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Wednesday, 6 July 2011
Page: 4156

Senator PRATT (Western Australia) (13:24): Very recently I had the great privilege of joining with many dedicated people as part of the Australian delegation participating at the 2011 UN General Assembly high-level meeting on HIV-AIDS. I know from my own experience that people get involved in community organisations and in activist groups or become committed scientists, medicos, bureaucrats, diplomats and even politicians because they want to make people's lives better. They want to make a difference. They want to live a more fulfilling life of their own by making a difference for others.

There were many such people who came together in New York for this meeting. It was a very inspiring and moving experience. So many people came together with the goal of uniting the world behind a new global statement to tackle the global HIV-AIDS epidemic—an epidemic that affects millions of people, including some 20,000 Australians. It is an epidemic that sees approximately 2.6 million adults and children newly infected annually and has about 34 million people around the globe living with the disease.

While AIDS-related deaths are falling as a result of improved treatment coverage, universal access to treatment is sadly still a distant prospect for many vulnerable people. I was extremely proud of the role that Australia took cochairing with Botswana the UN meeting to get an agreement on the statement on HIV-AIDS. It was really exciting to see our diplomats in action. When it comes to international cooperation to tackle global problems their efforts really do make a significant difference. Putting into a single statement the views of nations around the world—nations that have quite diverse moral debates regarding HIV transmission—was certainly no easy task.

The work of this meeting was also very importantly underpinned by the work of global HIV activists, people living with HIV, scientists, health practitioners and many more. I do not think there is anything more important in life than the effort to help others secure their health and dignity. The work of people, whether they are HIV positive or negative, to address this profound health issue is just so important. I would like, today, to pay tribute to the amazing work of all these amazing people. Their work takes place at many levels, whether it is scientific work for research into treatments, vaccines and cures; epidemiology and prevention work, including the education of very culturally diverse communities that have different sexual practices about how to prevent the transmission of the disease; or treatment work, such as providing access to anti-retroviral treatment, that keeps people healthy and also prevents transmission of the virus.

The work undertaken to support those affected by the disease is important as is the work in the area of human rights and dignity, which plays a critical role both in the prevention of transmission and in supporting the quality of life of those affected. Backing up this work are the health systems, health promotion and system financing. But none of this work can take place without HIV-positive people lifting up their voices and speaking up for their rights. I would really like to commend all of those positive people who spoke up at the UN recently.

Australia plays a key role in tackling this epidemic and supporting all of these important areas of work. We do this in Australia by working hand in hand with community health organisations. We have an important Australian strategy which is committed to reducing the transmission of, and morbidity and mortality caused by, HIV and to minimising the personal and social impact of HIV. Importantly, our new strategy includes goals, objectives and indicators so that we can track our progress under the strategy.

It is really important that we also support this kind of work internationally. Our commitment includes a $220 million commitment to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Tuberculo­sis is an insidious disease that, hand in hand, can really debilitate the lives of HIV-positive people and it is really important that the fund's work recognises this. I believe that Australia's commitment to the global fund should grow as our aid budget grows in line with our nation's bipartisan commitment to reach 0.5 per cent of gross national income in foreign aid by 2015-16. So I would really like to see our commitment to the global fund and other international efforts to address HIV increase. We know that the global fund has saved 6.5 million lives from AIDS since 2002. This is a monumental achievement. This commitment is saving lives. But we can save more, and there are so many more people who need these programs who simply do not have access to them.

Vitally, Australia is making bilateral commitments in countries like Papua New Guinea. We know that PNG has a really significant problem, with a HIV prevalence rate of a bit more than one per cent, and HIV infection rates higher than anywhere else in the Pacific. It is also a nation where women are highly vulnerable to gender based violence, where mother and child birth mortality rates are high and where health services are few. So it is vital that we succeed in PNG in containing the virus. If we do not, then PNG, our near neighbour, could have a far higher prevalence level, with debilitating consequences, like many other nations around the world. If this were to happen, it would take a terribly high toll on even more lives and would increase social instability for our near neighbour, and I really do not want to see that happen.

