Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Community Affairs Legislation Committee

BATH, Dr Howard, Children's Commissioner, Officer of the Northern Territory Children's Commissioner

Evidence was taken via teleconference—

CHAIR: I now welcome Dr Howard Bath. You understand issues about parliamentary privilege and the protection of evidence?

Dr Bath : Yes.

CHAIR: Dr Bath, I have information here stating that, as you are a Territory employee, you do not have to answer questions, but I will not read it out because you know it all.

Dr Bath : I hope I do.

CHAIR: You do.

Senator SIEWERT: We have done it before.

CHAIR: The resolution prohibits only questions asking for opinions on matters of policy and does not preclude questions asking for explanations of policy or factual questions about when and how policies were adopted. That is the last sentence. We have your submission. If you would like to make an opening statement, we will then go to questions.

Dr Bath : Just in general, the submission contains most of what I wanted to say. I wanted to say that we broadly support the intent of the bill that is before the Senate at the moment. The few reservations that we have are minor and they are to do with the issue in the Northern Territory where management areas can be declared where there is a consultative process and there is a much more comprehensive approach adopted to the problems of solvents generally and inhalants.

Given that we realise that would be extremely hard to implement on a national level, I am very supportive of the LAF Bill.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Dr Bath. Senator Siewert?

Senator SIEWERT: Dr Bath, could you go through some of those reservations and the issue you have just raised about the management areas and explain those a bit more?

Dr Bath : It is not so much a reservation; it is that it would be more of a wish list—in other words, tackling sniffable fuels is one part of the problem of volatile substances. You have got glues, deodorants, solvents and things that people can purchase and inhale, and it can do them harm. So, generally, if someone is addicted and you take one away they will seek out alternatives. Generally we feel that addressing one of the problems is not going to be a panacea. It will help but it is not necessarily going to be a panacea. With fuel, of course, the issue is that it is ubiquitous. You can get it everywhere. You do not have to consciously save up money and go down to the shop and purchase it. It can be carried around in a can. It can be passed on for free or for just a little consideration. It is much easier to obtain and so it is easier to get a high.

In the Northern Territory we have the Volatile Substance Abuse Prevention Act, under which there is a comprehensive process where areas can approach the government and asked to be declared a management area for volatile substances. There is a consultation and they can develop a management plan for the area which is an enforceable plan. It does cover issues broader than just fuel and fuel supply. That is more possible in a jurisdiction like the Northern Territory. Trying to get coordination across several different jurisdictions we recognise would be extremely hard. We think the ideal would be that, in addition to imposing restrictions on fuel and the supply of Opal fuel—low aromatic fuel—it is important also that there are local management approaches to the difficulties around sniffing or solvents.

Senator SIEWERT: Thank you. My understanding of what you are saying is that, yes, it is important to have measures like this but not in isolation.

Dr Bath : We accept though, at a national level, there are limits to what the Commonwealth can do to intervene when there are different jurisdictions involved, and many of the issues are state and territory issues that are being dealt with. So we do understand the complexities there and we support the notion that one thing that the Commonwealth minister can do, as within their jurisdiction, is around broad supply issues around fuels. We are supportive of that notion. We are saying that in the Northern Territory we have a fairly good process not only for engaging in the broader issues that lead to the problem of this sort of substance abuse but for working together with the communities to come up with a comprehensive plan that is enforceable.

Senator SIEWERT: A plan that deals not only with petrol sniffing but with other volatile substances.

Dr Bath : It can do. Of course, the availability of petrol is the main issue that is being looked at. But it could also involve the stocking of various other substances like deodorants, paint solvents, thinners, glues and various things like that that can be used as well.

Senator SIEWERT: What is your understanding of the current prevalence of petrol sniffing and how effective do you consider the voluntary rollout of Opal fuel has been?

Dr Bath : The difficulty is getting hard numbers on this—it always has been—just as it is, even at the level of a census, to get accurate numbers in remote areas. There are all sorts of adjustments that have been made and all sorts of claims about inaccuracy of numbers. It is very hard because of the dispersal of the population over such a wide area.

Having said that, sometimes you get very consistent reports of sniffing activities happening in different areas and you can be fairly well assured that there are hot spots that develop. What seems to be the pattern generally now is that you get this episodic eruption of sniffing activities happening in various parts—you would have heard named several areas at the moment that are problematic areas, and I hear them from time to time. I do not have the resources to do an in-depth survey of what actually is happening. Most of the reports that we get tend to be anecdotal. That is what seems to be happening now—you get this episodic eruption of the problem and it seems to be centred around some of the adult or older, very addicted sniffers who travel to areas and turn other people onto the activity.

