August 2022

Mick Palmer Q&A

Mick Palmer, AO served as commissioner of the Australian Federal Police from 1994–2001, the capstone to a policing career that spanned more than three decades. In addition, he has practiced as a barrister and contributed to many public policy and civil society endeavours, all of which have contributed to a significant evolution in his thoughts on drug policy, which he shares here.

We always start with the question ‘How did you get to where you are?’, so maybe a quick tour of your career would be good.

I’m essentially a whole-of-life police officer, John – I joined the Northern Territory Police when I was 21. I was always going to be a teacher and I was waiting for acceptance to teachers’ college when I saw the advert, and a mate and I applied. I’d never thought about being a police officer prior to that, and my father was horrified, but I fell in love with the Northern Territory and fell in love with the job, and I finished up having 15 years in the NT Police. I then left and went and studied law in Queensland and practiced at the private bar for about two years, and then went back into the NT Police for a further ten years – the last seven as Commissioner of Police. In 1994 I was appointed the Commissioner of the AFP, and I stayed until 2001, when I retired – luckily for me – just prior to the 9/11 disaster.

Since then I’ve been sort of partly retired. I’ve done a series of reviews and inquiries for the federal and for state governments; did the Cornelia Rau Inquiry; I’ve done reviews into prison services in Victoria and in Tasmania. But during that time, I’ve got quite deeply involved in some law reform issues: drug law reform, PTSD and suicide, issues and problems associated with depression and mental health and so on. And I’ve worked pretty closely with Matt Noffs and the Noffs Foundation over the last several years, particularly in regard to homeless and disadvantaged children, and indigenous and Pacific Islander children.

And what’s the itch you’re scratching in terms of those difficult issues? Like, you could actually just play golf all day every day.

[Laugh] I’m a pretty awful golfer. In regard to drug law reform and mental health, it just started to become pretty obvious [during my career] – particularly in the NT where street disorder and low-level crime is in your face and there are so many disadvantaged groups within the communities – that the way we were dealing with problems were pretty simplistic and symptoms-focused rather than cause-focused. And the more I looked at that, the more determined I became that when I got a chance I might try and see if I could do something about it. I guess it was an evolutionary process; I didn’t start where I finished.

It became obvious to me that the Tough on Drugs policy wasn’t achieving the ends we set for ourselves – we were probably creating more problems than we were ever curing.

Mick Palmer

It became obvious to me that the Tough on Drugs policy wasn’t achieving the ends we set for ourselves – we were probably creating more problems than we were ever curing. And in regard to mental health, it became pretty obvious (as it has to anybody who’s looked at it) that the infrastructure and facilities in support were nowhere near good enough, broad enough, or available enough to achieve the ends. And it became absolutely obvious that there was a direct connection between the two issues – drug use and social disorder that flows from it, and mental health and other problems that obviously led to that sort of behaviour. They were being dealt with in narrow silos, they weren’t being dealt with very well even in those silos, and there was a real and desperate need for an understanding of the broader picture.

And when you go back to circa 2000, the brand for the policy initiative was “Tough on Drugs” but the underlying technical name was “Illicit Drug Diversion Initiative” – there was actually a lot of money that the Howard government threw at trying to shift people out of the criminal justice system for personal use and possession, and also some harm reduction initiatives. Where was your thinking circa 2000?

I think 1998 was when John Howard brought in the Tough on Drugs policy; I was Commissioner of the AFP at that time. And what you say is quite right, and I think the fact that it was launched at the Noffs Foundation headquarters was a reflection of Howard’s attitude. He had a real focus on drug trafficking and the need to get tough on the organised crime side of the drug equation, but at the same time more money was given to diversion and demand reduction than was given to supply reduction.

The sexy bits of course were supply reduction – we got enough money to create a series of strike teams and guys dressed up in black with guns and so on, seizing ships offshore. It was great media coverage and a lot of quite significant seizures were made in those first few months, so that tended to hog the headlines. But yes, there was a lot of money given to diversion, to the creation of things like drug courts and rehabilitation processes and support mechanisms, and I was involved in both sides of that. And, you know, it sadly lost its way over time – the diversion side didn’t get any publicity and the intention that was at the heart of what Prime Minister Howard sort of lost out, I think, to dealing with the more simplistic side of the drug equation.

I’ve had conversations with senior government ministers at both state and federal level over the last few years, and two or three of them have said quite clearly to me, ‘We know what to do, we just don't know how to get re-elected after we do it’

What are your reflections on the institutional inertia that’s often seen in relation to drug policy – I think the perception that Australia hasn’t progressed since the 1980s is inaccurate considering diversion away from the criminal justice system et cetera, but I don’t think we’ve progressed very significantly. What are the government barriers to moving toward a more cost-effective model?

