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Thursday, 10 May 1984
Page: 1953


Senator KILGARIFF(4.27) —I move:

(1) That a select committee, to be known as the Select Committee on Volatile Substance Fumes, be appointed to inquire into and report upon the voluntary inhalation of volatile substance fumes, with particular reference to the health and social consequences of the availability of such substances to the community, particularly,

(a) to persons who have not attained the aged of 18 years; and

(b) where the practice of petrol sniffing has become endemic.

(2) That the Committee consist of six Senators, as follows-

(a) three to be nominated by the Leader of the Government in the Senate;

(b) two to be nominated by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate; and

(c) one to be nominated by the Leader of the Australian Democrats.

(3) That the Committee proceed to the despatch of business notwithstanding that all members have not been duly nominated and appointed and notwithstanding any vacancy.

(4) That the Chairman of the Committee be appointed by and from the members of the Committee.

(5) That the Chairman of the Committee may, from time to time, appoint another member of the Committee to be the Deputy-Chairman of the Committee, and that the member so appointed act as Chairman of the Committee at any time when there is no Chairman or the Chairman is not present at a meeting of the Committee.

(6) That, in the event of an equality of voting, the Chairman, or the Deputy- Chairman when acting as Chairman, have a casting vote.

(7) That the quorum of the Committee shall be three members.

(8) That the Committee and any sub-committee have power to send for and examine persons, papers and records, to move from place to place, to sit in public or in private, notwithstanding any prorogation of the Parliament or dissolution of the House of Representatives, and have leave to report from time to time its proceedings and the evidence taken and such interim recommendations it may deem fit.

(9) That the Committee have power to appoint sub-committees consisting of three or more of its members, and to refer to any such sub-committee any of the matters which the Committee is empowered to consider, and that the quorum of a sub-committee be a majority of the Senators appointed to the sub-committee.

(10) That the Committee be provided with all necessary staff, facilities and resources and be empowered to appoint persons with specialist knowledge for the purposes of the Committee with the approval of the President.

(11) That the Committee be empowered to print from day to day such papers and evidence as may be ordered by it, and a daily Hansard be published of such proceedings as take place in public.

(12) That the Committee report to the Senate by 5 June 1984.

(13) That, if the Senate be not sitting when the Committee has completed its report, the Committee may send its report to the President of the Senate or, if the President is not available, to the Deputy-President, who is authorised to give directions for its printing and circulation and, in such event, the President or Deputy-President shall lay the report upon the Table at the next sitting of the Senate.

(14) That the foregoing provisions of this Resolution, so far as they are inconsistent with the Standing Orders, have effect notwithstanding anything contained in the Standing Orders.

Honourable senators will remember that on 6 October last year I spoke on this subject. Since then there have been quite a few speeches and questions on the same matter. In moving the motion in the Senate today I am looking for the support of the Senate because the subject of this inquiry is a most serious matter that affects many communities in Australia. The results of surveys carried out, for instance, in New South Wales show that 60 per cent of year 9 students have experimented with sniffing. Children as young as eight years old have been encouraged to sniff. It has also been shown that sniffing is carried out by children from all social classes, in all types of communities in cities and rural areas.

There are two aspects to this problem. Perhaps they could be divided in this way: First, what is happening among the young people in the cities and schools in the Australian community; and, secondly, petrol sniffing which is more apparent in the Aboriginal communities particularly in the Northern Territory although it is quite likely to occur as much in southern Australia as well. Let me deal first with petrol sniffing in Aboriginal communities. This is not a new problem. In fact, I think this practice probably commenced during World War II when troops based along the northern coast used to sniff petrol just to get a kick out of it. This practice has continued and has been picked up particularly by the Aboriginal children.

A study was undertaken by Dr Don Eastwell of the Royal Brisbane Hospital in 1979. He looked at two communities in east Arnhem Land. In both communities more than half of the boys aged between nine and 14 and a quarter of the girls in the same age group were regular sniffers. It has been suggested that, in the last five years, this figure has risen. The consequences of sniffing have become very grim. There have been a number of deaths in the last few years. I understand that there is a Press report indicating that another teenager died within the last week. This happened in Brisbane only last Friday. Some of the side-effects of sniffing are: Vocal chords and lungs frozen by gas in aerosols; paralysis after habitual sniffing; brain damage; suffocation after inhaling vomit while high; irreversible damage to kidneys, liver and heart; and sores in the throat and nose.

