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Victory for democracy - the New South Wales Drug Summit May 1999

By Peter Baume - posted Saturday, 15 May 1999

The New South Wales Drug Summit was held between 17th and 21st May 1999 in the State Legislature in Sydney. It was held to redeem a promise made by the Premier (The Honourable Bob Carr) during the earlier State Election which he won handsomely. It was attended by all members of the two Houses of the Legislature (about 145 persons); by about 70 invited delegates; by a number of officers of the Public Service (often writers to service the working groups); and by a smaller number of "alternative delegates" who had no speaking or voting rights but who played an active and important role in lobbying and in organising for their fellows. The plenary sessions were held in the Legislative Council Chamber on four days during the week.

Each delegate was assigned to one of the working groups and so had dual duties - on some occasions each delegate worked in the Legislative Council and others worked with a particular working group. Each working group was under the chairmanship of a current State Minister. The plenary sessions were chaired jointly by the Rt Hon Ian Sinclair, former Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Hon Joan Kirner, former Premier of Victoria. On the middle day (the Wednesday of the relevant week) each delegate was able to visit the site of one or more services. These were influential visits, acquainting some parliamentarians, for the first time, with the crisis atmosphere in which many services operate and of funding shortfalls which lead to services rejecting cries for help from two people in every three.

Invited speakers gave information from a variety of disciplines (some academic, others service related, others still community-based), leading politicians made opening and closing addresses, and each invited delegate was allowed to contribute a five minute speech to the plenary. Sometimes these were statements of long-held value positions, sometimes they were personal accounts (eg the personal accounts of illicit drug users relating their stories and their difficulties), sometimes they were recipes for a way forward. The Chairs were firm but very fair and a feeling emerged that everyone had had a "fair go".


The main divide was between those who advocated a morality based approach and those who advocated a "harm minimisation" approach. In the end the Summit, impressed by the evidence before it, endorsed the latter approach over the former.

The working groups met each day for some hours and each covered a specific area related to drug use. Each proposal which came before a group was open to debate within that group. Each working group presented a suite of proposals to the plenary where they were debated and voted on by delegates. This process produced about sixty motions that had the support of the summit (sometimes by majority vote only) and the final communiqué of the Summit listed these agreed motions. The Government undertook to have regard to these motions when it framed the State Budget some six weeks after the Summit.

This was the first public consultation on the subject of drugs that has occurred. It allowed views, sometimes polar opposites, to be aired and tested. Since these views depended on values, it was hard to say that some opinions were "right" and some were "wrong." What can be said is that people held them honourably and honestly. Particularly moving were the accounts of their lives from some addicts, and what was particularly impressive for delegates was the amount of unmet need most dramatically apparent on site visits. Although there was a little shouting, the meeting was generally conducted with good humour and with consideration for others. It was a good experience.

The media had been cynical initially. Journalists doubted that the community was ready to have this debate and they doubted that delegates could convince people during the course of the Summit. They doubted too that any room for movement politically existed in relation to questions about drug use. By the end of the week, most journalists admitted readily that they had been mistaken on all three counts. While the most contentious recommendations attracted most media attention, there were many others that were "mainstream" and non-controversial and which attracted support from across the delegates. Any action is up to the Carr Government to take now. It is clear that the opportunity for intervention is greater than it was before the Summit and the possibility of reducing the levels of unmet need in services has never been higher. Not only does this opportunity relate to community-based services, but it extends also to prison services.

The Summit was an example of participatory democracy with those working in this field assisting legislators. Many people "won"; a smaller number of people "lost", some important people altered their views, room to move became available to politicians and the process was seen to be robust by those who were fortunate enough to take part. A lot of evidence was presented almost for the first time. No Government can respond to all requests for help but it can do something, and it is now more empowered than it was before the Summit was held.

The experience was one that delegates found exhilarating and worthwhile.

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About the Author

Professor Peter Baume is a former Australian politician. Baume was Professor of Community Medicine at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) from 1991 to 2000 and studied euthanasia, drug policy and evaluation. Since 2000, he has been an honorary research associate with the Social Policy Research Centre at UNSW. He was Chancellor of the Australian National University from 1994 to 2006. He has also been Commissioner of the Australian Law Reform Commission, Deputy Chair of the Australian National Council on AIDS and Foundation Chair of the Australian Sports Drug Agency. He was appointed a director of Sydney Water in 1998. Baume was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in January 1992 in recognition of service to the Australian Parliament and upgraded to Companion in the 2008 Queen's Birthday Honours List. He received an honorary doctorate from the Australian National University in December 2004. He is also patron of The National Forum, publisher of On Line Opinion.

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