Workplace Alcohol and Drug Consumption



About this Item
SubjectsAlcohol; Members of Parliament; Occupational Health and Safety
SpeakersRhiannon Ms Lee; Harwin The Hon Don; Chesterfield-Evans The Hon Dr Arthur; Nile Reverend The Hon Fred; Jenkins The Hon Jon
BusinessDivision, Motion


    WORKPLACE ALCOHOL AND DRUG CONSUMPTION
Page: 6902


    Ms LEE RHIANNON [11.17 a.m.]: I move:

    (1) That this House notes that the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2000 requires employers to:

    (a) ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees and any others in their place of work,

    (b) take all practical measures to protect workers in relation to health, safety and welfare, and

    (c) take reasonable care for the health and safety of persons at their place of work who may be affected by their acts.

    (2) That this House notes that in meeting the requirements of the Act workplaces are advised to develop an alcohol and drug policy containing:

    (a) measures to reduce alcohol-related and drug-related problems in the workplace,

    (b) measures to prohibit or restrict the availability of alcohol and drugs in the workplace,

    (c) preventative measures such as education and training sessions and awareness programs,

    (d) measures outlining the availability of treatment and rehabilitation for employees, and

    (e) rules governing conduct in the workplace relating to alcohol and drugs including disciplinary procedures up to and including dismissal.

    (3) That this House notes the tough new measures contained in the Passenger Transport (Drug and Alcohol Testing) Regulation 2004, published in Government Gazette No. 48, dated 27 February 2004, page 957, to prevent the consumption of alcohol during working hours by transport safety officers.

    (4) That this House notes that drug and alcohol use in the workplace creates a range of problems, including damage to individuals' physical and mental health, and impaired work performance.

    (5) That this House recognises that members of Parliament are in the unique position of being responsible to the electorate, and as such must personally ensure that their work performance during sittings of the House and meetings of committees is not impaired by the use of drugs or alcohol.

    (6) That for the remainder of the present session, and unless otherwise ordered, in the event of a member attending a sitting of the House while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, that member may be suspended from the services of the House by motion moved without notice for a period of time as specified, but not beyond the termination of the sitting of the House.

    (7) That in the event of a member attending a meeting of a committee while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the committee may report the matter to the House.

    This motion is urgent because it is part of the culture of the Parliament for alcohol to be available, but we must take into account that the State Government has recommended that all workplaces have policies on the use of drugs and alcohol. Therefore I would be surprised if honourable members would argue against the need for Parliament to put in place a similar policy for its members. I have noted the comments of the Hon. Peter Primrose. He suggested that the best mechanism is the informal mechanism. I suggest to him that as the motion provides a workable mechanism whereby any member can move a motion to have a member removed because of drunken behaviour, that would also help the informal mechanism because it would be used rarely.

    I was not here in the days when Mr Willis was President of the Legislative Council. While I have seen raucous behaviour on a few occasions after dinner, I certainly have not seen what I would describe as "drunken behaviour". So I have not seen occasions on which the mechanism would be used. The standing orders provide many benefits to this House. They not only enable us to address our day-to-day business but also improve our culture. I am pleased we have the opportunity to debate this matter, and I look forward to hearing the contributions of other members.

    It has been suggested that there should be testing mechanisms. The Greens are certainly not suggesting that, because drinking has been part of Australia's parliamentary culture for many years and a blind eye is often turned when members come into this Chamber in varying states. We believe that this would put pressure on members of Parliament and on party mechanisms to improve the behaviour of members. As I said when I argued that standing and sessional orders should be suspended to allow this motion to be called on because it is urgent, what is good enough for train drivers and railway workers should be good enough for members of Parliament; otherwise, we leave ourselves vulnerable. Indeed, I would argue that if members say it is not good enough for them, they are reducing their standing in the community.

    Information produced by the Institute of Alcohol Studies explains how alcohol can impair workplace performance. I put it to members that that is the key reason why we need to pass this motion. Certainly it relates to the standing of members of Parliament, but it also relates to our work and our being able to do our work properly. Taking alcohol does impair one's ability. The information from the Institute of Alcohol Studies explains how alcohol can impair workplace performance in two key ways. A raised blood alcohol level while at work will jeopardise both efficiency and safety, including an increased likelihood of mistakes, errors of judgement and accident proneness. Impairment of skills begins with any—I emphasise "any"—significant amount of alcohol in the body.

