Material from the Gary Foley Collection

Selling out the people of Redfern

The Australian
12 May 2005

YESTERDAY The Australian reported NSW Health Minister Morris Iemma saying the inner-city Sydney suburb ofRedfern needs a new needle exchange for heroin users. Never mind this announcement less than a year since a major police operation against the drug trade there. Never mind heroin addiction compounds the poverty and social dysfunction that afflict the large community of indigenous Australians in Redfern. Never mind the locals, especially the family with kids who live next door to the proposed needle exchange, do not want the facility. Mr Iemma acknowledges local concerns but points to his public health obligation to ensure drug users have access to clean needles. Certainly injecting addicts who share syringes place themselves at unnecessary risk. But in his concern for their welfare, Mr Iemma sends a stark message -- in Redfern, children's rights come second to addicts' rights.

When heroin rules, the streets are never safe. In February last year, police in Redfern lost control when Aborigines rioted following the death of a young man in an accident they wrongly accused police of causing. It showed a community where social cohesion was absent, where large numbers of people thought the writ of the law should not run. Heroin was not the sole catalyst of the riot. Redfern's Aboriginal community suffers from all sorts of deep- seated social problems. But the presence of a needle exchange program operating from a caravan that attracted addicts, and drug dealers, from all over Sydney, did not help. The death and resulting riot were tragedies for the Redfern community, but at least something positive came of them. Following the riot, police and indigenous community leaders co-operated in an offensive against drug crime, and the problems that accompany heroin dealing have since declined.

But now it seems the NSW Government wants to make it ever harder for police and the community to keep the suburb clean. In the place of the needle exchange caravan, Mr Iemma wants to build a permanent facility opposite Redfern's rail station, which services the entire Sydney suburban network. In the interest of addicts' health, he plans a bigger, better heroin honeypot for users and dealers. For a government that makes much of its supposed support for the rights of indigenous Australians and its commitment to cleaning up Redfern, this is a strange way of showing it.