Follow the head not the heart
Sir John Gorton talks to Pat O'Hare
Sir John Gorton, GCMG, CH, former Privy Counsellor and Prime Minister of Australia in the early 1970s, is one of the elder statesmen of Australian politics. Born in 1911 and educated at the prestigious Geelong Grammar and then Brasenose College, Oxford, he served with distinction in the Royal Australian Air Force from 1940 to 1944 before being invalided out with severe wounds. Sir John has been outspoken on drug issues in Australia and lent support to the formation of the Australian Foundation on Drug Policy. Like several other elder statesmen, he has been disenchanted with the way that the Australian government has increasingly reiterated American propaganda on drugs, even though the pattern of illicit drug taking in Australia has been quite different from that in the USA.
Pat O'Hare When you were in government, 20 years ago, what kind of interest did you have in the drug policy issue?
John Corton At that time, drugs weren't a major political issue, so I didn't have any interest in it. It wasn't such a widespread problem then and I wasn't really aware of there being many drug users. I suppose there must have been, but it was nothing like it is now.
POH Do think it was maybe a case that you didn't know the problem was there?
JG It may well have been there, but I don't think it was there to the same extent as it is now, in fact I'm sure it wasn't.
POH How do you view the position today?
JC Well, I'm quite sure that there's been a huge increase in drug abuse amongst teenagers - and all ages really. There's all sorts of drugs which are now easily available to people. Not only heroin, cocaine, and amphetamines, but all sorts of drugs which are easily available. And because they are able to be sold at such high prices, we cannot, as we've been trying to for years, stop it by simply passing laws. It will continue to come in huge amounts and all we can do is grab bits of it here and there, but we can never stop people who are determined to use it. I cannot see any stopping it by just prohibiting it. I think the only way to improve the situation is if we take the money out of it that people make by selling it. That means getting the drugs sold, presumably, by the government or some government instrumentality, at a price you could easily sell it for. If it was allowed, that would not only stop the people who are making so much money out of it now, but it would also stop people who were addicted from hitting everyone else over the head to get some money for them.
POH How would you respond to people who would say that what you're proposing is encouraging people who don't use drugs now, to use drugs in the future?
JG I doubt whether it would encourage those who don't use drugs now to use them anyway. I think there are very few people who use drugs that can't get drugs where they want to, and there are those who are just starting getting drugs and they can get drugs where they want to also because there are people selling them all over the place. The users are selling them to get more money - it's very widespread.
POH So what you are saying is that it is very easy if someone wants drugs.
JG If they want them, they can find them. But I'm not particulary keen on making it easier for people who don't use drugs. I would like to stop the bloody drugs altogether.
POH You are a Liberal, and have been a Liberal all your life. How do your views now fit in with your liberal philosophy?
JG They don't fit in at all. The Liberals would still say - as indeed the Labor Party would say - "yes, we've got to carry on with the way that we're going", but as they carry on that way I think we get deeper and deeper into drug addiction.
POH When we started this conversation, you said that when you were Prime Minister, 20 odd years ago, there weren't the problems that there are now, particularly the amount of crime associated with drug use. Do you think that what you're proposing would have some impact on crime?
JG I'm sure it would. If an addict, or someone using drugs, could buy them somewhere at a reasonable plice, it would stop them from breakin9 into houses and stealing. Yes, I think it would stop it, it would stop that crime, there's no doubt about it. Whether it would increase the number of people using drugs, I don't know, but I tend to doubt it.
POH One of the things that I've heard about while I've been in Australia is that, in certain cities, there is a fair amount of police corruption. Do you think this corruption has much to do with drugs?
JG Yes, I think it does - I'm sure it does up in Queensland, for example, where there was terrific police corruption. It's got quite a lot to do with drugs, because the rewards are so great. You only have to get three or four policemen working together and they can give the whole police force a bad name, which I don't think they should have. I don't think the police are the real problem. They may be part of the problem now, but they wouldn't be if we could remove that temptation. They can intercept massive amounts coming into Australia, and any policeman getting so much a week could make a year's salary by just grabbing it off, someway or another. And there are people who go to them and "say do this and you get so much ". So it's quite a thing to turn down. If drugs were available legally, that kind of temptation wouldn't be there for the police, particulary if drugs were available at the proper price. I don't know what that price should be, in this area I'm not very knowledgeable. Money that people could afford, but not so cheap that people would just be able to get more than they need that kind of thing.
POH You mentioned before that the Liberal Party, and even the Labor Party, would not share your views. Certainly publicly. What do you think of that stance on this issue?
