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
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
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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