    I have been ridiculed when I have raised this matter before, but the evidence is that even a small amount of alcohol can reduce our ability to do the important work of this House efficiently, properly and correctly. The second point raised by the Institute of Alcohol Studies is that persistent heavy drinking can lead to a range of social, psychological and medical problems, including dependence, and it is associated with impaired work performance and attendance, for example, increased absences because of illness. Dependence may be associated with drinking or being under the influence of alcohol at inappropriate times and places, and the deterioration of skills and interpersonal difficulties.

    That sums up why we must address this matter. If pilots are not allowed to drink alcohol before flying, surely the people in charge of the State's legislation should not be allowed to partake of alcohol or other drugs. The proof is that alcohol impairs one's performance. I strongly urge members to support this motion because it will help to redeem the sanity of members of Parliament and allow us to perform our work more efficiently. We need to work together and have a bipartisan approach to the matter, rather than simply reject the motion because one member of Parliament has raised it.

    The Hon. DON HARWIN [11.24 a.m.]: Listening to our colleague the Government Whip earlier, I was reminded of some generous remarks the Hon. Johno Johnson made about him in his valedictory speech to this Chamber. In his remarks the Government Whip demonstrated how true the Hon. Johno Johnson's comments were. It was a clear exposition of the position on this matter. I do not propose to repeat what the Government Whip said; I simply endorse his comments. The Opposition does not support the motion.

    The Hon. Dr ARTHUR CHESTERFIELD-EVANS [11.25 p.m.]: It is remarkable that a former President of the Legislative Council lost his job over an incident with alcohol, yet no policy has flowed from that. It could be argued that this motion, which has been brought on urgently, should be debated and, indeed, should have implicit in it a reference to a committee for examination, rather than have it appear almost as a fait accompli. I must confess that I wanted to speak on the suspension motion because I did not think the main motion would be debated. Procedurally that was common sense, but the cacophony at the time suggested that honourable members did not like it.

    I was greatly interested to hear the Hon. Peter Primrose say the whips were quietly beavering away to sort out the problem. Again, this is not a formal mechanism. Perhaps if we are talking about formal mechanisms for train drivers and others in the workplace we must have our own formal mechanism. Simply having a whip in a major party say, "Look, mate, you are a bit far gone to say anything. Why don't you keep it until tomorrow?", and just sitting on the bench when the bell rings, is perhaps not the way to do it. Interestingly, the Hon. Peter Primrose suggested that Ms Lee Rhiannon should police the crossbenchers for alcoholism. I must confess that I am not sure I have seen crossbench members impaired by alcohol, so I do not believe it is a big problem on the crossbench. Far be it for me to say that the crossbench has a higher standard than the major parties, but one could wonder about that. I do not believe I have seen anyone on the crossbench impaired by alcohol while they have been in this Chamber. That is simply my observation.

    Nor do I believe that I have seen any member impaired by other drugs. Interestingly in terms of impairment of function, the police are now targeting various things that impair road judgement. On some days they target drink-driving, on other days they target speed, and on other days they target fatigue. As the motion targets alcohol, it is interesting that the Government pushes legislation through this place with great speed and honourable members do not have time to read it. Of course, fatigue is used as a great weapon towards the end of a session, with the Government saying that honourable members will talk at length on legislation if it is not pushed through. We may be too exhausted at four o'clock in the morning to resist the pressure to pass legislation, but it is simply necessary for the Government to get its will.

    The Hon. Ian Macdonald: So you are amending the motion to add fatigue to the list.

    The Hon. Dr ARTHUR CHESTERFIELD-EVANS: That is correct. I thank the Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries, who perceptively noted that I am foreshadowing an amendment that this House not sit for hours that involve sleep patterns that are likely to impair our judgement. One must acknowledge that this House has a considerable amount of power. For example, medical practitioners have the power of life and death over their patients in theory, but they make relatively small decisions about drugs or whatever in practice.

