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Thursday, 10 May 1984
Page: 1956


Senator ROBERTSON(4.53) —I support the proposition moved by Senator Kilgariff, my colleague from the Northern Territory. In doing so, I commend him for the amount of work he has put into the preparation of the motion and its supporting material. In the Northern Territory we have discussed this matter at great length because it is of particular concern to us. Petrol sniffing, glue sniffing and so on have been a problem for many years, and it is particularly bad in the Northern Territory. I have had personal experience of this, of seeing the effects on young people, over 20 years. Some honourable senators will know that I was associated with education before I entered this place. The effects of petrol sniffing, as it was in the early days, was one of the things which particularly worried us. Senator Kilgariff has graphically described the effect on young people of the habit of sniffing petrol or glue.

It is now recognised, as was indicated earlier, that it is also a problem in the European communities. I will quote briefly from an article in the Canberra Times, drawing on the same material I used when I asked the Minister for Social Security (Senator Grimes), representing the Minister for Health, whether he could give us some assistance. The article in the Canberra Times of 7 May, referring to the report to the New South Wales Minister for Health, stated:

The report examined the drug-taking habits of NSW school children. Use of alcohol, tobacco, analgesics, solvents and aerosols, marijuana, sedatives, hallucinogens, narcotics and stimulants was surveyed.

Solvents and aerosols were included for the first time in a survey of NSW schoolchildren's drug-taking habits.

The survey findings highlighted the need for more specific research into the use of solvents and aerosols by school students.

Thirteen-year-old girls were most likely to be sniffing on a regular basis, with 13 per cent doing so.

It was found that sniffers were most likely to be young, 13 to 14 years, that girls were more likely to sniff than boys, that levels of sniffing varied from school to school regardless to the social class area or system of the school.

That article referred to the European community. In the Aboriginal community the problem, as I indicated earlier, has been recognised for many years. Aboriginal elders and councils have taken steps, and they have been supported in this by the Europeans whom they have invited to assist them. Parliamentary committees have identified the problem and have been of some help in giving advice about what might happen.

The steps that have been taken to overcome petrol sniffing, particularly, have ranged from the physical locking away of the petrol drums and the physical locking of petrol tanks of cars, through to the more exotic use of skunk juice, as it was called, in the petrol so that the petrol smelt very bad. The long term effect of the skunk juice has yet to be identified. Certainly the physical matter of locking away the drums or locking the petrol caps did not work. The young people found ways of gaining access to the petrol. I have indicated that it is now a problem in the European communities. We would all agree-there would be no one in this chamber who would not agree-that it is a problem. But we must ask this question: Is a further study necessary? I have referred already to the fact that a report was conducted by a committee from the other place. It has been looked at over the years by a Senate committee as well. Is it really necessary for us to set up another committee to look at the problem? At the end of my contribution I will seek leave to continue my remarks because I hope there will be a wide debate on this matter. I hope that honourable senators on both sides of the chamber will look at whether we really need another study. I believe there are advantages in having another study. There are advantages in drawing together the experiences we have had to date, particularly in the Northern Territory, where most of the work has been done. There are advantages in looking at the later studies that have been done in this area.

One part of the study that perhaps has not been looked at before, and one which justifies the setting up of another committee, is the reasons why children sniff and whether the reasons are the same in the Aboriginal community as they are in the European communities. I have a feeling that the use of sniffing is related to unemployment or, in the case of younger people, dissatisfaction with school, in the sense of the school not meeting the needs of the young people. There is no doubt, of course, that school acceptability, if I can use that word, whether the young people are happy with school, is related to a large degree to whether they think they will get a job at the end of their schooling; whether they are prepared to do the work necessary at school to obtain qualifications if at the end of their schooling they are not likely to get a job. We must also look at the relationship with the self-esteem of young people, and whether the young people who engage in petrol and glue sniffing have a low self-esteem. This must be related, of course, not only to their place in the community but also to their identity as individuals. It must be related also to the whole area of land tenure-what we have tended to call land rights-and the standard of living.

The next question we must ask ourselves is this: If a committee is necessary, what sort of committee? Would we have a select committee or a standing committee ? Quite clearly, the motion which has been moved today by Senator Kilgariff refers to a select committee. When we have a further debate on this issue someone might be prepared to move an amendment that the number of committee members be limited to four rather than six, and that those four people should have a special interest in the field. I have a feeling that four people, working together with an adequate secretariat, could work as effectively as six people. I will certainly suggest to Government senators that this be put as an amendment .

We know that the present Government has recognised the problems of alcoholism and sniffing-they are connected-because in the 1983-84 financial year $3,664,500 was allocated to 49 programs. I appreciate that those programs were mainly alcohol rehabilitation programs, but they were in the area of assisting Aboriginal people to help themselves. I have no doubt that if there were programs by which Aboriginal people could help themselves to overcome the problem of sniffing dangerous substances, some assistance would be found, either out of this vote or perhaps some other area. Let me also, of course, commend the Northern Territory Government which is also working in this area to try to assist.

The problem is-and this is appreciated I am sure, by all of us sitting around this chamber-that there is so much in front of Senate committees at present. We have the additional problem that we have made a decision in this place to limit the number of select committees that can operate at any one time. As I indicated earlier, I hope that there will be more debate on this matter. I am sure that this motion will be agreed to. I am sure that the feeling will prevail around this chamber-on both sides, on the cross benches-that something ought to be done about this matter. I would like to see the committee established and would like to see it go into operation as soon as possible under the constraints that I have just mentioned.