Ms PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) (14:22): I am pleased to rise today to make a contribution on the debate on the decriminalisation of public drunkenness. Let me be very clear from the outset, the Reason Party will be supporting this legislation today. We think it is a very important step to start framing substance use and misuse as a health issue and not a criminal one. But I think more importantly it is another step to reducing deaths in custody, particularly the deaths in custody of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, who we know are 10 times more likely to die in custody than non-Indigenous people in Australia.
We certainly have not rushed to get here. Thirty years ago the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody made 339 recommendations, one of which was to decriminalise drunkenness. As we have heard today there have been many other reports, even from this very Parliament, about public drunkenness. We have seen every other state in Australia decriminalise public drunkenness, so I am pleased that we are finally here.
I would like to really acknowledge the very hard work of Nerita Waight from the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, Jill Gallagher from the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, the Human Rights Law Centre and, as most of us today have acknowledged, the Day family. We know that Tanya Day was much loved and a proud Yorta Yorta woman. She was removed from a train and taken into police custody for being intoxicated in public. In fact she was asleep in public. While in custody she sustained a serious head injury from falling in a police cell and died 17 days later. If that was not tough enough that a grandmother, a mother, died in custody, the fact that in 1982 her uncle also died in custody made this even more tragic and certainly more poignant. To think how strong the Day family has been to continue on this campaign, because Harrison Day died in police custody in Echuca in 1982, having been arrested for a $10 unpaid fine, a charge for being drunk and disorderly.
So I thank the Day family and the many First Nations people and families who have brought this to this house today, because while Aboriginal people account for 0.8 per cent of the population in Victoria, they account for 6.5 per cent of all public drunkenness offences.
I welcome this amendment to the Summary Offences Act 1966 to decriminalise public drunkenness. This obviously was recommended 30 years ago in the deaths in custody report. This was recommended by the expert reference group in Seeing the Clear Light of Day. It was recommended in the coroner’s report, and as we have heard, recommended in many other reports.
We have heard from Mr Grimley, Mr Bourman and certainly Mr O’Donohue about some of the concerns from the police. I too met with the Police Association Victoria and heard some of their concerns about this. They are concerned that they are going to find themselves at the front line ill-equipped to help someone who is intoxicated, that they are not going to know how to manage this—and, frankly, this is what we heard. They are not equipped to manage this; they do not have the appropriate health- and community-based skill sets. If you look at the testimony that the police gave in the coroner’s report, they could not find a service available for Ms Day. The local resource, such as the Aboriginal community justice panel, which is a volunteer service run by VALS, the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, they are so profoundly under-resourced that they were unable to intervene on that particular day with Tanya Day.
In fact Mr Bourman had a story where he reflected on a circumstance that he was in as a police officer when he was not able to help a person and that person died in custody. While Mr Bourman was using that as an example to oppose the legislation, in my mind it just further strengthened the fact that police are not equipped. It is not right when you think someone is very drunk, dangerously drunk, to have them locked in a police cell, where the police with all the good will in the world to keep that person safe certainly do not have the skills to do it. That poor man that Mr Bourman spoke about, who sadly died because he had bleeding on the brain, to me is just yet another reason why we should be welcoming these amendments today. And we should welcome them today. We do not need to delay this any further.
We do need to fund organisations. There is no doubt about that. In fact had these been funded earlier, maybe Tanya Day could have actually had a different pathway and maybe her family would not be missing her every day—children without a mother, grandchildren without a grandmother. So I support the initial budget announcement of $16 million, and I think that will certainly go a long way to initiating the reforms outlined in the Seeing the Clear Light of Day report.
Despite what we have heard today that we are not ready to do this and maybe we need to get ready to do this, we have seen from that report that we are very ready to do this. We are more than ready to do this. In fact we have been trying to do it. In fact—
Mr Limbrick interjected.
Ms PATTEN: I will take up Mr Limbrick’s interjection. We should have done this 30 years ago. This is something that we are well behind in. I acknowledge that the legislation is largely a vessel. It enables us to set up the systems that will keep people safe, to establish pathways to a health response rather than a criminal response. And also there is that 24 months, so this is not going to be implemented tomorrow, as you would kind of assume with some of the contributions we have heard today; this will be implemented in November 2022. We have a number of months to get this right, to prepare for this, to train for this, to establish services. There will be three trial sites, as we know—Mildura, Dandenong and the Melbourne CBD—and what might work in Fitzroy will not work in Mildura. This is what we are going to look at.
When I look at the expert reference group’s recommendations—of which there are many—they also talk about the fact that there may be other legislated powers that will be required. So as we are working towards this implementation we may see that we may need to give police further powers in a strictly limited way to enable police to detain people or to transport them. But there are so many other recommendations here that set through really clear pathways—that talk about staff ratios for sobering-up centres, that really go into significant detail. So I do not think that we are not ready for this, that we need to delay this while we try and work out what we are going to do. We know what we are going to do. The expert reference group has given us a very clear path, has given us very clear recommendations and instructions, as did the coroner in her report. She went to great detail in discussing what changes needed to be made in the health system and what changes needed to be made in our emergency response when someone is found intoxicated in a public place.
I think of course that this is the first step also in treating all drugs as a health issue. We speak about this often. We cannot keep arresting our way out of the drugs issue or the drug war. We have to treat drug use as a health issue, and this does that. But I would love to see us go further. I would like to see the decriminalisation of drug use across the board—treating it as a health issue, because that is what it is.
I am pleased to support this bill. I thank Ms Watt for her really powerful and personal stories. What gives me great optimism about this legislation probably for the most part is that when someone is intoxicated to that degree, they are in trouble. They need help. And when someone is—as we see in some of our regional areas and certainly as I was hearing about in Mildura—getting picked up every Friday for being so intoxicated that they cannot walk, then they are not getting the help they need in that police cell. What they actually need and what has been laid out in front of us by the expert reference group is a pathway to help. That first point of call—when we treat that drunk person as someone in need of a health response, not a criminal response—also opens up the doors to further rehab.
I will watch with interest as we start preparing for this legislation. I will watch with interest as we start establishing the systems and putting them in place. I will watch with interest the trials that will be underway over the next two years. And what I really hope is that this is for many people the first step to recovery, that it is not that they go into a sobering-up centre and then leave but that they are then given the opportunity to take that next step to recovery—that this is actually a non-judgemental, non-stigmatised way of enabling more people to seek help for their drug use or misuse. I commend the bill.
Fiona Patten MP
Leader of Reason
Member for Northern Metropolitan Region
Second reading 19/2/21