Senate debates

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Illicit Drugs

3:31 pm

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (Senator Ludwig) to a question without notice asked by Senator Di Natale today relating to drug policy.

I was very happy today to ask a question on behalf of OurSay. OurSay was launched during the 2010 election campaign with the goal of using new technologies to connect the public with decision-makers, with law-makers. It was founded by a team of young Australians from across the political spectrum and is doing more and more work abroad, including in India, the world's largest democracy. In fact, the Prime Minister herself took part in an OurSay event last year when she answered questions during a Google Hangout.

The People's Question Project aims to close the distance between citizens and the halls of power by inviting elected reps to speak directly to the issues raised by the community. I was happy to ask the question because, in my view, question time is broken. What we get is the usual parade of predictable questions from the opposition—questions that are aimed more at trying to get a grab for the six o'clock news bulletin, more aimed at spinning a line than in fact at probing the government on issues of public policy. What we get from the government are non-answers and obfuscation and we rarely get the questions being addressed. We get Dorothy Dixers, we get insults, we get bickering—question time in this place is broken, and it was with great pleasure that I was able to bring in the voice of the community into this chamber.

I know that members of the community who voted for this question would not have been happy with the answers given by the minister today. What they want to hear is a respectful, honest debate, and they want to get some sense that the government is taking these issues seriously. It is no surprise that the public do want to see a change in approach to the issue of drug law reform in this chamber. It is an area where public common sense and the conventional wisdom of the parliament are at odds. That is not true of all politicians in this place—in fact, I had the pleasure of standing next to Mal Washer, a conservative member of parliament, and Rob Oakeshott, an Independent, to discuss this issue and to call for a dispassionate look from the Productivity Commission. We would like to see the issue referred to the Productivity Commission.

Usually, this is the domain of retired politicians. It is amazing how much braver and more courageous politicians become on the issue of illicit drugs when they leave the chamber. Unfortunately, what we get from our sitting MPs is usually deathly silence or, worse still, cheap populism.

I am very happy to stand here and say that we do need to tackle this issue. We are currently paying an enormous price for our current approach. For example, we are now getting people like the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Alan Jones together saying that we need to take this on and reform what we are currently doing. Unfortunately, there is no sign of a change in approach. We have seen the response to the issue of emerging synthetic drugs in the news recently, and, of course, it is business as usual—let's blunder ahead with the same failed policies and let's, in the end, expose people to more harms and more harmful, dangerous substances.

The threshold decision here is: are we prepared to take this issue on as an issue of public health? Are we prepared to say that this issue needs to be dealt with through the health framework rather than simply rattling the law and order chain? That is the threshold decision that needs to be made in this chamber.

In fact, in New Zealand we saw a very different change in approach to the issue of emerging synthetic drugs, where we are going to see the onus on the industry to prove safety. That, I think, is an important step forward. We have an opportunity to do that here in Australia rather than going down the same failed road, yet at this stage it looks like politicians on all sides are not prepared to do what the public health community and the drug and alcohol sector say, which is: let's invest more in treatment, let's invest more in harm reduction and let's start treating this issue as it must be treated—as a public health issue rather than a law and order issue.

Question agreed to.