TRANSCRIPT: ABC 702 Drive, Monday 15 February




RICHARD GLOVER, PRESENTER: Tanya Plibersek is the Deputy Opposition Leader and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Larissa Behrendt is a professor of indigenous research at UTS and new presenter of Speaking Out on ABC Radio. Tanya and Larissa are with me in Sydney, welcome, thank you for coming in. And with us in Melbourne is Simon Breheny, he’s from the Institute of Public Affairs. Simon, good afternoon to you as well.


GLOVER: Now drug use should not attract criminal charges, although people selling drugs should still be targeted by police. That’s the drug policy of the Greens with the party’s leader, Richard Di Natale also arguing that police should allow pill testing facilities at music festivals so people could make sure that their pills didn’t have dangerous additives, this is of course after several deaths. It is though, a view that did not attract much support from the NSW Police Minister, Troy Grant. Who is right here? Should there be liberalisation with this Portuguese model, say the Greens, whereby you still crack down on the dealers but try to have a medical response to those who are taking the stuff? Simon Breheny.

BREHENY: Oh look, I couldn’t agree more with Troy Grant’s comments today. Certainly I think it would be completely inappropriate to have a tax payer funded pill testing regime at music festivals, I think that seems absurd. But having said that, I think the idea of pill testing in general is a good one – I mean surely if you have an issue where people are taking pills at music festivals, allowing for them to pay out of their own pocket to make sure that they are taking a safe substance rather than one that is going to do them medical harm seems to me to be a completely sensible proposal.

GLOVER: You’re saying it depends on who paid but if you’re doing it within the festival, your system even if people pay it for themselves, means that the police have to turn a blind eye.

BREHENY: No I don’t think it does. I think they’re two separate questions. I think if you’re going to have a regime like this in place, I think it makes a very dangerous activity safer. But I don’t necessarily think that means that police should turn a blind eye. Having said that, I do think that it’s very strange to say, well, drug use itself shouldn’t attract criminal charges but we’ll go after the dealers – I just don’t think that makes much sense. I think if the Greens were to hold a logical stance all the way through, they’d say drug use is either a bad thing or a good thing, or it’s something that the government shouldn’t concern itself with and therefore taking drugs or selling drugs is not something the government should be involved in.

GLOVER: Tanya Plibersek, Richard Di Natale says this has worked for Portugal, for instance, this business of keeping on attacking the dealers but regarding the takers as a medical problem.

TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Well I think like a lot of these issues, it’s quite a bit more complex than either harm-minimisation or a policing response. I think you have to have a strong policing response and we heard today about the billion dollar drug bust that you were reporting on earlier, and you’ve got to congratulate the police on that. But at the same time we’ve had harm-minimisation policies that have saved many lives in Australia, including through the medically supervised injecting room and including because we’ve worked with drug users to educate them about safer injecting – that means we’ve got some of the lowest HIV rates in the world. So you need to take the advice of experts and you need to work with affected communities to make sure that you’re reducing demand for drugs, you’re reducing supply for drugs and you’ve got proper treatment and rehabilitation services available when they’re needed. And in fact, sadly, we saw $800 million cut from the health flexible funds by the Federal Government that support exactly those types of services.

GLOVER: The Greens are saying that if you save the money on policing, you could spend it on treatment and rehabilitation.

PLIBERSEK: Well I don’t think you can save the money on policing, I think you still need a strong law enforcement response because we know the people who are involved in largescale supply and distribution of drugs like ice are causing untold harm in our cities, in our remote communities, regional communities, a lot of families being destroyed in particular by ice at the moment. So I don’t think it’s fair to say we don’t have an interest as a society in reducing supply and demand.

GLOVER:  What about this pill testing idea – just limit yourself to that? The idea that you have a music festival, you allow someone to set up a stall so that people can come along and they can say, “yeah this ecstasy tablet is actually ecstasy, it’s not some sort of deadly chemical that’s going to kill you in 5 minutes”.

