The outspoken and prolific TikToker Rose Jackson – NSW’s new youth and homelessness minister – seemingly forgot Labor was finally in government when she went off script and told a conference that the state should get on board with pill testing at music festivals. Her view was not surprising – as a factional warrior of the left, Jackson has long held that position, along with legalising cannabis.
Not only is it Jackson’s view (and that of other cabinet members, including Transport Minister Jo Haylen), it was also the recommendation of the previous government’s major $11 million inquiry into the drug ice. That inquiry took the Coalition close to three years in which to respond, only for it to reject key recommendations, as the cabinet tore itself apart over what to do with findings it clearly hoped would not have been included, most notably decriminalisation.
Premier Chris Minns was quick to shoot down Jackson’s comments, and reminded her that his ministers should not be freelancing. Instead, the government will await the findings of its own drug summit, which is modelled on the same idea former Labor premier Bob Carr pursued after his 1999 win. That summit was sparked by Sydney’s heroin epidemic, which saw an unprecedented number of overdoses and streets littered with discarded needles.
However, Minns, unlike Carr, already has the findings from a wide-ranging 14-month drug inquiry, which delivered more than 100 recommendations, based on expert advice and 250 submissions. Another drug summit is not needed and wasteful. It only serves to buy Minns and his cabinet more time before being forced to make tough calls.
Labor’s drug summit is one of an increasing number of reviews, inquiries or investigations the new Minns regime has launched. Not all are unnecessary. One example is picking apart how the Labor government can deliver on its promise to overhaul Sydney’s controversial road tolling system amid the worsening financial burden the city’s patchwork of motorway has on drivers.
Under the Coalition, plenty of the key details of tolling contracts were state secrets, shielded from public scrutiny because of claims of commercial confidentiality. Some elements of the deals between the government and tolling behemoth Transurban were public but plenty remained undisclosed. Labor needs to know what it is dealing with, particularly any possible compensation claims, before it can move ahead on tolls.
The continuation of the toll review which was started under the Coalition (but delayed) will now be overseen by former Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chair Allan Fels. Labor has committed to making Fels’ review and recommendations public, although as the former government discovered, the complexity of the tolling system ensures that his examination will not be swift.
Labor also campaigned heavily on healthcare and hospitals during the election, guaranteeing safe staffing levels for nurses (not the long-promised nurse-to-patient ratios that it took to previous polls), scholarships for nurses to keep them in the public system and hundreds more paramedics.
Despite being convinced of the problems – from lengthy elective surgery waiting lists to clogged emergency departments – the government has also promised a royal commission into health services. The highest and most powerful review. The Health Services Union wants the inquiry after it released a report revealing a “chronic misallocation of resources and warped priorities” in healthcare funding. While not obviously wasteful like a drug summit, a royal commission would be long, costly and unlikely to deliver any recommendations, let alone outcomes, until well into this term.
There are plenty of other reviews under way, too. The Education Department has been told to conduct an audit of almost 200 policies and procedures that burden teachers with additional work, and the government has committed to a trial of cashless gaming in 500 of the state’s almost 90,000 poker machines rather than accept the recommendations of the powerful NSW Crime Commission.
The commission last year said a cashless gaming card was needed to stop dirty money being washed though the pokies in clubs. The Coalition, along with the police, unions, surgeons and gambling reform advocates were in agreement that the recommendation should be adopted. Instead, Labor wants to do its own investigation first.
The Coalition has shown that reviews, even when necessary, can drag on to the point of absurdity. The new opposition leader Mark Speakman knows this all too well. Despite his best efforts, as attorney-general he could not convince his cabinet colleagues to support his drug reform ideas on the back of the ice inquiry. Former transport minister David Elliott and ex-deputy premier John Barilaro were the chief blockers.
Reviews, inquiries and investigations have a place for a new government to understand major underlining problems. But the honeymoon period for Minns will be short. Voters will expect action, not reviews. His government has been given a mandate to make bold, brave decisions and there is no better time in the electoral cycle to do that than now.
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