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Community Affairs Legislation Committee
21/02/2012

HEWITT, Mr David, Private capacity

[15:19]

CHAIR: Welcome.

Mr Hewitt : My wife and I put in a written submission to the inquiry. My wife offers her apologies because she could not be here this afternoon. She speaks from a background of 51 years contact with Aboriginal people. She started nursing in the lower part of South Australia in 1961. She came to Amata in 1964, Ernabella in 1968 and was the first nurse out at the Docker River community. Following that, she had 12 years nursing in the Kimberley. She has seen some big changes in the health of Aboriginal people, a lot of them not for the good. One community that we were working in the year before last had eight deaths of young men between the ages of 20 and 40 out of a community of 300 people. If that happened in a city it would be a major national disaster. The main cause of the deaths is suicide, road accidents and violence, and lately a big issue has been renal failure.

I would like to highlight some of the points from our written submission. There have been many positive results from the Northern Territory Emergency Response: remote Central Australian communities are now safer places; stores are better places to shop; children are eating more; housing is improving; and additional money has been put into health services. We believe the biggest impact of the NTER has been income management. We have seen more money spent on food and clothing in communities rather than on cigarettes or motor vehicle expenses or taken out of the community to buy alcohol. Without exception, women whom we know in remote communities have supported income management. Last year a friend from a South Australian community who was visiting Alice Springs told us that, when she got back to her community, she was going to get a BasicsCard because she had seen the benefits of having part of her pension quarantined. We had to tell her that, for now, she could not use a BasicsCard in South Australia. I think this illustrates the support that women in the remote communities have given to the BasicsCard.

I would like to make a few comments on alcohol abuse. We support John Boffa's excellent presentation this morning. We believe that, until the flow of alcohol in Central Australia is reduced, we are not going to see a long-term improvement in Indigenous health, school attendance or employment. Access to alcohol in Alice Springs must be reduced. Recent territory moves such as the buyout of two liquor shops, the introduction of ID scanners and the Banned Drinkers Register have helped a lot. But more needs to be done. This morning John Boffa showed a photo of 238 casks collected from the river on 27 January representing a total cost of over $3,500. We believe a lot of that is money which should have gone to food and clothing for children.

We believe strongly about the issue of wet canteens in communities. This matter seems to come up for discussion every couple of years. In 1971 two staff members of the Docker River settlement proposed a wet canteen to teach the Aborigines how to drink. The women of Docker River strongly opposed this idea and recruited the help of the local Indigenous Lutheran pastor. They successfully lobbied the Northern Territory Welfare Branch, who at the time had the authority for communities, to abandon the idea. Forty years later we believe that the opinion of people in remote communities has not changed. That these canteens would relieve the problem of drinkers in the towns or in remote communities is totally unrealistic.

We believe the greatest needs regarding alcohol in Central Australia are: the two remaining bottle shops in Alice Springs should come aboard the voluntary accord on minimum price and the removal of two-litre casks; the Territory government should bring in a weekly grog-free day, and if the Territory government cannot do it then the federal government should step in; and there should be support for the women in remote communities who are so opposed to the possibility of wet canteens in their communities.

On a personal note, in the past two weeks we have been visiting a 41-year-old man who is in intensive care in the Alice Springs hospital. We have known him and his family since he was a year old. His serious medical condition is a direct result of high alcohol consumption in a family that did not know alcohol only a generation ago.

We would also like to make a couple of comments on health. We felt that it was interesting that, in the consultation on Stronger Futures, health was not rated amongst the four most urgent issues. Those were school attendance, alcohol misuse, housing and job opportunities—they were all considered more pressing. We realise that things like dialysis and the support of Opal fuel are probably not direct issues for your committee, but we believe strongly that the federal government needs to support more dialysis in remote communities. We have been involved with the establishment of the clinic out at Kintore which is providing a tremendous service to eight local people there.

CHAIR: Mr Hewitt, I can assure you that for the members of this committee both those issues are extraordinarily important and we have been following them closely. I want you to know that. I feel the other senators would have hit me if I had not put that on record.

Mr Hewitt : Thank you very much for that. I can assure you that a lot of the families that are suffering because of renal failure will appreciate that. Just a couple of weeks ago a dialysis truck was launched for Western Desert Dialysis and that is now out at Warburton community in WA. Some friends of ours have been able to go back from Kalgoorlie and from Alice to spend some time in their community. One of the big issues here is that so many of the senior members of the communities who should be leading their communities in all the difficult issues that they are facing today are people who are on dialysis and who are, on the whole, permanently isolated from their communities. It is good having the bus and, of course, the Territory government also has a dialysis bus. It is good to have these facilities so that people can get back for short stays, but I am sure they would prefer to be back in their communities full time.

In our submission we made a comment on school attendance. From our experience in remote communities it is one of the greatest frustrations of any staff working in remote communities. We believe that nobody can claim to have the answer to regular school attendance, but we support the government's SEAM program and suggest that it should be extended to South Australia and Western Australia, where school attendance has been as low as 34 per cent in one community that we worked in in 2010. It is an issue that I know concerns many people today. We support a lot of the very dedicated teachers working in communities who, sadly, often given away their jobs in communities because they feel they are not getting anywhere. I am sure it is not because of a commitment by government. We feel that the Territory government especially is committed to good school attendance. Sadly, none of us have the answer.

CHAIR: Is there anything you want to tell us that we do not already have in your submission?

Mr Hewitt : I would like to comment on the consultation process. I know there has been a lot of criticism of the consultation process last year during August, September and October. From our experience in a remote community and also in Alice Springs, we feel that it was very good. We feel that there were some good opportunities for people to make their comments. We feel that the summary that came out following that was a good document.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Mr Hewitt. Our best wishes to your wife.