The move from education to defence doesn’t seem to have dampened
Brendan Nelson’s enthusiasm for publicity. One of the few federal
ministers who isn’t just a cipher for John Howard, Nelson is in the
news again this morning, having told a conference yesterday that “recruiting, retaining and caring for defence personnel was his greatest challenge.”

Given the risk of being sent to fight in unpopular wars, it’s not surprising that defence recruitment is an issue; according to The Age,
“Nelson said Defence should consider whether issues such as height,
weight and asthma should automatically bar people from the forces.” But
his most surprising suggestion was to “stop asking would-be recruits if
they have ever used illicit drugs.”

Not that the change isn’t sensible; there’s no earthly reason why past
recreational drug use should disqualify someone from the armed forces.
As Nelson points out, something approaching half the population would
have to say yes if they told the truth; in practice, defence just gets
the ones who don’t mind lying about it.

But it’s an odd position to find coming from the Howard government. AFL
footballers in particular must be wondering what they have done wrong,
since last year sports minister Rod Kemp forced them to sign up to the
anti-drug code of the World Anti-Doping Agency, driven in turn by
American “war on drugs” hysteria. Under WADA rules, use of recreational
drugs, even though not performance-enhancing, can still be grounds for
suspension.

As The Age
reported yesterday, “Many player managers and clubs are troubled at the
testing of players for drugs that are not performance enhancing.” There
are concerns that Aboriginal players will be disproportionately hit by
the rules, and the players association regards them as “a breach of the
player’s civil liberties.” No-one has given a convincing explanation
for why sport should be singled out for recreational drug bans, when
no-one suggests testing politicians and business leaders.

Perhaps Senator Kemp should go back and have a talk with Brendan Nelson.

Peter Fray

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