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Wednesday, 11 May 1994
Page: 678

Senator NEWMAN (6.43 p.m.) —Tonight we are debating the Human Services and Health Legislation Amendment Bill 1994. I am rather sorry that it is coming on for debate just before we are due to move to government documents in five minutes or so. While the opposition does not oppose this piece of legislation—it is largely a nuts and bolts bill which should not, I think, take the Senate long to address in its particulars—it does give me an opportunity to address the human services and health programs in the budget which was brought down by the government this week.

  I do not know whether to be cross or sad about the budget in terms of health. I hear the debate going on between the Minister for Health, Carmen Lawrence, and the AMA as to whether the new funding for Aboriginal health this year is $17 million or $40 million. As far as I am concerned, it would not much matter whether it was $17 million as the AMA suggests or $40 million as the government claims. Whatever it is, it is mighty inadequate for such a massive and longstanding problem.

  I believe that what we are seeing here in this budget in terms of its coverage of Aboriginal health, if one could call it coverage—it is not big enough to call it a fig leaf, I guess, in terms of its coverage—is really more an attempt by the Pharisees to walk by on the other side. I say that very advisedly. This Labor government decided that there was a lot of political pressure on and it had better do something about Aboriginal health funding. So what has it done? It has given us a marketing exercise that it is going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on Aboriginal health. When we look at the fine print, the government can only run up the flag for between $17 million and $40 million for this financial year. Two half cheers for the government for recognising the problem; about a quarter of a cheer for putting any money in at all.

  During the course of this past year there has been substantial underspending by this government in certain programs. This government had the capacity, if it had had the will and the commitment, to address some of that money which it knew was going to be underspent from early in the financial year. That money could have been redirected into Aboriginal health where there are urgent and crying needs for expenditure.

  I will give a practical example of what I mean that could make a massive difference to Aboriginal health outcomes. I have been to central Australia; I have visited Karpoo where Aboriginal people are trying to help themselves get on top of the grog problem. Those people came to Canberra. After Senator Richardson had made such a great fuss about a tap, they came here hoping that they were going to have a minister who would be understanding of their problems and need for support. They got themselves established by chook raffles to get an alcohol and drug abuse program running in central Australia. I give them full marks for that. But they did not have any Commonwealth government funding, and when they came to Canberra Senator Richardson, who was supposed to be their advocate, could not spare the time to see them.

  This is not an isolated case because Daly River has another indigenous people oriented and organised alcohol and drug abuse program which also cannot get the support of this federal government.

  I went to Cairns within the last month and I visited the Aboriginal coordinating council. People there are running the first national indigenous conference on alcohol and drug abuse. They cannot get support from this government for that conference to the extent that when I was there they were considering whether they would have to cancel. They are bringing experts in the field from overseas and around Australia. All these groups have leant a great deal on the experience of the Canadian Indians in programs that have proved to work. This government not only will not support them with money but also will not support them in time. That is why I say that those opposite are Pharisees walking by on the other side.

  Not one federal Labor minister would attend that conference in Cairns, which is in about 10 days time, nor would one state Labor minister address that conference. So much for the Labor Party's apparent support for Aboriginal people. We all know that alcohol abuse has to be one of the most basic problems to be faced if we are going to achieve better health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

  Maternal health outcomes could be improved, infant mortality rates could be improved and diabetes incidence could be improved if we could do something more and if Aboriginal people would help themselves to do something more to conquer this ghastly problem that bedevils their people. So many health outcomes would be improved if alcohol abuse could be dealt with better. The people in the communities want to do something but they need help. I understand that there is another motion to come before the chair to which I defer and I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

  Leave granted; debate adjourned.