Surely it is time for Australia to abandon its punitive approach to people struggling with illicit drug problems. This should include rejecting the draconian Welfare Reform Bill in its entirety.
The Senate is expected to vote on the Turnbull government’s bill on Wednesday, with a proposal to trial drug-testing applicants for income support, as well as including the use of a cashless welfare card for some recipients.
This trial has attracted overwhelming criticism from professional groups. The Welfare Reform Bill also proposes some harsh exclusions for the receipt of income support for people with severe alcohol and drug problems.
Although far more pernicious and with the potential of being permanent, these proposals have been almost completely ignored.
If these proposals become law, someone, say, with advanced liver disease from alcohol who has been admitted to hospital could lose their benefits if they failed to attend a Centrelink appointment while hospitalised!
The Greens and Labor have indicated that in the Senate they will reject the Welfare Reform Bill in its entirety. In contrast the Coalition government is almost certain to vote unanimously in support of its own bill. The fate of the bill therefore depends on the crossbench senators.
There has been some speculation about how these crossbench senators will vote.
It is public knowledge that Victorian senator Derryn Hinch had a liver transplant after developing advanced liver disease from alcohol. Subsequently he became much more aware of the need for governments to do what they could to restrain heavy drinking in the community. Still, like many other MPs, Senator Hinch sees problems due to illegal drugs quite differently.
It is also public knowledge that Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie has a son who has been struggling with a severe ice problem. Initially, Senator Lambie, perhaps as an expression of her own exasperation and anxiety, seemed to support punitive approaches to people with illicit drug problems. But over time her attitudes seem to have moderated.
In a similar way, Nick Xenophon regards people with severe gambling problems more as victims than villains. Accordingly, he prefers support rather than punishment for problem gamblers. However, like many people in the community, he has a different attitude to people with severe problems from illicit drugs.
Like most other countries, for many decades Australian drug policy has relied heavily on law enforcement and punishment. In contrast, actual drug treatment programs have been in relatively short supply and effective new harm-reduction strategies require a fierce and protracted battle if they are to be adopted.
Yet the drug market in Australia has continued to expand and become much more dangerous. Annual overdose deaths rose from small numbers in the 1960s to over a thousand in the late 1990s.
Annual overdose deaths are once again higher than they have been for two decades.
Clearly, the punitive approach has not been effective as a policy, although as a purely political strategy it has worked a treat!”
In contrast to punitive measures, Australia should surely be emphasising an approach to illicit drugs based on effective health policies and social interventions.
Gambling and drugs have a lot in common
At the same time, we should recognise the strong commonalities between psychoactive drug problems and gambling, and hence take gambling addiction much more seriously.
At the least, we should ban gambling advertising during sporting events and at other prime times when children and impressionable young people are watching.
Many people with severe gambling problems have severe problems with alcohol and other drugs, and vice versa. At the same time, mental health problems are common in people with gambling problems and also in people with alcohol and drug problems.
In its most recent revision, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association classified gambling as a form of addiction. The fact is that a small proportion of gamblers account for a disproportionately large share of gambling problems and of the gambling market.
A similar ratio is true for alcohol and probably is also true for most other psychoactive and illicit drugs – although we lack data to be able to definitively prove or disprove this.
Demand for gambling and for psychoactive drugs is strong. Hence, gambling and drugs have been readily available – even if prohibited with vigorous enforcement and severe penalties for offenders.
Off-course betting on horse racing was banned for many years in Australia. Nevertheless many Australians continued to place illegal bets by telephone or in person with Starting Price (SP) bookmakers.
Police corruption concerning gambling also continued to be rampant, until off-course betting on horse racing started to become legal from the 1960s with the establishment of the Totalisator Agency Board (TAB). Later, the TAB was privatised.
Compared to many other countries, gambling problems are extremely common in Australia. Our gambling industries are politically powerful and able to secure generous concessions from governments. Hence the reality is that many other countries regulate gambling much more effectively than Australia.
Gambling is such a big problem in Australia that a political party, the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT), was established with a strong commitment to reduce the magnitude of gambling problems. But so far, NXT has made little difference to gambling policy or gambling problems.
In Australia the media largely ignores gambling problems. In contrast, our media often carries numerous, largely sensational, items about illicit drugs.
For decades, bad drug policy has been effective politically, in the sense of attracting votes.
The United States and the international drug control system have had a dominant influence on Australian policy on illicit drugs.
In the past, the tobacco industry used to be able to determine public policy in Australia, but in recent decades its power and influence has waned.
In contrast, the alcohol industry is still extraordinarily powerful and rarely loses a policy battle.
Ross Fitzgerald AM is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University and the author of 39 books, including a memoir My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey and the satire Going Out Backwards: A Grafton Everest Adventure, which was shortlisted for the 2017 Russell Prize for Humour Writing. Ross Fitzgerald’s blog is available at www.rossfitzgerald.com/.