Richard Di Natale: cooperating on policy. You won’t get anywhere if you assume you can’t have open and frank conversation with people. I haven’t been burnt yet

By Scott Hamilton & Stuart Kells

Thursday August 8, 2019

Senator Richard Di Natale

To find out more about how Australia’s cannabis laws were formed, in March 2019 Scott Hamilton and Stuart Kells spoke with the leader of the Australian Greens, Senator Richard Di Natale. Senator Di Natale shared his insights on political bipartisanship, and particularly on how the medicinal cannabis laws followed an unlikely meeting of minds with ‘the father of the Senate’, Liberal Queenslander Ian Douglas Macdonald.

First, the good news. In recent decades, we’ve seen a substantial decline in the number of daily smokers in Australia and a substantial reduction in lung disease as a cause of death. These reductions resulted from a concerted, long-term, integrated and bipartisan effort aimed at a crucial matter of public policy.

Now, the bad news. Nationwide, drug-related deaths significantly exceed the road toll. Recently, the NSW Deputy Coroner went to the Splendour in the Grass festival to investigate six pill-related deaths. Legal drugs are just as dangerous to public health as illegal ones. Alcohol alone is estimated to kill around 6000 people in Australia every year and is responsible for up to 15% of emergency admissions. It is also a major factor in the family violence epidemic, and a significant contributor to the life expectancy gap for Indigenous Australians — a gap that all mainstream political parties agree should be addressed.

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Also recently, a leaked copy of the draft National Alcohol Strategy drew strong criticism from doctors, academics, and state government ministers. A main criticism was the influence of ‘Big Grog’ in possibly sugar-coating the strategy and its messages. Big Grog is also a major donor to political parties.

In April 2016, there was a milestone in Australian drug law. Victoria became the first Australian state to legalise marijuana. The legalisation was very circumscribed: marijuana could only be used for proscribed purposes of medical treatment. Other states and territories followed suit, with similarly narrow liberalisation.

In 2018, the rules were relaxed even further. The Commonwealth Narcotic Drugs Amendment (Cannabis) Regulations legalised the export of medicinal cannabis products. The Victorian government is now seeking investors to build cultivation and manufacturing facilities, Asia-Pacific headquarters, and research and development centres in Victoria.

Recreational use of marijuana remains illegal across all federal, state and territory jurisdictions in Australia. However, there has been some loosening of the laws when it comes to small amounts for personal use, or growing a non-hydroponic plant or two. For example, the ACT applies a civil penalty for possessing small amounts of cannabis. A quantity of up to 25 grams or two non-hydroponic plants attracts a fine of $100, less than many speeding fines or parking tickets.

Opponents of these reforms have claimed they are just the thin edge of the wedge, one that will lead eventually to the decriminalisation of marijuana for recreational use. That legal position already exists in many states of the US and several European countries. New Zealanders will hold a referendum in 2020 on whether it should be legal for people aged 20 or older to purchase and use recreational cannabis. The opponents are probably right about the thin wedge, though we are not sure legalising marijuana in Australia would be incontrovertibly a bad thing.

Legalisation of medicinal cannabis only happened because of genuine bipartisanship. In reaching a new position on recreational use, such bipartisanship would again be necessary. In particular, we would need a bipartisan committee to investigate the scope for limited legalisation across Australia. That would allow the resources now expended on policing and ameliorating cannabis use to be redirected towards the real drug problems that face our children and neighbours.

On any measure, our current policies aren’t working. Further progress could likely be made by removing alcohol advertising from sporting events, and by piloting pill-testing at dance festivals. Proactive steps such as these are urgently needed if we are going to cut the toll of legal and illegal drugs.

The following is an extract from our interview with Richard Di Natale, in the Senator’s own words.

From an interview with Richard Di Natale

Politics is built around conflict — the clash of opposing views and perspectives, fought across the floor of parliament and national media, with each side hoping to win public support or otherwise humble their rivals into withdrawal.