When one looks at the young children aged between seven and 12 in some of the Aboriginal communities it is quite apparent that considerable brain damage has occurred. It is a most unfortunate and sad thing to see petrol sniffing in the settlements. There, because it is strange to the Aboriginal people, they are not able to counter it. They do not know what action to take. It is something that is outside their culture, perhaps like drinking. Petrol sniffing has spread through the Aboriginal community. Because parents cannot cope with the situation on many occasions one finds children living on the side of the village, perhaps in the bush in a group, without any cares whatsoever. The staff on some of these settlements are obviously endeavouring to do something about it. Many Europeans have put in years of effort to try to overcome the problem, but to no avail. Recently an ingredient was added to petrol. It was of such nature that if a person sniffed petrol it would make that person sick. In one settlement already they have found the means to take that ingredient out of the petrol. It is not my intention to say in the Senate how it was done.

Dr Eastwell, in his study about which I have been talking, found that there were also social and educational drawbacks. The word 'sniffers' conjures up a rather humorous situation. Perhaps sniffing is not really the expression that should be used. But we should not look upon it as something that is humorous. Sniffing in the schools today is deadly. Dr Eastwell found that children are less competent in their verbal performance, less well organised, less able to follow directions and less able to concentrate. They are often hyperactive, subject to trembling, badly co-ordinated in walking, standing and speech, and have a lack of emotion and initiative. Some steps have to be taken to lower the incidence of petrol and glue sniffing. I have indicated that additives have been used in petrol and other commercial products.

I wish now to go off on a tangent and talk about various commercial products. I have with me a cylinder of glue which I think comes from Taiwan. Honourable senators will be able to see that this is a very attractive cylinder for glue to be put in. It has a picture of ships and a picture of a little girl walking with her dog in the garden. But this is glue. When one takes off the cap of this glue and has a sniff of it one finds that it has a most attractive aroma, like a raspberry drink. It is most attractive. One could imagine that children would want always to carry this around if they could get their hands on it. But this is glue; it is not a raspberry or strawberry drink. This glue has been brought into Australia from, I think, Taiwan. It is accessible to children in Australia to the horror of those people who find it in the shops. This glue has been sent to me.

I have with me another peculiar thing, although I wonder whether it is peculiar , called a puffy smelly sticker which comes from Japan. On it are the words: ' Just scratch and sniff'. I hold it up for honourable senators to see. It is a very attractive thing. It is made up of a lot of little stickers in a sealed square. When one tears the cover off and scratches and sniffs it, this one has a pineapple smell. These stickers are given as prizes within the community. This has taught children in schools and kindergartens what sniffing is all about. I can tell honourable senators that, without a word of a lie, this has been and is responsible for encouraging young people to sniff. They go from this to other things such as glue, aerosols and those other substances which I have indicated to honourable senators might be detrimental to their health and perhaps causing their death.

A few months ago, I said that I was going to go ahead with this matter. I sought opinions on it. I was told then that it was only a matter of education. This situation is much more serious than one where we can just say: 'We will have education. We will tell the children that they must not sniff, that it is dangerous to sniff'. Sniffing is practised throughout the Australian community and throughout the schools in the same way as drugs are taken by the young people of Australia. This has not always been apparent. A few weeks ago it became more obvious despite the fact that there is legislation. Before I say a little about the legislation that has been enacted in Scotland and England I wish to take honourable senators back to events early this week. The Courier- Mail dated 7 May 1984 carried the headline: 'Parents mourn the girl who loved to dance'. The newspaper article stated:

But last Friday, Leza, 13, was found dead in her bedroom after apparently inhaling toxic fumes . . .

I am sure that all honourable senators saw the Sunday Telegraph dated 6 May which carried the headline: 'Shock Government school study. One in two try lethal sniffing'. I do not think I need to read the article. Honourable senators have probably read it. If they have not; I suggest that they do. In the Sunday Telegraph of 6 May the main theme was sniffing. One article was headed: 'The Facts. Laws and Restrictions.' Another was headed: 'Sniffing: Your kids could be next victims'. Several pages contained articles on this topic. The opinion column in that newspaper was headed: 'Time to rescue the sniffer kids'. It stated:

It's known as 'sniffing'-an innocent enough description. But it represents one of the more disturbing problems facing the youth of our nation.

The result of a study among 4,000 NSW school children to be released next week suggests that up to six out of 10 Year 9 students have dabbled with sniffing. Youngsters of only eight years have indulged in the dangerous practice. Several young people have died; others have suffered irreparable liver, kidney and heart damage.

Only the most uncaring of parents will fail to be horrified by this revelation. Only the most uncaring of politicians could fail to react to it.

What makes 'sniffing' more frightening than other forms of thrill-seeking, such as drug abuse, is its insidiousness, the ease of availability of the products, the almost total absence of laws to combat it.

