Interview with Mr Peter Abetz, Member of Parliament of West Australia

International Blue Cross: Peter, at the beginning of this year, you and your colleagues from the Education and Health Standing Committee of the West Australian parliament were on a fact-finding trip through Europe on the adequacy of prevention and treatment services for alcohol and illicit drug problems. Could you briefly explain the context and purpose of this trip?

Peter Abetz: The consumption of illicit drugs and alcohol is a major problem in Western Australia. The Education and Health Standing Committee of the West Australian parliament was authorised by the parliament to do a comprehensive inquiry into treatment services available for people with these problems and also to look at what could be done to prevent people from starting to use drugs and alcohol. The purpose of our trip was to learn from the European experience and see if any of their successful programmes could be adapted to our situation. Likewise, we wanted to see what has failed in Europe, so that we don’t make the same mistakes!

IBC: We had the honour of meeting you in Geneva on 3rd February 2011 for a hearing on our experience in evidence-based practices in prevention and treatment. Could you share with us your main impressions about our work and the key points you wish to emphasise with regard to the discussion we had?

P. A.: As the Blue Cross does not have a presence in Australia, I really knew nothing about its work before coming to Geneva. What impressed me about the Blue Cross is that it is a “bottom up” umbrella organisation, formed by people doing the work, at the grass roots level. I was also very impressed by its holistic approach, to the issue of prevention and rehabilitation and its recognition that the family is such a foundational issue in protecting children from drug addiction. From my own experience as a pastor for 25 years, I knew that a strong family is probably the greatest protection that parents can give their offspring against heading into the drug culture. I was also impressed by the fact that Blue Cross has the courage to put its focus on helping people to live a drug free lifestyle, rather than just “harm minimisation”. I also found Mr Lux’s emphasis on the “therapeutic chain” a very helpful concept.

IBC: In your perception, what distinguishes the International Blue Cross from other health development organisations you have met in the course of your journey?

P. A.: What disturbs me about many organisations working with people who are addicted to drugs, is that they view addiction as an incurable condition and therefore no real attempt is made to help addicts move to a drug free life style. Indeed some organisations tell them that there is no way forward other than to use drugs in a way that minimises the harm. I found Blue Cross was refreshingly different in that it has a clear objective of helping people to become drug free, which also sends a message to addicts that there is hope! Another factor that sets Blue Cross apart is its recognition of the importance of a healthy family in preventing drug addiction and the fact that there is often a spiritual dimension that also needs to be addressed. Through its Christian roots, Blue Cross is well positioned to do this.

IBC: Today we know that alcohol consumption is the world’s third largest risk factor for disease and disability (WHO, 2011). What are your personal thoughts about this alarming reality? And, in your eyes, what should be the main role of international organisations like the Blue Cross?

P. A.: I believe addiction is like an unfenced cliff. For too long we have stationed ambulances and well-trained staff at the bottom of the cliff to try and help those who have fallen. But I believe that government policy is the fence at the top of the cliff that is so badly needed. Sound government policy that restricts access to the cliff – such as reducing availability and sound education programmes – is absolutely essential; and I think Blue Cross is fighting addiction at every level – being the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff and calling on governments to build the best fence at the top of the cliff! That is a very valuable role to play. Governments must have the political will to put in place laws and regulations which limit the availability of alcohol, to enforce those laws, and to fund appropriate educational programmes. Without groups like the Blue Cross, governments often shy away from making the hard decisions.

IBC: Peter: One final question, as a result of your trip – what do you believe you have learnt that has been of particular value when thinking about future policy debates on this subject in your own region of West Australia?

P. A.: I think our trip has impressed on me several things. I have been surprised at how much one can learn from a 2 week trip visiting various countries and talking with people who work in the same field. One thing that this trip has also shown me is that there is overwhelming evidence that the way forward in reducing drug addiction needs to be a multi-pronged approach. Education on its own is not very effective, but when coupled with sound government policy it is a powerful weapon. We need to teach our children to say NO to drugs and alcohol, but governments must also put in place appropriate policies, such as limiting availability, as I said earlier. Further, policies that help families to be strong, stable and cohesive units in society, particularly in the younger years of a child’s life must be enacted and implemented.