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Tuesday, 8 November 1977
Page: 3024

Mr E G Whitlam (WERRIWA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I ask the Minister for Health a question concerning his statement last night that on the advice of the Federal Government the Royal Australian College of Ophthalmologists will tomorrow cease its field work in Queensland under the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program on the ground that some employees of the field teams are unacceptable to Queensland authorities. I ask the Minister Who were the Queensland authorities? On what grounds did they find the employees unacceptable? When were their views conveyed to the Federal Government? At what level was the Federal decision made? Is it a fact, as reported in the Press, that it was the Premier of Queensland himself who requested the Minister and the Prime Minister to stop the program because two Aboriginal liaison officers with the field teams had encouraged Aboriginals to enrol for the State election? If so, why could not the program continue uninterrupted since the rolls for the State election closed several days ago?

Mr HUNT (GWYDIR, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Minister for Health) -For the benefit of the Leader of the Opposition I would like to make it clear that the national trachoma program has not been concluded. That is the first point that I want to make. Only the field eye screening team part of the program has been deferred in that area- it has been deferred, not ceased- for a period of one month.

Mr E G Whitlam (WERRIWA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - And only in Queensland?

Mr HUNT - The ongoing aspects of the program will continue in Queensland as they are continuing elsewhere. Mass treatment for trachoma is being arranged for some 9,000 persons in the Pilbara and the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Surgery is continuing in Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and in the Northern Territory. For the information of honourable members, over 60,000 people have been screened. The Queensland screening program has been temporarily deferred because of complaints from Queensland authorities.

Who are the authorities? I have had a number of complaints, telegrams and telephone calls from individuals and also from the Premier and Premier's Office and also some concern expressed through his office and indirectly to me from the Department of Aboriginal and Islanders Advancement and Fisheries. I have also been informed that some Queensland Aboriginal communities have objected to some of the people engaged on the program. It has been a matter of great concern to the Royal Australian College of Ophthalmogists, to the Commonwealth Government and to me as the Minister because the only real role that we have in the program is that we provide funds under health program grants to the Royal College and certainly the College does not wish to become embroiled in any political controversy. Since there were alleged political overtones associated with the screening program, the College decided, after discussion with me to defer any further screening for at least one month unless other more satisfactory arrangements could be made.

The President of the College went to north Queensland and to the Torres Strait Islands and discussed the matter with Professor Hollows, who was very reluctant to dismiss the people concerned; in fact, he refused to do so. The College felt that it had little alternative at present but to defer that aspect of the program. I am continuing my discussions with the Royal Australian College of Ophthalmologists in the hope that a more satisfactory alternative solution can be found to ensure that the screening program can go ahead as planned. In the meantine all other aspects of the program are going ahead.

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