The following address was given by The Hon Bill Shorten, Federal Member for Maribyrnong and Leader of the Opposition, at the Australian Medical Association (AMA) National Alcohol Summit held in Canberra during October 2014.
Representatives from all tiers of government, community leaders, medical and health experts, police, families of victims and other stakeholders gathered at the National Alcohol Summit to discuss the impact of excessive alcohol use and develop a recommended plan of action for the Australian Government to implement real and tangible solutions to alcohol-related harms.
It is a privilege to be here. I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land upon which we meet and pay my respect to their elders both past and present. I congratulate the AMA and everyone who was worked to make this summit take place.
When I look across this theatre, I see people with the knowledge and skills to solve the nation-wide problem of alcohol-related harm. Just as importantly, I see people determined to use their expertise, their learning and their good intentions for the benefit of the nation. I believe the people assembled here are intent on a new level of Australia-wide co-operation.
I am – and it’s fortunate considering the job I have, by nature, an optimist. I do fundamentally believe that progress in this country is indeed a very likely outcome when people and their better angels of their nature are given full expression.
My years representing workers and working with employers. My time in politics also has given me the belief that problems can be solved. Some take longer than others but problems can be solved.
For me politics isn’t just about handing down wisdom from on high. This idea that somewhere above the cloudline of Mount Olympus, there are very clever beings making very clever decisions. I actually believe the way this country changes and progresses and includes all of our citizens, is when we get the wisdom and judgment of leaders to be guided by the people who know – the experts, the people who have dedicated their working lives to examining what really works.
Leadership works best when it conducts itself by empowering people to have their voices heard. And I have long believed that the surest way to finding the best solution is to get the smartest people – even if they have differing views – in the same room at the same time.
So, today, when I see the clinicians, public health experts, leaders in law enforcement, campaigners and activists, researchers and policy thinkers gathered here…I believe that indefinable element of change called momentum, is here.
I’m here today because I do think we need to find a solution. We need to get on with it.
This summit, engaging public health experts and law enforcement in constructive discussions to look at how we can reduce alcohol related harm – is a long overdue first step. That’s why my shadow health minister, Catherine King, and I have supported this event from day one when the AMA first spoke to us about it. The enthusiasm and commitment we publicly expressed in January has not waivered – it has grown.
It has become fashionable in the last forty-eight hours to talk about parliament working together. I applaud this development. But I do have to say that I am disappointed that the Federal Government has not offered the same support for this event, that the Opposition has. I hope they change their view – and I hope they change it soon.
We can’t afford to waste time, we can’t afford further inaction.
I believe the Australian people are ahead of the parliament of Australia when it comes to this problem. Australians do not need to be told of the consequences – they see them every day.
I do not know the back-story of how you all come to here, but if alcohol related harm hasn’t affected you personally, I would be most surprised. Australians know what is happening. In hospitals, workplaces, legal centres, shelters – and in their homes, in their communities, amongst their friends and neighbours.
People know that if we don’t act, quickly, problems just get worse – and I’m conscious that this is a message the AMA has boldly heard and decided to act upon.
There is much to be done, and Labor has taken some important steps. When we were last in government, we introduced the National Binge Drinking Strategy to address binge drinking, particularly among young people. As part of this strategy, Labor worked with community organisations and local and national sporting organisations to communicate the short and long-term harms of drinking at risky levels.
We continued to support the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia – a vitally important organisation which has provided fearless, evidence-based policy advice to governments for more than fifty years. I do believe that the Government’s decision to withdraw funding for this body was both misguided and short-sighted.
So, we all know that in this room and beyond this room, there is no shortage of ideas and evidence and commitment.
Our responsibility is to harness all of this – all the knowledge, all the ideas. What’s been done before? What hasn’t been sufficiently done before? How do you unite a disparate range of people with a common focus? How do we form a common purpose to determine our next steps? Today I am here to pledge my support for this summit and its objectives, to do my part to help increase public awareness of alcohol-related harm, and to be part of an important national conversation.