    The decisions that we make in this place¯to pass bills or amend hastily considered legislation that has been passed following a shock jock's comments or anecdotes¯affect many people. We have a good deal of power, and we need to be sober to exercise proper judgment. The speed of the legislative process and fatigue are other constraints in this workplace that should be planned for to assist members make decisions. Five times in my life I have worked for 36 hours without sleep, and I am sure that kind of deprivation impairs judgment considerably. Everyone who has studied the matter—and read the extensive occupational health and safety literature on the subject—would acknowledge that that is the case. Members should not be expected to pass legislation at 4 o'clock or 5 o'clock in the morning, having started work at 9 o'clock the previous morning, in response to Government bullying and little else. That is nonsense. I foreshadow an amendment that will address the issue of fatigue.

    We should be an example to all in relation to workplace testing. Citizens have high expectations of us and become angry when we do not meet those expectations. A reasonable, voluntarily tested blood alcohol limit of 0.05¯the level at which drivers are thought to be impaired¯would be acceptable in this House. Members would be generally expected to meet a 0.05 limit and could check their condition by using a testing machine conveniently placed on the wall of the Chamber. Honourable members may laugh at that, and I hear a great deal of mirth from the Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries. Be that as it may, we are making decisions that are of considerable import, and anyone who thinks they are not doing that ought to resign. All I can say to honourable members who think they can make serious decisions when mentally impaired is that hopefully they belong to a party that rings the bells to enable them to present themselves when required in the Chamber. The mirth swirling around me is irrelevant, but it does show the immaturity of honourable members who think these matters are not serious or that decisions can be made by them when mentally impaired. This issue should be discussed by a committee and not trivialised.

    The elections selection process and electoral fiddling, which can determine who is elected to this House, have received much attention. I have spoken widely on that subject. I think the Government has fiddled the electoral laws to its own advantage unashamedly and venally. We need to look at who becomes a member of this place, and to examine the procedures of the House and how the Government favours its agenda in running this Chamber. Then we have to look at impairment of members. One could argue that as members of the major parties are all party disciplined, no matter what they think they will vote as they are told. They may be barely capable of staggering into the Chamber, but one of their sober party colleagues will be sitting at the dais. Crossbenchers have to be aware of what is going on, and have to make decisions and defend them. One would like to think that legislators make sensible decisions while unimpaired. Alcohol is the most obvious agent of impairment and that needs to be addressed. Sleep deprivation is another impairment that needs to be addressed. I move:

    That the question be amended by inserting at the end:

    (8) That this House recognises that extended sitting hours are not conducive to members' health and wellbeing, and can lead to disrupted sleeping patterns which may impair members' judgment.

    That amendment should be inserted to make clear that sleep deprivation and the impaired judgment caused by it need to be addressed by this House. I move that the amendment be incorporated in the motion. I will support the motion. I do not think it is perfect but it deserves attention, just as the issue deserves attention. If the motion is not debated, the issue will not receive attention.

    Reverend the Hon. FRED NILE [11.35 a.m.]: This is an important matter. I do not think any member of the House would disagree with all the propositions in the motion. Paragraph 1 emphasises the need to observe the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees. Paragraph 2 notes what is happening in other places, including the random testing of police officers. Paragraph 3 relates to the new transport policy of the Government, particularly in relation train drivers. No-one would disagree with paragraph 4, which states that the use of drugs and alcohol creates problems; or with paragraph 5, which states that members recognise our unique position of being responsible to the electorate. The point of disagreement is to be found in paragraphs 6 and 7.

    Changes to standing or sessional orders are usually discussed by the Standing Orders Committee, on which all major parties and the crossbench are represented. Members have an opportunity to calmly discuss how to deal with a particular problem and how to draft a standing order, if necessary. A standing order receives the agreement of the House because it has been drafted by a committee that is representative of all parties in the House. However, the honourable member has brought this matter on in such a way that it will be defeated on the floor of the House. However, the matter is important and should not be shelved. I give Ms Lee Rhiannon and other members of the House an assurance that as a member of the Standing Orders Committee I will raise this issue in that committee and attempt to find—with whatever words can be agreed on—a way to deal with the situation. Standing Order 192, which supersedes former Standing Order 261, provides:

    If the President or Chair of Committees calls a member to order three times in the course of any one sitting for any breach of the standing orders, or a member conducts themselves in a grossly disorderly manner, that member may, by order of the President or Chair of Committees, be removed from the chamber by the Usher of the Black Rod for a period of time as the President or Chair may decide but not beyond the termination of the sitting.