I’ve had conversations with senior government ministers at both state and federal level over the last few years, and two or three of them have said quite clearly to me, ‘We know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we do it’. They agree with the need for a change to drug policy, they know that what we have is not working, but as leaders around the world sometimes very publicly have said, ‘We don’t quite know how to deal with it’.

I think there’s a fear in the minds of politicians as to what ordinary people will think if they’re seen to be going soft on drugs. There’s probably a fair amount of truth in that people do get frightened – the bad side of the drug equation is there for all to see, and I don’t shy away from that for a moment. I just think there’s a need for clearer and deeper debate to what we’re trying to achieve here: what are the problems that really are causing the concerns that people have? How do we best deal with those problems to achieve better results?

It seems to me government officials would be in a strong position if they were to say, ‘Look, it’s clear that what we have is broken, it’s not working. The aims we set for ourselves are exactly the sort of aims that any government should have in terms of reducing harm and increasing safety within the community. Despite our 40-year tough on drugs policy, we haven’t achieved any of those aims, so there has to be a better way to do business and we are prepared to trial new ways to see whether we can achieve better results.’ It seems to me that, in reality, would be a pretty easy political message to give.

Some governments, of course, have gone down that track, as you know, particularly in terms of cannabis, and use and possession of small amounts of drugs in some jurisdictions. We take baby steps; all those steps seem to be going in the right direction, but we seem to lack the collective political will to have a serious crack at what is a very serious problem.

At the start of my career in 1964 in Darwin, it was not unusual to lock up 80-100 people every night of the week in a town of about 12,000 people, simply for having a drink.

One of the reasons I was keen to talk to you was that in a conversation we had previously you mentioned an experience that I found quite profound, which was that you charged someone for the offence of attempted suicide in your early days in the Northern Territory. And just thinking about that in terms of how the world has changed – we’ve had a major shift over 50 years, a real opening up of honest conversations about mental health issues, and certainly a removal of attempted suicide from the statute books. Can you just share that story again and add a reflection on what the lesson might be for those who are currently supportive of criminal sanctions for minor use and possession offences?

I think the attempted suicide example is probably a good example of what tends to drive laws, and what drove our laws traditionally. I gave you that example of the attempted suicide, which was a criminal offence, as was buggery, as was an offence called Ward Drink Liquor, which was for indigenous people who were in a Ward’s Register – that is to say, they had not been made citizens of Australia – they committed an offence by simply having a drink. At the start of my career in 1964 in Darwin, it was not unusual to lock up 80-100 people every night of the week in a town of about 12,000 people, simply for having a drink. This generally resulted from a complaint by a shopkeeper or a publican saying two or three indigenous people had walked into the pub and were drinking the dregs out of glasses; they were generally homeless people, often alcoholics, for reasons we didn’t understand then but of course I understand very clearly now. They were very simplistic laws, just based on convenience for those people who had some influence with governments, and were based on dealing with the symptoms – or the actions of the people, rather than even thinking for any moment about what the causes of that behaviour might have been or what we could do about the causes. I think over time we’ve got better at that – the Ward Drink Liquor luckily didn’t last long in my day, yet we as a community acquiesced to those laws for longer than we should have.

Many of those laws have been assigned to the rubbish bin of history, and we think a bit more carefully about why we create criminal laws and other ways that we might deal with some of these problems, but we’re way short of where we need to be, and that’s the case with drug law enforcement. You’ve seen it now over fear with terrorism – it’s not hard for governments to reach the conclusion they need to bring in some wide sweeping power to deal with a particular problem, only of course to find a little bit down the track that it has been used far more widely than was intended and has created probably more problems than it’s solved. Attempted suicide is a very good example of ‘Why the heck would you punish people for that?’ – it makes no sense, but everybody thought [suicide] was a coward’s way out and that was the way you dealt with it: to try to deter people from doing it.

That’s the thing, isn’t it: it was an attempt at deterrence, basically a transfer of a moral repugnance against suicide, which is endemic to every religion I’m aware of. Changing that into criminal law statutes seems very much to parallel with use and possession. We can have a government that doesn’t want people to use drugs and encourages them not to; the extra step – and perhaps a step too far – is criminalising that behaviour rather than discouraging it.

I think that’s exactly right: it’s an easy option just to create a criminal offence for something that you don’t think people ought to be doing, as if that is somehow going to solve the problem. Luckily I grew up at a time when drugs were not very prevalent, but we still used to scrump apples of the next door neighbour’s apple tree. Kids break boundaries and commit ‘offences’, if you like, as part of the reality of growing up; you’re always stretching the boundaries. Drug use and possession, particularly for young people looking to enjoy themselves in an evening, or to make themselves feel a bit better in a difficult time, it’s always going to be an attraction, and so we have to find ways to deal with that, to show people other options, to create an environment where they’re likely to tell the truth if they are caught taking drugs and people are trying to help them [rather than] deny what’s occurred simply because they’re fearful of what the penalty might be. They’re the areas it seems to me that we too easily sort of sweep under the carpet on the basis that ‘Well you play the game, you take the knocks. Drugs are bad so we lock you up’. I mean, there’s a lot of things that are bad that we don’t lock people up for.