PLIBERSEK: Look I think it’s worth examining whether it’s worked and where it’s worked. I guess the problem with that approach is even if you are testing one pill in a batch, it doesn’t mean that another pill in the same batch is not a bad pill and in fact some of the deaths that we’ve seen in recent times, groups of young people have been supplied with the same tablet and for some reason, a higher concentration of one of the active ingredients or some sort of reaction in the person whose taking it, those young people have still died. So I don’t think it’s necessarily a good idea to give people the false view that you can safely take tablets.

GLOVER: Larissa?

LARISSA BEHRENDT, PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS RESEARCH, UTS: Well, I guess I sort of feel too that this is not an area where just a simple police response is going to work and I guess like most people I think we also need to focus on harm-minimisation. And I guess for me too I can see what a big difference the regulation of things that were previously prohibited around the HIV virus – what an important public policy change that was. And it gives us a really good indication of where we have got these complex issues that there is a way of still regulating and making things much safer. I’d have to also say, in a past life having worked in the courts and seeing how simple mistakes can really unhinge a young person’s life, I think there’s a lot of sympathy within the community for finding other ways other than just simple criminalisation.

GLOVER: So you get one time caught with an ecstasy tablet and you’ve suddenly got a criminal history and employment problems and all that.

BEHRENDT: Yeah and I guess most people would feel like you can make one mistake and being heavy handed on that side of the equation is not really the way to solve the problem, whereas of course dealing, importation etc – that’s really where, as Tanya points out, the impact of that on the community is horrendous and we do need a strong police response to that. I agree I think that it’s not an either/or: I think we need the strong police response but we also need to have really targeted programs that will help raise awareness and where it is appropriate, treat addiction as a medical problem. I think people would feel a lot more comfortable if there was more involvement in these debates from heath politicians than just politicians and perhaps the police.

GLOVER: It’s been complicated in indigenous communities, hasn’t it? Where people have been experimenting with prohibition of alcohol and sometimes that’s worked out really well and sometimes it’s brought unintended consequences.

BEHRENDT: Yeah and I think a really interesting lesson from the indigenous community is where communities decide themselves to be dry and they take the responsibility themselves that that’s the road they want to go down, it’s incredibly successful. And what we do know is when you try and impose those same sort of dry areas on an indigenous community that hasn’t kind of got the same buy in, it’s a disaster and all you do is shift the problem. There probably actually is something to be learnt from the importance of having some sort of community buy in to the response and also the fact that you can’t impose a “one size fits all” across communities on these really complex issues.

GLOVER: Now early tomorrow morning, Australia’s population will pass the mark of 24 million. It was 12 million in 1968 so it’s doubled in a bit under 50 years. Fuelled by a higher than predicted fertility rate – some actually did have one for the country, it seems, as Peter Costello famously requested – plus a growth in migration and longevity. Are we getting too big too fast? Larissa Behrendt?

BEHRENDT: Well I just spent the weekend out at Camooweal which is about 200 km from Mount Isa towards the Northern Territory border, and when you’re out there in all that vastness you certainly don’t think of the word “overpopulation” when it comes to Australia. So perhaps with that in mind, hearing that debate today was kind of interesting. But I guess for me, of course overpopulation is not the same as a sustainable population and I think that’s what we’ve really got to consider. So from my point of view, I think we’ve got the capacity to be more generous about our population size – we probably have more selfish reasons to think about that, with an aging population. But I think the key really is how we plan for that, and it will challenge us to think more about how we plan, but also about things like sustainability: how do we use resources, how do we recycle, what does life look like if we are a larger population?

GLOVER: Well I mean there are some radical people on this subject who say that the right population of Australia is 8 million, or 12 million or something like that, that anything else is not sustainable. There are other people who say, look, in terms of defence and all these other things, the old phrase was “populate or perish”, wasn’t it?

BEHRENDT: And of course when we’re so close to places like Indonesia, it sounds a bit absurd when we’re sort of so precious about the population numbers that we have and a lot of our country is, you know – I mean I guess the point was made on your show earlier that the likelihood that the person who will take us over this 24 million benchmark will be born in Western Sydney and I think part of what we need to think about is that we are actually a predominantly urban population – that’s true for the Aboriginal population as well, we don’t live so much statistically in remote areas – we live in Western Sydney too. So I think it’s also thinking about if that’s where our population is, we need to be thinking about things like infrastructure and schools and what sort of support we give and what the quality of life is. But I think what we’d find is we are a very innovative country; we’re a very resourceful country; we punch above our weight on lots of things; I think we can afford to be a bit more generous about our population levels if we put some of that into action.

