Introduction by Croakey: At a time when their services are sorely needed, agencies supporting people who use alcohol and other drugs in New South Wales have received a devastating blow from the latest State Budget.
That’s according to Robert Stirling, Chief Executive Officer of the Network of Alcohol and other Drugs Agencies, who describes the Budget “as a last chance for action, a chance for Premier Dominic Perrottet to redress the inaction of his predecessor”.
He writes below that the Budget, which was handed down in June, was a missed opportunity for the NSW Government to help improve the health and wellbeing of communities.
Robert Stirling writes:
We all want to keep our families healthy and to have our local community be a haven of care and support, especially for young people. We want a society where people who seek support for their use of alcohol and other drugs can receive it. But the NSW Government is failing us.
Workers across the sector are now reeling – they have been battling to provide services during COVID-19.
There has been a COVID-induced increase in demand, during reduced capacity. People often turn to alcohol and other drugs to cope, which has led to increasing demand for our services.
At the same time pandemic restrictions meant there have been fewer beds and services available, and at critical times, even fewer workers.
Working in a sector that has suffered chronic underfunding and government-neglect for decades, they were already at breaking point.
It is beyond belief that NSW is the only state in Australia that does not have its own drug strategy – the last one expired in 2010.
Plus, for 28 months now—since January 2020—the government has failed to respond to the recommendations of its own Special Commissioner, Professor Dan Howard SC, who spearheaded a $10 million inquiry and set out 109 recommendations to fix the system.
The NSW State Budget was seen by many as a last chance for action, a chance for Premier Dominic Perrottet to redress the inaction of his predecessor.
We feel a sense of resignation that this report will remain ‘pushed under the carpet’ and won’t be addressed—if not studiously ignored—until next year’s election campaign. The reasoned and thorough recommendations of the inquiry will become the fodder of politics—again.
The Network of Alcohol and other Drugs Agencies (NADA) is the peak organisation for the non-government alcohol and other drugs sector in NSW. We represent 80 organisational members that provide services in over 100 locations across the state.
They provide a broad range of services including health promotion and harm reduction, early intervention, treatment and continuing care programs.
During the pandemic, the NSW Government significantly boosted funding to mental health services, yet alcohol and other drugs services was largely ignored.
A survey of treatment providers across Australia has revealed that around seven out of 10 had experienced an increase in demand by 40 percent or more for their services since the start of the pandemic. This increase is, in part, linked to the spike in mental health issues triggered by the pandemic.
This shows the government cannot properly respond to mental health if it does not also increase resources for alcohol and other drugs treatment.
Our members greatly wish to respond to this increase in need for their services, yet are hamstrung with a historical lack of funding, now compounded by the rise in demand for their services, and the logistical challenges of COVID-19.
But even as we emerge out of the pandemic, the increased pressures and costs on services remain.
When Dominic Perrottet became Premier late last year, NADA wrote to the new leader. We acknowledged the vital role he played as Treasurer in securing new funding for a much needed treatment centre in Dubbo. This was an outstanding outcome.
But one service is not enough.
We urged the new Premier to seize a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve the health and wellbeing of NSW communities and develop a whole of government response for alcohol and other drugs treatment, to improve these vital health services, and properly equip staff on the frontline.
But our call went unheeded. The failure of successive governments to act tragically continues.
NSW must develop a whole of government strategy to respond to alcohol and other drugs over the next 12 months. A strategy that commits to progressive increases in funding for treatment over the next 10 years.
Any response must do more to support existing services that are currently struggling, as well as outline and fund the expansion of new treatment and harm reduction services.
Anything less fails all of us, yet again.
* Robert Stirling is the Chief Executive Officer of the Network of Alcohol and other Drugs Agencies, the peak organisation for non government alcohol and other drugs services in NSW.
Please see Croakey’s extensive archive of articles on drugs and alcohol.