Footscray in Melbourne’s west has become the latest battleground over medically supervised injecting rooms (MSIR). Local rallies are a rarity these days, but over the last two weeks the suburb’s mall has been the site of two protests—a right-wing anti-MSIR rally organised by the Liberal Party and a community rally in support led by the Victorian Socialists West.
Supervised injecting facilities save lives, but there is only one in Victoria. It’s in North Richmond and was established as a two-year trial by a nervous Andrews government in 2018. Eighteen months into the trial, an independent review found that the facility had received 119,000 visits, managed 3,200 overdoses safely and saved at least 21 lives.
Injecting facilities improve the overall wellbeing of people who inject drugs. They reduce the risk of hepatitis C and HIV by providing clean equipment and offering screening. They help link users to a variety of health and social services, from dental and mental health services to legal and housing support. They also provide a gateway to rehabilitation programs. The North Richmond facility is reported to have provided more than 13,000 referrals to a variety of services.
Despite the vocal campaign against the facility by a hostile minority of traders and local residents backed by the Liberal Party, the submission by the local primary school also reported a decrease in public injecting and discarded needles and syringes.
There is a dire need for these important harm reduction facilities to be established in suburbs across Melbourne, including in the inner west. Out of fourteen local government areas in the north and west, Brimbank and Maribyrnong have the largest number of ambulance call-outs for heroin overdoses after Yarra and the Melbourne CBD.
Despite the need, there are plans only for a new facility in the CBD. The Liberal Party, the Murdoch press and many small business owners are working overtime to demonise the proposed facility in the hope of intimidating the Melbourne City Council and the state government into scuttling the plan. Establishing a new facility in the CBD would be a step forward, taking pressure off North Richmond.
That there is no proposal for a facility in the inner west hasn’t stopped arch-reactionary Bernie Finn, a Liberal Party MP, from whipping up bigoted hysteria. Jumping on a fairly run-of-the-mill comment by Reason MP Fiona Patten, who made the case for MSIRs in Footscray, St Kilda and Dandenong, Finn organised a “No to Drug Injecting Facilities in Footscray” rally on 19 May.
Finn is cynically attempting to build an electoral base for himself and the Liberal Party by making an alliance with the Footscray Business Association (FABA), which is the mouthpiece of Footscray-based Vietnamese business owners.
The Vietnamese community traditionally vote Labor. Indeed, the Liberals do badly in the west. But the business owners are, unsurprisingly, a more conservative bloc. In the 2020 local council elections, FABA organised a right-wing ticket that tried to unseat Labor Party councillors and drew on Trump-style slogans—“Make Maribyrnong Great Again”. Their hostility for the Labor Party was matched only by their hatred for the Greens.
The rally of around 70 people, overwhelmingly older Vietnamese people, was a motley crew of fearful narrow-minded business owners and right-wing opportunists like Catherine Cumming, a Victorian upper house MP elected in Western Metro on Derryn Hinch’s law and order ticket. Michael Clarke, the ALP mayor of Maribyrnong City Council, disgraced himself by speaking at the rally.
“Disgraced” is to put it lightly. Finn is closer to the extra-parliamentary far right than he is to the Victorian Liberal Party, however noxious it may be. He is notorious for organising annual anti-choice rallies aimed at re-criminalising abortion, at which the fascist Proud Boys supply security. He opposes the ban on gay conversion therapy, doesn’t believe in global warming, supports the death penalty for drug dealers and is a Donald Trump imitator. There should be political consequences for uniting with such a bigot.
Victorian Socialists West were alerted to the right-wing protest when progressive local residents started posting in online community forums dismayed by local businesses displaying posters for the right-wing rally in their shop windows. Hearteningly, there was a flood of comments supporting MSIRs. They reached out to Victorian Socialists local councillor Jorge Jorquera for assistance in organising a counter-protest, highlighting how Jorquera has already established himself as a fighter for social justice in the local area in the seven months he’s been a councillor.
Along with local anarchists, we heckled the right-wing protest on Wednesday night, shamed Clarke for his participation and handed out leaflets to passers-by, taking on the campaign of lies and misinformation. We also put up a change.org petition that has garnered nearly 1,500 signatures. But it was clear that we needed to do more.
So three days later, in a rally organised by Victorian Socialists West and local Footscray resident Phoebe McDonald, we mobilised more than 100 residents to demonstrate support for harm reduction and public health care for all. We drew together community organisations like Flat Out Inc., which advocates for women in the prison system, Harm Reduction Victoria, which gives voice to people with lived experience, and socialist activists. Speech after speech eloquently rejected the stigmatisation and criminalisation of people living with drug addictions.
The loudest boos at the rally were for Michael Clarke, when Sally Thompson, Victorian Socialists West campaigner, drew the links between the fight for a safe injecting room and the broader fight against gentrification. This is not the first time Clarke has teamed up with anti-poor reactionaries. He recently rejected a proposal put to council to turn over empty international student housing apartments to social housing for the homeless. Clarke was bowing to a handful of residents in Seddon who complained that housing the poor would negatively affect the “local amenity”. Thompson and Jorquera are leading the charge to overturn this rotten decision by our council.
As housing prices soar, the working-class inner west is giving way to rapid gentrification. The fight for a supervised injecting facility is part and parcel of the fight over the nature of our suburbs. Is the inner west to be exclusively for the yuppie set who can afford million-dollar homes? Or can we help push back this process that is making the inner west increasingly inhospitable to workers and the poor by organising around the principles of social solidarity? There is plenty of left-wing sentiment out there. The task is to organise it if we are to have an impact. The Victorian Socialists West is committed to organising for a Maribyrnong for all.