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Tuesday, 18 March 1980
Page: 710

Senator MISSEN (VICTORIA) - I direct my question to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. I refer him to the comments of Dr L. R. Smith of the Australian National University's health research group in a discussion paper of October 1 978 regarding the collection of statistics in respect of the health problems suffered by Aboriginal children. Will the Minister comment on Dr Smith's claim that Australia stands alone among Western countries in not collecting routine official statistics which would document the health of its indigenous minority on a national basis? Is it correct, as alleged by Dr Smith, that there is not a single health area in which Aboriginal statistics are available on a national basis? What are the reasons underlying this apparent lack of precise data? Does the Minister agree that the unavailability of statistical data has made the possibility of effective intervention, either clinical or preventive, virtually impossible? Does he also agree that without it there has been no means of assessing the size and nature of the health problems of Aboriginal communities and no means of evaluating the success or otherwise of such programs as have been implemented? What action will be taken to remedy this situation so as to ensure that appropriate medical treatment for the health problems of Aboriginal children can be implemented?

Senator CHANEY -The Dr Smithreferred to by the honourable senator in his question was engaged by the Depanment of Health to collect available base line statistical information in relation to Aboriginals to enable the development of comprehensive Aboriginal health statistical information on a national basis. Unfortunately, until this time Aboriginals have not been separately identified nationally in vital statistical collections. I think that really answers the last part of the honourable senator's question. Action is being taken to try to remedy the deficiency that the honourable senator raised in his question and the engagement of Dr Smith is a part of that action. I agree that we do not have these collections. I am not able to say that they are available in all other countries which have an indigenous minority.

The lack of uniformity of legislation and other health reporting systems throughout Australia has prevented the presentation of Aboriginal health information on a national basis. In fact, in some places there has been a failure to keep any records on the basis of racial origin. Of course, at times that has been seen as a matter of principle. I think it is only recently that there has been a deal of pressure, including pressure from Aboriginals, towards having that separate identification so that more complete statistics can be developed. Aboriginals progressively are being identified in various health indicators. For example, hospital morbidity information is being collected in the Northern Territory, Western Australia, New South Wales and South Australia. However, the information which is collected is not uniform. Endeavours to increase the availability of this information on an Australia-wide basis are proceeding.

I do not altogether agree with the third part of the honourable senator's question, which was in terms of the unavailability of statistical data making it impossible to have effective intervention. No doubt that has been a problem but, at the same time, health services are being provided for Aboriginals throughout Australia, often by Aboriginals and I think that most observers would say that those services certainly are contributing to Aboriginal health. In the absence of the sorts of statistics to which the honourable senator has referred, it is difficult to be precise about the extent to which existing measures are improving Aboriginal health. Our concern about this is reflected in part by the program effectiveness review which is currently under way and which is examining Aboriginal health programs in which the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, the Department of Health and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet are all involved. Whilst there are difficulties in assessing progress, I think that most people would say that some progress is being made.

There are also problems in Australia where Aboriginal communities have environmental conditions which certainly are not conducive to good health care. Quite apart from the matter of statistical deficiencies, there would be general agreement that those environmental deficiencies are an important factor in any lack of progress. The point is that some effort is being made- Dr Smith is a pan of that effort- to overcome the statistical difficulties to which the honourable senator has referred. His appointment is a part of a series of things being done in an attempt to improve what everybody agrees is a quite unsatisfactory Aboriginal health situation.

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