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Thursday, 22 November 2012
Page: 9461

Senator CROSSIN (Northern Territory) (09:50): I rise to add my contribution to this debate on the Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012. I recognise Senator Siewert's passion and endeavours in this area but might use my opportunity this morning to also correct some of her statements.

Petrol sniffing has been around in the Northern Territory for many, many decades. When I arrived at Yirrkala in 1981—and I have spoken about my experience in that community many times in this chamber—I saw firsthand the impact of petrol sniffing. That was over 30 years ago. In fact, in 1983 my husband specifically had a group of 15 post-primary boys in his class who were all petrol sniffers. It was a specific educational strategy that we designed at Yirrkala School to try and stop those boys from sniffing and to get them re-engaged in education. It was very difficult—extremely difficult—because there were no designated youth programs; there were no low-aromatic fuels back then. It was not until the 1990s that avgas was introduced across the Top End, specifically in Maningrida, I think. Chris Burns owes his doctorate to the research he did into avgas and its impact on petrol sniffing. Then, of course, it was not until 2005 that BP finally came up with the low-aromatic fuel that we now call Opal.

So a solution that would actually turn off the tap here has only been around since 2005, and that then led to the first Senate inquiry being initiated in 2006. Petrol sniffing is not just confined to Central Australia—not at all. I have lived with and am related to Indigenous families in north-east Arnhem who have watched their adolescent children diminish mentally, drastically, over the years to the point where they are chronically mentally ill. It saddens those families. It saddens me.

The other thing I want to say, Senator Siewert, is that this is not the last chapter in this book. This is not the last rung in the saga of petrol sniffing, because what we still need to do is have rehabilitation places right throughout Central Australia, the Top End and probably in Queensland and WA that cope with those adolescents and young adults who are mentally ill as a result of petrol sniffing. I know, for example, that the families at Yirrkala struggle because there is no rehabilitation facility in Gove and the ones in Darwin are completely inadequate. We know that in a place like Gove this bill will be very hard to implement because of the town and the situation there. At Jabiru we will have the same problems and similarly in Katherine. So there will be a need to embark on a lot of concentrated work and effort which goes to education, consultation and negotiation in order to get this bill implemented. There are still many years ahead of us to make sure that we do turn off the tap to regular unleaded petrol and just roll Opal out in remote communities.

The other rung that we will need to look at is extending the youth programs. If I had 20 minutes I could spend my whole time singing the praises of the Central Australian Youth Link Up Service and the fantastic work that people like Blair McFarland, Tristan Ray and their co-workers have done in highlighting the impact of youth services, combined with diminishing the reliance and dependence of youth on petrol for sniffing. That is a fantastic youth service and they work really well with people like the Mount Theo mob and Susie Low, but they are also confined to Central Australia. It would be my dream to give CAYLUS enough funding for them to become the Northern Territory youth link-up service, not just the Central Australian Youth Link Up Service, because I think they have the capacity to extend the work they do right up the Stuart Highway and right across the length and breadth of the Northern Territory.

I am surprised that there has not been a call to ensure that, as we mandate low-aromatic fuel in petrol stations, we also mandate the funding for an expansion of CAYLUS, so that as we turn off the tap and do not give young men, particularly, a reason to sniff this fuel we also provide them with the alternative. It is fine to have a bill in here for low-aromatic fuel to turn off that tap, but what I also want to see is the other side of the scales being balanced and the additional funding being provided so that an organisation can expand and provide these young people with an alternative.

There are a number of amendments that clearly need to be made to this bill in order for it to be passed. But let me be very clear that this Labor government has worked laboriously and closely with stakeholders to introduce voluntary compliance of suppliers with using low-aromatic fuels. Success in Indigenous health policy takes time, and the voluntary rollout of the low-aromatic fuel Opal over time has made a 70 per cent difference to the plight of petrol sniffers in Australian communities. So we know it works. This bill is about trying to take the next step.

We have worked hard to introduce Opal in areas around Australia. In 2005 the first Petrol Sniffing Strategy was announced; however, the plan was only partially implemented by the then coalition government. Since 2007, when we came into government, we have worked closely with the private sector, with governments at all levels and with NGOs to address those gaps and to achieve implementation of a successful Petrol Sniffing Strategy program. The manufacture and distribution of Opal in Central and Northern Australia has been a story of spectacular success. It has improved Indigenous health by curbing the detrimental curse of petrol sniffing across many of the communities, so in 2009 we expanded the supply and uptake of Opal fuel across the gulf region of Queensland, the East Kimberley and the Top End. Since then, the success has been echoed across many regions.

I do not have time to go through some of the evidence that was presented to the third and most recent inquiry conducted by the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee. I had been involved in the first two; I missed this one because I had other engagements in the Territory at the time. The inquiry on low-aromatic fuel took evidence from people like Donna Ah Chee at the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, who said that the rollout of Opal fuel in Central Australia 'demonstrates what supply-side strategies can achieve'. There was also evidence from Susie Low at Mount Theo, from the NPY Women's Council, and from Andrew Stojanovski, whom Senator Siewert talked about. So there is clearly evidence about this strategy and how it works.

As of July this year, there are 123 sites receiving low-aromatic fuel throughout regional and remote Australia. And since July this year the Department of Health and Ageing have conducted a procurement process to establish increased production and storage of low-aromatic fuel in various places in remote Australia. So a lot of work has been done and is being done. The committee heard that the low-aromatic fuel storage and distribution facility in Darwin is expected to be completed before the end of 2013. That will ensure that there is ready access to supply to roll it out across the Top End, not just in Central Australia.

I am keen to try and wind up my remarks this morning, because I know we want to get through all of the speeches in the second reading debate, move the amendments and get this bill passed. But I clearly say in support of this legislation that I think it is time that we move on ensuring that distributors in the Northern Territory turn to Opal, and only to Opal. I think there is much discussion and there is much work still to be done. While the voluntary scheme is in place, we know that there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that distributors switch to Opal and do it confidently and competently. We know that plenty of education work will need to be done to ensure that people have confidence in knowing what the difference between regular unleaded and Opal is. Of course, there is no difference except for the smell, but that education will need to occur. There will be a need to fund and extend those youth programs right around the Territory. My dream would be, as I said, that the Central Australian Youth Link Up Service becomes the Northern Territory youth link-up service.

So this is not the final chapter in the book; this is another chapter in addressing petrol sniffing. There is still a lot more work to be done. There are a lot more education programs to be rolled out, youth programs to be rolled out and work to be done with distributors. But it is another step along the way to ensuring that young Aboriginal lives are not destroyed because the only end of their day is to stick their nose in a can of petrol and sniff it. So we in this government need to play whatever part we can to prevent that occurring and to save one more person's life from spiralling dramatically downward to a tragic ending where they either become mentally ill or die, and this parliament needs to grasp any opportunity it has to prevent that from happening.