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Wednesday, 9 February 2005
Page: 60


Senator LUNDY (1:39 PM) —I rise in the chamber to express my continuing concern that water safety in Australia is not given adequate support by the government. While this issue is no longer technically in my portfolio, I believe it is important to report on how the policies which Labor brought to the last election could have impacted in this area and to highlight the ongoing neglect of water safety by the Howard government.

Since the introduction of the National Water Safety Plan in 1998, there has been some success in reducing the number of drowning deaths in Australia. However, 250 Australians still drown every year, drowning is still the fourth largest cause of unintentional death and in the zero to four age group it is the second largest cause of unintentional death. There is no doubt that Australians love the water, but the risk that it presents has been demonstrated by a series of tragic events over the last few months. For example, along the New South Wales beaches on the weekend of 29 and 30 January, more than 450 swimmers had to be rescued from heavy surf and five men tragically lost their lives.

The hazard of the water is not limited to our coastal areas; it also extends to inland swimming pools and sports centres. For example, there was another tragedy here in Canberra where a two-year-old child died at the Canberra International Sports and Aquatic Centre. Who can forget the awful circumstances that occurred at a holiday precinct in the Grampians in Victoria when several members of the same family lost their lives at MacKenzie Falls, hence reminding us of the dangers of the natural inland waterways as well?

The fact that more people do not die is a demonstration of the continued dedication, commitment and expertise that is found in our volunteer organisations. There are over 7,000 accessible ocean beaches in Australia and an estimated 60 million annual beach visitations, which combine to create a huge safety problem. Add to that the issues of the inland waterways and you start to get a sense of the scale of this challenge. Surf Life Saving Australia patrol over 400 beaches from a base of 280 surf clubs and 107,000 members, and they rescue more than 11,000 people each year. Also, Royal Life Saving Society Swim and Survive courses provide the skills and education necessary for a lifetime of safe activity in or around the water. Since 1982 over 10 million Australians have participated in these courses. That is an impressive number.

Despite the ongoing loss of life on and in our waterways, the reality is the government has provided no additional funding to support and promote programs which could save Australians. The $10 million over four years promised in the 2004 federal election campaign for water and alpine safety initiatives merely maintains the current annual appropriation for these programs. The absence of any real increase in the funding to reduce the number of fatalities that occur each year demonstrates the Howard government’s lack of real commitment to water safety in this country. In contrast, Labor has always strongly supported programs which promote the recreational and sporting activities of the community at large and was willing to provide an extra $2.2 million to adequately fund the National Water Safety Plan and other water safety programs that it believes have been neglected by the Howard government.

Drowning deaths can be prevented when we know who to target. Traditionally, children in the zero to five years age group are the No. 1 priority group identified by the Australian Water Safety Council. In 2003-04, 40 children in this age group died. While this is down on the 2002-03 figure, it is still far too many avoidable deaths. Almost half of these drownings occurred in swimming pools. This is often because the pools are not restricted or are unsupervised, according to the Royal Life Saving Society’s National drowning report of 2004.

Labor’s approach is focused on reducing the number of childhood drownings in Australia by teaching children to swim and be safe around the water. We are committed to programs which support the goal of reduced childhood drownings. Under the Labor water safety policy taken to the last election, we proposed an additional $250,000 per year to fund 300 training courses to help parents and other carers to look after toddlers around water and $70,000 to better train water safety teachers in the AUSTSWIM programs.

The percentage of injury and drowning deaths in the 16 to 35 male demographic also far outstrips acceptable limits, and this is the No. 2 priority group identified by the Australian Water Safety Council. In this age group over 85 per cent of drowning deaths are male and, as with other risk-taking activities, the National Water Safety Plan 2004-07 states that there is evidence that drugs and alcohol may be a factor. In 2003-04, 75 people in this age group drowned predominantly in coastal or river locations while undertaking leisure activities.

There is clearly a need to better educate and protect all Australians, but particularly those in this age group. In the Labor water safety policy, we proposed an additional $210,000 per year to increase funding to the National Water Safety Plan, which promotes a targeted education plan for 16- to 35-year-olds and supports pool lifeguards and surf lifesaver teachers around Australia. The basic fact is that no coastal drowning deaths occur between the flags and, if individuals can improve their awareness of potential dangers, the number of fatalities may well be reduced further. It is also disquieting that, with Australia’s ageing population, the drowning rate of those aged 55 and over is increasing. In 2003-04 the number of drowning deaths in the 55 to 64 age group increased by 25 per cent compared to the five-year average. As the number of people in this age category increases, this group will continue to be of concern unless action is taken.

