Kings Cross Injecting Room

(12 May 2012, Parliament House)

This afternoon I speak on an important facility in my electorate of Sydney, formerly known as Bligh. Last Friday I attended the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the medically supervised injecting centre. I became involved in this issue in the 1990s as the local member when injecting on the streets and in the back lanes, and young people dying from overdoses, had become a really serious problem for the Kings Cross community. In 1997 the parliamentary Joint Select Committee into Safe Injecting Rooms was established following Justice Wood's recommendation for the establishment of safe, sanitary injecting rooms. After examining issues of illegal drugs and police corruption Commissioner James Wood stated:

"At present, publicly funded programs operate to provide syringes and needles to injecting drug users with the clear understanding they will be used to administer prohibited drugs. In these circumstances, to shrink from the provision of safe, sanitary premises where users can safely inject is somewhat short-sighted. The health and public safety benefits outweigh the policy considerations against condoning otherwise unlawful behaviour."

I was a member of the joint select committee. There were two major areas of concern in Sydney - Cabramatta and the Kings Cross areas. The parliamentary committee visited Cabramatta and met with drug users. We visited Porky's in Kings Cross, which at the time was a de facto injecting centre—I have to say that was a fairly full-on experience—and then with local residents I went to Caroline Lane in Redfern. This was heartbreaking because we saw very young girls with needles hanging out of their arms using the lane as an injecting place. The committee took compelling evidence from families, many of whom had lost their son or daughter, and we were presented with information on what was being done in other countries to more effectively address this serious health problem. However, in February 1998 a report entitled "Report on the Establishment or Trial of Safe Injecting Rooms" recommended that the establishment or trial of injecting rooms not proceed. I supported the dissenting report that recommended a scientifically rigorous trial as part of an integrated public health and safety approach to injecting drug use, as proposed by Commissioner Wood in the royal commission.

The circumstances that led the New South Wales Parliament actually agreeing to setting up a trial was the result of a front-page Sun-Herald story in the lead-up to the 1999 State election that had a fairly shocking photo of a young user in Caroline Lane. In response Premier Carr committed to a Drug Summit following the election. This was held in May 1999. The summit heard evidence from experts and we heard about the experiences of families across New South Wales. Members of Parliament learned that drug addiction does not discriminate; it has consequences for users and for their families, whether they live in our suburbs or in our regional areas. At the Drug Summit I moved the motion recommending the trial and it was successfully carried. The Sisters of Charity wanted to sponsor the project but the Vatican intervened and they were unable to do so. Therefore, the project was taken over by UnitingCare under the leadership of Reverend Harry Herbert.

The centre is an important signifier of the kind of city we want in Sydney. We want one that is compassionate and that is responsive to the needs of all its people, including those who struggle with drug addiction and their families. It is a centrepiece for a range of initiatives—needle and syringe programs, community sharps disposal bins and primary health care services—that have positioned Sydney as an international leader in harm reduction and in minimising the transmission of HIV and hepatitis C. Residents and business operators in Kings Cross no longer see people slumped in doorways, streets and parks. Ambulances no longer get the huge number of callouts and emergency departments see fewer drug overdoses these days. The city has received fewer complaints from Kings Cross residents and businesses about injecting drug activity, which can so shock people, and there has been a reduction in discarded equipment. In fact, we have received a great deal of support about the positive effects this has had on the local amenity.

If we have to reduce this important social and health facility to economic terms, another report found that the centre had an "overwhelmingly positive outcome in economic terms". More importantly, the centre saves lives and gets young users into treatment, as the independent evaluations have shown. It is a practical and compassionate solution to one of our biggest social challenges, and it is a tribute to all those who worked so hard to see it established and those quite wonderful people who continue to provide a much-needed service on a day-to-day basis. The service has been led by Dr Ingrid van Beek, the centre's first director, and that work has been taken over by her successor, Dr Marianne Jauncey.

Last Friday night the Minister for Mental Health, Kevin Humphries, spoke about problems of drug use in his country electorate, and people were very impressed and very encouraged by his words, as was I. We were also joined by former Premier Bob Carr and former Opposition leader John Brogden who both, in the spirit of bipartisanship, broke the constraints of narrow party politics to vote in support of the medically supervised injecting centre. On this 10-year milestone I congratulate all those who have worked inside or outside the centre and made this project—which has been so important to save lives and improve the amenity of the area—such a success.