Proposed public drunkenness laws: more harm than good

Published by the Herald Sun on Sunday 29 November

EDITORIAL

A CIVIL society relies on its citizens to behave respectfully and discourages conduct that recklessly endangers others.

That’s why we have laws; to maintain order and protect the community from behaviour deemed dangerous, disorderly and harmful to the public good.

Little wonder that there’s plenty of concern about the Left wing Dan Andrews government moving to decriminalise public drunkenness.

Any move to strip police of powers designed to maintain public order must be examined carefully for the full consequences, both intentional and unintentional.

On Saturday the State Government announced that it was “fully committed to decriminalising public drunkenness” and implementing what it calls a public health model focused on helping those who become intoxicated in public to access healthcare and support services.

Attorney-General Jill Hennessy called the existing laws “outdated” and argues that revoking them is in the best interests of Aboriginal Victorians.

“Those who are intoxicated in public need our help to be safe and be well. The Aboriginal community has long advocated for these unfair and outdated laws to be overhauled,” she said. “This legislation is an important first step as we move towards a health-focused model which has the best interests of Aboriginal Victorians at heart.”

The move follows a report by a panel that the Andrews government asked to review the current laws after the death of 55-year-old Yorta Yorta woman, Tanya Day.

Ms Day died from catastrophic injuries after striking her head several times in a police station cell where she had been left to “sober up” in 2017. Her appalling death should lead to meaningful change but decriminalising the offence of public drunkenness is a surface-level solution to a far deep problem.

The Victorian Police Association has called the plan to scrap the law “dangerous virtue signalling” that not only risks the safety of public places but also places police, those found intoxicated and the public at further risk. Police Association secretary Wayne Gatt believes the government proposal is “rash” and will compromise the important work that has been done to tackle alcohol fuelled violence on the streets.

He has demanded that the government make clear “what will happen to intoxicated people in custody if police are no longer able to hold them for periods longer than an hour” and explain how Victoria Police are expected to find medical attention for people in custody without providing custodial nursing staff at police stations across the state.

This is not the first time this government has sought to repeal laws that limit the police’s ability to arrest people causing a disturbance.

Indeed, the Andrews government has form in this area.

One of its first acts after coming to power in December 2014 was to repeal the state’s “move-on laws” severely hampering the police’s ability to control disruptive and dangerous protests.

This latest proposal has the potential to have significant consequences for the state, particularly if the laws are changed without a marked improvement in our health services, including emergency departments, which may well be asked to pick up the slack.

Understandably, the police do not want to become a taxi service for the drunk and disorderly.

If they no longer have the power to arrest those who are heavily intoxicated in a public place it will hamper their efforts to intervene early and avoid an escalation in dangerous behaviour.

Police are also rightly concerned about being held culpable for inaction as they are no longer permitted to act decisively to protect the public or the intoxicated person from themselves. It is also wrong to look at these laws as being relevant exclusively to one community.

Victoria Police deal with about 8000 public drunkenness offences every year and the government must explain who will step in to assist the public when an intoxicated person causes a disturbance or behaves in a manner that puts themselves or others at risk.

We do not want to give a green light to people to be wildly drunk in public nor expect the police to act as a free Uber service to transport the dangerously intoxicated to crowded emergency departments or other overstretched medical facilities.

The State Government must focus more on what is in the best interests of the public and less on appeasing activists.

Public order is a feature of a well ordered society where personal freedoms are balanced against the greater good.

Any move that upsets that balance must be carefully considered.

As it stands revoking public drunkenness laws has the potential to do more harm than good.