A multi-faceted response
Like so many wicked problems we face in our community, alcohol-related harm takes many forms and manifests itself in many different ways. It is more than just a health issue, it is more than just a police issue – We cannot arrest our way out of this challenge. It is a question of social justice and national responsibility.
For too long, we have seen the terrible consequences of alcohol abuse across Australia. We’ve seen it through the tragedy of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. We know it is inextricably linked with family violence and street violence. We know of the devastating effect of ‘rivers of grog’ on some Indigenous communities. And perhaps most obviously – but frequently forgotten – we know of its impacts on our own health, including our mental health.
And as much as Australians are ‘anecdotally’ aware of these pressing social problems – the hard numbers do give us pause for thought.
The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education quotes 24,000 victims of alcohol-related family violence each year. But in my home state of Victoria in 2009/10, we had more than 15,000 family incidents involving alcohol. I believe we need to ask if the national figure is higher than has previously been reported. For example, in the 2012 Personal Safety Survey 53 per cent of women who had been assaulted by a male – nearly 920,000 out of over 1.7 million – reported that alcohol or drugs had been involved in their most recent incident of physical assault.
Better, more accurate reporting – learning more about the scale and size of this problem can only assist in the demand for a solution.
The fact is, every manifestation of alcohol abuse comes at a terrible human cost to families and individuals, a cost to community safety and a social and economic cost. So today is an opportunity for all of us to give new thought to role of law enforcement agencies, their officers and whether they have the right resources.
We need to think about how our police, our health practitioners, our public health professionals, policy makers and community support service providers can better coordinate their work.
We need to acknowledge honestly the cost and consequences of alcohol abuse on our legal system, our health system and ultimately, on our communities and our families.
In all of this, we need to look at the evidence – what works, what doesn’t – and why.
But we must also be realistic. In the end, alcohol consumption is – and always should be – a matter of personal decision-making by adults. It is, first and foremost, a question of personal responsibility-and a retreat into prohibition would achieve nothing.
Our job is not to lecture, to moralise or sermonise – it is to ensure that Australians are given every opportunity to make informed decisions. I respect the ability of Australians – individually when presented with evidence – to more often than not, to choose the right outcomes. But they do need the evidence.
I also believe that we have a collective responsibility to prevent people from doing harm (especially to others) as a result of alcohol abuse. Because when an individual’s choices impact negatively, sometimes tragically, on others – governments at every level have an opportunity and indeed a requirement to step up, to lead public opinion – not follow it.
Alcohol-fuelled violence – in our streets and in our homes should never be tolerated. The disturbing fact is, a number of Australians look at violence as the end point of a good night out.
These are young men who, fuelled by alcohol, set themselves upon innocent bystanders. It’s not a fight – or a scuffle. It’s certainly not an act of athleticism, so much as it is an ambush, it’s violence and it’s wrong. And the victim of the attack is so often in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
Now of course there are other factors involved in violence.
I know communities, paramedics and police have been shocked by the horrible effects of ‘ice’ – a public menace that must be addressed as soon as possible, and an issue I am keen to engage with on the national stage – not to just leave it to the states.
In January, following the tragic death of Daniel Christie, I wrote to the Prime Minister urging him to support the powerful advertising campaign being put together by Australian boxing champ Danny Green. Danny’s message was simple – and direct – ‘one punch can end a life, and ruin another’ and ‘it takes guts to walk away’. It gave new energy to the idea of changing the expression of ‘king-hit’ to ‘coward punch’. It’s a strong statement and a smart one. And we need many more of our sporting leaders so say this time and time again.
Because there is nothing brave, glamorous or tough about alcohol-fuelled violence. It’s a momentary act of aggressive stupidity that destroys at least two lives – and damages hundreds more.
The measures introduced by the New South Wales Government to tackle ‘coward-punch’ attacks are one way of addressing the insidious symptoms of alcohol abuse. But we cannot and should not expect a solution by leaving it up to police to solve all of these problems at the very end of a chain of events. We cannot ask our police forces to arrest our way out of this problem.
We need to go beyond dealing with the manifestation of the problem – we need to focus on the cause.
