Shock funding cut silences top voice on alcohol, drugs
The Abbott Government has axed funding to one of the nation’s oldest peak public health organisations, potentially silencing an independent source of advice on the minimisation of harm from alcohol and other drugs.
In a shock decision, Assistant Minister for Health Fiona Nash informed the 46-year-old Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia (ADCA) on 25 November that all Commonwealth funding to the organisation was being cut, effective immediately.
The decision has sent shockwaves through health sector and has fuelled speculation that other organisations may also soon lose their Government support.
ADCA was blindsided by the Government’s decision, having received written assurance from the Health Department in April that its funding, worth around $1.6 million a year, was secure through to mid-2015.
Immediately following Senator Nash’s surprise announcement, the ADCA Board held an emergency meeting at which it decided to put the organisation into voluntary administration while its ongoing viability is assessed.
ADCA was established in 1966 as the peak body representing organisations working to minimise the harm caused by alcohol and drugs, and has become a significant source of information and advice for successive governments, as well as a vocal advocate in major public debates.
President of the ADCA Board, Liberal MP Dr Mal Washer, decried the decision as a “socially backward step”.
“The reason given is financial reasons,” Dr Washer told The Australian Financial Review. “That’s the excuse, and they have a big health budget and what have you, so they try to throw down a few of these agencies. It’s very sad that this service is going to be chucked out.”
The Government backbencher said the closure of ADCA was a “devastating blow” that “effectively erases decades of corporate knowledge”.
Among the services and programs operated by the Council was the National Drug Sector Information Service, a repository of almost 100,000 resources on alcohol and other drugs, making it one of the most comprehensive such library in the world.
Other projects included Drug Action Week, the National Inhalants Information Service and the Register of Australian Drug and Alcohol Research.
“In 46 years, this is the only Government that has decided it can do without ADCA’s advice,” the organisation’s patron, Professor Ian Webster, said. “The Government needs to reconsider its short sighted decision. Every day, media outlets are full of stories of alcohol and other drug-related violence, crime, the disadvantaged, homelessness and poverty. The cost to the community is crippling, yet governments seem oblivious to it.”
“Governments of all persuasions have for years approached ADCA for advice on alcohol and other drug matters, trusting its reputation as a reliable, balanced source,” the organisation said in a statement. “While such advice may not have always been palatable to them, it has always been unbiased and evidence-based.”
Shadow Health Minister Catherine King condemned the Government’s decision, which she said “truly beggars belief”.
“The Government can’t simply wish away the problems ADCA addressed,” Ms King said. “It has decades of policy and advocacy experience in this sector, and the decision to abolish it beggars belief. The financial contribution the Commonwealth made was relatively small for its output, which is why this decision truly beggars belief.”
Australian Greens health spokesman Dr Richard Di Natale accused the Government of trying to stymie debate about illicit drugs policy.
“The Abbott Government is determined to hide evidence, sideline experts and silence advocates,” said Senator Di Natale, who is a former drug and alcohol clinician. “Frighteningly, axing the ADCA could herald just the beginning of funding cuts, with the sector losing its peak body and front line of defence.”
The ADCA Board said it would work closely with the Administrator, Henry Kazar of Kazar Slaven Chartered Accountants, and would endeavour to maintain “minimal” support services.
“The Administrator recognises the significant role played by ADCA in the sector,” the Board said, adding that Mr Kazar was due to report “in the near future” on the Council’s viability.