Let me begin this post with a sad, potentially very sad, story which turned out to have a happy ending.
A 13 year old boy, tragically bereaved of his father, turns to illicit drugs, develops the disability of herion addiction and, whilst still a minor, becomes ensnared in trafficking. At 19 he is arrested and goes to jail for just under three years.
Then, after serving his time, he finds the inner strength to completely turn his life around. He recovers from his disability and goes to university where he earns both a degree and the love and respect of a very admirable woman. Eventually he becomes both a very successful and highly regarded public administrator, and a father to two small children who sets a shining example to other men through his engagement with his kids and his sharing of domestic duties with his partner.
The man in the story is Michael Coutts-Trotter, who has been appointed Director-General of the NSW Education Department. His appointment has been controversial for two reasons, only one of which can be regarded with any respect. There has been some discussion about whether his qualifications specifically in relation to education are better than those of some others who might have been appointed to the position. I make no comment on this matter other than noting (a) that it is a legitimate issue for debate and (b) that it is not this issue which has attracted the attention of the NSW Liberal Party and its bloviator mates such as Gerard Henderson. The NSW Liberals & Co. are equalled only by their US Republican compatriots in the dark art of trawling the lower depths of the human soul in the quest for political advantage, and so they have made an issue of the tragic teenage past which Michael Coutts-Trotter has transcended in his adult life. According to Henderson:
Well, everyone is entitled to make good on their past and so is Mr Coutts Trotter. But, the question is whether you should put someone who has a conviction for drug trafficking as head of the Education Department, and I think that’s most unwise. I mean, Alan Bond has done his time, but I don’t think anyone would make Alan Bond head of the Treasury Department… I think, on this occasion, the Iemma Government in New South Wales has crossed the line of acceptability. It’s unacceptable to appoint someone with a drug conviction as head of the Education Department. It is unacceptable to appoint someone who has an allegation of domestic violence to the ministry as was the case with Paul Gibson.
There are a number of points to be made in response to this sort of thing.
1. We should be deeply disturbed that Australia’s most prominent Liberal-aligned intellectual can’t see the difference between an orphaned teenager who goes amiss in tragic circumstances and then develops a psychiatric disability from which he subsequently recovers and builds an exemplary life for himself, and grown men who, when in positions of responsibility, knowingly and wilfully commit gross crimes of dishonesty and/or violence.
2. The authentic Christians among us will be disturbed that the Conspicuous Christians of the NSW Liberal Right have such an idiosyncratic interpretation of Christian morality. There is the preccupation with enforcing the secondary Christian virtues in relation to the “sex, drugs and rock & roll” suite of issues whilst blithely disregarding the primary Christian virtues of love, charity, social responsibility and non-violence as they apply to issues like the IR laws, global warming, the war in Iraq, welfare “reform”, indigenous rights, refugees, etc. And then there is the most un-Christian judgementalism of their treatment of Mr. Coutts-Trotter, the presumption of the right to damn the man for all time, and the rejection of the central Christian focus on the capacity of all human beings for redemption.
3. Once again we see the monumental intellectual inconsistency and moral hypocrisy of mainstream conservative opinion on the issue of drugs. The biggest, most destructive, illicit drug trade in Australia is not heroin, ice or ecstasy. It is the sale of alcohol to under-age and intoxicated purchasers. It has been estimated that half the liquor sold in the United States is sold to under-age or intoxicated patrons. As statistics show that Australians hit the stuff harder than Americans, it is plausible to suggest that the than half the liquor sold in Australia is sold to, and more than half the money made from its sale is taken from, intoxicated and under-age customers. Are the grown men and women who ply this trade held in the same execration as hapless teenage smack pushers? If Michael Coutts-Trotter were a publican who took a very liberal view of what constitutes intoxication and who was a poor judge of people’s ages, or was the CEO of a brewery or distillery, would the NSW Liberals be demanding he be banned for life from holding public office? More likely they’d be fawning over him in the hope of a five- or six-figure donation to party coffers.
4. Finally, this case once again calls for us to think hard about the way we think about substance dependence and those of us and our fellow citizens who suffer from this disability. Conventional morality (including religious morality) regards excessive consumption of, and addiction to, intoxicants as a moral failing to be denounced, rather than (as I have cast it here) a disability or a health problem to be addressed rationally by medical and psychiatric science and by well-designed public policy. However, certain kinds of substance misuse and addiction are rife amongst the conventionally and religiously moral. (I am reminded of the night in December 1994 when a friend and I had to rescue a paralytic Catholic hospital chaplain from staggering under the wheels of traffic in a busy inner-Brisbane thoroughfare, and then half-carry him to the hospital to spend the night as a patient.) This means that many of the conventionally and religiously moral have a bad case of guilty conscience about their own weakness for booze, fags, pills or whatever, and this unresolved guilt is then projected censoriously and unforgivingly onto those whose “sin” of substance addiction takes (or, in Michael Coutts-Trotter’s case, took) an unconventional form such as shooting smack. If we were to all get into the habit of thinking of substance dependencies as disabilities or illnesses to be treated, rather than sins to be (selectively) condemned, the debate about drugs and their consequences, and how public policy should attempt to deal with them, would benefit greatly. And there would be one less sleazy nook in the lower depths of our souls for the NSW Liberals and US Republicans to plumb in their quest for political advantage.