he AFL’s illicit drugs policy could be under threat, with expectations the Coalition will revive its bitter campaign against the contentious three-strikes component if it wins Saturday’s federal election.
The last time the Coalition was in power, in 2007, the AFL and the AFL Players Association successfully resisted government-led demands that its policy be dramatically stiffened, to punish and disclose the name of players who had failed drug tests earlier and ban them for at least eight years, and possibly for life, for a third breach.
The campaign was led by Howard government ministers George Brandis and Christopher Pyne, on the basis it undermined their anti-drug campaigns. They argued it was ”namby-pamby” and ”probably a soft-on-drugs approach”.
”A three-strike policy is not a zero tolerance policy,” said Brandis, the then sports minister. ”It is not … the toughest possible stance against drugs, it does not go far enough.”
The Coalition went to the 2007 election promising a year-round, $21million illicit-drug testing regime for Australian sports, with Brandis foreshadowing ”remorseless pressure on any national sporting organisation which stands apart from the consensus”. It did not get the opportunity to implement its agenda, but is strongly favoured to be back in power by next week.
The AFL and AFLPA would not be drawn on their expectations of the implications of a change of government, although it is believed players privately fear renewed pressure to significantly change the testing regimen they volunteered for.
Greens sports spokesman Richard Di Natale, a former GP and public-health specialist who has been a fervent defender of the policy, predicted Coalition members, if in government, would ”do whatever they can to basically dismantle what’s a very good public-health response”.
”I’ve got no doubt that the Coalition, and particular members of the Coalition such as George Brandis, would like to see what is a sensible public-health approach to the problem of illicit-drug use in the AFL turned into a huge political football,” he said.
”They’ll try and score a few cheap points, and as a result we’ll continue to see young men make mistakes and not get the support they need from the medical community,” Di Natale said.
The most recent AFL results, released in May, revealed the percentage of failed illicit-drug tests had tripled in 2012, with the overall figure of 26 failed tests equalling the number for the three preceding years. The AFL and AFLPA insisted that was because they had targeted their testing to specific players and periods (such as the day after a match) and conducted more hair testing.
The sports portfolio previously held by Brandis is now occupied by the Nationals’ Luke Hartsuyker. On Tuesday he commended the AFL for strengthening its illicit-drug policy but did not rule out seeking additional amendments.
”The Coalition has always supported taking a tough stance on illicit drugs in sport,” Hartsuyker said in a statement. ”I note the AFL has enhanced its out-of-season drug-testing regime and, if I am the sport minister in a new Coalition Government, I will work with the AFL to reduce illicit-drug use within the code.”
A recent Senate inquiry into sports science, devised by Di Natale in a bid to regulate supplements given to athletes, featured persistent questions by the Coalition relating instead to illicit drugs.
Di Natale said AFL players had made a ”huge concession” in agreeing to be tested for illicit drugs out of competition, and believed the Coalition members “don’t acknowledge . . . the AFL is doing something that other codes don’t do” with its out-of-competition testing. He urged the Coalition to clarify its stance on the AFL policy before Saturday’s election.
“I’d like the Coalition to make a very clear statement that they’re going to continue to endorse what is a public-health approach to the issue, to make it very clear where they stand on the issue, and that the AFL will continue to have its support in pursuing something that puts the welfare of the players as its central focus,” he said.