No Zero – A Bitter Pill to Swallow

No Zero – A Bitter Pill to Swallow

Despite all the nonsense speak of ‘zero tolerance’ and ‘war on drugs’ it is clear that such strategies cost a fortune and don’t work. Here are some reasons why:



imageThe zero tolerance approach is based on a set of binary absolutes as if:

· Humans can be perfect

· Drug addiction is not complicated

· Drugs are a ‘choice’ and,

· Punitive action ‘works’

Of course we know none of this is works and the more people talk s%#t to others about ‘choice’ and ‘zero’, more young people die.

Unfortunately, the ideology of zero, binary intolerance and simplistic understandings of humans leads to brutalism ( Those who would like to stand back and cast sanctimonious judgment on others as if prevention was simple, have no idea what the problem is. Intolerance is a vice, tolerance is a virtue.

The best way to practice safety is not through brutalism but rather harm reduction ( This is consistent with the WHS Act and Regulation that proposes that risks can only be managed to As Low as Reasonably Practicable (ALARP) ( ). ALARP is a virtuous strategy, zero is a vice.

The ideology of zero is a contraction of the WHS Act and Regulation in safety. The Act and Regulation don’t expect zero indeed, any projection of zero creates very dangerous by-products and trade-offs that we see evident in the debate on deaths at music festivals. Some recent research actually shows that the ideology and discourse of zero actually increases injuries (Sheratt, F., & Dainty, A. R. J. (2017). UK construction safety: A zero paradox. Policy and practice in health and safety, 15(2), 1-9.).

The binary opposition thinking common to zero ideology proposes that any tolerance of drugs is ‘giving in’ and ‘agreement’ with illegal drug activity ( ). What this leads to is more vigilance, more cost, more brutalism and it doesn’t work. This is the problem with dumb down safety, somehow something will change if we keep doing more of the same. The silly argument that pill testing is giving in to ‘drugs’ is a naïve and childish way of thinking. We already know that drug injecting rooms work and that pill testing works (;

All this talk about being ‘tough on drugs’ or having a ‘war on drugs’ is just propaganda. This is not war on drugs but in reality the ‘war on people’.

How strange is this zero ideology, the drug that kills far more people than any illicit drug is alcohol, yet we have a tolerant approach to it.

The thing about zero ideology is that it is never zero. You can never have zero in a random world, with fallible people, uncertainty and complexity. Zero ideology is never zero, it is always selective zero. A war on MDMA but tolerance for alcohol is an example. Counting band-aid cuts vs mental health harm is another. Poor old calculative safety, as long as we get to zero everything is somehow safe.

When I worked in Government in Youth and Community Services I was on the Inter-Governmental Committee set up by the Howard Government’s ‘get tough on drugs’ and ‘war on drugs’ campaign ( ). Everyone who was on the committee including Police, Salvos, Lifeline, Medical services, Paramedics, Social Workers, D&A workers knows that zero tolerance doesn’t work. So whilst Howard was preaching zero we on the ground were practicing harm minimization. Zero is ‘noise’ for the dumb but those who know the realities of addictions and fallibility, know that zero is nonsense.

Doctors know zero doesn’t work ( yet the Government still keeps up the mindset of zero despite all the evidence to the contrary. Sound familiar? This war on drugs has been going on unsuccessfully for years.

I know lets just do more of the same with greater vigilance and bigger budget ( and see if it works again! We have been at this failed strategy now for more than 30 years!

Most experts back pill testing ( yet the Government in its blind superior expertise practices an ideology of ignorance that can’t admit that their drug policy actually increases deaths at music festivals. Sound familiar?

Zero is not a target. Zero is not a goal. Zero is not a principle or concept ( Zero is not some by-line in a discussion on safety ( Zero is a language that promotes brutalism and sustains an ideology that is at ‘war’ with fallible humans in a world of complexity and uncertainty ( Zero is a dangerous ideology (

Yet – Safety knows best. The Global mantra for safety is zero ( ). The National mantra for safety is zero. Most regulators, peak bodies and agencies in safety in Australia are now fully committed to the global ideology of zero!

