Drink Tank

Smoke and mirrors: Mixed messages from government

A few months ago the Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced a national taskforce to deal with the growing problem of methamphetamine, or ‘ice’, which would identify ways to approach education, health and law enforcement.

This was backed by $20 million in funding over two years for an ice awareness campaign in Australia.

That sounds pretty good. After all, there have been some disturbing reports on the impact of ice and the community is rightly concerned about its impact.

However, at the same time as expressing concern about ice, the government is drastically cutting funding for a range of support services that are able to prevent and treat the very type of drugs that the Prime Minister is so concerned about.

The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) estimated that $2.4 billion is required to adequately support those who need help with their alcohol and other drugs (AOD) use. Yet in 2012-13, funding by all health departments in Australia only totalled $1.26 billion (31 per cent of which was provided by the Australian Government).

Looking at successive budgets over the past few years, $103 million has been cut from the Department of Health’s Drug Strategy Budget for 2015-16 compared to the forecast spending for the year outlined in the 2013-14 budget.

That’s a 42 per cent reduction in funds, and it doesn’t stop there.

In 2013-14, $251 million was forecast for the Drug Strategy Budget in 2016-17. But the latest forward estimates for the 2015-16 budget forecast just $126 million in 2016-17. That’s a whopping 50 per cent reduction in funds to the 2016-17 Drug Strategy Budget (based on 2013-14 forecasts) and even less in the following year, with $115 million forecast for 2017-18.

The total cuts to the sector amount to $255 million over two years.

Some of these funds were directed to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet as part of the machinery of government changes following the 2013 Federal Election. But it is not clear exactly how much was transferred, although we know cuts to the budget were made. And the 2015-16 budget included an additional $130 million in cuts (over four years) to Programme 2.3: Indigenous Advancement – Safety and Wellbeing, under which these programs now sit.

Budget papers show that these health portfolio ‘savings’, as the cuts are described, were meant to be redirected to the Medical Research Future Fund, although whether this has occurred is uncertain. AOD services need this money now to treat people who are in need of support now. The government should seek revenue for the Medical Research Future Fund from other sources, not from services in desperate need of additional funding to meet current needs.

Not only is the government cutting funds to these services, it is cutting funding to organisations that can provide advice and information on how to deal with these problems.

In late 2013, funding was withdrawn from the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia (ADCA), the national peak body for the AOD sector. ADCA offered the government direct access to the very people that live and breathe AOD and provided important resources to support government work.

One of the ‘reasons’ given for ADCA’s closure was that the government had other organisations it could draw on for advice, like the Australian National Council on Drugs (ANCD). The government has since withdrawn funding to the ANCD, ‘reshaping’ it to become the Australian National Advisory Council on Alcohol and Drugs (ANACAD).

So on the one hand, Tony Abbott says he is concerned about ice and we need to act. But on the other hand, he is ripping funds out of the very sector that is in a position to do something about it.

These cuts are forcing people to add their name to already long waiting lists. Research shows that the sooner people gain access, the greater the chance that treatment will be successful.

Family violence services have also been receiving mixed messages from the government. With the development of the National plan to reduce violence against women and their children 2010-2022, a National framework for prevention to support that plan, the appointment of Rosie Batty as 2015 Australian of the Year, the establishment of a national advisory panel on violence against women and the announcement of a $30 million National awareness campaign to reduce violence against women and their children – you would think that funding was looking secure for services that support victims of family violence. The Prime Minister has even described domestic violence as an unfolding tragedy and has called for more urgent action.

But, just as with the AOD sector, talk did not translate into the type of action those working in the sector were looking for.

Even before the 2015-16 budget critical family violence services had been defunded, including women’s shelters, legal, housing and homeless services. Apart from the Australian Government’s contribution to the awareness campaign, no additional funds were provided to family violence – despite the demand increases already being observed and further increases expected in response to the Prime Minister’s call for action and campaign. On budget night, Fair Agenda released a report that detailed the already ‘unmet’ need for family violence services.

Is it reassuring that AOD isn’t the only sector that is receiving these mixed messages? Or is it disillusioning to know that what the government says is not necessarily reflected in what it does, and that it gives with one hand but takes away much more with the other?

The environment seems right for investment in services that support those in need – the Prime Minister is saying all the right things, the community is supportive of action and the evidence shows a real need. However even this doesn’t seem to be enough.

One wonders whether the Prime Minister is serious about addressing the use of alcohol and other drugs and family violence in our communities. Or if he is simply conducting a smoke and mirrors campaign to hide his real priority: budget cuts.

The mixed messages we’ve been receiving suggest it is the latter.

Meredythe Crane

Meredythe Crane is a Senior Policy Officer at the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE). Her background is in health and education. Meredythe previously worked at the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia.


Join our mailing list