There are other groups in danger, particularly international tourists, who made up nine per cent of coastal drowning victims in 2003-04. Recurring drownings indicate that tourists do not understand the dangers of the Australian surf and tend to swim outside the patrolled areas. The hazard is aggravated by language confusion and, as in the case of a drowning in January, a need to communicate only via hand signals. In its water safety policy taken to the 2004 election, Labor planned to alleviate some of these issues by providing an additional $250,000 per year to help fund translation services for water safety information for people from non-English-speaking backgrounds.

Another overlooked group potentially at risk from water based injury or fatality is those living in rural and regional areas. While less than 10 per cent of the New South Wales population resides in outer regional, rural and remote New South Wales, an analysis of rescues has indicated that individuals from remote localities have a higher risk of drowning or utilising a surf rescue service compared with individuals living in urban centres. Surf Life Saving Australia has indicated that, against previous trends, most drowning victims in 2003-04 lived 10 to 50 kilometres from the coast. As with tourists, lack of appropriate experience and knowledge are major factors in the heightened risk for this group. Their residential proximity often restricts how often they frequent the beach and the coast and therefore their knowledge of beach hazards and conditions is often minimal.

This is an important point. Surf Life Saving Australia have long argued for and do have successful programs that target non-coastal high schools and education facilities. We now have a compelling set of statistics and data which show that surf life needs to go beyond just the beaches and the schools surrounding those areas that they patrol. Most Australians at some point in their lives do go to the beach and, without access to that knowledge, training, experience and understanding of what a rip is at the beach, of beach safety and the whole purpose of swimming between the flags, it is very difficult to see how we can improve these statistics. I would like to acknowledge the work of Surf Life Saving Australia and their efforts and advocacy in getting more courses and providing more opportunities for Australians in non-coastal regions to be educated.

Harsh as the reality may be, the fact is that there is a cost associated with drowning deaths, and this extends beyond the pain and suffering of the victims’ families. The lifetime cost of a drowning death ranges between $370,000 and $463,000. At approximately 20 deaths in Australia per year, the cost to the Australian economy is between $92 million and $115 million. Programs which support and encourage safe water practices are beneficial not only to individuals and families but also to our public health system and our nation’s sense of confidence in dealing with our coastal regions.

As demonstrated by our policies, Labor have also confirmed a strong commitment to grassroots programs which encourage and facilitate the ability of all Australians to enjoy a healthy lifestyle. It is certainly no surprise to me that the Howard government continues its longstanding underfunding of community programs which would otherwise enable Australians to enjoy their coastal environment and support facilities to the fullest extent. Our collective ability to participate in recreational activities which reflect our national character could, I think, be severely hampered by the Howard government’s lack of commitment to policies that focus on the safety of Australians and indeed international visitors.

I believe that, if there is to be any impact on the effect of drowning deaths in Australia, the Howard government must make a stronger commitment to water safety through its policy and through a stronger commitment of resources. Having been elected late last year, the Howard government has an opportunity in the forthcoming budget to make that commitment. Comprehensive school education programs and public education through diverse media channels, particularly targeted at the high-risk groups, are crucial. Additionally, resources and funds are needed to support those who try to educate or save individuals in aquatic locations. This includes training additional water safety teachers and coaches and, as I said before, extending lifesaving services by providing funding and assistance to fully train volunteers not only across the coastal areas but also in regional, rural and even remote areas of Australia.

Theoretically, almost every drowning death should be preventable with the right education, resources and funding. We know where people drown, who is most at risk and what we need to do to prevent these deaths. The public policy challenge is to ensure that individuals are educated and aware of the hazards and that the people who save lives are supported in every possible way. I believe this is a challenge that the current government are not meeting and one that stands before them as they embark upon their next term of government.

In closing, I would like to once again acknowledge both the Royal Life Saving Society Australia and Surf Life Saving Australia. In my former capacity as shadow minister for sport, I had the opportunity on many occasions to address their national councils and to hear first-hand of the experience of their volunteers. I know several people who have been involved as volunteers for both organisations as swim teachers and as surf lifesavers, and their commitment is extraordinary. These people volunteer a huge proportion of their personal time to a public service. It is a public service which does get some support from the government, but I can tell you that the entrepreneurial spirit of the Royal Life Saving Society and Surf Life Saving Australia is what puts the heart and soul behind these programs right around the country. I would like to take this opportunity to commend their work and wish them every effort in trying to convince the Howard government, in the lead-up to the forthcoming budget, to improve their bottom line so they can improve the chances for many Australians and international visitors of surviving the horror of a water-related death or accident.