THIS week I assumed I would probably write about the budget, but on balance I thought it was nothing much more than smoke and mirrors based on unrealistic growth expectations.
I assume the conciliatory sentiment in the budget is a precursor to a double dissolution early election before the broader population realises how unrealistic the budget is under the current economic mantra.
This week has been pretty hectic on the farm as I finished off harvesting some sorghum for one of my neighbours, ran the sprayrig over the fallows and started planting this year’s wheat crop. The best part of the week is listening to the radio and catching up on what is going on in the world outside of agriculture.
The most common and disturbing theme lately has been the national crystal methamphetamine or ice epidemic. For a long time I have probably seen it as a less urgent personal issue, but it is clear now that ice is a bigger problem in its own right than just being part of the broader drug problem. It even came up in the budget!
Ice addiction is now widely reported as a bigger social issue in rural and regional communities comparative to its impact in urban communities.
I am not a drug expert by any means, and certainly don’t claim to have any special qualifications or insight into this problem. However, I know that if we are to deal with the ice epidemic, collectively we have to recognise that there is a problem and purposefully talk about it.
In pursuit of this objective, I have started a few conversations about ice. The most disturbing revelation so far has been the story of the local eight-year-old primary school child now being treated for ice addiction. It rammed home to me one of the messages I picked up during a briefing I received from the Salvos in Kings Cross in 2004:
DRUGS ARE A PROBLEM IN YOUR COMMUNITY, INCLUDING ALL THE SMALL AND ISOLATED RURAL COMMUNITIES ACROSS THE ENTIRE COUNTRY.
It is easy to jump to judgements of people without knowing their real circumstances. It is also easy to apply all the superficial stereotypes to distance ourselves from the problem, but too often these prejudicial stereotypes and misinformed assumptions just mean we are not prepared to deal with or even recognise the problem in our own community.
The truth is that rural and regional communities are now amongst the lowest socioeconomic rankings in the country. The steady generational decline in the affluence of the agricultural sector has a direct flow-through to limit the opportunities in our regional towns. Tough seasons have an amplified impact on seasonal and casual labour and many rural centres now rely very heavily on welfare support.
Overlay this problem with some anecdotal observations that rural salaries are significantly lower than our urban counterparts while our food is often up to 20 per cent more expensive. Government cuts to training and education have similarly disproportionately affected regional centres and limited opportunities for our young people. Youth unemployment is high.
So it is not so surprising that a comparatively cheap and convenient drug has taken hold - and now there is a critical problem facing our communities. It is staggering to hear the percentage of people who have tried the highly addictive drug.
I am not particularly qualified to resolve the drug problem in rural Australia, but there are a few observations that I would like to make.
It seems to me that the number of people using ice is simply too big for effective policing of users. Furthermore, the judicial system has a poor track record in regards deterring users of any drug. As a result, it is obvious that reforming laws to address the ice problem and indeed any illicit drug should target the supply of the product much more relentlessly.
Dealers and manufacturers make a decision to participate in an illegal enterprise because they perceive the risk of being caught and the likely ramifications of being caught do not outweigh the financial reward of the enterprise. This is a commercial reality.
It is clear that the risk and consequences of being caught manufacturing and dealing crystal meth must rise to be a real deterrent.
The second part of the business analogy is the demand. It is essential to discourage to the proliferation of an undesirable business by limiting demand.
Many people would suggest that increasing penalties for use would do this. However, history seems to demonstrate that this is not a particularly effective tool and just ties up people and resources after the event so to speak.
There are too many issues in regional communities that we do not recognise formally. These issues include domestic violence, family breakdown and sexuality among others that increase emotional pressure. Failure to openly discuss and address these issues means there are people at risk without any effective support.
We all have a duty of care for those who are vulnerable in our community. We can’t save everybody, but there are many people who are needlessly socially isolated predisposing them to destructive displacement behaviour.
I believe these kinds of social issues are best dealt with in the local community.
The key role of government in this issue must lie in empowering local organisations to engage with and support those who are vulnerable in their communities. It is unlikely that middle-aged bureaucrats based in Canberra or state capitals will effectively deal with this problem, so it is essential that resources move efficiently to support, train and empower local people and initiatives.
I am aware that the Prime Minister is on the "ice bandwagon" and his taskforce has already started consulting, but it is critical that we collectively demand resources flow to local on ground activities.