Well done. I wonder how many years of sunk cost it will take before Safety can swallow the pill and get rid of this insidious ideology that doesn’t work.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

Latest posts by Dr Rob Long (see all)

Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

6 Replies to “No Zero – A Bitter Pill to Swallow”

  1. Hi Dr Rob Long, one thing I wonder . .. you seem to be conflating “Zero Tollerance” with aspirational goals of Zero. So when Bob Hawke talked about No child in poverty; he set an aspirational goal of Zero Child Poverty. This does not tell us anything about the strategy to achieve it…. but we do know that it is unlikely to be achieved by anything less than a thorough understanding of the causes of child poverty, and concerted steps to address them. The same is true of safety.

    I would also argue that belief systems ( ideologies) are inescapable, and should be judged by their utility. We are social animals… and it is inevitable that we will live with a range of systems of belief based on our upbringing, social conditioning, experience, education etc. What is of concern is unexamined belief… echo chambers….fragile egos unable to withstand the rigour of good debate…. now that… is quite concerning in our times no?

  2. Susan, thanks for your inquiry. I clearly remember Bob Hawke being pilloried for his discourse. One cannot separate the language and discourse of zero from its myth/symbol. So people naturally expected that Hawke’s words actually had meaning ‘that no child would live in poverty’. Aspirations are articulated in language symbols and are not some static wish but rather hold a linguistic trajectory. The language of aspiration is simply a simple way of expressing a wish knowing full well that it is unachievable. Instead, the symbol of zero stands in contradiction to reality, vulnerability, fallibility, randomness and uncertainty. Hawke was certainly punished for his naivety and simplistic language.
    Zero is not a strategy and as an ideology has no other trajectory than delusion and failure. Belief systems are inescapable, even atheism and agnosticism are a form of faith/belief. There are approximately 100 definitions of ideology, mine tends to come from Critical Theory and understands a discourse as a political/ethical activity. An ideology from this position is about much more than a belief system. This would certainly be demonstrated by the number of people I know who have been sacked for challenging zero. Zero is a language of no compromise and total compliance regardless of how it is packaged (as aspiration)- tough to have a debate from such a position.
    As yet, I have never had anyone in the risk and safety sector ever want to debate zero. Yes, the peaks like the SIA call a conference debate about it but select vested interests that can sustain their political power and reach a conclusion that endorses their position. The only debate I see is one that must accept the validity of zero before a conversation can begin.
    With the global discourse now set in zero and the mantra paraded as absolute ( I find it interesting as the only author globally on zero and fallibility that there has never been one call, email or note to discuss the issue.

  3. Dear Rob,

    The following link provides access to the transcript an interview with Professor Carlo Rovelli, which appeared in the Christmas edition of The Spectator. It covers the theory and meaning of time but what is most refreshing is Rovelli’s transdisciplinary approach and emphasis on the mistakes of our current culture with the distinct separation of disciplines. It sounds awfully familiar:

  4. Bernard, as long as Safety remains concooned comfortably and compliant in its materialist positivism it will never get zero nor the religious nature of its taboos and rituals. It continues to ask the wrong questions seeking answers to problems that are self-framed in engineering and science discourse. The same exists for the opponents of pill-testing, happy in sunk cost without any capacity to step outside their conservative laissez faire ideology, so sure that their ethic of brutalism is the only solution, even though it doesn’t work.

  5. The recent ALP conference appears somewhat ominous regarding any radical change. The former elected prime minister, who publicly renounced democratic socialism, was responsible for the home insulation program and gets rewarded with a life membership of the party. A more condign option would have been expulsion.

    The opposition leader’s squeeze was a former executive with the Calibre Group, a major labour hire company.

    The entire structure requires radical surgery. Appoint Doug Cameron or Kristina Keneally as the minister and ensure SWA is provided with true independence and effective tripartite arrangements without excessive ministerial influence. Greg Combet should be appointed as its chair to resolve national uniformity and harmonisation and ratify ILO C176. He could do that in six months standing on his head with his hands tied behind his back

    Euthanise the SIA and NSCA and bury the bedwetting acolytes in an unmarked mass grave somewhere near Werribee marshes to disguise the rotten stench of zero tolerance and BBS.

  6. Bernard, I don’t think OHS rates high on many agendas in the LNP or ALP. Much more interest in spruiking spin than substance. Very reactive than proactive.

Do you have any thoughts? Please share them below