Pleasingly, we do make a significant investment in tackling HIV in PNG. It currently amounts to $183 million over the five-year period to 2013. One example of the great work being done is in Goroka, the capital of Eastern Highlands Province. We know that there the death rate has fallen dramatically in the past few years, from 95 per cent in late 2006 to just six per cent in 2010. In the past, infants were not tested before 18 months of age and many did not live to see their first birthday. They are now tested at six weeks and put onto medication if they need it. For a country like PNG, significant development issues will not be addressed unless we also address their HIV epidemic, and I am very pleased that Australia will be there to assist in this work.

We are working with many other nations around the globe, and, indeed, there are many people who are marginalised around the globe and here in Australia—people who, as a result of this marginalisation, can become much more vulnerable to HIV. It is what makes support for human rights so critical to our success in this battle.

HIV transmission is frankly made far easier by human rights abuses: where women cannot say no to unconsenting sex or are subject to violence, or in highly unequal societies where women in consenting relationships cannot begin to negotiate safe sex as a part of their relationship; where condoms are used against sex workers as evidence in the criminalisation of sex work; where homosexuality is criminalised, meaning targeted campaigns teaching people how to have sex safely and to use condoms cannot take place; where transgender people are forced into the sex industry as the only form of work available to them; where injecting drug users are criminalised and people are denied access to clean injecting equipment; where people do not have access to treatment; where the globe fails to put the needs of people to access treatment for their disease above the corporate profits of pharmaceutical companies. These are some examples; there are so many others.

It is why I am so very proud today of the role Australia has played at the UN high-level meeting recently. Our UN ambassador Gary Quinlan and his team did a really fantastic job working with Botswana to facilitate a strong global statement on HIV. It is a statement that, for the very first time, recognises vulnerable groups such as men who have sex with men, injecting drug users and sex workers. This is a very significant achievement as it means that there is a mandate for organisations like the global fund to ensure that these vulnerable groups can be targeted in their programs around the world.

I would like to pay tribute to all of those who were part of the Australian delegation. It was a diverse delegation and, sadly, I do not have time to profile all the great people who were part of it today, but they are a credit to Australia's strong HIV response. I do have a few people to mention. One, of course, is our own foreign affairs minister, Kevin Rudd, who was a terrific part of the delegation. Others included Bill Bowtell, the Former HIV/AIDS Project Director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and Executive Director of Pacific Friends of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; Justice Michael Kirby, who undertook commendable work as part of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law; Don Baxter of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations; Annie Madden from the Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League; Janelle Fawkes from the Scarlet Alliance, the Australian organisation representing sex workers; Jesse Hooper, ouryouth representative from Queensland; Robert Mitchell, President of the National Association of People living with HIV/AIDS; Murray Proctor, Australian Ambassador for HIV/AIDS, and other talented members of the AusAID team; and Professor David Cooper, Director of the Kirby Institute. We also had members of the health department here participating in the delegation. I would also like to pay tribute to the great work of Bill Whittakeran Australian, and now a commissioner with the UNAIDS High Level Commission on HIV Prevention, but also the very first CEO of the AIDS Council of NSW, where he played an amazing role in making sure that we got the best possible negotiated outcome through the statement—and Australia's Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Gary Quinlan. Both were incredibly important to the achievement of strong outcomes at the meeting. I thank all of these people for being the voice of those at the margins and for caring about providing access to services and treatment for so many people who cannot speak for themselves. I think that MPs must also raise strong voices to support this work. I encourage senators and members to engage in efforts to improve the lives of people living with HIV and to prevent transmission.

I ask you to take a look at this UN declaration. It is an important document—a call to action to support the continued global commitment to reversing the HIV epidemic and mitigating its impact at the community, local, national, regional and international levels. I share the deep concern outlined in this declaration that, despite substantial progress over the last three decades since AIDS was first reported, the HIV epidemic remains an unprecedented human catastro­phe. It inflicts immense human suffering on countries, communities and families. This declaration calls on us to address stigma and discrimination, to ensure care and support, to protect vulnerable groups and to provide access to treatment. These are things that as both a global and an Australian community we really must dedicate ourselves to. I am very pleased that Australia's work helps people live with dignity and, indeed, that it helps saves lives. But there is so much more work to do, so Australia has every reason to scale up its efforts as the declaration calls on us to do.