Last year’s Australian election was a lesson for our politicians in how not to conduct drug policy during an election year.
In a move reminiscent of the Tampa ‘children overboard’ scandal, the Howard Coalition Government launched a controversial Tough on Drugs policy on the eve of the federal election.
Only five days from the November polling day, Howard announced that, if re-elected, he would quarantine welfare payments to “drug criminals” to stop taxpayers’ money being spent on illicit drugs, cigarettes and alcohol. Instead, welfare payments would be managed by a third party to ensure they were only spent on essential items. This proposal closely followed a Liberal Party-penned parliamentary report recommending children be taken away permanently from drug-addicted parents.
The quarantine policy met with opposition from drug sector professionals. Howard’s own National Council on Drugs warned of unintended consequences that may increase risks for children and families. Other commentators were more forthright, describing the plan as “diabolical” and a “war on drug users, not a war on drugs”. One recommended that addiction is best handled by health professionals not politicians with “no expertise in the area who are promoting fear in the community for personal political gain during an election campaign”.
The policy received little comment from Kevin Rudd’s Labor Party. While Mr Rudd said Mr Howard was “desperately producing policies in the shadow of polling day to cling to power”, he did not address the substance of the proposals, nor did Labor include drug policy in their election manifesto. So, no brownie points there either.
While illicit drugs got attention during the election, the pink elephant in the room was ignored. A Federal Government report released only weeks before the election showed the economic impact from alcohol more than doubled from $7.6 billion in 1999 to $15.3 billion in 2005, prompting one addiction worker to ask whether the major parties are “just going to run into an election and not have a position on a 15 billion dollar problem”.
Drug policy will make a showing during our election year. With the Misuse of Drugs Act under review and amendments to alcohol law and policy on Parliament’s Order Paper, New Zealand political parties cannot imitate their Australian counterparts. Being silent about or indifferent to drug issues is as irresponsible as championing crude and populist solutions just to win votes. We’re expecting better.
NB Over 10 years the Drug Foundation has published 500 articles in the Matters of Substance magazine. Half of these stories are available here as webpages, and the rest are in PDF format only (download February 2008 copy 1.6 MB).
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