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Wednesday, 3 November 1976


Mr BRYANT (Wills) - I think the Minister for Health (Mr Hunt) was gracious in accepting the fact that the Parliament ought to discuss this matter of Aboriginal heath and that we ought to participate in it in a reasonably nonpartisan way as did the Minister and my friend the honourable member for Fremantle (Mr Beazley). A continuing feature of Australia's history has been that Aboriginal people have received less than a fair go. This country is extraordinarily resourceful in other ways. It has enormous wealth at its disposal. Probably the Aboriginals when we first came here were the hardiest survivors of the roughest and toughest terrain on this planet. Now they are reduced to the state of ill-health which has been nominated today.

I remind honourable members, as I have been reminding them for 20 years or so since I was first alerted to the matter, that a continuing feature of Australian governments in dealing with Aboriginal people is under-performance. It is not necessarily a question of lack of will, but somehow we do not seem to be able to deliver the goods to the Aboriginal communities in the way in which we do to the rest of the community. Some of this has to do with geography but a lot of it has to do with our failure to understand thencultural background. A good deal of the situation has to do with the continuing changes in funding of programs and so on which have happened down through history. So despite the flying doctor service and good communications we still find it impossible to resolve some of the problems. I mentioned that there were a number of features in this whole subject. The first is persistence. Almost ever since the beginning of settlement in this country there has been an acknowledged failure of the community at any stage to be able to handle satisfactorily the Aboriginal population. A report issued by a public servant on 30 August 1 839 states:

I am distressed for the blacks- I cannot feed them as I would- I have no clothing for them- I find I shall be obliged to relinquish giving them flour as my stock is growing short What a disgrace it is that the government makes no provision for them!

I was reminded, when this debate was brought on today, of one of my first operations in an urgency debate in the Parliament in May 1957. The motion was:

The failure of the Government to care for the well-being of persons of Aboriginal and part-Aboriginal blood by not providing State governments with sufficient funds . . .

That matter related to the issue of the Warburton Ranges. This has been a continuing feature of Australian political life. It is time we decided that no considerations of Budget or of anything else, no phony views of the effect of deficits upon inflation or any other operation, should stand between us in doing our duty in this matter. I do not know how we produce non-partisanship in the Austraiian political scene. It is almost impossible, I suppose, for us to avoid the necessity on occasions of scoring off our opponents. Somehow we must find a formula under which we will have a continuing program so that all these areas which need to be attacked will be continually attacked and they will be absolutely free of any reductions because of changes in government or changes in budgetary philosophy.

This matter is continental in scope. I am a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs which at the moment is concerning itself with alcoholism. One of the most difficult parts of the task is the amount of travel involved in visiting, looking at areas and talking to people from one end of the continent to the other. We find this problem everywhere. It is in the heart of the cities and out in the remotest parts of the Northern Territory. It is basically social in origin because the Aboriginal communities stood unprepared to face up to the invasion which happened 200 years ago. Ever since, year after year and Budget after Budget Australian governments have been unprepared or unable to find solutions. Looking at the history of the matter we might say, as people so often say, that the situation is totally intractable. I do not think it is. What we are talking about goes to the very heart of the situation of the Aboriginal people. In all sorts of areas we find that they are suffering from great deficiencies.

Infant mortality is perhaps not continuing to be the highest in the world but it is amongst the highest. It is much higher than in any other group in Australia. I have a news item from September. A study found that the death rate among newlyborn children on Cape York Peninsula was about twice as high as that in the Brisbane area. The death rate among the older infant group was almost 8 times as high on the peninsula as it was in Brisbane. The study found that in one small area on Cape York Peninsula with a high Aboriginal population there were 100 infant deaths for every thousand births. When we became the Government in 1972 we launched an all-out attack upon the problems facing Aboriginal people. I would be the last to say that we knew what the answers were before we started or that we knew what the answers ought to be by the time we were removed from office. But we launched an attack across the board. We established the Aboriginal Medical Service and gave it adequate funds. We established nutritional programs which can be found around the country. Some of them have been successful, some unsuccessful. We do not know very much about how to fund or arrange housing programs for the different communities, but until we have resolved those problems we are not going to resolve the health problem. The Labor Government made grants to the State governments for medical teams and for clinic and hospital facilities. We attacked all the general problems. Special teams were operating in the field working on the diseases which have been mentioned today- trachoma, hookworm, leprosy and tuberculosis.

I do not know exactly what was the total amount allocated in the 1975 Budget, but we allocated $1 1.7m for the States in 1975. Some of that had a result. We will claim, I hope rightly, that some of the results in the reduction of infant mortality flowed from our attack upon the problem. In 1974 infant mortality in the Northern Territory was the lowest since records have been kept, and they have been kept for quite a while there. From 1965 to 1969 infant mortality was 1 1 1.5 a thousand, between 1970 and 1974 it was down to 97.4 and in 1974 it was down to 55.6. Perhaps that relates to the point raised by the honourable member for Fremantle- that by a forthright attack, with devoted services and an unrestricted flow of funds, the impact of ill health upon the Australian community can be reduced.

If I could introduce what I hope is not too sour a note, I think that the attack on Aboriginal programs which was a continuing feature of the last 3 years has been very disadvantageous to the Aboriginal people. We on this side of the House were the recipients of that attack as a political exercise, but there is no doubt in my mind that it was part of the pattern of thinking created in the community which made it even harder for this

Government to budget adequately for Aborigines. So the reduction in funds across the board is going to make it more difficult than ever for the present Ministers and their teams to overcome the problems. Inadequate staffing problems are not going to be overcome unless the supply of funds is kept up. On this occasion I appeal to the Government to take another look at funding, to remove the ridiculous restrictions that have been imposed on staffing throughout Australia, to have a closer look with a more sympathetic eye at all the programs that have been prejudiced because of the reduction of money available. We need an attack upon the staffing problem throughout the country; we need new programs on nutrition; we want public hygiene measures; we must take another look at the funding of housing. Even though there have been some failures, we must not let them overcome our good judgment in this matter.

I am a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs which is looking at the question of alcoholism. I want to warn the House and the community that we should not be sidetracked into believing that that is the only issue involved. It is not. Alcohol has had a serious effect, but many of the problems pre-date the impact of alcoholism on many communities. However, some communities are not as badly affected as others, such as in the Warburton Ranges. I should like to say a word or two about the Committee. It may well be that the best approach this Parliament can make is to create another Standing Committee. The Committee has great tasks before it, geographically and in other ways. It may well be that expanding the size of the Committee would be helpful. Giving it more resources might be an answer. The establishment of another committee might be desirable. On behalf of the people who work on that Committee, some of whom have young families, some of whom have unsafe seats- of course, we will attempt to make some of them less safe- I would say that it is a challenge. It is difficult to service committees because of the present membership of the House. I suggest that we look very carefully at these matters and approach the question of health with a view to resolving the problems rather than continuing to talk about them for the next century.







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