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Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 2001 Week 9 Hansard (21 August) . . Page.. 3004 ..

Referendum Bill 2001

Debate resumed from 9 August 2001, on motion by Mr Stefaniak:

That this bill be agreed to in principle.

MR STANHOPE (Leader of the Opposition) (10.51): The Labor Party opposes this bill. In his presentation speech the Attorney-General spoke the obvious in outlining the problems caused by drug use in the ACT. Our young people, and our indigenous young people, are particularly at risk. We all know that. We see the overdose statistics. There is hardly a Canberra family that has not been touched in some way, either directly or through indirect knowledge of friends or neighbours or relations, by the scourge of drugs.

We all know that the whole community suffers from drug related deaths and overdoses, not only in terms of the trauma to families but also in terms of our overloaded ambulance, hospital and health care services. The whole community suffers too from the costs of the illicit drugs trade, from the increased crime and insecurity this engenders, and from the need for more and more jails as a result of US-style policies of zero tolerance. Everyone in the Canberra community agrees with the Attorney-General's assessment that we clearly have a problem. We do clearly have a problem, a problem that this bill will do absolutely nothing to solve.

At best this bill is premature. The time to ask the community for judgments about the advisability of establishing programs based on trials is when those trials have been conducted and an assessment of the results, the benefits and problems, is possible. At worst, the holding of a referendum could create a precedent of effectively blocking any future social initiative or trial by an ACT government. There could always then be a demand by opponents to any new policy that the community be asked to vote on this bill through referenda before any decisions are made.

The notion that this Assembly support a referendum designed to settle the government's approach to a major health policy issue is absolutely wrong-headed. It is an abrogation of responsibility and leadership. It brings the Assembly into disrepute. Such referenda will be extremely costly and will be inimical to good planning, to committee process, to reliance on expert advice, and to the simple notion that governments are elected to govern.

Government by referendum poses problems in a democracy. No real provision is made for minority groups' interests. A referenda process on single issues can be captured by well financed self-interest groups at the expense of community welfare and cohesion.

This particular referendum will cost an estimated $210,000, money that could well be spent in a health funding or rehabilitation program. An amount of $20,000 will be spent on the development of the four arguments-$5,000 each for the pros and cons of the two questions-and each must be presented in no more than 2,000 words, which is less than the length of this speech.

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