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The Inaugural David Penington Oration 2023: A Courageous Legacy

On 15 November 2023, Penington Institute held the inaugural David Penington Oration in honour of our namesake and patron. Professor David Penington AC, who passed away earlier this year, was a stalwart of public health who championed rational, compassionate drug policies.  

The Oration was held to commemorate Professor Penington’s life and work, including his efforts to address harms caused by ineffective drug policies. 

The event was held in the Federation Room at Victoria’s Parliament House, where a packed crowd of political, academic, and medical leaders gathered to reflect on the lasting impact that Professor Penington had on Australian society. 

In 1984, Professor Penington spearheaded the National AIDS Taskforce, saving thousands of lives. His work was instrumental in positioning Australia as a world leader in responding to HIV/AIDS. Later in his career, Professor Penington chaired two governmental advisory bodies on drugs and our community: the Victorian Premier’s Drug Advisory Council and the Victorian Government’s Drug Policy Expert Committee.

This work heralded significant reform, much of it adopted in other jurisdictions as well as Victoria, treating drugs as a public health issue rather than a criminal or moral one. It was the beginning of reimagining how to manage drugs more effectively in Australia, though there is much still to do.  

Reflecting on the road ahead, Penington Institute CEO, John Ryan, said, 

“The values and principles that guided Professor Penington in his work are the same ones we hold central in our own. Like him, we will not be deterred by the complexity of managing drugs, even when the barriers to better individual and community outcomes seem insurmountable.” 

Speaking at the Oration, Mick Palmer AO APM, former Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, emphasised the risk of harms that drug policies can have on the most vulnerable people in society, 

“The statistics make it very clear that criminal sanctions disproportionately impact Indigenous and minority communities, the homeless and disadvantaged, and persons suffering depression and other mental health problems.”  

He highlighted the importance of an evidence based approach to law reform.

“A Penington Institute style evidence-based approach to law reform is essential to meaningful reductions in crime, fairer and more equitable laws and improved community safety and confidence in government.”

Mick Palmer AO APM giving the oration. Photo credit: Chris Franklin

Mr Palmer drew particular attention to the impacts caused by Australia’s current prohibition of cannabis which, 

“Is not just failing, it is causing real harm … The damage done by arrest and sanction for ‘use and possession’ of cannabis, far outweighs any public good likely to be achieved by the arrest, or the possible harm or damage caused to the offender by the use itself.” 

“It will take courage for governments to move away from the popularist quick fix prohibitionist approach to criminal problems and crime epidemics, but,  unless they do so, all my experience tells me, that the problems being experienced across the community will only worsen.”

Also speaking at the Oration were former Victorian Premiers, the Honourable Jeff Kennett and the Honourable Steve Bracks, as well as Professor Penington’s son, Professor Tony Penington. The event was officiated by Kathryn Greiner AO, the Chair of the Penington Institute Board.     

From left to right – Hon. Steve Bracks AC, Kathryn Greiner AO, Mick Palmer AO, Hon. Jeff Kennett AC. Photo credit: Chris Franklin

Penington Institute is proud to continue the frank and fearless legacy of Professor Penington. He has paved the way for future Australian drug policy to be  sensible, humane and to improve outcomes for people and communities.

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