Having said that, if we look back to 2005-06, when Opal was introduced, there is no doubt that it had a dramatically beneficial effect. Everyone that works in the substance abuse field, in hospitals, is unanimous in saying that there was a dramatic reduction in the number of people that were sniffing. I understand from the various published research reports that there was a reduction of anywhere from 70 to 95 per cent in the sniffing that was occurring and was so widespread. Even when you look at the celebrated programs like the Mount Theo program, for instance, they will say that the effect was dramatic when the low-aromatic fuels were introduced. But that did not eliminate the problem. It was never a total panacea. It was a very powerful tool, but it was never a total panacea, because of course it does not address underlying issues around poverty, despair, lack of roles, lack of meaning, lack of employment, that tend to be the underlying factors that lead to sniffing activities. It was not able to do that.

It seems to me to be a little bit like alcohol, in that the misuse of alcohol clearly is a symptom of a much deeper underlying malaise, but on the other hand it is also in and of itself a very serious problem, and it generates other significant problems when people become addicted. That is the same with the fuels. They are symptomatic of a much broader underlying malaise that needs to be addressed, but in and of themselves they become a serious problem, so eliminating them does eliminate quite a bit of the risk.

I guess I can only talk about perceptions. From being in the field talking to people and from reading the various reports up here in the Northern Territory, there is no doubt that there was a dramatic reduction because the pleasure associated with sniffing was dramatically reduced. I note that it is not removed and that there have been reports of at least one death from sniffing the low-aromatic fuels. They still are dangerous, but there are far fewer people getting their highs off the fuels. Does that address what you were asking?

Senator SIEWERT: Yes, thank you. Beyond the point you have been making about addressing the other issues around other substances, are there specific points in the bill that you think need amendment?

Dr Bath : I am not a legal expert, but I have gone through it and noted various issues. No, there was nothing that specifically came up to me in terms of the actual framing or wording of the bill. Obviously there is quite a lot of stuff that would need to be determined in the regulations that go along with the bill that provide further detail. For instance, exactly what are the differences between a fuel control area and a low-aromatic fuel area? What are the precise differences? How are they defined? That is the sort of thing. But I do not have any particular comment about the way the bill is specifically worded.

CHAIR: Dr Bath, you have exhausted our questions. Is there anything that we have not asked you that you want to put on record?

Dr Bath : I do just want to put on record this: that, in their environment—and I am talking generally about remote areas in the Northern Territory, the northern part of South Australia, and parts of Western Australia and Queensland—as you are aware, there are devastating hazards facing Indigenous kids growing up in particular. According to the Australian Early Development Index, by the age of five up to 60 per cent of those children have multiple developmental disadvantages. That is massive compared to the rest of the Australian population. So, even by that age, they are not really able to get through school without very specific support—and we are talking about around 60 per cent of that population. There are many hazards. We are talking about otitis media, smoking during pregnancy, exposure to alcohol consumption and sometimes exposure to family and community violence and the impacts that these have developmentally.

In the external environment, of course, we saw dramatic improvements with the advent of Opal fuel. It is one of the few very good news stories. It is one of the universally acclaimed policy developments that has made a dramatic difference in the lives of young people. Just because it is continuing to occur in some scattered areas, that does not mean the policy is a failure; I think it just means that it needs to be finetuned. It also means that it is not a panacea—that there are other things that need to be done as well. But I am strongly supportive of anything that will improve the effectiveness of the rollout of Opal fuel, and it just seems to me that giving the minister the option of compulsory enforcement of the supply of Opal and restrictions on other types of fuels would help to save lives.

Senator SIEWERT: We have seen the rollout of Opal in Central Australia and, as you have said, we have seen marked benefits from that. The rollout in other areas has been slower but it is happening. So, for example, in the north of the Northern Territory, and in Western Australia further across from the Western Desert but also up in the Kimberley, there are also plans for further rollouts. I am interested to know: have you had reports of petrol sniffing from the north of the Northern Territory as well?

Dr Bath : As you are aware, the epicentre tended to be in Central Australia with scattered episodes up north, and we are hearing more consistently of episodic outbreaks. Yirrkala has come up. The Katherine region has come up. I have heard from time to time of other communities that are involved. As I say, I am just a bit reluctant to talk about it in detail because I only have anecdotal reports that have come to my attention. But, needless to say, these reports are coming in. I could mention Ngukurr, because that has come up on a couple of occasions, in the Roper area. There is no doubt that it is happening, perhaps more often than not, more often than in the past, in the northern region of Australia.