    Former Standing Order 261 was used from 1916 to 1922 against a member of the House, the Hon. James Wilson, who apparently had a problem with alcohol and was removed from the Chamber under the provisions of former Standing Order 261 on five occasions. The House has been aware of the problem, as it is today. The Chair of a committee has power to take action if a member is believed to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs and cannot carry out his or her duties.

    I agree, though, with the principle that members of Parliament should be consistent. If legislation that affects police officers and train drivers and so on is passed, as far as humanly possible—we are in a different situation sitting in this Chamber; we are not driving a train or arresting people—we should operate under the same high standards that we expect from workers. This is our workplace. It is probably an argument for another day whether it should be a dry workplace, in which case there would not be a problem with alcohol, the subject of the motion. I would favour a dry House. I am pleased that the dining room staff at Parliament House also serve non-alcoholic wines, which are fairly popular with many members.

    Paragraphs 6 and 7 of the motion are unworkable. They provide that a member attending a sitting of the House while under the influence of alcohol may be suspended from the service of the House. How would that occur? It is almost suggesting that someone would get up and point the finger at a member, and accuse that member of being under the influence of alcohol or drugs. I see a danger in that being abused as a debating tactic—even against a Greens member. I do not think we should open the door to that simplistic approach. I do not believe it is a solution. How we deal with drugs and alcohol needs to be thought through very carefully.

    The Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans did not refer in his contribution to the incident in the Senate involving unseemly behaviour by the Leader of the Australian Democrats, who admitted he had a drinking problem. We hope that it is behind him. I have been a member of this Chamber for 23 years and I have not seen such behaviour in this House. Reference was made to a previous President, the Hon. Max Willis. Some people think it is obvious that he was under the influence of alcohol but I understand that there were other factors. His health condition at the time was not fully investigated. As I said during the debate on the nomination of a new President, I think that President Willis was unfairly treated. I do not think it helps this debate to focus on that incident.

    As I said, I do not think a motion such as this has been needed in the 23 years I have been a member of this place. The only circumstances coming close would have been in regard to the Hon. Richard Jones. He admitted that he smoked marijuana and on more than one occasion late in the day he may have been under the influence of marijuana in this House. He is the only person I can think of who may have come under the provisions of this motion. Would the Greens have ordered him to be removed from the House in view of their policy on marijuana, seeing it as a safe recreational drug? The Christian Democratic Party will not vote for the motion but I foreshadowed my intention to raise this matter in the Standing Orders Committee.

    The Hon. JON JENKINS [11.44 a.m.]: I have no vested interest in this issue: I very rarely drink, only occasionally having a glass of wine. I certainly do not take drugs. The only high I have is when I am surfing or out in the bush with my family and friends. Comparison with the immediate actions of a bus driver or truck driver is fallacious. The mere flick of a wrist that might cause a terrible tragedy involving someone in control of a train, bus or truck is not the same as—

    Ms Lee Rhiannon: What about enacting terrible legislation?

    The Hon. JON JENKINS: It does not have the same immediacy. However, we must be mentally competent and alert. Our task here is to decide on legislation but the comparison with the situation of bus and train drivers is fallacious. I support reference of the issue to a committee where a proper set of guidelines and testing procedures can be discussed and deliberated upon. However, I think that if we apply the rule to alcohol we must also apply the rule to drugs as well. We all know that prescription drugs carry warnings about driving heavy machinery. I think that government could be classed as a slow-moving heavy machine sometimes. So perhaps we should not drive government while we are on prescription drugs. The thought of having to blow in the bag or, even worse, provide a bodily fluid sample as I enter the Chamber is somewhat disconcerting. Although I support the general thrust of the motion I will not vote for it.

    Ms LEE RHIANNON [11.46 a.m.], in reply: I thank all members who have participated in debate on the motion. I would argue that even the contributions from those who disagreed with the motion highlight the need to change the drinking culture of members of Parliament. The Hon. Peter Primrose argued that the best mechanism is an informal one. I draw his attention to the policies of his Government. I quote from the document entitled "Alcohol and Other Drugs—Policy and Guidelines" issued by the Premier's Department in August 1998, a policy that has been in existence for six years:

    The development of an organisation's alcohol and drug management program should be included with the organisation's occupational health, safety and welfare policies.

