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Monday, 9 May 1994
Page: 405

Senator LEES —I direct my question to the Minister representing the Prime Minister. I draw his attention to the call by Dr Brendan Nelson, President of the AMA, for the Prime Minister, Dr Hewson and Senator Cheryl Kernot to adopt a consensus and united approach and travel together to remote regions of Australia to see first-hand the problems facing Aboriginal Australians. Is the Prime Minister prepared to take up this offer to travel with the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Australian Democrats to see first-hand the health problems confronting Aboriginal Australians?

Senator GARETH EVANS —Nobody is in any doubt about the continuing magnitude of Aboriginal health problems in this country, not only in terms of the availability of formal medical services but also—in many ways even more importantly—in terms of the less than adequate state of the infrastructure related to water supply, sewerage, housing and so on, which is so crucial in creating an overall healthy environment in these communities.

  We have all seen the media reports over a long period now—not just in the last few months. We have all seen written reports both in the media and in terms of the material that has been before this parliament. And most of us, including the Prime Minister, have had direct personal experience of the situation out in the communities. So I do not think anything more is to be gained by the Prime Minister, or anyone else for that matter, engaging in the kind of travelling scenario that Senator Lees is postulating.

  What does have to be given obviously even more intense effort and focus than has been the case so far is the design and implementation of programs that will actually make a difference to this continuing very unhappy state of affairs. There is no point in appropriating very large sums of money that cannot effectively be spent. There is no point in spending large sums of money in ways that are not going to be fully effective in meeting the actual problem that is involved.

  There is no doubt about the government's absolute commitment to improving the state of Aboriginal health in this country. There is no need for the Prime Minister to demonstrate that commitment further by a trip of the kind that Senator Lees is contemplating—although I will put the proposal to him and see what he has to say about it. There is no need for really that kind of further information. The need is, as I have said, for targeting, crafting, designing and implementing the programs that will actually make a difference. Honourable senators will see in the budget announcement tomorrow that there will certainly be no shortage of funds—in fact, there will be a very substantial increase in the funds—that are going to be devoted to this particular purpose.

Senator LEES —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for his answer, but this is one area of the budget that has been well and truly leaked. Effectively, the government is promising very little new money at all. Indeed, I think it amounts to only some $9 million extra for Aboriginal health services. Therefore, how is the minister going to be able to deliver all the essential services that he has identified? Is the government prepared to sit down and adopt a consensus approach, a cross-party approach and an approach that involves ATSIC and other Aboriginal organisations to make sure these services are actually delivered on the ground?

Senator GARETH EVANS —Senator Lees's leaks are different from my information. The amount of spending that will be involved will be considerably in excess of what would otherwise have been the case on the forward estimate projections. I am not going to be drawn further into speculation obviously about the detail of all that, except to say again that the government's commitment to getting this right is absolute and money will be appropriated and spent in a way that makes a difference. We are not going to be drawn into the argument that a measure of success or a measure of sincerity in this respect is adherence to some of the wildly inflated figures that have been bandied about in the last few weeks.

  What matters is effective capacity to deliver effective results. We acknowledge the shortfalls that exist in this respect, despite the best endeavours of both governments over many years—not only ourselves, but people before us—to try to resolve this question. It is a huge, almost intractably difficult one, but we are trying to get it right. We will certainly be happy to engage in consultation and dialogue, and receive input from those other parties, including the Democrats, that have something effective and sensible to offer us by way of suggestions for how to specifically meet the details of the problem.