So there is concern because the social conditions have not changed markedly in terms of the outcomes for young people, so the conditions that lead to a desire to escape from it all with solvents is still there, and that is certainly prevalent in parts of the Top End. I do understand that there are supply difficulties. I am given to understand that there are going to be new storage facilities in Darwin opening soon. The supply in the past was reliant on South Australian suppliers. I understand now that there is going to be much better supply availability from the Top End based in Darwin. So, as to any concerns about the rollout, it seems to me it is going to be much more available here in the Top End.

Senator SIEWERT: One of the issues that was raised with us yesterday, and we have talked about it extensively, was the other services that go along with the rollout of Opal, such as youth diversionary programs and case management. One of the points that has been made is that there are at least three schemes that provide some sort of youth support. Some are better than others—I will not say in terms of service provision, but some provide more holistic support. One of those issues that has been raised with us, yesterday and today, is case management and the fact that, with some of the further rollout of Opal, you are not getting that same level of support for youth services and case management.

Dr Bath : Yes.

Senator SIEWERT: Has that issue come to your attention?

Dr Bath : Just the variability of youth supports has come to my attention. It is part of that same hoary old problem, isn't it; you get different funding streams and different program stability in terms of what is being offered. I hear anecdotal reports that things are going well in a particular area and not in another area, that this particular youth services program has lost its funding, that this treatment program is struggling at the moment—that sort of stuff. But I agree with you that it is often in terms of holistic response, depending on the quality of the services that are available. I can say this: I have heard that the quality of the services is quite variable in some areas. We are finding, for instance, that the new shires which host a lot of those services are struggling to attract the appropriate staff to run them. That is just one of the issues that I have heard of. I do not know that it is the dominant issue but it is one of the issues that I have heard of in terms of the availability of those broader supports.

Senator SIEWERT: Thank you. I do not know if I am allowed to ask you this because it is opinion on policy, but you can tell me to back off. There is talk of needing something like the VSAPA in the Northern Territory in, for example, Western Australia, and we have had some evidence that that is being discussed. How effective do you think that sort of act is in enabling dealing with young people and substance abuse?

Dr Bath : It is a good question, isn't it. I have heard those reports of similar developments in other jurisdictions as well. I am not aware of any formal evaluation, only recent formal evaluation, of the program in the Northern Territory, and I do have to say that the numbers that are subject to orders seem to be relatively modest. However, I think that when you are talking about perhaps over 900 referrals to the scheme in a small jurisdiction like the Northern Territory, that is relatively substantial. What I understand is that, although only a relatively minor proportion of those—say, around eight per cent—actually go on to getting formal treatment orders—and I am talking about individuals here—we understand that many, many more go into voluntary services because of the actions taken under the act in terms of the initial action. That someone has bothered to make the report means that people have become involved in the lives of these people.

The other aspect of the Northern Territory bill, of course, is that 10 people can get together for an area and apply to the minister for their area to be declared a management area. We understand that around 22 or 23 areas have been declared management areas across the Northern Territory. I think that is pretty significant, and the majority of them have developed management plans which are enforceable. That does involve a lot of consultation with the people on the ground and the local areas, and I think that is always a much better way to go than simply an imposition from our side. That is what I can say about what I understand about how it has worked. In terms of the overall outcomes, I would like to see a formal evaluation of that and how that is working. But the intent of it, and what I have seen from the numbers, I am satisfied with.

Senator SIEWERT: The management plans are enforceable by the police, aren't they?

Dr Bath : They are enforceable by the minister. I am not exactly sure how that process works, but it is enforceable under law. If something is agreed in the management plan and determined by the minister, it is enforceable by law, so I understand that that could involve supply and restriction of supply.

Senator SIEWERT: I know you said that you would like to see a review of it. Are there things that stand out to you that you think would improve that act? This sort of act is quite controversial, for example, in WA in some quarters, but it seems to certainly be able to complement some of the other measures. I am wondering if you have already thought of things that could be done better or that do need to be changed if this is now going to be considered in other states—whether people should be picking up some of the things that you think would make such an act better.

Dr Bath : I would probably have some ideas but I would not be able to speak about it intelligently at this stage because my office has only recently become involved in children involved in the VSAP Act. I think the best people to make comment on that would be those that are working on the ground, day by day, with these management plans. I can only talk about things anecdotally; I am not there on the ground working out how they actually work. I can say that in general terms I am very supportive but, in terms of having the data at my fingertips and having the up to date reports, I do not have those. I do know that the professionals value the option of being able, first of all, to get young people in particular into treatment and that affected, beleaguered areas can apply to the minister. Those are all very positive and accepted very positively. As to how it can be improved, I think I would have to refer that on to the experts that are actually working in that field.

Senator SIEWERT: Fair enough. Thanks.

CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Bath.

Dr Bath : Okay. All the best with your deliberations.

CHAIR: We appreciate that.