Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use

ACT Poverty Task Force

Bishop Pat Power

Kerrie Tucker: Our next speaker is Bishop Pat Power.

Pat Power is the Auxiliary Catholic Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn. He is currently a member of the Australian Catholic Social Commission and secretary of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Committee for Social Welfare. He was previously secretary of the Committee for Family and for Life. Both these committees have tried to address the issue of drug abuse in the community. During 1999-2000 he was chair of the ACT Churches Council and in that same period he chaired the ACT Poverty Task Group which was a joint initiative of the ACT Government and the ACT Council of Social Services. I know Pat Power is a person who has been willing to stand and be counted on a number of social issues and is someone who has been a very important voice in our community. Thank you Pat.

Bishop Pat Power: Thanks Kerrie. It is in the capacity as the chair of the ACT Poverty Task Group that I am here tonight. I might say, though, that in speaking in that capacity it is not the assumption that it is just poor people who are likely to be affected by the whole drug problem. One of the great learning experiences I have had is the privilege of being associated with the people who have organised tonight - Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform. It has certainly been very clear to me that this is an issue that affects every part of society. I would think though that by the same token that people who are struggling with poverty are probably somewhat more vulnerable. The Poverty Task Group, as Kerrie has told us, was a joint initiative of the ACT Government and the ACT Council of Social Services. It was comprised of about 25 people from various community groups and also a member of both federal and ACT government departments. I became Chair of it when Bishop Randerson finished as the Anglican Assistant Bishop and so for 15 months I was part of that. We gave a final report to the Chief Minister at the end of last year and at the end of May this year the Government's response was given. By and large there has been a great deal of satisfaction. The reports that have been given have been taken very seriously by all members of the Assembly, not just by the Government.

Something which the Governor-General said today as he left office struck a chord with me. I think I have heard him say it before. It certainly came into our reports. It is that the worth of a nation is best judged by the way it cares for its must vulnerable and disadvantaged members. And I think that is something that is close to the heart of all of us in the issue we are talking about tonight. And it is not just an issue; it is people we are talking about. One of the startling things that came out - not startling I suppose, but one of the things that came out of the poverty task force report and study - was that affluent Canberra still has 1 in 12 people who are affected by poverty. That amounts to 25,000 people. When you compare that with the national figures in fact we are doing better than is the case nationally. Nationally there are 1 in 8 people who are affected by poverty - 1 in 12 here in Canberra. But as I say it still amounts to 25,000 people. Sometimes the very fact that there are proportionally less people affected by poverty can make it far tougher for those people who are - simply for the fact that they are more isolated and their problems aren't as clear to the rest of the community who seem to be getting on quite well.

The report Sharing the Benefits which was the recommendation phase of the report looked at four different aspects:

• Personal safety and well being

• Access to resources

• Equity and access to resources

• Participating in community.

I might just say something briefly about each of those things.

First of all was personal safety and well-being. One of the things which was made very clear in the report was that all members of the community - all members of our community - are to be treated with dignity and respect. And sadly of course sometimes it is the poorest people in our community that are treated patronisingly. At times they are quite looked down upon by others. As someone who is involved in the church time and again I feel challenged. I think that so often our churches can be comfortable with middle class people but people who are struggling don't feel at home with this. When we look at the model of Christ I think that is something that is really quite the reverse of what his teaching was all about. But I think that whole point though is something everyone needs to embrace. Dignity and respect is due to such people.

The situation where I work just over here in Favier House which is at the corner of Donaldson and Alinga Streets I must say that I see first hand just looking out my office people who are struggling with illicit drug use. There was someone murdered actually just outside my office less than 2 years ago. And yet how do we respond to that? I think that is one of the questions that all of us here ask. But certainly I think if we lose sight of the dignity and respect that is due to those people we are losing sight of that issue that the Governor-General was clearly putting before us today.

One of the other things that came out of the discussion of the wellbeing of people was the whole question of stress that poverty is going to cause: the effect that that has on people’s health and the way they behave, the question of mental health in the face of poverty, the way that those problems can be exacerbated by people who are struggling, the questions of unemployment, especially youth unemployment, the relationship between that and illicit drug use. I am told that in parts of the United States where the unemployment issue has been better addressed in some ways, that goes to helping with drug problems.

Secondly is the question of access to resources. One of the things that came out of the poverty task group findings was that agencies were reporting at times that they were unable to meet all their clients’ needs. One of the things that certainly came out was the inadequate detoxification facilities that were available here in the ACT especially for women with children. And at times the agencies reported that chronic drug and alcohol problems were untreated. Moreover, not only were they unable to deal with it themselves they were unable to refer people to other agencies or other areas where they might be able to find help.

The question of equity in regard to resources. What resources are being put into the alleviation of the drug problem? Certainly there is lot of talk here about a safe injecting room but I think everyone admitted that that was only one small way in which the problem might have been addressed. Might I just say too - this is a bit of a distraction - the Catholic Church was caught up in some of that debate particularly with regard to St Vincent’s in Sydney which was to be involved. I must say that the question of that isn't quite as clear as is sometimes said. Certainly when I was on the Bishop's Committee for the Family and for Life we produced a statement that tried to leave the way open for a whole variety of responses to the drug problem. One of the things that was said in that statement was that the drug problem is a very wide and very complex issue and there is no single or simple solution to it. Saying that is meant to leave the way open for some experiments to be made in some particular areas.

May I say too though that the temptation is just to look at one narrow approach and see that as the whole answer. Many of us here who have any insight into the problem can see that it is something that needs a whole variety of approaches just as there are a whole variety of individuals that are affected by it. I think too that when we are looking at resources that obviously means money but I also think it means the community's care and that’s one of the things we tried to talk about in the whole thrust of the poverty task force.

It is not just a government response although the government response is important but governments too respond to what the community's attitudes are. All of us have an obligation to try to sensitise the community to what the issues are. This gets back particularly to the point that I was making earlier about the dignity of those most at risk.

Finally there’s the question of participation by the community. One of the things we said is that poverty equals living on the margins of society. I will finish on a couple of other little quotes:

"Poverty wears you down makes you sicker than you already are both physically and mentally. It is about stress, isolation, fear and constant struggle. Poverty equals pain."

"Poverty can be very self destructive. You get stuck in a rut, never see your way out of it and therefore get involved in destructive behaviour. Drugs and alcohol can be a way to escape."

So as I said at the beginning it is the responsibility of government. One of the government’s responses to the poverty task group was to talk about partnerships with the community. I think we have a wonderful example of it here tonight where people from a whole range of interests come together in trying to address this most important problem. It is a question of community. It’s a question of families and friends, the title of our sponsoring group here tonight, and it’s a question too, I think, of neighbours and what we can do too just by being good neighbours to the people with whom we are closely associated.

And can I go back to what our Governor-General said to us: "The worth of a nation is best judged by the way it cares for its most vulnerable and disadvantaged members."

Thank you.