The problem of crystal methamphetamine addiction now requires little public elucidation in Australia. Whether smoked, ingested, inhaled or injected, this highly addictive stimulant saddles users with mental and physical conditions ranging in severity from teeth grinding to psychosis, kidney failure and even death.
The arrival in Australia of major international drug cartels, working with locally based outlaw motorcycle gangs, has resulted in the ice problem spilling out of the cities and into country and regional areas. The term epidemic is now frequently invoked to describe the extent of the ice problem in regional Australia. Troublingly, governments have been slow to expand treatment services for ice addicts. Even in relatively prosperous Canberra this is an issue, as this newspaper revealed this week.
It is now routine for people seeking help in the Territory to be told that they have to wait two to three months for a place in a residential program. Carrie Fowler, chief executive of the Alcohol Tobacco and Other Drug Association ACT, says of the deficit in shortfall that it "is unacceptable and perpetuates or prolongs crisis, risks and harms for people needing treatment, their families and the community".
According to the Productivity Commission, the ACT has one of the lowest numbers of rehab providers in Australia. This paucity is doubtless accentuated by the fact that ACT government funding for drug treatment has apparently remained static for the past 12 years, even as the number of people presenting for treatment for ice addiction has increased dramatically. Strangely, however, the government 's support for drug rehabilitation programs at the Alexander Maconochie Centre remains undiminished.
It will strike many Canberrans as odd that the government should see fit to pour resources into rehab programs at the AMC (and which, according to the ACT Auditor General, are frequently under-utilised) while it makes people who actually want help with their addictions wait months for treatment.
The inability of the government to fund social welfare programs to an adequate level necessarily entails difficult decisions. But given the high individual and community costs associated with drug addiction, a review into drug rehabilitation services in the ACT is probably warranted.
Funding boost for WA
Last Friday, Western Australia's call for the GST distribution formula to be rewritten to take account of declining state revenues caused by falling iron ore prices was rejected outright by the states and Territories. Adjudicating on the matter, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he accepted the majority view, adding that changes to the funding formula ought to be the outcome of discussions and consultations flowing from white papers on tax and federation. On Tuesday, however, Mr Abbott pledged $660 million of Commonwealth money to the Barnett Coalition. The amount matches exactly the level of GST revenue which would have flowed to WA over the next two years had the state's share remained at 38 cents in the dollar and not fallen to 30 cents in the dollar on July 1, the recommendation of the Commonwealth Grants Commission.
WA Treasurer Mike Nathan has denied the one-off funding boost is a hand-out: "It's just recognising that the other states would not do the right thing on the GST distribution and the Commonwealth is providing leadership by helping us compensate for the failure of the other states".
The need for Commonwealth "leadership" of this sort is not immediately apparent; indeed just a week ago federal Treasurer Joe Hockey ruled out a one-off top-up of Western Australia's GST share, saying the budget was not "a magic pudding".
Only a jaded cynic would link Mr Abbott's hand-out with a desire to shore up the Coalition's electoral prospects in WA. Clearly it was the threat by Premier Colin Barnett to "disengage" from the Federation unless action was forthcoming, combined with the persuasive and compelling advocacy of Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop – proud Sandgropers both.
Mr Abbott's kindliness will win him kudos in the West, and if Mr Hockey has been left gnashing his teeth, then $660 million is a relatively trifling sum in the overall scheme of Commonwealth budget management. But opportunism frequently begets cynicism, as Mr Abbott may discover to his cost when he attempts to get his federation reform process under way.