I am pleased to rise to speak on Mr Limbrick’s motion. It is a bit of a dog day afternoon, isn’t it? We have gone from raccoon dogs to sniffer dogs; I think we will probably have hound-dogs and hot dogs before the end of the day. What this sort of debate does is it gets people howling at the moon. But it is a very important topic, and I am glad that a part of the debate on illicit drugs is before the house. Of course the component that is in Mr Limbrick’s motion is only a very, very small component of the drug law reform inquiry. I find the challenge in part of this debate is we often try and compartmentalise it, as in this instance, and say, ‘Well, let’s deal with this bit; let’s deal with that bit’. But of course when people start to talk about this bit or that bit what they try and do is then broaden it out to a holistic approach to the issue of drugs, and very rarely do they stay on the narrowness of the proposition that is before the house.
That is for a very good reason, because simply plucking the issue of sniffer dogs out of this debate and signalling that for particular attention does not do justice to what is a very, very serious issue in our society today, and that is the use of illicit drugs. I am under no illusion that some day in the near future we are suddenly going to stop people taking illicit drugs. That is not going to happen; I think that is just the reality of where we are. If we could stop it, we would. There have been a lot of great collective minds around the world who have tackled this issue and continue to tackle it on a daily basis. We know that fundamentally at the end of the day taking illicit drugs is a very risky proposition, that there is no safe way to do it. You will see most developed countries around the world have adopted, as we have here in this country and particularly here in Victoria, an approach of harm reduction: how can we reduce the harm? We often say ‘young people’ and we often say ‘music festivals’. I just want to pick up on something Ms Patten said towards the end of her contribution. We would all like to think that it is a young person’s problem, but what we heard through the drug law reform inquiry and what we hear from research both in this country and around the world is that that is not the case. The taking of illicit drugs is not quarantined to a particular cohort, albeit there well may be a higher number of people aged 18 to 30 who experiment. We also heard, for example, in that inquiry—and I am going from memory now, so I could be wrong in terms of the precise number—that something like 80 per cent of deaths in this country from drug overdoses are from people taking prescription drugs. The drugs are in people’s medicine cabinets at home, and they are self-medicating.
They stockpile drugs, whether it is intentionally or not. I suspect like most of us when we go through our medicine cabinet at home and are perhaps feeling better and do not complete the prescription that the doctor has given us, or whatever it might be, and we suddenly find a plethora of half-empty or half-full tablet containers. People use those at various times, and we know, again, that it is not people in the age bracket of 18 to 30 who tend to use those prescription drugs in those ways that ultimately end up in some tragic circumstances. So I think when we are talking about this debate we have got to approach the whole debate; you cannot just segment off one little bit. The other thing that is a bit of a rub for me, not withstanding the inquiry and the recommendations that we concluded last year, I think it was, is that of course there is always a risk in trying to dictate to our law enforcement agencies about operational matters. It is a very, very risky proposition. Of course the use of sniffer dogs is an operational matter, and to go down that path is folly, in my view. It is wrong to suggest that since that drug law reform inquiry or on an ongoing basis Victoria Police do not review their operational processes and procedures. They do on a regular basis; of course they do. They have to, and they do so. The fact that they do not put that necessarily up in neon lights does not surprise me.
The art of law enforcement is not necessarily disclosing to those that you are trying to detect all of your procedures and strategies. But that is not to say that in this case police are not reviewing the use of sniffer dogs and whether or not they are useful. What they say of course to the government is that there is a role for sniffer dogs; that they play an important role. Ms Taylor in her contribution talked about the role that they do play at some of these music festivals. I read in my notes somewhere that at one particular festival they detected 50 patrons who may have been carrying illicit drugs—yes, 50 patrons—and 17 were diverted to drug diversion programs and eight cannabis cautions were issued. But just to underscore the approach that Victoria Police have from a harm reduction perspective, these sniffer dogs are not there necessarily to catch the occasional user, but where they do come across the occasional user they do talk to those people about the use of illicit drugs, and there are programs which they can divert those individuals to. So these sniffer dogs do have a significant role to play, Victoria Police tell us, and you have to accept that advice. It was an interesting comment that Ms Patten made in her contribution about the relationship between government and VicPol. I was not quite sure what she was getting at there, to be honest, but of course you would expect the government of the day to have a close relationship with its major law enforcement arm. It would be ridiculous to suggest that you would not. But that stops well short of the government of the day then interfering in the operational matters of Victoria Police.
They are the experts. Ms Patten was also critical of Victoria Police’s response to the issue of sniffer dogs. Again, if you raise a question and you have got an agency like VicPol who are experts in law enforcement—they are our major law enforcement agency—it would be a very risky proposition for the government of the day to ignore their advice. That is what they are there for. They are there to provide policing across the state of Victoria. They are the experts in operational matters. They do have dialogue with other jurisdictions domestically and internationally and work closely with a myriad of agencies both here and abroad. So of course you would have a close relationship with them, of course you would listen to their advice but of course as a government you would not stray down the path of trying to interfere with their operational matters.
That is entirely a matter for police command—as it should be. I note Mr Limbrick’s contribution was very much about New South Wales, and of course I am not surprised by some of the recommendations that came from the New South Wales coroner, because the role of sniffer dogs in New South Wales is very different to the way that they are used here in Victoria. In New South Wales they are used in a variety of different environments such as train stations and the like, so they have a very, very different operational set-up to what we have in Victoria. So we are not comparing apples with apples, and it is very important that we understand the difference between how they apply the use of their particular resources and the way that Victoria uses ours. Of course the use of our passive alert detection dogs, as I said, by VicPol, particularly at music festivals, is a key component of VicPol’s operational response to the supply of illicit drugs. The dogs of course are trained to screen the environment to detect a range of illicit drugs.
Now, we can be a little bit flippant with remarks and say, ‘Well, let’s flip a coin; that would be just as accurate as a sniffer dog’ and ‘They are much more expensive than a coin toss, so why wouldn’t you get rid of them?’. But then on the other hand we say, ‘But let’s review them because we might want more of them’. Come on—let us at least be a little bit honest, because the people who were advancing that proposition through the drug law reform inquiry were, I know, very much on the side of abolishing them. That is okay—you can have that view—but as I said at the start of my contribution, that view ought to be held in an environment where we are reviewing the totality of our approach to drug law reform and not just one small component, because one small component in and of itself, such as detection dogs, will not be the panacea. I am not suggesting that anyone is proposing that it will be, but now our operational experts, Victoria Police, are very much advising us that the detection dogs are a key and core component of their operational processes and procedures, that they play a valuable role and that the dogs are trained to screen the environment to detect a range of illicit drugs.
No-one makes the claim that the dogs are infallible or that the dogs are going to get it right 100 per cent of the time, but our experts have a very clear view that they are providing tremendous support to our police members to determine whether or not there are reasonable grounds to believe that a patron entering a music festival is in possession of an illicit drug. Of course the person being detected with that illicit drug may well be carrying enough that they intend to traffic that drug inside the festival and spread more harm.
It is a very narrow part of the debate. I think we have got to be careful about just taking out a very slim, vertical slice of this debate and saying, ‘Well, let’s target that’. I would much rather us have a more fulsome debate about the entire issue. Sure, this is one part of it, but it is a small component in the daily battle in society on illicit drug taking. For those reasons, and the reasons outlined by my colleague Ms Taylor earlier, the government will not be supporting Mr Limbrick’s proposition today.