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"A health-led approach" : Victorian Government to forge ahead with repeal of public drunkenness laws

Dechlan Brennan -

Victoria will move ahead with a new "health-based response" towards public drunkeness, despite concerns from the State's opposition and police union.

The state will officially decriminalise public drunkenness on November 7, in a decision that has long been lauded by Indigenous and health experts.

The law comes into effect almost six years after Yorta Yorta grandmother Tanya Day fell and suffered a head injury in a regional Victorian cell after being arrested for public drunkenness on a train.

Peak Indigenous bodies in Victoria, including the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) and Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO) welcomed the proposed abolishment of the the law, and lauded the government's decision not to replace them with new police powers to move on or arrest a person for being drunk in a public place.

CEO of VACCHO and Gunditjmara woman, Aunty Jill Gallagher, congratulated the government for taking the initiative to abolish public drunkenness.

"The abolition of Public Drunkenness laws was a key recommendation of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody because of its dangerous and discriminatory impact," Aunty Jill told National Indigenous Times.

"The repeal of these laws is vital for the betterment of the health and safety of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Victoria, and indeed all Victorians."

However, this week has seen reports emerge that a new alcohol sobering centre in Collingwood would not be ready by November 7, which in turn has led the Victorian opposition to claim the government's rush to implement the laws was "chaos".

The ABC reported that Opposition MP Brad Battin, who holds the shadow policing portfolio, believed the laws were rushed and, with November 7 also being Melbourne Cup day, there was a risk to the community.

"The government has rushed through these laws and failed to prepare their health response as we approach the starting date," he said.

"We have already said that Melbourne Cup Day is not the right time to introduce these new laws and it's now clear that they need to be delayed until there is an adequate health response in place."

Minister for Mental Health Ingrid Stitt has hit out at the opposition for undermining the new laws (Image: ABC News)

Minister for Mental Health Ingrid Stitt, was highly critical of Mr Battin's comments.

"Not only has Mr Battin discredited the work of a highly respected not-for-profit health service, he has demeaned the advocacy of First Nations communities who have driven the repeal of public intoxication as a criminal offence," Ms Stitt told National Indigenous Times.

"John Pesutto needs to explain whether he has simply lost control of his party room or whether he chose to back his Shadow Minister taking part in a stunt peddling misinformation and mischaracterising an important mental health reform, that will save lives."

Sources told National Indigenous Times they were disappointed by calls to delay the repealing of the law, arguing it didn't take into account the need for urgent change.

The new 20-bed facility - referred to as a sobering centre - on Cambridge street in Collingwood will be operated by non-profit community health organisation cohealth, who have run the outreach section of a trial centre on Gertrude Street alongside the Salvation Army.

It is understood that the 18-month trial has been a success.

The Cambridge Street facility will be given over to cohealth on November 7, but will likely not be outfitted and ready until the end of the month. Criticism of this delay was refuted by Ms Stitt.

"Cohealth and its hardworking team of mental health and AOD specialist staff are the very best of us – they are already undertaking critical outreach services, and have done for years. Mr Battin has proven he has little respect for the work they do, not to mention the Victorians who need them," she said.

Sources say this is just one centre and Indigenous specific services are yet to be announced. It is understood the government is planning a media briefing at the start of next week.

The role of groups like cohealth will focus on supporting intoxicated people in a wide range of areas. Street based health teams, which will include a nurse and an alcohol/drug worker, can help people with as little a task as charging their phone to sitting with them whilst they wait to get home.

The last port of call would be transporting them to a sobering centre - such as the on Cambridge street - which would need the person's consent. Other options still include care at a medical facility if they are too intoxicated to give consent or are a danger to themselves to the community.

A Victorian Government spokesperson told National Indigenous Times being intoxicated in public "shouldn't be a crime."

"People who are intoxicated in public often need no help at all. Some will find they need a safe space to sober up, while others might need medical care," the spokesperson said.

"We're bringing a health-led approach to people who find themselves intoxicated in public and needing help – rolling out a range of new dedicated services in the areas they are needed most - to give people the space, support and care they need."

