'You cannot arrest your way out of the drug problem.' - ABC Hobart 936 Mornings with Louise Saunders radio interview, Wednesday 4 April 2018





SUBJECTS: Tabling of Parliament’s ice inquiry report; The government’s cuts to health spending; The government’s plan to drug-test welfare recipients.

LOUISE SAUNDERS: Tasmanian Labor Senator Lisa Singh has been part of a committee that has just reported. She was the Deputy Chair. It was the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement. This report is looking into the use of illicit drugs; crystal methamphetamine, also known of course, as ice. But this is from a judicial point of view – law enforcement – and what we need to be doing, not just to crack down but also to deal with the issues. Lisa Singh joins me. Senator, good morning.


SAUNDERS: I guess first in terms of establishing the extent of the problem, what kind of picture did the report get?

SINGH: This was quite an extensive amount of work. It was the culmination of three year of inquiry into, particularly, crystal meth. But it's funny for a law enforcement committee to come out with recommendations that basically say that law enforcement is not the answer. And that, as Jackie Hallam has just outlined, we need to treat drug use as a health issue, as a social issue, and we need to invest a lot more into treatment and rehabilitation. That's the crux, I suppose, of the committee's 15 recommendations which range through a number of issues; from the need for more data, to importantly calling on the Commonwealth government to refer to the Productivity Commission an inquiry to do an actual cost and benefit analysis of our current spend on our national drug strategy. Because what came out clearly out of this body of work, Louise, is that our current approach to drug policy in Australia is simply not working.

SAUNDERS: Why not?

SINGH: We have a policy that is supposed to reduce supply, reduce demand, and of course reduce harm, and all on those three pillars we are not reducing anything. There needs to be some reflection by government into looking at where it's spending its money and if the direction in which it is spending it is actually working. What we have said is that it isn't. And that's why we want the Productivity Commission to do that work. But we also want the government to recognise that ripping money out of our health system leads to a situation where someone who may have a drug addiction and wants to finally make that huge leap to seek treatment and be provided with some sort of rehabilitation accommodation simply can't get it, unless they have a lot of money. That's what we have found. A number of families are spending up to $30,000 to put their loved ones through rehabilitation. Most Australians don't have that, and there simply isn't enough public funding available for rehabilitation and that was a key component of our inquiry.

Part of this, Louise, went to the fact that we heard from law enforcement themselves. We had the former AFP Police Commissioner, Mick Palmer, saying clearly that money needs to be directed away from law enforcement and into treatment. And if we look at other models around the world – in fact this inquiry did look at the Portuguese model –that is exactly what they did. They basically flipped their funding, from a highly funded law enforcement approach to a much more highly funded health approach. And so that's what we're asking the government to do, to really put those resources into education, into rehabilitation. And what we also know, of course, it's those regional communities, those regional and rural communities, like in the North West of Tasmania, that suffer the most and are at the greatest risk. Because this is not about just treating the symptoms, it's also about treating the causes of what leads people to end up with a drug addiction.

SAUNDERS: What about when it comes to the overall expenses that are put into the system across the various programs? We've got a government that, it's fair to say, certainly has an eye on where the budget might lie. Is there something we can do with the same money and spend it in different ways, rather than look to require the Federal government to spend more money?

SINGH: That may have been the case in the past but unfortunately, with the money that's been ripped out of our health system – in fact we've seen recent reports that the Federal government is going to rip another $11 million out of our hospital system in Tasmania between 2017 and 2020 – we simply can't rely on existing funding, we need an increase in funding for sure. But this again comes back to leadership and a commitment to actually tackle the issues of drug law reform. I think it is not for the government to navel-gaze on this, it is about working with the experts in the field. Just last week, the very respected think-tank Australia21 held a national summit specifically looking a drug use in Australia. They brought together a number of health professionals and policy professionals who work in this field and who came out very strongly with a statement to say that through their practice and their overwhelming evidence, that current Australian drug laws are simply not working. We need governments to really step-up here, both the Hodgman government and the Turnbull government to address this issue seriously. Otherwise, nothing is going to change and in fact I think we're going to see an increase of further crime potentially. Poor drug policy leads to further crime. I don't think any government wants that. If it’s serious about it, than it needs to actually step-up and look at the recommendations of our report, where we make it very clear that there needs to be a much stronger focus on treatment, on rehabilitation, and not on law enforcement. The one thing we say is that you cannot arrest your way out of the drug problem.

SAUNDERS: Just on that then, perhaps it’s an indication of government intention and policy – of course the policy to possibly make Newstart recipients undergo random drug testing. What are your thoughts on that in terms of dealing with drugs as a problem in our community, Senator?

SINGH: Again this leads to an ongoing stigmatisation of a group of people in our society that we should be supporting, not stigmatising. I think it's ridiculous that the government is going to go down this path. There is absolutely no evidence that the government has relied on to say that random drug-testing of welfare recipients is a good idea. Again, I was on an inquiry into this as well Louise, where the government heard loud and clear from a number of experts that this was very bad policy, and yet it's completely ignoring that evidence and continuing on with this. I think this idea of continually focusing on those people that need our support – vulnerable people in our community – and stigmatising them is such a stupid and short-sighted way for governments to govern. It's exactly what the Turnbull government is doing. One of our recommendations is actually calling on government to look at the way it advertises in relation to drug addiction and drug policy, and look at the Australian Press Council standards – have a more educative and supportive approach, rather than this punitive, stigmatising approach which seems to be the direction that the Turnbull government continues to take.

SAUNDERS: Senator Singh, thanks for your time.

SINGH: Thank-you, Louise.



Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra