Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Mick Palmer: Second letter to Daily Telegraph

In Mick Palmer to Editor, Daily Telegraph we published the full text of a letter submitted to the editor of The Daily Telegraph on 11 February 2014, in response to an article by Miranda Devine, published in the Telegraph on 8 February, and a link to the edited version of the letter published on 14 February.

Below is the text of a follow-up letter sent by Mr Palmer today to Associate Editor Sarrah Le Marquand.


Dear Sarrah.

Thank you for your recent advice concerning my response to Miranda Devine’s opinion piece on  8 February 2014 on ending the drug culture and  for running an edited version of my reply in last Friday’s edition of the Daily Telegraph.

I must admit, however, to being disappointed on two counts.

Firstly, that your newspaper would publish an edited version of a response on such an important topic without making any public acknowledgement that the published response had been edited.

Secondly, that the editing appeared to be aimed at weakening the impact of my response and minimising any criticism of Ms Devine.

In particularly, I draw your attention to the following excerpts from my original letter which were omitted from the published version:

The Howard government launched its “Tough on Drugs Strategy” in 1997. Yet behind the scenes the Howard government was the first Commonwealth Government to help fund the needle and syringe programmes run by the states and territories. The Howard government also allocated a lot of funding to help move drug offenders from the criminal justice system to drug treatment… In my opinion these were all excellent policies but they were all harm reduction rather than simply ‘Tough on Drugs’.


I was saddened by Ms Devine’s attack upon Dr Alex Wodak for his advocacy of drug law reform. Dr Wodak is well able to defend and speak for himself but, in my view, attacking the man rather than the ball is not only poor form but generally is a sign of fundamental weaknesses in the argument of the alleger.

Having regard to the fundamental importance, particularly in the current media environment, of transparency and integrity in reporting, I found these omissions surprising and regretful.

I respectfully request that you publish this letter to correct the record and more accurately reflect the intent and meaning of my initial response.

Yours sincerely

Mick Palmer


Mick Palmer to Editor, Daily Telegraph

Following is the text of a letter sent to the editor of the Daily Telegraph on 11 February 2014, in response to an article by Miranda Devine, published in the Telegraph on 8 February. An edited text of the letter was published by as a news item by the Telegraph on 14 February (see Fighting drugs a complex issue).


Letter to the Editor,
Daily Telegraph.
11 February 2014

As a 33 year career police officer. I am neither a promoter of illicit drug use nor an apologist for illicit drug users.

The fervent nature of Miranda Devine’s article (It’s high time to end drug culture, Daily Telegraph, 8 February 2014), however, prompted me into comment.

The issue of illicit drugs is difficult and complex but it really is high time we started discussing the question of illicit drugs unemotionally and realistically and that informed people began really trying to make a difference.

Ms Devine is right to say that Hollywood glamorises illicit drugs and shouldn’t, but, equally, wider society demonises and criminalises illicit drug users when the very vast majority of such users are simply victims.

 Hollywood glamorised tobacco smoking for decades. And still glamorises alcohol. Every death matters. But we have to remember that the number of deaths from legal drugs in Australia is 15-20 times the number of deaths from illegal drugs. Even among young Australians there are more deaths from alcohol than there are from illegal drugs. And most of the people who die from a tobacco-related illness in their sixties started smoking in their late teens or early twenties.

Without, in any way wishing to minimise the illicit drug use problem, my experience tells me that  Ms Devine is on  shaky ground when claiming that the rises and falls in drug use in Australia are due to cycles of tough and laissez faire governments.

Firstly, government drug policy behind the scenes is much more complicated than the slogans and political posturing might suggest. The Howard government launched its ‘Tough on Drugs Strategy’ in 1997. Yet behind the scenes the Howard government was the first Commonwealth government to help fund the needle and syringe programmes run by the states and territories. The Howard government also allocated a lot of funding to help move drug offenders from the criminal justice system to drug treatment. And Minister Downer in the Howard government made sure that Australia gave generously to Asian harm reduction programmes to slow the spread of HIV among people who inject drugs. In my opinion, these were all excellent policies but they were all harm reduction rather than simply ‘Tough on Drugs’.

Secondly, it is important that we focus on the harms from drugs rather than on estimates of drug use. For most parents and most members of the community, deaths, disease and crime are even more important than the number of people estimated to be using drugs. Although there is a close connection between the consumption of legal drugs by individuals or communities and the risk of harm, the connection between the consumption of illegal drugs by individuals or communities and the risk of harm is not as clear.

Let’s just think about our use of cars in Australia and deaths from road crashes. Compared to 30 or 40 years ago, these days more Australians own cars, we travel longer distances each year in our cars and there are many more of us. Yet road crash deaths are a small fraction of deaths in the 1970s thanks to things like seat belts, safer vehicles and random breath tests. Harm reduction initiatives which have made a real difference.

I have spent decades of my life in law enforcement and was  the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police for a period of 7 years, including during then PM Howard’s   Tough on Drugs period. As part of my responsibilities I was accountable for working closely with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in oversighting and implementing many aspects of the policy.

As I have said publicly before, Australian police are now better trained, generally better equipped and resourced and more operationally effective that at any time in our history. But, on any objective assessment policing of the illicit drug market has had only marginal impact on the profitability of the drug trade or the availability of illicit drugs.

I am not alone in this view. Many serving and retired senior police have the same opinion. The Global Commission on Drug Policy, which includes former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan, former US Secretary of State George Shultz, former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Paul Volker, the former Presidents of Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Switzerland, and Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines, accept that the War on Drugs has been an expensive and complete failure. My personal experience convinces me that these assessments are correct and that we must seek another path.

In this regard I was saddened by Ms Devine’s attack upon Dr Alex Wodak for his advocacy of drug law reform.  Dr Wodak is well able to defend and speak for himself but, in my view, attacking the man rather than the ball is not only poor form but generally is a sign of fundamental weaknesses in the arguments of the alleger. 

Where does this leave us?  I agree with the commentators who argue that the health, social and economic costs of alcohol consumption in Australia are too high. Like most Australians I have been angered and sickened by the continuing spate of alcohol related violence and cowardly and unprovoked conduct that has underpinned much of it.  I am ashamed and angry that so many Aboriginal Australians still die far too young from the effects of alcohol and tobacco and from glue and petrol sniffing.  These are critically serious problems and there is much that is wrong and much more that needs to be done.

But I also believe we must to do better with illicit drugs in Australia.  This will require a calm, sensible and respectful discussion based on real evidence and a focus on reducing the harms from illicit drugs. Reducing the consumption of drugs is one way of reducing the harm from drugs but the HIV epidemic showed us that being smart about drugs is much more effective than simply being tough.    

Mick Palmer
Former Commissioner of Australian Federal Police.


Thursday, January 16, 2014

A21’s 2008 report on public violence is still relevant today

Richard Eckersley and Lynne Reeder

The Prime Minister’s recent remark likening some entertainment precincts to war zones because of alcohol-fuelled violence echoes comments made down the years about the problem. Violence in public places is an international phenomenon, associated in part with the huge growth in what is called the night-time economy. In Britain, this growth has been called the biggest single threat to public order and health and safety.

The idea might have been to create a civilised, European-style nightlife. The reality is something different: as a British commentator noted, ‘Yeah, well, actually it is a real European environment out there, but a bit less like Paris and more like the Somme’.

In 2008 Victoria Police commissioned Australia21 to conduct an expert roundtable and to write a report on violence and public safety as part of the development of a whole-of-government strategy. The participants came from a range of relevant scientific disciplines and State Government departments and agencies with responsibility for policy development and implementation.

There was agreement across all jurisdictions – police, ambulance, hospitals, courts and education – that there had been a pronounced increase in previous years not only in the incidence of violence, but also in its severity. As one participant said, in the past a pub brawl was just a brawl. The worst thing that might have happened was that someone would be swinging a billiard cue around. ‘Now it’s gone beyond that. It’s the king hit, it’s the glassing, the stabbings, the things that you didn’t really see in the past.’

Much, but not all, of this public violence is alcohol- and drug-related, and involves young people as both offenders and victims. The upsurge in public violence is not readily explained. It is possible Australian society has reached a tipping point, where the conjunction of many social changes and developments – short-term and long-term, specific and broad - has produced social conditions conducive to violence.

Explanations include the growth of the night-time economy and a 24/7 lifestyle, involving specific issues such as: industry deregulation and promotion of economic considerations over social goals; the failure of accords between licensees and authorities; and inadequate public transport in entertainment precincts. There had also been a lack of sustained action to address the problem, and a dearth of good research evidence on what works in some key areas.

Broader explanations include changes in poverty and disadvantage, the family and parenting, and communications technology and the media; an individualistic, consumer culture; and young people’s biological and social development, including links between antisocial behaviour and other aspects of young people’s health and wellbeing. Specific factors here include: parental over-protection or neglect; increased social expectations and pressures, on the one hand, and social exclusion and alienation, on the other; a perception of violence as the norm, even fun; a lack of respect and empathy; and a sense of invulnerability and ignorance of human fragility.

When it came to proposing solutions, some participants focused on more immediate, direct interventions to address public violence, others emphasised a broader, social-development perspective. Nevertheless, most, if not all, participants agreed on the need for a multi-dimensional strategy spanning timeframes, social scales and government jurisdictions.

Key responses reflected this wide range of actions, including:
·         Increased policing of randomly selected premises at random times, and more targeted policing of problem premises.
·         Training bar staff in managing all antisocial behaviours, not just drunkenness.
·         Achieving a better mix of regulatory strategies that balance economic and social goals and objectives, combine informal and formal regulation, and can be adapted to suit different localities.
·         Introducing specific programs in schools to enhance the social and emotional wellbeing of students.
·         Broadening the focus of the education system beyond academic achievement and vocational qualifications to make the curriculum more relevant to young people’s lives and passions.
·         Increasing parent education.
·         Addressing violence in the media.  

Actions have been taken since 2008; some have worked to reduce alcohol- and drug-related violence. But as recent events show, the problem remains. Everyone - including parents, young people, education providers, police and government at all levels - has a role to play in addressing public violence. There are no quick fixes; we need to tackle the deeper social issues as well as the problem itself.

Richard Eckersley and Lynne Reeder are directors of Australia21 and the authors of its report, ‘Violence in public places: Explanations and solutions’, commissioned by Victoria Police in 2008. The report is available at:


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Moving on from Australia’s exclusionary approach to citizenship

Below are the biographical note, and abstract and introductory paragraphs of the contribution by Professor Kim Rubinstein and Jacqueline Field to the Australia21 publication Refugees and asylum seekers: finding a better way.

Who we are not is not who we are: Moving on from Australia’s exclusionary approach to citizenship
Kim Rubinstein and Jacqueline Field

Kim Rubinstein is Professor and Director of the Centre for International and Public Law at the Australian National University. She is an acknowledged expert on citizenship law. Jacqueline Field has been working with Professor Rubinstein on the Australian Research Council project: Small Mercies, Big Futures (ARC Linkage LP100200596) since 2012. She is currently based in Singapore, with an NGO that advocates migrant workers’ rights.


Contemporary Governments’ treatment of asylum seekers and refugees is symptomatic of an enduring focus on excluding outsiders in immigration and citizenship policy. Australia’s constitutional history illustrates that the process of defining the nation itself was grounded ina social and political climate of racism and exclusion. It is significant that in the years since Federation, immigration and citizenship legislation in Australia has largely been based on the Commonwealth’s power to make laws for ‘naturalisation and aliens’. The distinction between citizens and aliens is the foundation of Australian immigration law, which has led to the use of Australian citizenship as a political device of exclusion. But we, as Australians, should not let our history define us. We can engage with the question of what it means to be Australian. We can seek to address the missed opportunities of the past, and reclaim the politicised debates in the refugee and asylum seeker context.

Essay begins

In 2013, both major Australian political parties took radical steps to prevent asylum seekers and refugees from reaching and remaining on Australia’s shores. The treatment of asylum seekers and refugees by current Governments is symptomatic of an enduring focus on excluding outsiders in immigration and citizenship policy. Since the creation of Australia as a Federation, the exclusion of outsiders has been a fundamental policy attitude. This exclusionary focus is grounded in an Australian Constitution that defines its members not by who they are, but rather by who they are not. It reflects a history of Australian citizenship law that has created a community defined by those it excludes. From a constitutional and legal point of view, Australia has never really come to terms with who its members are. In order to move the discourse on asylum-seekers and refugees away from one of exclusion, we as Australian citizens must depart from our historical fixation on who we are not, and seek to define what it means to belong to the Australian community.

To read the full essay

The full essay can be obtained by accessing the complete publication which can be downloaded as a PDF file at no charge from the Australia21 website here.

If you would like to buy a hard copy for $25 including postage you may do so from here.

Please remember that Australia21 is dependent upon public donations to continue its work. If you would like to make a donation you can do so by visiting the Australia21 website at www.australia21.org.au. Donations over $2 are tax deductible.