Nerita Waight says the abolishing of public drunkenness laws has been a long time coming (image:Wheeler Centre)

Cohealth CEO Nicole Bartholomeusz, said the law change will "save people's lives and improve their health."

"A health-based response to public intoxication keeps people safe, avoids unnecessary contact with police and reduces burden on the health system," she told National Indigenous Times.

"Providing an on-the-ground health response also means we can reduce ambulance callouts and divert people from emergency departments. It will be a great comfort for people to know that their loved ones will be cared for by health professionals if they are intoxicated."

The Victorian Police have been critical of the new change in laws, arguing it could undermine health and public safety.

Police Association of Victoria secretary Wayne Gatt told the ABC that the implementation of the law was a disaster if sobering-up centres weren't ready, despite broadly supporting them.

"Even if the Collingwood centre was up and running and fully operational, two critical questions still remain. The first is: What services will be utilised in every other part of Victoria? The second is: What happens to all the drunk people who say they don't want to go there?"

National Indigenous Times asked the Police Association if they believed police intervention was the best response to public drunkenness but received no reply.

A leaked police training video, first aired on 7 News Melbourne last month, showed officers leaving an intoxicated woman alone on a park bench after she refuses the offer of help.

Guardian Australia reported a statement by a Victorian Police Spokesperson in response to the video arguing the new laws were a, "significant change to the way many Victoria police members operate day-to-day".

"Our members instinctively want to assist the community – that is why they became a police officer," the spokesperson said. "However, under the changes, there will be times where members will leave drunk people where they are, particularly when they are deemed not to be a safety risk to the public or they refuse assistance."

Sources have said this underestimates the role of the police, who are often required to do more than just make arrests.

They note police still maintain a "vast array" of powers to make arrests if they see fit, which won't change under the abolition of public drunkenness laws. They also argue calling an ambulance has always remained a safer option than being taken into custody.

VALS CEO and Yorta Yorta and Narrandjeri woman, Nerita Waight, said police mustn't use these powers to replace the public drunkenness laws

"Victoria Police must not use alternative powers to undermine the reforms. It is critical that the Victorian Government monitors implementation of the reforms through public and transparent reporting on alternative police powers, including move on powers," she told National Indigenous Times.

"The Victorian government is establishing health services to support people who are intoxicated in public. It is essential that these services are established as quickly as possible and that Aboriginal organisations are empowered and supported to operate these services in the way that they see fit for their communities.

"This reform is about shifting community perceptions of public intoxication, from a criminal issue to a health issue. It is essential that the Victorian Government supports the reform process through a widespread community awareness campaign.

Criticism of the public drunkenness laws have also focused on the unevenness of their implementation. In January, Ms Waight, said data showed "30-40 Aboriginal people a month are being arrested by police in Victoria. Every Aboriginal person who is arrested for public intoxication is being unnecessarily harmed."

"All of the Victorian Aboriginal Deaths in Custody investigated by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody over 30 years ago involved detention for public intoxication. The final report of the Royal Commission recommended de-criminalising public intoxication," she said.

"In other Australian jurisdictions where police maintain detention powers for public intoxication, despite de-criminalisation of this offence, Aboriginal people continue to be locked up and die in custody."

Suggestions of discriminatory policing was highlighted by Victoria's chief police commissioner, Shane Patton, who in May apologised on behalf of the Victorian Police towards Indigenous Victorians for "past and present actions of the force that inflicted trauma on First Nations people".

"I formally and unreservedly apologise for police actions that have caused or contributed to the trauma experienced by so many Aboriginal families in our jurisdiction," he said.

Ms Waight said the decision has been a long time coming.

"Victoria's Aboriginal Communities have waited decades for this reform. This is a critical step that will take us one step closer to ending racist policing against Aboriginal people," she said.

Despite police protestations that the laws maintain safety, the National Indigenous Times is aware that only five people were arrested for public drunkenness during Melbourne cup day last year - statewide.

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