JG As far as I can tell the stance - if they take a stance - is inclined to be "Oh, don't talk about that to me, it's too dangerous". They don't like questions to be raised, it's too dangerous.
POH Dangerous politically?
JG Politically and electorally, because there are any number of mums and dads, who listen to broadcasting people and watch television, who do not want any changes to drugs laws at the present moment. I remember appearing on one such programme with that American TV soap star, Joan Collins, and she said that she had three children and she would hate to see drugs made available to the children. That's one of the problems, I think. When people get on to this issue, they forget. They don't think with their brain, they think with their emotions and their hearts. They've got children who are grown up and they don't take drugs and they may have gone through a lot of trauma to make sure they didn't take drugs. So why should anybody else be able to?
POH How do we do something about that? How do we change people's attitudes?
JG I think we just keep saying it, I suppose, that's all. Maybe it will get worse. Crack will come in and other stuff. In fact, yes, I think it is likely to get worse.
POH But how do we change politicians' minds? How do we get politicians to think?
JG How do you change Barry's mind, you know, the Mayor of Washington? I mean, there is a certain amount of hypocrisy there. I think there is a certain amount of hypocrisy in politicians on this issue. On many issues. It's no different from any other issue, really. They're not all like that, I'm sure. There are any number of politicians, on both sides, who really believe that we shouldn't do anything. Who really believe that and there's not hypocrisy in them, they really believe it.
POH You've mentioned America. Do you think America has any influence on Australian drug policy?
JG It must have an influence on Australian drug policy. The American Government and politicians have a very straight line on this, and the only answer is prohibition. But all Americans don't follow that entirely. Marijuana, for example, is made available in a few states. I don't think that a problem anyway, it's nothing. And yet here, just the other day, they had a Rugby Football team which they grabbed and they tested some of them and found marijuana in their urine and banned them. This is the silliness we can get into. It should not be an offence really at all, to the best of my knowledge marijuana is not addictive, you can take it or leave it alone. I don't know why people do take it, but they do. I don't know what they get out of it because I have never tried it. It's nothing to think about - you can easily stop. I suppose it is an American influence, but I would not like to besmirch the whole of America's name. Some American politicians are very good and some are very bad. I mean Bush's lot I think are very good, but he is against abortion and he is completely against drugs.
POH If you were Prime Minister today, what would you do about this issue?
JG Probably nothing because I would be scared to. But I would say what I am saying now to you.
POH You would say it to the public?
POH You may not be Prime Minister very long.
JG I might be. I don't know. There are an awful lot of people who see the sense of what you and I have been talking about. But some people won't admit it to themselves and then some people who will admit it to themselves won'tsay it publicly because they're scared of losing their seats.
POH Another former politician, George Shultz from the USA, has spoken publicly in favour of legalizing drugs.
JC The situation in the USA is absolutely terrible, we get the impression that the whole population is living on drugs. The policies they are pursuing they are going to continue, and they are not making any difference at all. It's getting worse. But yes, those whose opinions count for something, who have a decent track record, should be brave enough to come out and say what they honestly think. If they think what is being done now is wrong, they should say so.
POH What would you do, would you make it open for everybody? How would you go about making drugs legal?
JC I think it would be difficult. It would create a problem if tomorrow you just said "Right, that's it, drugs are legal". I think that would be a problem. I think probably what I would tend to do would be to do things very gradually, and the first thing I would do, I think, would be to certainly decriminalise the possession of marijuana. I don't think there is a problem with people taking drugs recreationally, which they do often without any problem. Occasionally, you know, once a month or so they go on a cocaine jag or something and they don't get any worse.
POH How then do you think drugs should be made available? On prescription from doctors? Sold in the corner shop?
JC No. I don't think heroin and the like should be sold over the counter. I suppose you would have to have some control over the availability of stuff like that. I think those people who are determined to take the stuff should be on a register or something, have regular medical check-ups and be in touch with someone in case they harm themselves. Like I said, I don't think you can just legalise it all overnight, that would cause all kinds of problems. The government should devise some form of keeping a check on it
POH So you would favour some form of controlled availability?
JC Well, at the moment we seem to have the availability, but not the control. If it was done in a low-key way it may not get so out of control. You have to be careful that you don't attract a lot of people who never took drugs before. I don't think that you would, but you would have to watch that you didn't.
POH So how do you see things going in the future? Will it happen?
JC I think it will get worse before it gets better. This crack thing seems to be uncontrollable and there's new drugs coming in all the time. I think over time it will change. Slowly maybe, but things will change.