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Tuesday, 29 May 1973
Page: 2744


Mr MATHEWS (Casey) - Provision is made under all four of the Bills to which the House is at present giving consideration for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. This provision reflects the fact that responsibility for the welfare of Australians of Aboriginal origin has rested since 1967 with the Australian Parliament. We cannot afford to ignore in the context of that responsibility the way in which the health of Aboriginal children in East Gippsland is undermined and their education is disrupted by an outbreak of scabies which threatens to reach epidemic proportions. We cannot ignore the massive cover-up which is being mounted in this matter by the Victorian health authorities.

Last Thursday at question time 1 drew the attention of this House and the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (Mr Bryant) to the incidence of scabies among Aboriginal children in East Gippsland. I asked the Minister whether he would arrange for Commonwealth medical officers to visit this area as a matter of urgency and for a permanent medical centre to be established in the interests of treating not only this particular outbreak of scabies but all the other chronic illnesses by which Aboriginal children are handicapped. On Friday morning the Assistant Chief Health Officer of the Victorian Health Department was quoted in the Melbourne 'Age' as denying the existence of a scabies outbreak in East Gippsland. He was quoted as saying that in the past 6 months there had been 'one or two cases of scabies at Lake Tyers', 'a couple at Orbost' and most recently 'one or two at Morwell. On Friday evening Mrs Nora Cockrell, an Aboriginal resident of Nowa Nowra which is 15 miles north of Lakes Entrance, was quoted in the Melbourne Herald' as saying that she had never seen scabies so bad among Aboriginal children. She was quoted as saying that between 20 and 30 Aboriginal pupils had been excluded from school in Nowa Nowa because of scabies, and she was supported in this statement by the local Church of England Minister, Rev. K. South. Should we accept in this matter the view of the Assistant Chief Health Officer, sitting in his Melbourne office, or the view of Mrs Cockrell and Mr South who are on the spot? The grim fact is that when school resumed for the second term at Nowa

Nowa yesterday every Aboriginal pupil was turned aWay because of scabies.

I would like to quote briefly from the rough transcript of a meeting which I attended 2 weeks ago in the pre-school centre which is conducted at Nowa Nowa by the Save the Children Fund. The welfare officer to whom the Fund entrusts its centre said in the course of that meeting:

Just before Christmas, Aboriginal families, especially the children, had a real doing with scabies. It's the second tune round now and if something isn't done quickly we just can't contain it

She went on to say:

Dr Fyshfrom the Department of Health came up between the first and second outbreaks. He went to both Worthy and the State Director of Health. Both are just pushing the ball backwards and forwards and the problem is still there. I just can't hold scabies on my own.

A distinguished former office-bearer of the Timber Workers Union, who has lived all his life in East Gippsland, told the meeting:

The centre will have to clean up forty kids after the holidays. Scabies cover a wide area. I have heard that families right up to Echuca and Wallaga Lake have them. The 'teacher at our school says it's only a matter of time before it gets into the rest' of the population.

He went on to tell us:

The discharging ears of these children have a terrible smell, too. Children are avoided at school because of this smell. I spent Australia Day at the hospital waiting for a child with maggots in his ears to be treated. I had to take one high school girl to the doctor with it, too.

An Aboriginal woman who attended the meeting said:

The children suffer badly with worms. Sometimes they even come out of their mouths. It's just terrible. Worms come out of the mouth and they pass them, too.

Another Aboriginal woman pointed out:

The Ministry for Aboriginal Affairs-

That is, the State Ministry- has all this' officially on the files about the children they looked at. But they just examined them. They didn't fix them up.

A successful Aboriginal farmer concluded:

People don't see what happens when they come down from Melbourne. They come down and go back, the same things go on.

No amount of evasion on the pari of the Victorian health authorities can conceal the fact that the state of Aboriginal children in East Gippsland is a disgrace to Australia. The bodies of these children are scarred by old infestations of scabies and scabbed with current infestations. Their ear drums are perforated and in some cases crawling with maggots as a result of chronic otitis media. They live in a state of lassitude induced by malnutrition, chronic upper respiratory tract infections and massive infestations of worms.