GLOVER: Tanya Plibersek?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think Larissa makes a really good point: it’s about how we live with each other, so it’s about urban design, good public transport, open green spaces. And it’s also about how we chew up our resources; it means making sure that we are energy efficient, using our water properly in a dry continent like Australia. So I don’t think the absolute number is so much the issue as the way we choose to live, the way we choose to design our cities and use up our resources.

GLOVER: Ok you are talking to an audience half of which are stuck on the M5 as you’re speaking to them and some are yelling at their radios, “We can’t have any more people!”

PLIBERSEK: No, but this is the exact point. I mean, in 1910 the McGowan Government bought the first lots of land around North Head and Vaucluse because they said, “we need to keep this beautiful harbour, this is the inheritance of the people of Sydney”. They were looking 100 years ahead and that’s what we should be doing with our public transport, our roads, our green spaces, our urban design – looking at how we’ll live together in 100 years time.

GLOVER: So, Breheny, are we growing too fast?

BREHENY: No absolutely not. Look there’s no such thing as overpopulation; we don’t need to worry about it -

PLIBERSEK: The market will take care of it, Simon!

BREHENY: Well not only do we not need to worry about it but in fact what happens with increased population is you overwhelmingly get good outcomes, particularly in countries like Australia where we’ve got a really strong legal system, we’ve got the rule of law, we’re very open to trade, that overwhelmingly means really good things, particularly when it comes to the economy. So, you get the contribution of new ideas – the more people that are here the more ideas are circulated around – that leads to productivity gains. Even increased population density forces higher degree of organisation, if you’ve got more people in a smaller area it means you have to become more organised and that’s a terrific thing. And that then leads to decreases in transportation and communication distances so you get all of these gains from lower costs of, you know, storing goods and transportation costs.

GLOVER: But you also get countries like China, don’t you, where everything is polluted, every river system seems to be polluted, the air is poisonous to breathe.

BREHENY: That’s absolutely true but overwhelmingly China at the moment - I mean it’s enjoying an economic growth rate that’s far greater than ours - and all of those problems that China is facing in terms of its environment are problems that are currently being tackled. So, the more people that China has, the more people they’ve got throwing ideas around that mean that they’re going to be able to tackle those problems. Yes those issues exist, but they are already on the path to solving a lot of those environmental problems and I’ve got great faith in the Australian people that a greater population – and you know, per capita we are much, much wealthier that places like India and China – we’re much better equipped to deal with some of those issues. So I don’t think there’s any risk in Australia of having those sorts of problems. But even in places like that where you’ve got high population density, they are dealing with those problems and I have no doubt that in 50 years they’ll have an environment that’s just as clean as Australia or the United States or any wealthy populations.

GLOVER: The bigger the better, Tanya?

PLIBERSEK: No, look I just don’t agree with Simon on that point. I’m not opposed to a larger population and I think densely populated cities can be very liveable cities. Look at Singapore, I think it’s a great city: a lot of people living there, great public transport, great green space. But it’s not automatic. It doesn’t happen automatically: it takes some thought, it takes some investment. You really have to think about all of those things that make a city liveable: great public transport, good schools, healthcare, people being able to live and work close together and recreate. You need to put some thought in.  

GLOVER: Now NSW public schools are increasingly turning to their P&Cs to fund specialist literacy and numeracy programs, including gifted and talented classes. P&Cs are also asking parents for annual voluntary contributions which are in addition to the voluntary school fees. At Epping Boys High, to quote just one example, parents apparently are now asked to give over $800 per student - half goes to the school that voluntary fund, half to the P&C. Is it good that public schools are seeking to get a little extra for students or is it creating a new divide in education, between public schools in wealthy and poor areas? Tanya Plibersek.

