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Wednesday, 13 March 2013
Page: 2025

Dr STONE (Murray) (10:33): Australia is frequently called the lucky country, but too often you are out of luck if you are born an Australian Aborigine in a rural or remote community, that is if you consider life expectations, in particular your length of life, your health, your opportunities to have a job, and the likelihood of you completing your secondary school education and going onto higher education. There is an enormous difference, a gap, between the life experiences of Australian Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders and other Australians, whether they are newly arrived in Australia or have been born here. You are only marginally more fortunate if you are born an Australian Aborigine in one of Australia's great cities.

There has been investment of hundreds of millions of dollars by state, federal and territory governments in Indigenous programs aiming to improve health, education, business development outcomes, employment and life chances in general. Unfortunately, while there has been some movement in, for example, the numbers of babies surviving infancy in the Indigenous community compared to the rest of Australia, we still have, as I said before, an enormous gap despite these hundreds of millions of dollars being invested. There have been endless inquiries, surveys and analyses of what works, what has gone wrong and where dollars have gone missing. Endlessly we see a parade of short-termism, with projects typically called pilots. Even if they work, they are not given ongoing funding.

Fortunately there are some amazing success stories—for example, the Clontarf program, which we celebrated in parliament last night. This is a program aimed specifically at boys—young boys and youths—and it aims to attract them back into education via their love of sport. It was an inspiration to be at the celebration of Clontarf in Parliament House last night, where numbers of the young men involved in the program were examples of some of the finest young Australians you would see anywhere.

But, sadly, while fewer Indigenous babies now die compared to the rest of Australian society, we are now seeing increasing numbers born permanently and irreparably brain damaged as a result of their mothers' consuming alcohol during their pregnancy. These babies' capacities to live a life realising their full human potential are not what you would expect of a baby born to a mother who has not had any alcohol during her nine months of pregnancy. I am in particular referring to the incidence of newborns now being brought into the world suffering from foetal alcohol spectrum disorders. This spectrum includes permanent brain damage.

FASD, as it is called, is not just a tragedy confined to Australian Indigenous populations, of course. It is found also across all populations in the Australian community, particularly where now we have a culture of binge drinking amongst our teenage girls, where the culture of drinking is seen as more important than responsible drinking and where, particularly through our sporting obsession in Australia, young people are targeted with the idea that consuming alcohol in excess is not irresponsible; it is just having a good time.

We in Australia, then, have a real problem with babies being born who will not have a right to a full life of intellectual development or of employment. Many, particularly the young boys, will find themselves incarcerated at an early age. Many of the young girls with FASD will find themselves mothers at a very early age, and in turn their babies will often be victims of FASD because, as young mothers suffering from this condition, they too drink during their pregnancy.

Indigenous women have been at the forefront of challenging the destructive alcohol consumption in their communities. I refer in particular to the brilliant women like Marmingee, June Oscar and Emily Carter at Fitzroy Crossing. They are now internationally renowned for the stand they have taken against the abuse of alcohol in their remote Western Australian communities. Unfortunately, their example is not found across the broader Australian society, and other Indigenous communities struggle to be able to control the alcohol consumption which not only leads to babies being born brain damaged but also leads to violence and behaviour which means that, as a community, they suffer hugely from even more poverty and disadvantage.

In November 2012, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs tabled FASD: the hidden harm: inquiry into the prevention, diagnosis and management of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. In particular, one of the recommendations was:

… that the Commonwealth Government raise with the States and Territories the critical importance of strategies to assist Indigenous communities in managing issues of alcohol consumption and to assist community led initiatives to reduce high-risk consumption patterns and the impact of alcohol.

For Indigenous communities like those at Fitzroy Crossing, this is not just a matter of making sure that each baby born has an opportunity—in fact, the right—to develop their full potential. It is also about the potential loss of culture. Given that a lot of the traditions and culture of Indigenous communities are still orally transmitted, if your next generation cannot learn, cannot retain information and cannot be held responsible for their actions at all times, you are in fact looking at cultural genocide.

