Speech- Decriminalisation of Public Drunkenness Bill 2020

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In commencing my speech on this bill I do want to acknowledge, as other speakers have done, that it is focused on public policy issues with a very long history in Victoria. I would also like to thank Ms Watt for her very touching contribution and acknowledgement of the tragic death of Tanya Day. I also want to recognise and thank the current government for doing the hard work to try to formulate the kind of policy response that has eluded many governments before them. That clearly has not been an easy thing to do, and they do deserve credit for confronting that largely thankless task. Likewise, I thank the expert reference group (ERG) for consulting with many affected groups and individuals, particularly from Indigenous and CALD backgrounds, in the course of compiling their Seeing the Clear Light of Day report. That report is informative in many ways and not least for any politician seeking to understand and analyse the background to the development of this bill, including the Tanya Day case.

Indeed, in turning to the bill, let me repeat Mr Grimley’s earlier statement that Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party supports the basic intent of this legislation to shift to a health-based response to public drunkenness. Like other members, though, we also have many serious concerns and questions in relation to its practical implementation. We share the view expressed by Mr O’Donohue that there are serious issues for us with repealing laws but not having certainty about what arrangements will replace them. We are therefore uncomfortable, unfortunately, about voting for this bill. I will also air some of our specific concerns and questions about implementation shortly.

We do think that the overall approach in this bill conforms with what the majority of expert stakeholders and past inquiries are telling the government in relation to the issues that it covers. Obviously some of those issues are difficult and challenging, especially when one reflects on cases that have ended in tragedy. Therefore we believe the motivation behind this bill is right, the spirit is right and the end goal is right.

Another group of people that I would like to thank are the stakeholders and constituents with whom I have discussed the bill, many of them from the health and emergency services sector, particularly in Northern Victoria. It is on their behalf primarily that I do now want to raise some of those implementation issues which I flagged earlier. Those stakeholders, constituents and I have a very long list of questions. I do not plan to recite them here, but I do think it is extremely important to air some of these queries to convey what I have been hearing from my electorate. I would also like to refer to Ms Terpstra’s speech. She stated that she disagreed with a move-on law, saying it does not provide a health response, and yet the ERG report recommends there is a preference to take someone home who is drunk, and I quote:

The Victorian Government ensures intoxicated people who pose a safety risk to themselves and/or others should, in general, be transported to one of three safe place locations to sober up, including to:

  1. a) their home or other private residence where it is determined that the individual is at low-risk and can be adequately and safely cared for by family or friends

That does not mean that that is always a health response. As most of you will know, my husband is a police officer and he has had to attend many incidents where a report has been made of somebody being drunk. My husband has been glassed in the face, spat on, kicked at, threatened. Not many people will continue to take that behaviour. Nobody really wants to ever take on that role, to have to respond to violent behaviour, and it does concern me that some of our health sector will now have to bear the brunt of that behaviour. I am certainly not saying by any means that everybody who is intoxicated is violent or behaves badly.

Can I just go back a moment so I can raise some of the questions that have been raised with me. Given the government is saying it will have to phase in and trial the changes in the bill over the next 21 months, would that transition potentially be halted at any point if things clearly were not working as well as expected? And if so, what would the likely threshold for that course of action be? That is a question in my conversations with people about the bill that has arisen often. I do not think anyone should regard that reaction as surprising in circumstances where the passage of the relevant legislation precedes the dissemination of a lot of information and detail about how it is going to practically operate.

Another recurring question has been: isn’t there a very significant likelihood that the numbers of drunk individuals in police cells will be lowered but that there will be an increase in their presence in hospital waiting rooms and emergency departments instead? Following on from that, whose responsibility will it become to manage unruly drunken people in these settings? Will police need to be called by the hospitals to attend and manage people in waiting rooms, or will the hospital have to think about employing more security guards? In turn, what will their presence potentially mean for all those people at the hospital, including other patients who are waiting for treatment, potentially now at risk from someone unable to adequately control their own behaviour? There are in fact countless questions in this area in the absence of full detail about how these critical issues are going to be overcome. As Mr Grimley and I often say in this place, the ever-increasing risk and harm to hospital staff and other frontline workers in Victoria and many other parts of Australia should never be downplayed or overlooked, and it must occupy a crucial part of the consideration of this bill also.