That’s about changing more than our laws, it’s an examination of who we are and our identity and Australians. How do our young men perceive themselves? What is their self-identity? What does it mean to be a ‘man’ in 21st Century Australia? Where do they fit in? How do they have a positive sense of self-worth?
As a parent of teenagers, I know these are difficult questions. There are millions of families trying to grapple with these questions every day. And of course – for all the protections that parents can provide their children – alcohol related violence can undermine all of your efforts in the blink of an eye.
A few weeks ago, following a young man’s suicidal attack on two police officers in Endeavour Hills, I said to the House of Representatives that perhaps part of the appeal of fundamentalism and sectarianism is that, in an uncertain and ever-changing world: It offers a sense of power to people who may feel powerless, an outlet for the bottled-up rage and hatred of the isolated and unwell.
I think there is an element of truth in that for every act of violence that occurs on our streets. And that means we need to look beyond the act of violence and see the psychology that drives it.
We need to consider the mental health effects of alcohol abuse, the sense of loneliness and exclusion it can exacerbate and be exacerbated by.
We have made great strides in the way talk about mental health in this country – but we can do better, we can do more.
As Leader of the Opposition, I have made tackling family violence a personal political priority. It is not a niche issue, it is not something that we are better off not discussing – it needs to be at the centre of our national political debate.
I’ve had the opportunity to talk to frontline shelter workers, to talk to victims – to talk with national and local organisations working to prevent family violence, and rebuild the lives of those affected by it – I hope to convene more in the months ahead. These are valuable opportunities to hear directly from the leading advocates, community organisations and academics on one of the all-too-often unacknowledged scourges of our communities.
Staggeringly, 1 in 3 women will be the victim of physical violence – one woman every week dies at the hands of a former partner. This is grievously, shockingly wrong. And the biggest risk factor for becoming a victim of sexual assault, domestic violence or family violence is being a woman. So the first and most important element to consider in tackling family violence is gender equality – again it’s about cultural examination, respect for women, and male role models.
But a powerful exacerbating factor when it comes to family violence, is the abuse of alcohol by men. A 2011 study estimated that alcohol contributes or is present in half of all kinds of partner violence, and 73 per cent of partner physical assaults.
And it is our children – the most vulnerable in our community – whose childhoods and dreams and memories are scarred by these memories. Our children look to the adults in their world to be as brave and optimistic as they are. They expect it of us. It takes no bravery – it takes no optimism – to do nothing about alcohol related violence. Children expect us to step up for them. I see this forum as part of that fulfilment of our responsibility to look after our children.
There are environmental factors that affect this too, and we cannot overlook the role of alcohol as an environmental factor.
While they are not the target, children are often the subject of alcohol advertising, and the leadership displayed by the AMA in convening this summit allows an opportunity to discuss this. Exposure to this material as children unquestionably has an impact on patterns of drinking later in life.
If we are to address some of the social harms associated with alcohol we will also have to consider a sensible, co-operative way forward on this question.
Friends, I am confident that we will look back on today as an important moment in the national conversation about developing momentum nationally about tackling the harm caused by alcohol abuse.
It is easy for national governments to say that matters are state issues. It is easy for governments to say that they’re state police matters or women’s issues or issues to do with one aspect of public health. The truth of the matter is, there’s not much point in getting elected to parliament in Canberra if you’re not willing to look at issues which affect all of us.
There’s not much point in trying to call yourself a leader, if you won’t talk about issues which are hard, too difficult, too contentious. I do not believe that tackling alcohol influenced violence and alcohol related harm, is too hard. I believe it is a matter of national importance. It is a matter of showing the leadership to say to Australians that this is something that together, we can tackle.
I understand the need to have strategic approaches and national coordination. I understand that we need to listen to parents more and to assist them. What I don’t understand is when a government says that something which is a real problem in our community, is not a matter of national importance.
So I thank you for forcing some of us to come here.
Full coverage of the 2014 Australian Medical Association (AMA) National Alcohol Summit is available at https://ama.com.au/alcoholsummit.