PLIBERSEK: Well I think it’s important that school contributions are voluntary and that parents understand that they’re voluntary and that schools are sensitive about the fact that some parents can’t afford $800 or $300 or $400, depending on the school. But in many cases, parents are very happy to make a contribution; they love to support their local school either through fundraising or through these voluntary payments. What it does tell you though is that we have a greater systemic problem with school funding and that’s why we asked David Gonski to do the Gonski School Funding Review and that’s why he came back with a needs-based funding model that said that the poorest kids in the poorest areas deserved greater support through tax payer funded contributions to schools. And that’s why we’ve said that we’d continue the needs-based funding model with “Your Child, Our School” contributing an extra $32 billion to the education system over coming years.

GLOVER: Ok in the meantime, with the Gonski debate to one side, is this a good idea with answering the problem that we’ve got, or is the issue even if parents can afford it, that means that schools that happen to be in a district with wealthier parents are going to have a better quality of education than schools in a poorer area?

PLIBERSEK: They do and you can see it. I mean you can see public schools that are very successful at fundraising from their parent body that are able to provide all sorts of extra resources for their kids. I see it when I visit schools, not just in my electorate but around the country and that’s why you can’t rely on a system that requires that type of fundraising to provide a great education for every Australia child.

GLOVER: Simon, should we be worried about the increasing use of these so-called voluntary fees?

BREHENY: No, no, no of course not. Look I think it’s a great idea and certainly if it helps to fund programs that students need, then more power to them. And this question about inequality is an interesting one but I have to say, I’m really not concerned about inequality if all we mean by that is some students are doing better. It’s not a zero-sum game – one group of students obtaining better educational outcomes doesn’t necessarily mean that others are doing worse.

GLOVER: But isn’t the public school system one of those great things in our society – a free public education of a similar standard to everybody is one of those absolute deliverers of fairness and equity, isn’t it?

BREHENY: Essentially what you’re defending there, then is a lowest common denominator educational system and surely the education policy shouldn’t punish schools because they’re providing better educational outcomes to some students or they’re putting in place innovative funding models. I think that’s a great idea and surely the focus, rather than focusing on some students doing better than others should be that overall education outcomes should be increased.

PLIBERSEK: But inequality is not about what Simon’s describing. Inequality in our school system means that a gifted and talented school kid in a wealthy school gets a program tailored for his or her benefit and that same child if they’re in a poor school doesn’t get it. Or a kid who’s falling behind in a poor school keeps falling behind because they don’t get the individual attention they need to catch up. Inequality across the school system means the same kids in different schools don’t get the same opportunities.

BEHRENDT: And as a product of the public school system, I guess I’ve got a bias towards wanting it to be the best that it can and I think Tanya makes a good point – what the Gonski review told us is there is an inequality that needs to be fixed. And I think there are a couple of things that that raises for me. The first is that I agree with Tanya that it is of concern that a gifted child in a lower socioeconomic area is not going to have the capacity to access these programs and what I think would concern me most in your question is that the fundraising is being done for specialist literacy and numeracy programs. Some of that is to bring kids up to a certain level, some of that is to give kids who are really gifted – who in a public school often don’t get a chance to really flourish because they don’t have access to those kinds of things. And I guess the other thing that it kind of raises for me as a larger issue is that once upon a time the universal education system wasn’t just about making sure every kid got the same chance, but it was also to make sure that whatever the background of the parents, they were invested in that system. And I think as more and more people have taken their kids from the public system to the private system, they’re less invested in this. So I think there’s actually – Tanya says there’s a structural problem and that is, how do you get more buy in from the broader community as to about why there is this systemic kind of funding.

GLOVER: A lot of the voters now are in private schools.

BEHRENDT:  Right so it’s not the same issue.

PLIBERSEK: It’s also about our national productivity: we can’t have a productive economy if we’re not investing in all of our people.

GLOVER: Just a quick response, Simon.

BREHENY: Yeah look, I think Tanya and Larissa have both brought up a really, really interesting point which how do you ensure that an education system gives gifted kids and everyone else of course, the opportunities that a good education should allow them to flourish and make the most of their abilities. And I think the best way of achieving that is to hand power back to schools and to school communities and to allow parents to make those choices about where they’re sending their kids to school.