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Monday, 1 December 2008
Page: 7783


Senator McEWEN (10:58 PM) —Today marks the 20th anniversary of World AIDS Day. It is important on this occasion that we remember the devastation caused by HIV-AIDS in our own country and elsewhere in the world. While we reflect on the pain it has brought and continues to bring to millions of people, it is important to look on what we are doing about it. In 2008-09 the Australian government will invest more than $28 million in programs in Australia to prevent and treat HIV and other sexually transmissible infections. This investment is in addition to existing government initiatives to implement a robust response to chlamydia and other STIs, including HIV. These initiatives include more than $12.5 million from 2005-06 to 2010-11 for increased awareness, improved surveillance and a pilot testing program for chlamydia, and $9.8 million from 2007-08 to 2010-11 for a national STI prevention campaign.

In 2007-08, the Australian government spent around $127 million for Highly Specialised Drugs Program medications for HIV-AIDS, and we can only hope that with significant investment in preventative measures we can see that medication bill decrease. I also note with pleasure the announcement today that the government intends to re-establish the parliamentary liaison group on HIV-AIDS, a very important cross-party group of senators and members keen to work together on this issue.

At the end of 2007, there were an estimated 33 million people living with HIV worldwide. In addition, an estimated 2.7 million new HIV infections and about two million AIDS related deaths were recorded globally. The Rudd Labor government recognise HIV-AIDS as a global problem so, while investing at home, we are also providing assistance overseas. Today the government announced that we will commit $150,000 over two years to the Albion Street Centre in Sydney to coordinate a very important network of 30 regional World Health Organisation collaborating centres for HIV-AIDS across 10 countries in our Asia-Pacific region.

Globally, while sub-Saharan Africa remains the most seriously affected region, accounting for 67 per cent of all people living with HIV in 2007 in the world, Australia’s nearest neighbour, Papua New Guinea, is also facing a growing HIV epidemic. Papua New Guinea has the highest HIV-AIDS and STI rates in the Asia-Pacific region, and this is a great impediment to the future development of this nation—a nation to which Australia owes much for the support the people of New Guinea gave to Australian troops during World War II. It is an unfortunate truth that the less developed, or poor, nations of the world like Papua New Guinea and the African nations are disproportionately affected by HIV-AIDS. The best defence against HIV-AIDS spreading is to build in those nations a workable economy which provides proper health care, education, infrastructure and employment opportunities for all.

An AusAID commissioned report concluded that, unless interventions to address the spread and impact of HIV-AIDS in Papua New Guinea are scaled up, by 2025 in that country over 500,000 people will be living with HIV-AIDS, 117,000 children will have lost their mothers to AIDS, the workforce will have declined by 12½ per cent, GDP will be 1.3 per cent less than predicted and 70 per cent of all hospital beds will be needed for AIDS patients. These figures help us to see just how important it is for Australia to assist our nearest neighbour. I am pleased to note that Australia is doing that through the PNG-Australia HIV and AIDS Program. This $100 million, five-year program commenced in January 2007 and is run through AusAID. The program focuses on preventing the spread of HIV, partly through addressing some of the difficult issues underlying the epidemic, including gender inequality, health systems and surveillance capacity. The program also focuses on providing treatment, care and support for those infected and affected by HIV-AIDS.

The Kokoda Development Program is another positive program designed to assist PNG make progress. I was pleased to see an announcement in November this year by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, Mr Peter Garrett, and the Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance, Mr Bob McMullan, regarding the opening of a refurbished health facility on the Kokoda Track at Efogi as part of this program. Every Australian who has walked the Kokoda Track would have been to Efogi village, an important site in the history of World War II. The health facility at Efogi is just the beginning of a program that is sure to bring many benefits to the region. The Kokoda Development Program will improve access to basic services for people living along the Kokoda Track through a number of initiatives, including the placement of water tanks and toilets in villages along the track, training for more than 50 village health volunteers, the provision of curriculum materials for schools, the installation of new high-frequency radios for needy villages and support for the restoration of regular air transport services. It is very commendable that Australia is giving something back to those living along the Kokoda Track, who are so hospitable to the many Australians who walk there for the adventure and to remember our shared military history. It is a journey that should support the PNG tourism industry and, in turn, the people of Papua New Guinea.

I am pleased to say I am one of thousands of Australians who have received a gracious welcome from the people of Papua New Guinea. I walked the track in 2004 and I well remember the night that I spent at Efogi. Walking the Kokoda Track is a sobering experience, and it is an experience I know I share these days with a number of my parliamentary colleagues, including of course Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and, in this chamber, Senator Guy Barnett.

I returned to Papua New Guinea in October this year to walk another, lesser known track in the north-east of that beautiful country and to explore another famous military site and significant part of Australia’s war history. Shaggy Ridge is a track and a battle site on a ridge that is the highest feature in the Finisterre Ranges in north-eastern New Guinea. The ridge was named after Captain Robert ‘Shaggy Bob’ Clampett of the 2/27 Battalion, whose company was the first to reconnoitre its approaches. Many of the battalions who had fought on the Kokoda went on to fight on Shaggy Ridge. In 1943 the ridge was the site of the main Japanese defensive position blocking access from the Ramu Valley to the track and to the road network that joined it with the north coast. Operations by the 7th Australian Division in September and October 1943 had caused the Japanese to withdraw from the Ramu Valley and the lower features of the Finsterres and consolidate their defences around Shaggy Ridge.

Having traversed Shaggy Ridge, it was interesting for me to walk through the villages below the ridge, following again the route that the Australian soldiers took on their way to the coast after the battles on the ridge. As on the Kokoda Track, the people in this part of Papua New Guinea can see the value in a burgeoning interest in this new trekking adventure and the potential for Australians with backpacks to provide much-needed income for villages along the route. As on the Kokoda, the people in this area of Papua New Guinea are very, very proud of their support for Australians during World War II and want to work with the trekking companies showing an interest in developing this new adventure, particularly for Australians.

We know that sometimes tourism is a cause of the spread of HIV-AIDS in many countries, but in Papua New Guinea tourism and the development of a growing trekking industry have the potential to provide village level development assistance which is not government funded and which is genuinely owned, supported and controlled by the people of Papua New Guinea. It is, I believe, with that sort of development that we can truly help the people of Papua New Guinea to address the scourge of HIV-AIDS. I would like to thank the people of Papua New Guinea for allowing me to again enjoy an adventure in their beautiful country.