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Wednesday, 28 February 2001
Page: 24671

Mr SNOWDON (5:26 PM) —On my way up to the House I was thinking what a privilege it is to be a member of the federal parliament and to have the opportunity to speak in these sorts of debates. I will digress from the subject of the appropriation bills for a moment to say that all too often we forget what we are here for. It seems to me that, in a debate like this which allows us the ability to canvass wide the issues of importance to the nation and to our communities, we have a responsibility to make sure that we do that adequately and appropriately. I am, however, in the unfortunate position of having lost my speech notes, which is a surprise because normally I am very assiduous in maintaining order in terms of the documents I have in my possession. On this occasion I have left them behind somewhere, so I will have to do without them. But it will not stop me from reflecting on a range of issues to do with, in particular, the relationship between the Northern Territory government and the Commonwealth government as it affects budget matters, among other things, and it will not stop me reflecting upon moneys made available by this government for roads. I will come to that in a moment.

The first point I want to make, and it is something that needs to be comprehended by the parliament, is that around 78 per cent of the Northern Territory government's budget revenue is derived from Commonwealth outlays. That is a large amount of money. It effectively says that every 78 cents—close to 80 cents—in the dollar spent in the Northern Territory by the Northern Territory government has, as its source, federal appropriations of one sort or another. In addition to the moneys which are being spent by the Northern Territory government and which are derived from Commonwealth sources, there are, over and above that, large amounts of Commonwealth money which are direct payments for its own programs in the Northern Territory. Of course, perhaps the largest of those is to do with Defence.

The issue for me is not so much that the Commonwealth pays the Northern Territory government such a large proportion of their budget but rather that the Commonwealth has some surety that moneys appropriated from the Commonwealth's own purse, from revenues raised from taxpayers' dollars, levied by the Commonwealth, are expended appropriately and adequately. What accountability is there on the Commonwealth government to ensure that those funds are spent appropriately and adequately? What commitment and ability is there from the Commonwealth to ensure that the moneys are distributed fairly and equitably? You would know, Mr Deputy Speaker Hawker, that the funds made available via the Commonwealth Grants Commission are made available on the basis of horizontal fiscal equalisation to ensure that all communities across the nation have access to roughly the same standard of services.

It is within that context that I want to discuss the Northern Territory, because it is clear to me as I travel around the Northern Territory that you could hardly argue that the resources and services available to the people in Darwin or, for that matter, Alice Springs are anything like the services available for people in Tennant Creek, Maningrida or any of the outlying communities. That is a matter of some concern. The other night in this place I raised the issue of renal disease and the failure of the Northern Territory government to accept recommendations to fund, as a priority, a renal dialysis unit at Tennant Creek. The reason for this is very simple: we are told, on the basis of the best advice available, that Tennant Creek has the worst profile for renal disease of any region in Australia. The difficulty is that people from Tennant Creek are forced to travel away from their communities to get renal dialysis treatment. They are forced to travel to Alice Springs. As has been acknowledged by no less a person than the Northern Territory minister responsible many people do not do that and as a result their health is affected and it is argued—and I think quite clearly and appropriately argued—that the end result of that is death.

It is also argued that if there were a renal dialysis unit in Tennant Creek lives would be saved. We are told that the cost of one of these units, to maintain the standards in Tennant Creek, would be a lot less than $1 million. The difficulty is that the Northern Territory government has chosen not to spend these resources on those people. However, it does not stop them spending $44 million on a power line between Katherine and Darwin—the value of which has been estimated at slightly more than $20 million. The net beneficiary of this is a company headed by Paul Everingham, who was previously the Chief Minister for the Northern Territory and previously member for the Northern Territory in this parliament. They have been able to pay something close to $20 million in excess of the appropriate valuation of this property but they are not prepared to spend a lot less than $1 million to assist in the treatment of renal failure in the Tennant Creek and Barkly regions.

Last Friday night on Stateline, the Northern Territory equivalent of the 7.30 Report, there was an illuminating interview on this issue. On Friday night Barbara McCarthy interviewed Dr Paul Bauert, the President of the AMA in the Northern Territory, who was forced to a conclusion in relation to the expenditure of these funds and the need to provide kidney dialysis for patients in Tennant Creek and surrounding regions. He related that to the question of the provision of dialysis treatment in Katherine, because Katherine, despite the assessed need being different, was provided with a kidney dialysis unit as part of a deal over land involving the Jaowyn people of the Northern Territory. The Jaowyn exchanged their rights to land in return for a kidney dialysis unit. Effectively, they were blackmailed by the Northern Territory government: the Northern Territory government could get access to some land and, in turn, would provide a dialysis unit. I have no argument about Katherine having a dialysis unit. I have an argument about the process which led to the provision of the dialysis unit and I have an argument about the fact that the Northern Territory government has refused to expend the funds necessary to provide a dialysis unit in Tennant Creek.

We need to know that the federal government is complicit in these actions. I am concerned about the impact the government is having on ensuring appropriate health outcomes for indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory because, in large part, the people who suffer the most renal failure in Australia are indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory. There is a magnificent self-dialysis unit on the Tiwi Islands, which is to be applauded, but in this area of Central Australia people are forced to travel about 500 kilometres to a unit. They are required to leave their homes for extensive periods for treatment; they are away from their families, which is culturally inappropriate—it hurts them—and many choose, rather than to travel that distance and be away from their families and their country, not to have the treatment. This can be stopped very easily by the Northern Territory government providing an appropriate unit at Tennant Creek.