So we need to address very seriously in all of our closing the gap rhetoric the fact that one of the great hidden tragedies in Australia right now is the incidence of FADS in Indigenous communities. Already some of the recommendations from this report from the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs have been missed by this government in terms of strategic actions we called for. For example, in recommendation No. 10 we said:

The Commonwealth Government should determine the appropriate format and design of the labels by 1 March 2013 …

This was to assist the alcohol industry in adopting best practice principles and preparing for the mandatory implementation of labelling on alcohol, which they have already determined will be happening later this year. We felt it was important that guidance was given to the alcohol industry, whether beer, spirits or wines, so those wanting to take up this labelling in advance of the mandatory period commencing would have advice about what was going to be the required labelling. Unfortunately, the deadline of 1 March 2013 has now passed and this government did not issue any guidance to the alcohol industry. Many in the industry are being responsible—the small wineries, the brewers of Australia are wanting this guidance.

We have also, sadly, not seen the placing of the matter of including health warning labels on alcoholic beverages on the agenda of the Legislative and Governance Forum on Food Regulation. We wanted it included on the December agenda last year. That did not occur. So I am concerned that, while this report received an overwhelming positive response from the government and from the coalition, who were agreeing that there was a hidden disaster in Australia—the hidden harm of foetal alcohol spectrum disorders—unfortunately the recommendations, all 19 of them, still sit there without much attention being paid.

The budget is coming up in a few short months and we know it is going to be a budget with very little real money to spend, but some of these recommendations were not expensive recommendations. I am concerned that the budget will not pay any attention to the advancing of public awareness about the dangers of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. I am also concerned the budget will not do anything about ensuring the new FADS diagnostic tool is properly introduced and tested. We were most concerned that a diagnostic tool, which the government has already funded, should be further developed with training and a user manual. But, unfortunately, that will require some funding. Let us see the if it is in the budget. I certainly hope for the sake of all Australians that it is.

We also, of course, had recommendations about making sure that all Australians, particularly health professionals, are fully aware of the National Health and Medical Research Council's guidelines that advise women not to drink while pregnant. We want to make sure that alcohol consumption impacts on pregnancy and the developing foetus are incorporated into all general practice and midwifery training. We wanted to ensure that all are trained in discussing the National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines on alcohol consumption with women, because we are told regularly and repeatedly that general practitioners and midwives feel quite reluctant to talk to women about their alcohol consumption during pregnancy, while they are more than happy to ask them about their smoking habits or intake of something like fast food.

So we have got to make sure that there certainly is not a misunderstanding about FADS, where we leave ourselves to imagine that is a problem only affecting Indigenous communities and their newborn. We have a problem of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder occurring with greater prevalence across all of Australian society. But in particular I am addressing in my remarks today the problem in closing the gap in life experience of Indigenous and other Australians, so I want to focus and stress that alcohol, when it is abused and misused, has serious consequences for all in that society, particularly if it is a small and remote society. But for the unborn, if a mother chooses to drink while pregnant, the risks that that baby will be born with permanent irreversible brain damage are risks too high to be borne.

It is particularly tragic where the mother is not informed about the risks or, if she is in fact an alcoholic, is not given support during her pregnancy to try and minimise, or altogether eliminate, the use of alcohol at a time when her baby's development is in danger. I repeat: Australian society cannot rest and simply believe that the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on Indigenous programs has delivered any real improvement in the lot of Australian Indigenous communities. In my electorate of Murray, where I have a significant number of first Australians, particularly the Bangarang and Yorta Yorta peoples, at least I can celebrate the fact that this year we have more than 70 Koori students in year 12, the highest number ever in our final year of secondary education. That is a triumph for their families, for the Rumbalara Cooperative and for all of the communities who have done so much to try and assist our Indigenous families. We need to make sure that those young people complete year 12 successfully and move on to higher or further education, or employment, and that their lives are as fulfilling and as full of prospects as those of any other Australian in the 21st century.