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Wednesday, 1 June 1994
Page: 1121

Senator LEES (Deputy Leader of the Australian Democrats) (6.50 p.m.) —I move:

  That the Senate take note of the document.

This report on the provision of water and sanitation in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is indeed a timely document by the Federal Race Discrimination Commissioner, Irene Moss. In her introduction to the report she points out that most Australians

. . . take for granted the provision of clean, safe water and sanitation services.

It is indeed a shock for many Australians who live around the urban fringe, particularly along the east coast, and people who live in the larger rural centres, to be faced with the fact that in many remote areas adequate services do not exist, and that there is no guaranteed access to clean water or adequate sanitation. In particular, for many Aboriginal communities the standard of these services is no better than one would find in some of the poorest of the Third World countries.

  This very contradiction is what began this report. Faced with the dilemma and the very different level of services available to most Australians compared with the small minority who live inland, the commissioner set about examining the events that led to her report. Basically the report seeks to find out why some people, particularly those in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, are not receiving adequate water supplies. The report recommends what action needs to be taken to ensure that these issues are addressed.

  The report points out the difficulties in reaching a definitive conclusion or solution to the problems of water and sanitation supply. It begins this process by examining 10 case studies which range across all states and also include the Northern Territory. An attempt was made to try to assess the size of the problem, in particular by consulting with the communities to assess what changes need to take place, be they technical, attitudinal or bureaucratic changes, to improve the situation in order to make sure that all Australians have access to clean water and adequate sanitation.

  The report traces the social and historical contexts as well as the technical data relating to the provision of water and sanitation. It shows that despite the existence of mechanisms such as the Racial Discrimination Act, Aboriginal and Islander people do not have adequate access to basic human rights and services.

  Through 12 chapters the report explores the underlying issues that affect the provision of water and sanitation in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The case studies provide an indictment of water quality, water supply and waste disposal in remote areas. It indicates that some 20,000 Aboriginal people live in communities where there is no adequate water supply. Those people have to rely on schemes that are insufficient for their needs and in many instances on unsafe supplies.

  The report shows that we cannot allow ourselves to be blinded by technology. Indeed, inappropriate technology was instanced in the report as one of the causes of the problem. In one case study in my home state of South Australia, at Yalata, the technology became, in the words of the report a `bureaucratic nightmare', requiring expensive repair work and jeopardising the health and wellbeing of the Aboriginal people. The experience of the Yalata community showed that total dependence on one form of technology—in this particular case desalination—can be a disempowering and alienating experience for Aboriginal people. Throughout years of repairs to the equipment and delays, water quality was not tested and was uncertain. According to the report:

. . . the health of the people became secondary to the technology itself.

This also raises the issue of self-determination and the need for Aboriginal people not just to be consulted, but to be involved in the decision-making process in ascertaining the type of service most appropriate to their area.

  I take on board the commissioner's call for a national statement on indigenous rights which, according to recommendation 3, is seen as a matter of urgency. Clearly the evidence contained in the report and recent health research indicate that the human rights of indigenous Australians are, as a minimum, being infringed. The final recommendation in the report relates to ongoing monitoring and review of the recommendations as well as the government's response to the report. This is an important landmark in the process of indigenous control of decision making and service provision. I look forward to swift and meaningful government action.