Senate debates

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Statements by Senators

Alcohol and Illicit Drugs

1:25 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to make some remarks around the area of drug and alcohol addiction. It has been an area of some interest to me over many years. As a teacher teaching year 11 and 12 students I had to change my pedagogy in teaching the higher order thinking and new information skills and shift them from Mondays to Wednesdays because often on a Monday morning my students would still be recovering from lots of bingeing on the weekend—alcohol in particular but also illicit drugs. Right now, the drug of greatest concern is ice. But I want to preface my more formal remarks by indicating that alcohol remains our biggest problem.

That being said, I want to speak to the problem across this nation with regard to access to assistance to get over addiction—whether it is drugs and alcohol or any other conditions. For drugs and alcohol in particular, there is an incredible shortage of places. We know it is all too common—and it is a tragic story—that places that are anxious to help people start again and distance themselves from the scourge of drug and alcohol addiction have to turn people away. Time and time again, we hear the same story. There is huge demand for support and guidance and it is nowhere near matched by the facilities that need to be available to meet this real and pressing public health problem.

The situation on the Central Coast is particularly bad. Labor's shadow spokesperson for health, Stephen Jones, and I recently visited two facilities. The first one I will speak of is The Glen drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre. Many people might have seen a video around this. If you are looking for a therapeutic model, I would suggest that people might find great help, hope and information on their website. It is a facility for Indigenous men, predominantly, with alcohol and drug issues and it specialises in the care of that particular community. It is a therapeutic community model. The centre currently has a residential capacity of only 20 beds. Demand is absolutely outstripping their capacity to respond to need. Each year, approximately 200 addicts arrive at The Glen seeking help, and for about 50 per cent of them ice is part of their addiction. Joe Coyte, who runs that institution, said: 'We aren't proud of having a long waiting list. Sometimes people say we've got a waiting list and it will take you forever to get in here.' They try to be responsive.

One of the things I did learn in the research I did around drugs and alcohol when I was trying to figure out what was going on with my own students was that those who deliver therapy will say there is a 24- to 48-hour window when a person who is right in the depths of an addiction says they are ready for intervention, they are ready for help—they need it now, in that moment. That is when the best possibility of a proper engagement can happen. Obviously, without places that capacity to respond is simply not there.

Stephen Jones and I also visited Kamira, an alcohol and drug treatment centre providing care options for women on the Central Coast. It is ably led by a remarkable woman, Kate Heywood, who gives her services to the community through this health provision. She spoke so eloquently and really helped me understand in a much richer way than I had before the nature of drug and alcohol addiction treatment for women critically arising from the need to deal with trauma. Going back and dealing with the trauma issues that often underpin some of the self-medicating that can very quickly escalate out of control and end up in addiction is a different kind of model. This is a whole body of work about, particularly, women and trauma, and a model of therapy that is quite different from what is offered at The Glen.

There is not one perfect way of helping people come away from addiction. We need to have a range of ways. We need culturally safe ways. We need appropriate ways that respond to the different needs in communities. We need to attend to the fact of our multicultural community and to gender. We need a much richer set and a much broader set of opportunities for people to access the care that they need. All of this need is happening in a context where this government is absolutely slashing the funding for health. We have an incredible inadequacy of funding and places.

I want to go in some detail to evidence that was received at the select committee last week in Melbourne. I want to particularly acknowledge the excellent reportage of that hearing by Julia Medew, who writes for The Age. She spoke about what actually happened when the Abbott government came to power and tore up a national partnership agreement. People sitting in the gallery would know that there is this blame game about health that goes on between the state and federal governments. Nicola Roxon, to her credit, really resolved that and reached fifty-fifty. I was calling it 'skin in the game' for both the federal and state governments to be responsible for health. That agreement was torn up by the Abbott government on arrival. That agreement was absolutely done and dusted and gone when they withdrew $57 billion from the health budget. The outcomes of that are devastating. Indeed, the headline cuts to the chase and says that health cuts in the state of Victoria are equal to closing two major hospitals. I am endeavouring to get the information about the impact in the great state of New South Wales. The scale can only be bigger because the population is larger.

Kym Peake, the acting secretary at the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services, said that up until 2011 Commonwealth funding for Victoria's health system was growing by about 6.6 per cent, increasing to 7.1 per cent in the 2013-14 year. She said that this rate of growth was expected to increase to 9.4 per cent per year from 2014, but in that budget—that horror budget—the federal government said it would no longer honour its national agreement for health priorities in the states and territories. What does that mean? That means the planning that was underway for the states across this country, the planning that was underway because of an agreement with a federal government, was absolutely ripped out from underneath them, and they are still recovering. They are trying to backfill some of the greatest needs. With those cuts, and with the complicating factor that has made it harder for people to get to their doctor by the GP tax by stealth and the freezing of the Medicare index and the rebate, we have a steady stream of people putting pressure on emergency departments. We have people who need elective surgery who cannot get that elective surgery because the money for it has been removed and the waiting lists are growing. The time that people are sitting on the waiting lists is growing. All of that is going on in the midst of a context where we have a government that decided to spent $20 million on an ice advertising campaign.

Let's be clear: they pull $57 billion out of the future budget, they walk away from agreements with the states and say, 'That's not my responsibility,' they find $20 million to alarm the nation which is already—believe me—very alert and alarmed about ice addiction. This is a nation where you cannot get treatment. You cannot get into rehab. That is what is going on. And they have exacerbated the problem by this withdrawal of funding. I have spoken about the 2014 budget. If that was not bad enough, they decided to back it in a little bit further. There are 16 funds that come under the health Flexible Funds program. They have taken another $800 million out of that. Amongst those which they have decided to take funds from is the Substance Misuse Prevention and Service Improvement Grants Fund. These are the very funds that support drug rehab and treatment, and prevention strategies. Clearly, these are brutal cuts that are going to severely damage the ability of government and non-government services to deliver care for people who find themselves very unwell from addiction.

At The Glen, there was a wonderful man who had come through the program. He said, 'Do know what we do here? We don't make bad people good; we make sick people well.' There are a lot of sick people. There are families turning up with passion and sadness and sorrow because they cannot get the help they need. They cannot get into addiction treatment. They cannot get what they need to make the sick well. This government should be absolutely ashamed about the intense pressure to push to breaking point the national fabric of our health services, to break away the state-federal relations, to take away $800 million, to take away money that should be there for the funding of drug— (Time expired)