June 2022

Drugs and the 2022 Federal Election

Another Federal election cycle has come to an end with the Albanese Labor Government claiming victory with a majority government in the lower house. Issues such as rising inflation, cost of living, wage growth, housing prices and Medicare dominated the media headlines this election. However, some commentators have suggested climate change was the deciding force of the election, with record numbers of Australian Greens candidates and independents who campaigned on a climate platform securing seats in the lower house.

The Coalition began its election campaign with some big funding announcements for mental health, boosting funding for general mental health support and suicide prevention by $6.8 billion for 2022-23 and providing additional funding to high-profile mental health services Headspace, Beyond Blue and Kids Help Line.

The Coalition’s pre-election budget also promised $800 million across four years to continue Australia’s National Ice Strategy. However, as the campaign went on, mental health and alcohol and other drugs (AOD) issues were scarcely mentioned by the major or minor parties, only arising when comments Anthony Albanese made to Parliament in 1999 about support for safe injecting facilities became part of the Coalition’s criticism of the Labor leader.

This inattention reflects the continuing political and cultural challenge of centering practical discussions and evidence-based policies about drug use in major campaigns, despite alcohol and other drug issues being a problem in all electorates across Australia.

Neither major party presented a strong policy platform related to drugs and alcohol during this election. This inattention reflects the continuing political and cultural challenge of centering practical discussions and evidence-based policies about drug use in major campaigns, despite alcohol and other drug issues being a problem in all electorates across Australia.

The Greens declared they would fully fund opioid substitution therapy (OST) as part of their safe drug use policy platform. The platform featured additional harm reduction reforms including plans to fund pill testing at festivals by establishing 14 new pill testing sites and investing $39.4 million to establish safe injecting facilities in each Australian capital city. The Greens also want to double Commonwealth AOD treatment funding to $900 million.

While AOD issues did not enter the policy discussion during this election cycle, there will be urgent problems for the Albanese Labor government to address in this space across its three-year term.

Despite the rising prominence of cannabis regulatory reform as a political and social issue in many parts of the world, the two major parties gave little priority to the issue this election. The Coalition did not shift its position on legalising cannabis, reaffirming its unwillingness to legalise or decriminalise the use of any illicit substance. According to ABC’s Vote Compass, Labor promised to leave decisions about the regulation of cannabis to each state and territory.

Labor also supports the use of medicinal cannabis and federal regulation of the substance, although it is unclear what type of federally regulated model Labor supports. Despite this, the party’s campaign was silent on the issue in 2022. This position appears to be the same stance held by former Labor leader Bill Shorten ahead of the 2019 election, despite the expansion of medicinal cannabis prescriptions and the medicinal cannabis industry since then.

Among the other parties, only the Greens promised to reform cannabis laws in Australia, seeking a regulated and taxed legalisation model. With the party claiming three additional seats in the lower house and possibly the balance of power in the Senate, it is likely they may be able to push for national discussion on these issues.

While not securing any seats in the Senate, the Legalise Cannabis Australia party saw record Senate votes in Queensland, representing a 5 per cent swing from 2019, beating out the United Australia Party and Australians accessing OST and many more needing access, it will be essential for the Labor government to future-proof this system and clipping at the heels of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. The party also received 7 per cent of the Senate vote in the Northern Territory and won more votes than One Nation in both Victoria and Western Australia. Such a strong result for the party, which ran on a platform to legalise cannabis for personal use but also advocated for more accessible and affordable medicinal cannabis, could suggest Australia is on the pathway to larger national debate about cannabis reform.

While AOD issues did not enter the policy discussion during this election cycle, there will be urgent problems for the Albanese Labor government to address in this space across its three-year term. Drug overdose, for example, is an ongoing national health emergency and was the leading cause of death for Australians aged 30 to 39 in 2019.

Access to OST is becoming hampered by the decreasing number of prescribers and dispensers who administer these treatments in Australia. With well over 50,000 ensure there are sufficient pathways to access. The outcomes of the post-market review of the Opiate Dependence Treatment Program (ODTP), which is examining issues such as barriers to access and improved service delivery, will likely provide timely recommendations for the Labor government to improve OST in Australia.

The lack of attention to AOD issues may reflect political parties’ discomfort with the topic and the sometimes hysterical media reporting of drug-related issues—but drug use, both benign and problematic, is not going away. Australians will expect more concrete policies across the next three years than were on offer during the 2022 election campaign.