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Monday, 21 November 2011
Page: 9063

Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (17:44): I seek leave to take note of the answers from the Tasmanian Minister for Health, Ms O'Byrne, and the Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory, Ms Gallagher, on the hearing health of Indigenous Australians.

Leave granted.

Senator SIEWERT: I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

These letters are in response to the motion that was passed by the chamber in September which dealt with issues of hearing health for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Last session we had a response from Ms Bligh, the Queensland Premier, outlining the Deadly Ears program and we have since had these two subsequent responses. I am really pleased to see that the states and territories are responding to this motion because this is a particularly important issue. It is fairly unusual to get such a speedy response and I am really pleased that they are taking this issue very seriously. But I would urge the states that are responding and also those that are yet to respond to this to seek to raise this issue with the Commonwealth and suggest that it be an issue that is taken up through COAG, because it is only through coordinated national state and territory responses that we are going to see this issue being seriously addressed.

I have outlined to the chamber on numerous occasions the pandemic that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities face through otitis media and the subsequent impact this is having on their hearing health and the subsequent impact that that hearing impairment is having on people's educational outcomes, their interactions with the educational system and, unfortunately, the subsequent interactions they are having with the criminal justice system. I am in no doubt about the statistics that we are starting to see in the criminal justice system. A recent survey showed that 90 per cent of Aboriginal prisoners in the Darwin Correctional Centre had some form of hearing loss or hearing impairment. We also had anecdotal evidence to the Senate inquiry that articulated the poor interaction that people with hearing loss or hearing impairment are having with police and, once in the justice system, within the justice system and, once in the prison system, in the prison system. It is absolutely imperative that this issue is dealt with.

Unfortunately, I cannot let this opportunity pass without commenting on the flawed approach the government is taking to educational outcomes in the Northern Territory and the legislation that I understand, judging by media reports, will be introduced any day into the House of Representatives extending the Northern Territory Emergency Response and in particular seeking to expand the SEAM trials, which are the school attendance trials, and then to cut income support if we do not increase school attendance.

Getting a child into school is not the end of this process. Unfortunately, the government seems to be forgetting that. You cannot tick the box because the child is at school. We need to be providing an education system that provides educational outcomes. We need to be dealing with hearing health. Once the child is in school we obviously need to be making sure we have a program in place dealing with otitis media. That requires a coordinated approach from all other states and the Commonwealth. When we have a child in school, we need to make sure, for example, that we have sound fields in not just some but all classrooms. One of the simple recommendations that the Senate Community Affairs References Committee made in its Hear us report into hearing health in Australia is that, under the act that governs the provision of services, Australian Hearing be enabled to spend some of their resources on the provision of sound fields, because at the moment they cannot. We believe it would be a fairly simple amendment to make that would have a very significant impact. We need to be making sure that schools do not have to just apply for that money, combined with the money that the government has assigned to the disabilities in schools program—which is a good program, I have to say—and that we have a rollout of investment in sound field systems and make sure that classrooms have proper acoustics. We need to make sure that that money is being well targeted.

We need to be making sure that we are screening schoolchildren as they enter the school system, because we are not picking up hearing loss in classrooms. We need to be investing in making sure that we are really addressing this pandemic of otitis media across Australia because Australia has the highest rate of this in the world. That is an indictment of our health systems. That is an indictment of living conditions, particularly in remote and regional Australia, although we still find that we have these problems in metropolitan Perth.

The Telethon Speech and Hearing Centre has done marvellous work with an ear bus that has been going out to schools and diagnosing and treating children straightaway. We are seeing that program being rolled out across virtually the rest of the Pilbara, but further north in the Kimberley we still need resources for that. There is the Deadly Ears program in Queensland. There are various bits and pieces of programs, as the ministers here are articulating, but we need a much more coordinated approach. We need a national program; we need a national plan as to how we are going to have a sustained effort and not a piecemeal effort to address these points.

I note that the tabling of these letters is fortuitous because some of the experts that were mentioned in the original motion happen to be here meeting in Parliament House this week. They are talking about how to further progress issues addressing Aboriginal children's health. I wish them good luck in their deliberations. If they come to meet with you, senators and members of the House of Representatives, I encourage you to talk to them because it is essential that we target our resources effectively and efficiently to deal with this issue. It is a preventable tragedy that is happening in our country today in 2011. This pandemic is happening in our country. We should be ashamed of it and we need to do more to address it.

Question agreed to.