    What has the Hon. Peter Primrose been doing for the past six years? What has the Government been doing for the past six years? Again, this is why this matter needs to be addressed now, because the Government is failing in its duty. It cannot bring forward its own policy. The Hon. Peter Primrose and the Hon. Don Harwin and other members think that there is no need to take action in this House, no need to change standing orders, that we should just have a cosy little informal arrangement. NSW Health department circular No. 99/43 states:

    The department recognises that the misuse of alcohol and other drugs represents a significant problem as the consumption of such substances can affect a staff member's work performance and jeopardise the safety and welfare of the staff member and their colleagues.

    That is a very clear statement about how alcohol and other drugs can impact on the performance of one's work. It actually states that it can impact on the safety and welfare of other staff and work colleagues. As our job is to look after all of New South Wales, if we do not clean up our act we are saying that it is okay for members to drink, and if that impacts negatively on the rest of the people of New South Wales that is okay. Let us be clear where this is all leading if we are not willing to change the present culture. I would argue that it is an insult to the people of New South Wales that the major parties will not support the motion. The Greens believe that there should be one policy: if it is good enough for railway workers to submit to alcohol and drug tests it should be good enough members of Parliament. If it is not okay for ordinary workers to drink at work, why should MPs be allowed to behave differently?

    In view of some of the arguments raised in the debate I draw attention to the arguments raised by the International Center for Alcohol Policies. It has produced considerable materials on the subject. This provides an answer to the suggestion that we can deal with the problem through an informal arrangement. The International Centre for Alcohol Policies argues that a culture of drinking can create an expectation that no-one will be punished for it. It says that alcohol consumption defines a culture around alcohol and service as a guide to behaviour. That is why we need to address this issue. The Greens agree that it is complex, but we need to start doing something.

    Politicians who think it is okay to drink on the job at Parliament are not taking their responsibility to their electorate seriously. Many people would dispute that, because I see many hardworking members in this House. However, we have a collective responsibility to deal with this issue. The rest of society has been required to address it and we should not be exempt. We should set a higher standard. The action point of this motion would change the Legislative Council standing orders so that any member could move a motion without notice to eject a member who is clearly under the influence of alcohol. How could anyone object? As Mr Primrose pointed out, we already have a standing order referring to disorderly behaviour. This motion simply takes it to another level to define that type of behaviour. We must clean up our act. It is disappointing that members of this House have failed in their clear duty to the people of New South Wales.

    Question—That the amendment be agreed to—put.

    The House divided.
    Ayes, 5
    Dr Chesterfield-Evans
    Mr Cohen
    Ms Hale
      Tellers,
      Mr Oldfield
      Ms Rhiannon
      Noes, 25
      Mr Burke
      Ms Burnswoods
      Mr Catanzariti
      Mr Colless
      Ms Cusack
      Ms Fazio
      Mrs Forsythe
      Miss Gardiner
      Mr Gay
      Ms Griffin
      Mr Jenkins
      Mr Kelly
      Mr Lynn
      Mr Macdonald
      Reverend Nile
      Mr Obeid
      Mrs Pavey
      Ms Robertson
      Mr Ryan
      Mr Tingle
      Mr Tsang
      Mr West
      Dr Wong
        Tellers,
        Mr Harwin
        Mr Primrose
        Question resolved in the negative.

        Amendment negatived

        Question—That the motion be agreed to—put.

        The House divided.
        Ayes, 4
        Mr Cohen
        Ms Rhiannon
        Tellers,
        Dr Chesterfield-Evans
        Ms Hale
        Noes, 25
        Mr Burke
        Ms Burnswoods
        Mr Catanzariti
        Mr Colless
        Ms Cusack
        Ms Fazio
        Mrs Forsythe
        Miss Gardiner
        Mr Gay
        Ms Griffin
        Mr Jenkins
        Mr Kelly
        Mr Lynn
        Mr Macdonald
        Reverend Nile
        Mr Obeid
        Mr Oldfield
        Mrs Pavey
        Ms Robertson
        Mr Ryan
        Mr Tingle
        Mr Tsang
        Dr Wong
          Tellers,
          Mr Harwin
          Mr Primrose
          Question resolved in the negative.

          Motion negatived.

          Pursuant to sessional orders business interrupted.