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Monday, 13 February 2012
Page: 795


Dr STONE (Murray) (10:46): This is one of the most important inquiries we can run in our federal parliament, given that foetal alcohol spectrum disorder is the single largest and most commonly misdiagnosed cause of disability and, in particular, permanent intellectual impairment in the Australian community. At this point it attracts very little funding or support for those who have the condition or their carers. This inquiry is dealing with that need. I am sure it will be well received in a bipartisan way. One of the reasons I have helped to establish a parliamentary bipartisan group of like-minded members and senators is to help lift the cone of silence that has long paralysed Australia's recognition of and response to the damage that may occur to the brain and to other organs in the unborn where the mother consumes alcohol.

For the last 220 years, since the commencement of European settlement, Australia has glorified and elevated the status of the consumption of what we sometimes call grog or booze—beer, wine or spirits. Celebration of wins on our sporting fields and significant stages in people's lives such as births, weddings or funerals do not pass without raising a glass or drenching the victors in alcohol. It is part of our way of life. In our history we have had eras where rum was currency and we had a rum rebellion. That has made us colourful and macho, many think, and certainly we are not unique in the world in sanctioning heavy or regular drinking.

In the last 40 years, Australian women and girls have stepped up to join the men and boys at the bar. Girls can drink as hard and as long as the boys. This means our children now run an even greater risk of permanent and incurable brain damage should a pregnant mother consume alcohol at a critical time in development of the foetus or should she drink throughout her pregnancy.

The tragedy is that many Australian women are not being informed of the dangers and risks of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Every survey conducted in Australia of women's knowledge about alcohol consumption during pregnancy shows a shocking majority have not been informed. This echoes the fact, backed up by recent WA Department of Health survey data, that health service professionals are also ignorant of the relationship between alcohol consumption and intellectual impairment or they choose not to talk about the relationship in order not to alarm the mother. We have private hospitals boasting of the wine menu accompanying their meals in maternity wards—it is one of their selling points.

We lag behind other developed countries because we still do not mandate health warnings on alcohol containers, including warnings about the risks of consuming alcohol while pregnant. We lead the world in tobacco advertising and health warnings; we drag behind the world when it comes to highlighting the even more serious health impacts of alcohol consumption. This is why the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs has sought and received ministerial support to conduct this inquiry into the incidence and prevention of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. I commend the government for taking up this critical issue. I trust our final recommendations will be taken up and will help to make a real difference.

In the evidence we have taken so far, in Canberra, Cairns and Townsville, we have seen and heard about the lifelong and tragic consequences that are the result of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Carers, very often foster parents, have told of their desperate struggle to obtain support for their children or even an official diagnosis. We have also seen and heard about the champions who are Australian pioneers in researching this problem, in developing carer support networks, information and education courses, school supports and help for those caught up in the prison system. These champions are very thin on the ground. They are exhausted and many have very little emotional and physical energy left to continue. While countries like Canada and the USA have 40 years of support and diagnostic tools, therapy centres and clinics, some in Australia are still challenging the National Health and Medical Research Council's recommendation that no alcohol during pregnancy or breast feeding is the safest option.

This inquiry is extremely important. I want to thank the carer organisation NOFASARD for the use of their definition of FASD, which echoes the widely accepted international definition. FASD is an umbrella term which includes the abnormal facial features, growth delays, intellectual impairment, problems with learning, memory, attention and communication problems, vision or hearing impairments or damage to the skeleton or major organs of the body such as the heart and kidneys. Clearly this is a major problem which Australia must confront. I commend those already at work on this terrible problem.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. BC Scott ): Order! The time allotted for this debate has expired.