So the editorial goes on. Once again, I refer it to members of the Senate. No doubt honourable senators have heard of a very brave woman. We are hearing more of her these days. She is Jan Oswald. She has started an organisation known as SOS-Stamp Out Sniffers. She has been heard in so many places. She is a devoted young mother, a housewife. She spoke at the National Press Club in Canberra a few weeks ago. She has been on various wireless stations, television and elsewhere. She has devoted her life to endeavouring to get the Australian community to realise the significance of this problem. She is a dedicated person . She has her own story. She is doing this work in memory of her son who, to his family, was very dear. He died from sniffing. Since then Jan Oswald has devoted herself to bringing to the attention of Australians this dangerous habit that is invading the country.

It is a pity, when one speaks on a topic such as this, that the debate is not televised so that I could show viewers the tube of glue. Perhaps viewers would like to have been able to see a photograph of what a petrol sniffer looks like. It is my hope that the photograph I have in my hand can be reproduced in the newspapers. People could look deep into the eyes of the young Aboriginal person, at his expression and at the beer can that is tied with a bit of wire around his neck. That is the manner in which such children live. They carry around their necks by wire a can out of which they continually sniff petrol. The photograph is horrifying when one looks into the eyes of that child.

One hundred and one statements and articles have been published regarding this situation. Having shown honourable senators that photograph I now come back to Aboriginal children. An article in the Australian of 8 October 1981 was headed: 'Fuel sniffing takes grim toll among Aborigines'. An article in the Northern Territory News of 21 January 1982 was headed: 'Maningrida Petrol Shock. Horror report details sniffing habit'. It talks about emaciated children roaming the streets of Maningrida in large numbers-victims of the spreading petrol sniffing habit.

I was pleased to see that on Monday Senator Robertson, the Government Whip in the Senate, asked a question of the Government about the habit of sniffing. The answer that Senator Grimes gave indicated that the Government is concerned about this situation. He indicated considerable concern. I will not talk at length on this matter because I could talk for hours. I could talk about schools and the practices of our teenagers. I could talk about the high percentage of children amongst whom this habit, which brings about paralysis and death, is growing. I think there is sufficient evidence to show the Senate for honourable senators not to brush off the matter. It is not an easy thing to be cured by education or legislation. There is legislation in Australia, Scotland and England endeavouring to stop this practice but it has not been particularly successful. An article in the Courier Mail was headed: 'Glue sniffing: children may be taken from parents'. That is another way in which the problem has been tackled. The article states:

Queensland children caught sniffing glue will be liable to be taken from their parents under new laws proposed by the Bjelke-Petersen Government, despite advice to the contrary in a confidential children's services departmental report to the Cabinet.

Another article, if anybody is interested in it, is headed: 'Getting stuck into sniffers'. Another article in Queensland is headed, 'Tougher line on ''sniffers' ' ' and an article headed, 'State gets tough with glue sniffers', refers to the Victorian Government. These reports were all published in 1981. The English legislation goes back to 1981. The point I am making is that while genuine attempts have been made by the States and in other countries to overcome this problem it has not been overcome. It is growing and getting more serious. The number of deaths has not been very high among hundreds of thousands of children. Only 30, 40, or 50 children have actually died through sniffing. But very many children are in the balance. The time has come for the Senate to take an interest. When I raised the question a little while ago it was said that the Senate has a very heavy work load, and so it has. I believe that the work load in the Senate is becoming heavier. Obviously, the Senate's committee work load is becoming heavier, and day by day references are sent to committees. The Senate has a responsibility to the community and to these children.

Let us consider the present situation of the Senate select committees-not the standing and other committees but the select committees that have been formed for a particular purpose. At the moment they are the Select Committee on Animal Welfare, the Select Committee on the Conduct of a Judge, the Select Committee on Private Hospitals and Nursing Homes, and the Select Committee on Statutory Authority Financing. We know that the Animal Welfare Committee has just been formed and I would expect the life of that Committee to be quite long. My understanding with regard to the Conduct of a Judge Committee is that it is to complete its inquiry by 31 May 1984, that is, at the end of this month. The Select Committee on Private Hospitals and Nursing Homes was formed a year ago and I understand that its work is nearly finished. The Select Committee on Statutory Authority Financing was formed in April 1983, and I have been advised by the Clerk today that it has nearly finished its work. So the time is ripe to form a new Senate select committee because all the other committees, with one exception, have practically completed their inquiries. Now is the time to form such a committee and enable it to commence its work as quickly as possible. There have been many petitions, particularly those organised by Jan Oswald, of the Stamp Out Sniffers association. I ask the Senate this afternoon to support my motion, the motion that has been put forward in the name of Jan Oswald and, without being dramatic, I ask it to support the idea behind it. She wants to ensure that no other child dies in the way her son died. I commend the motion to the Senate.