I would refer members to the review released this very week in New South Wales by the state’s former health and police minister Peter Anderson. That review catalogues the shocking proliferation of the dangers and threats faced from angry, unruly patients, including alcohol-affected patients; looks at the urgent need to better protect and safeguard the welfare of hospital staff, visitors and other patients; and regards these problems as being so serious that it even recommends hospital staff now be given access to pepper spray to de-escalate violent and aggressive confrontations.

Now, I am not saying I condone that use of force, but it certainly is a consideration.

On a related front, it would also be nice to know how the changes in this bill before us today will work in a practical sense, when we already have shortages of paramedics to respond to call-outs—and I have raised that issue many times in this place. These shortages are something I have often spoken about, as many of you will know, but it is an area that still has not been suitably acknowledged. If the approach to public drunkenness is to become a health-based one across the state, then what does it mean for the general availability of those paramedics for all Victorians? Without significantly boosted staff numbers, won’t their relative availability now decrease even further?

If public drunkenness is to be met with a health-based response, then I would say that it does put a significant obligation back onto the government to enhance the provision of health infrastructure more generally, especially in rural and regional areas, where it is often in need of very substantial improvement. Hospitals in particular are under severe strain as it is, in many parts of my electorate of Northern Victoria. Typically they already do not have enough beds, resources and/or space, without more pressure being placed upon them from what may be a new group of potential patients. More broadly, health-based responses do typically need to be holistic and comprehensive rather than just dealing with one issue in isolation. I would therefore hope that the government is giving very serious thought alongside the introduction of this legislation to establishing more drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities. I do appreciate that there is now considerable movement occurring on the establishment of such a facility in Wangaratta, but there are many other places just in my electorate alone—Mildura being a very prominent example—which require this kind of local health infrastructure too.

Broadly allied to all of that, the ERG report canvasses the prospect of introducing three trial sites for responses to public drunkenness in the very widely separated locations of Mildura, Dandenong and the Melbourne CBD. It is not immediately clear to me whether the government intends to pursue this idea or not. However, it still obviously raises the question: if there are people who are drunk in a public place who cannot or should not be taken home or to a hospital and there is no other obvious local alternative to which they should be taken, will they need to be transported potentially hundreds of kilometres away to one of these sites? Or where else might they go, and whose responsibility will it now be exactly in these and many other circumstances to have to transport them at all?

We know that this legislation is based in the first instance upon addressing the risks that arise when people who are drunk are taken into police custody. However, it is vitally important that a balance needs to be struck here too, and I am unable to support the legislation in the absence of having certainty that alternative forms of very serious danger are not created. If full decriminalisation does occur, then extremely careful thought and vigilance also must be devoted to how to minimise the possibility that people who are drunk in a public place might also be at risk of harm, or causing harm, in a multitude of other ways. I say that particularly in the sense that the responsibilities and duty of care of every police officer in this state regarding these incidents are now in effect being legislated away.

Repeatedly people have been saying to me that one of the inevitable consequences of the way the bill is currently written will be that police will essentially be encouraged to avoid interactions with people who are drunk in public. Naturally that will leave a very problematic vacuum in a number of cases. It is not hard to worry that new forms of harm—including the inability to adequately protect a drunk person from endangering themselves, let alone others—might potentially be created.

For now, I will leave my list of practical concerns and questions there. I may ask some or all of those questions at the committee stage. But I also put them on the record now in the hope that, either way, the Attorney-General and her staff hear them. Naturally I realise that most will not come as new questions to them, and I recognise that other MPs may have similar questions as well.

To return to where I began, I do want to reaffirm my thanks to Ms Symes and her predecessor, Ms Hennessy, and a number of other ministers, members and staff inside the government for the work they have done on this legislation. I also thank a large number of people outside the Parliament for the work they have done. It is apparent that the numbers are such in the Council that the bill will pass today. However, I will say again that the government clearly does still face much more hard work ahead and needs to pay very strong heed to the many potential practical and logistical problems that have been raised about this bill.

I obviously hope that happens and that the legislation is implemented diligently and with full consideration of every concern being raised today. Assuming that does occur and the bill does therefore ultimately lead to significantly improved health and safety outcomes, especially fewer deaths, then those will naturally be outcomes worthy of great celebration, particularly after such a long wait over so many decades for legislative and policy change on this subject. In the meantime, I thank the house.