New South Wales Coalition Minister for Health, the Honourable Jillian Skinner MP, didn’t agree with Sydney’s supervised injecting centre when it opened in 2001.Years later she voted with her feet in Parliament to support it.
Ms Skinner, who entered Parliament in 1994, supported the 1999 Premier’s Drug Summit held by Labor’s Bob Carr. However, Ms Skinner felt a safer-injecting room was going too far.
“When the injecting room came before Parliament I voted against it.” She says she “thought it was sending a message that using illicit drugs was okay.”
Over time, though, Ms Skinner noticed the improvement in the Kings Cross community. Fewer people were injecting in public and there was less discarded equipment on the street.
“But the final proof was the evidence that fatal overdoses were down – that the data compiled by the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre [MSIC] and Dr Ingrid van Beek [founding MSIC director] showed lives were being saved,” she says.
“It’s proven to be very effective in what it set out to do.”
By 2010, when the then Labor NSW government proposed making MSIC permanent, the Coalition MPs were permitted a conscience vote. Ms Skinner had had a turnaround on the issue – she changed her original view and voted on the floor of Parliament to make MSIC a permanent facility.
Ms Skinner says she never doubted the value of Needle and Syringe Programs (NSPs). In the early 1980s when HIV/AIDS was taking its devastating toll some of her friends were active in Australia’s leading campaigns, including in the AIDS Council of NSW (ACON).
“You really have to look at NSP in terms of the history of HIV and the bipartisan support that it received. Admittedly at times there have been complaints about the number of syringes [on the street] and at times there have been complaints about the siting of [sharps disposal] bins. But there has been bipartisan support for its value and its effectiveness in curbing the spread of HIV and hepatitis C.”
NSPs have endured opposition in Sydney. In 1999 the Sun Herald printed a photograph of a boy who was described as a 12-year-old injecting himself in a Redfern lane near a mobile NSP.
In the wake of the subsequent community uproar, the Redfern mobile NSP was suspended even though it saw more than 150 clients a day and distributed about 38,000 items of injecting equipment a month. The controversy triggered wide community debate over the value of NSPs generally.
Importantly, it also led to then-Premier Bob Carr convening the 1999 NSW Drug Summit, which culminated in the opening of the MSIC.
Ms Skinner has continued to support measures to stop the spread of blood-borne viruses. In 2016 she backed Australia’s largest clinical trial of a new anti-HIV prophylactic drug called Truvada, which has recently been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Taken daily it promises a 99 per cent success rate at protecting people from contracting HIV.
The Minister has set a target of 2020 to wipe out new HIV infections. ”If we can do this I would consider it the greatest achievement of my time as Health Minister,” she says.
Her championing the trial has sparked unprecedented fan mail. “I now have a huge folder of support mail. It’s a little bit like being dead and being able to hear the eulogies at my funeral,” Ms Skinner says.
– Royal Abbott