Built on this messy and chaotic, bipartisanship can be a fragile and rare outcome. But when it works, it can lead to some of the more important victories in our political system.

There are some issues where I doubt we’ll ever see bipartisanship. I will never accept that it’s reasonable to lock innocent people up for seeking asylum, will never agree to abolishing our progressive taxation system, or will allow Australia to ignore the impact of dangerous climate change.

However, sometimes the stars align, and as people find unexpected commonality, political blinkers are removed.

Medicinal cannabis is one issue that became a cross-party rallying point, and that built momentum necessary to get vital reforms over the line.

The political inertia took a long while to shift. I drafted a piece of legislation, recruited support from the Liberals, including unlikely people like Ian Macdonald, and then on the other side I had support from Lisa Singh (Labor), and the (other) Tassie Senator Anne Urquhart (Labor), and some independents, and we built up a groundswell of support for our legislation, to the point that we thought that we had enough support to get it through the Senate — and that was the trigger for the government enacting their own reforms to medicinal cannabis.

At its core, bipartisanship is simple: you just pick the phone up and have a conversation with people. It is a low-trust environment, but you are never going to get anywhere if you don’t assume that you can have open and frank conversation with people. I haven’t been burnt yet.

When you strip the politics of an issue out — move beyond the arguments and partisanship, and focus upon the human impacts, listen to people’s stories and actually consider how a solution may work — it’s incredible how dramatically people can reassess their views. It’s no longer a political issue – it’s just an issue about basic human empathy.

You’re never going to move an entire party at once, so bipartisanship starts by finding allies and advocates from the ‘other side’. I spent hours in the Senate chamber, having conversations with people from the Liberal and Labor parties, saying “who do you reckon from your side might be interested in this?”

I wouldn’t describe any of the people on the Liberal or Labor side as friends, but I have a professional working relationship with them… I have long been a campaigner for getting access to medicinal cannabis, so I set up a cross parliamentary working group based around some legislation that I had drafted and one of the most unlikely people that I worked with was Ian Macdonald.

No one would have picked Ian McDonald as a typical advocate for medicinal cannabis. He and I have fundamentally different views on most things, but through actually sitting though committees and hearing people’s stories, you can draw out points of commonality, find reasons to break down walls, and bring an issue out of the political into the human realm.

Macdonald and the Greens had very little in common. But one of the things that became pretty obvious was that he was at least open to the idea of people getting access to medicinal cannabis. And through the senate committee system, which is one of those ways that you do breakdown barriers across the political divide, because you are working together, often going out, if you are staying somewhere overnight — you might eat together and stay in the same hotel together. What we saw was people’s stories being told. And when there is a 60-year-old bloke from rural Queensland coming in and advocating for medicinal cannabis because his wife has Parkinson’s — and you see someone like Ian Macdonald visibly moved with that, and actually engage with him on a very human level — the politics goes out the window. That was really important — we got that political consensus — National, Liberal, Labor, an Independent and of course Green — about to support a Bill for medicinal cannabis. And that was really the trigger for the government to introduce their own legislation. It’s still inadequate and requires urgent reform, but we would have nothing if it wasn’t for a group of politicians coming together and saying really clearly, “this is not about politics, it’s about getting things done for people.”

We can’t allow a search for consensus to become a fig leaf for inaction. Sometimes, there is no compromise or model that will work for all — and trying to get people who are fundamentally opposed will only put off reforms that are needed without delay.

However, when it works, bipartisanship is our best chance of locking in important reforms beyond the constant tussle around party politics. By taking a consensus approach, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see the right of critically ill patients to access medicinal cannabis removed — and we can only move forward towards models that work more effectively.

At the end of the day, when we work and vote in parliament we need to be true to the reason Australians entrusted us with political leadership — and that means staying true to our values. Luckily, despite the rhetoric, sometimes we’re closer together than we think.

~ Senator Richard Di Natale, Leader of the Australian Greens

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