What does it mean when police say ‘We can’t arrest our way out of the drug problem’ – they weren’t saying that 20 years ago, in my observation, but they have been saying it for at least 5-10 years. What does that actually mean in a practical sense?

I think it reflects the fact that police who are deeply involved in the drug trafficking industry from the enforcement side have come to recognise two things: they’re relatively successful, they make a lot of significant arrests and a lot of large seizures – but at the same time, they’re seeing the demand levels stay as they were, or sometimes even increase, and the numbers of people who are using drugs not diminish at all. So they’re starting to recognise the fact that it’s finger in the bucket stuff – you take out one syndicate, another one takes its place; the amount of money that can be made on the black market is such that the drug supply will continue. Demand remains undiminished despite how many arrests we’ve made of young Australians. And you know the United States again is a classic example of that where, as you know, you can get very long terms of imprisonment for just three convictions for cannabis use and possession, and it has made no difference.

They’re the figures and facts we have to look and deal with if we’re going to make any imprint. And that’s what drives police, I think: the good practitioners now realise no matter how good we are, how hard we try, how many people we arrest, we’re simply not making any difference. If this was a private business, you’d have gone broke; on that basis alone we should be saying we need to find another way to do business.

I mean it’s an interesting turn of phrase, but it’s actually the opposite, isn’t it? The more the gangsters arm up, the police arm up to match them; the more the gangsters adopt technological innovations, so do the Customs and Border Force – they keep fighting each other in this vicious circle.

I think police are going broke in the sense that despite how much money is thrown at it, how many more skills we give them, how many more people they are given, how many more arrests they make, at the end of the day, we go broke because we don’t achieve any of the outcomes; we’re not making any profit, if you turn this into a business sense. We might be selling a lot of equipment – in our case, arresting a lot of people – but at the end of the day we’re not making a profit, we’re not returning a benefit: the reduction of harm, of drug use in the community, a lowering of the violence and other criminality that goes with it. We’re not achieving any of those results at all. So if that was the mark of our success, if they were our profit criteria, we would well and truly have gone broke by now.

And politics is often a response to one crisis after another, and issues that are not in crisis are allowed to bubble away because there are more pressing issues for our leaders. So there are two problems: one is politicians have only got a certain concentration span that is mostly focused on crisis, and secondly, we’ve become tolerant of a level of dysfunction in our community – it’s become normalised to allow this 150,000 arrests per year. How do you cut through to make that a priority for our political leaders, particularly if they don’t have personal experience?

To me, the media coverage of drugs and the political attitude to drugs, is a little like Ukraine – despite the terrible things that are continuing to happen, the media’s got used to it, there’s nothing new; it’s the same old bombing going on every day, so we’re not seeing nearly as much coverage as we were initially. It is very much the same, I think, with drug policy in most people’s minds: people have got used to it, leave it alone. You know, anything you start tampering with it, you might make it worse and that’ll be politically dangerous to us, so let’s just get on with business and accept that that’s the way life is.

Personalising it is one of the ways you can really change that. I remember Mike Baird, when he was premier of New South Wales, going to Tamworth and joining the first cannabis meeting there, and having his mind fundamentally changed [on medicinal cannabis] on the back of the experience. And I remember Premier Andrews in Victoria talking about his attitude to euthanasia as a result of personal experience. If we can find more ways – and I think even publicising those personal examples as scenarios, as little icons in our publication process, in the discussion process – you personalise it.

It’s very much the same with disadvantaged and sometimes socially disruptive youth. When you sit down and they tell you the journey that led them to where they are, certainly in my experience I think, if I’d have had any experience like this young guy, I’d be doing exactly what he’s doing and probably a lot worse. The moment you hear it and you’re talking to the person who has experienced it, unless you don’t have a heart at all, instantly your attitude changes – you have a much wider understanding and you realise, ‘Gee, this is so important, we’ve got to do more than we’re doing now to deal with this’. But it is easy if you’re not that close to it to say, ‘Oh well, you know, you play the game, you take the knocks.’ I think that’s in human nature across the board; I’m not being critical of people there, that’s just the way we are. And I think it is important for us to find ways to personalise these problems every opportunity we have – to try to understand, so that people really see below the surface in terms of the causes of this behaviour that we are so otherwise critical of. And every time I’ve dealt with people who have taken the time to look, their attitudes have changed, without exception.

Fantastic, thank you, thanks a lot for that.