Another issue relating to health involves Maningrida. Unfortunately, Maningrida can be described as the tuberculosis capital of Australia. It has a population, including outstations, of roughly 2,200 people. It records 16.5 per cent of children and 31 per cent of the population returning a positive Mantoux test. To put this in perspective, the Tiwi Islands record 4.3 per cent of the population returning a positive Mantoux test. The average national rate for TB infection is five per 100,000 people. In the Northern Territory it is higher at 18 per 100,000. At Maningrida it is a staggering 523 per 100,000—that is, 100 times greater than the average across Australia. The Northern Territory government, in their wisdom, have refused to fund a disease control position at the Maningrida Health Clinic, on the spurious grounds that the staffing profile of the Maningrida clinic shows that it has got too many registered nurses. Here we have got an identifiable health problem. We have got political decisions being taken by the Northern Territory government on a daily basis on how they will expend their budget, decisions taken which provide money for, for example, Paul Everingham's company. They can find $170-odd million to put in the Darwin to Alice Springs railway, but they cannot find enough money to put into the Maningrida clinic a person responsible for disease control, nor can they provide a dialysis unit in Tennant Creek.

I believe that these decisions are political. There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that the Northern Territory government is not on the ball and is not properly aware of its responsibilities. If this situation emerged in Alice Springs or Darwin, it would cause absolute outrage. The national government would say, `This is an outrage.' This issue of people's state of health is an international one. When indigenous Australians go to the United Nations and complain about lack of treatment, they are rubbished by this government. The facts are clear. Here in the case of Maningrida the health outcomes are so poor that it can be properly termed the tuberculosis capital of Australia. What an indictment, and I have given the figures. I am not just guessing that there is some political motive behind this. The Northern Territory government make their own budget decisions; they cut their own cloth. I raised this matter with a previous Treasurer, later to be Prime Minister, and he properly said that the Commonwealth makes money available to the Northern Territory and they cut their own cloth. I have an interest in the way they cut their cloth, and I argue that this parliament should have an interest in the way they cut their cloth. After all, 78c in every dollar spent by them originates from the Commonwealth. It seems to me that the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and the Minister for Health and Aged Care in particular ought to be asking the Northern Territory government to be accountable for the use of these taxpayer resources, because they are not accountable. To me, that is a matter of grave concern.

You will know, Mr Deputy Speaker, that there has been a significant flood, what I believe to be a natural disaster, around the Victoria River district and across to Borroloola as a result of cyclones recently. The communities of Daguragu, Pigeon Hole, Kalkarindji and others have all been relocated to Katherine. You may not know that in the case of Kalkarindji some 40-odd houses have been totally flooded. I called last week for it to be declared a natural disaster to ensure that the Northern Territory government is then able to access Commonwealth funds. The Northern Territory Treasurer and Minister for Emergency Services refused to do that, but later on Friday he said, `I have now applied to the federal government for natural disaster funds,' which I am pleased about.

But did you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, that on Thursday there was a meeting in Katherine which involved people from these communities discussing what relief might be available to address the flood damage, to address the dangers and to address all the issues involved, including, I might say, the question of how they might get back to their communities? What was suggested to them—this I find scandalous—was that, unless a particular person was involved in the process, they would have trouble accessing funding to re-establish their communities. I will repeat that: these people were told that, unless a particular person was involved in the process, they would have trouble accessing funding to re-establish their communities. This person happens to be an employee of a Northern Territory minister, Minister Baldwin. He also happens to be the endorsed CLP candidate for the seat of Lingiari, which is the seat that encompasses these communities. When at that meeting someone asked about this person, Mr Kelly, and who he was, the response was not that he was a particularly important bureaucrat. No, the response was that he was the CLP preselected candidate for the seat of Lingiari.

I put this question to the federal government: in terms of accessing Commonwealth government resources, is it a fact that people will be given access to those resources only if they work through Mr Kelly? Or are we seeing, writ large, the way the CLP government has traditionally operated in the Northern Territory? I say that this is a matter of grave seriousness. Here we have got, writ large, as I say, very transparently exposed, clear interference in a process where there is a natural disaster and where people are clearly distressed, their homes have been destroyed, their property has been destroyed, they have been forced to relocate, and they are told that, if they want to access resources to re-establish their communities, they have to work through a political operative who happens to be an endorsed CLP candidate and that is the reason they should be working through him.

As I said at the outset, this federal parliament should have an interest in the way in which the Northern Territory government expends its funds, because those funds are derived largely from Commonwealth taxpayers' pockets. We need to be concerned at the way in which this has been going on.

Another matter I want to raise briefly—it is also about the use of funds for political purposes—is the way in which the Commonwealth government funded the Roads to Recovery program. I have mentioned before in this House the discrepancy between the amount of money being made available to the Northern Territory for its roads and the amount of money being made available to the seat of Gwydir, which happens to be the seat of that other Liberal, the Leader of the National Party, Mr Anderson. Let me explain briefly—it is not difficult to understand. The Northern Territory has an area of 1.3 million square kilometres. The allocation to the Northern Territory is $20 million; the allocation to the seat of Gwydir, which is 114,000 square kilometres—the Northern Territory is roughly 10 times larger—is $43 million. This allocation of resources is not based on need, it is not based on any principle of fiscal equalisation; it is based on the political bias of the government and is a rort. The people who are suffering as a result of this, just as the people who are suffering as a result of the decisions by the Northern Territory government, are people who live in the bush, and it is not to be tolerated.

I say to the government: these rorts cannot continue. Not only do you need to look at yourselves and the way in which you allocate resources but also you need to look at the Northern Territory government to make sure that it is accountable to you for taxpayer resources which have been made available to it for the use and benefit of the community of the Northern Territory. On behalf of Australia's taxpayers, you have that responsibility—a responsibility that I am sure will not be taken up. (Time expired).