This is a situation for which existing health services provide no answer. Dr Mccloskey says that there is no epidemic of scabies in East Gippsland and will send none of his officers to Nowa Nowa. His staff and the nursing staff of the Victorian Department of Aboriginal Affairs do not seem to be equipped, either by training or by temperament, to provide the health care services of which Aboriginal children stand in grave need. In particular, trained nursing sisters employed by the Victorian Department of Aboriginal Affairs as 'health educators' will neither treat Aboriginal children nor advise their mothers on treatment. The attitude of the Department was expressed in a letter sent by the Minister, the Honourable Vance Dickie. M.L.C., on 23 February to the member for Mitcham, Mrs Dorothy Goble, M.L.A. Mr Dickie wrote:

Medical officers are not employed by the Ministry, and where opinion is required, the Department of Health provides advice. Nursing sisters are unable to treat patients without the supervision of a doctor, as it is contrary to medical professional practices and nursing training, lt would, therefore, also be of detriment to the health of Aborigines, and the Ministry will noi provide a second-rate service to Aboriginal people.

I can assure that Minister that almost any sort of health care service for Aborigines would be better than the service available to them at present in Nowa Nowa. Public hospital services for Nowa Nowa and Lake Tyers are situated at Bairnsdale and Aboriginal mothers are expected to get children to the outpatients department at that hospital for treatment. The adult bus fare from Nowa Nowa to Bairnsdale is $1.70 each way and patients are obliged to stay in Bairnsdale overnight. Mothers with up to 7 sick children and no income other than social security benefits have been told by departmental health educators to make this journey. I am told that the policy involved is called 'making the Aborigine stand on his own 2 feet'. 1 was told at Nowa Nowa about q mother whose baby's teeth were knocked out in a fall from a pram. The mother took the child to the health educator, who happened to be on (She spot; but, in conformity with the policy of (She Department by which she is employed,

Sils educator would do nothing. The mother asked the educator whether the child should be. taken to hospital - honourable members will recall that there are neither nursing facilities nor a resident doctor at Nowa Nowa - and the educator replied that this depended on what the mother wanted. I do not doubt the good intentions of the Department and its officers, but I doubt their common sense. I was told at Nowa Nowa about a young mother of 4 children who was sick at Bruthen and had an appointment for treatment at Bairnsdale. This woman appealed to an educator for a lift, but the educator got into her car and drove away. The woman hitchhiked to Bairnsdale in heavy rain, was admitted to hospital and died there 3 days later from pleurisy. These things are being done in the name of Aboriginal advancement; they are being done in the name of concern.

The Minister, Mr Dickie, in his letter of 28 February, continued:

The importance of health is understood by the Ministry, and a number of research projects have been financed and initiated by the Ministry in relation with the Health Department and Melbourne and Monash Universities. The results of these studies have been and will continue to be of direct benefit to Aboriginal people.

We are all in favour of research, but in East Gippsland there is a desperate need for health services of the most elementary kind. We should all be ashamed that the line is being held in East Gippsland not by public authorities but by representatives of an organisation whose work is associated in the public mind with areas of disaster and privation such as Biafra and Bangladesh. It was to the welfare officer of the Save the Children Fund and not to local representatives of the Victorian Department of Aboriginal Affairs that the Aboriginal children of Nowa Nowa turned yesterday when they were refused admission to school. The welfare officer last term was cleaning up the sores of up to 14 pre-school children in a day so that they could go on receiving the benefit of a pre-school education. She was asked at the time by officers of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs to discontinue this treatment and to send home those children who were infested with scabies. The attitude of the Department is that if children are sick the responsibiliy for their care should be accepted by their parents. The attitude of the welfare officer is that a vital part of tha process of educating Aboriginal children is beeping them well enough to attend school.

The health of Aboriginal children in East Gippsland may not be bad by comparison with the health of those in some areas where infant mortality has won this country international notoriety. The future of these children may be bright compared with the future of children in areas where the whims of Europeans are still enforced by violence and fear. Neither of these factors justifies the inadequate or inappropriate nature of health services provided at present in East Gippsland by the Victorian Government. It would be inexcusable for this Parliament to fail in the responsibility with which it was entrusted by the people of Australia at the 1967 referendum.







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