisions of 1996 and since. How could a national transport minister believe he was doing the job when walking away from a role in national road safety and walking away from a role in alcohol education among young drivers? How a federal transport minister could think he was doing the job while conducting a portfolio in that way is beyond my comprehension; but that is where we are at. It is an issue that I hope the foundation will take note of when it comes to look at how these funds should be spent.

The final point I want to make is this. The member for Fraser made the point in his opening contribution that often a bill says as much in what it does not say as in what it does specify. Because these funds are specifically related to education and rehabilitation in relation to licit drugs, of course the bill does not have, and the foundation will not have, a brief to canvass the issue of illicit drugs. But I would hope in this last couple of minutes for some scope to touch on another area of national drug policy which I think has to be addressed by this parliament. I do not care who does it, whether it is the foundation or not, but nobody is going to be able to walk away from it. A recent statement issued by the Prime Minister's national drug advisory council pointed to, among other things, the need for an `alternative strategy'—I think those were the words. In a speech that I made to the Australian Parliamentary Drug Law Reform Group in April 1999, I opened with these words:

In May 1989 the federal parliamentary committee which oversees the National Crime Authority concluded in the report Drugs, crime and society that `it is time to consider alternatives to present policy'.

That was in May 1989. The committee most likely to defend the status quo was in fact conceding 13 years ago that Australia had lost the prohibition battle against illicit drugs. I was a member of that committee for six years, and those words represented a hard-won compromise between those who wanted a new approach and those who believed that another injection of police powers and resources would do the trick. In the event, the recommendation was ignored, and we are even further in the mire now.

The only real development in this field occurred in the last few months of the former Labor government. In November-December 1995, the ACT government wanted to proceed with a heroin trial but could not do so without the approval of the federal government—and that is still the situation. The former Labor government made the decision to allow that to happen. I, for one, believed that would be a major step forward in an intelligent approach to this problem in Australia. However, the 1996 election intervened and the Prime Minister stepped in with a completely different position, and we have all regressed. We have seen the New South Wales government go through an extraordinarily difficult process to move a slight step along the scale—but I know that you, Madam Deputy Speaker Crosio, share the same view as I do about that.

We now have the Prime Minister's own national drug advisory council telling him that he has to give a heroin trial a go but he is still saying, `No, it is not the right thing. It is not the way to go.' I am pleased that the Labor Party in its drug strategy has made provision to approve a heroin trial and, hopefully, when we win office one of the states will want to give it a try. I hope so, because I believe that, for a whole range of reasons, it is the next step forward. To summarise, I call on the health minister to make sure the essences are not available to kids in the supermarket any longer. I call on the government to get back into education for roads. (Time expired)