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Wednesday, 13 October 1971
Page: 2307

Mr COLLARD (Kalgoorlie) - In speaking to the estimates now before the Committee, I intend to confine my remarks to a subject which in my opinion is receiving very little, if any, real attention from the Department of the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts. I refer to the urgent requirement to improve substantially what in many areas at the moment can only be described as the deplorable and disgusting conditions in which many Aborigines are expected to exist - conditions which in turn are largely responsible for the high mortality rate among infant children, for the dreaded disease of leprosy and for several other ills and complaints from which so many Aborigines suffer. Naturally if the problem is to be solved the Commonwealth Departments of Health, Housing and Social Services will also need to be involved. But as I see it the initial responsibility lies with the Department of the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts.

Information supplied by the then Minister for Health, Dr Forbes, in reply to questions asked of him last year regarding infant mortality makes it fairly clear that until such time as living standards are substantially raised the mortality rate and the incidence of leprosy is unlikely to diminish and other complaints will flourish. For instance, the then Minister for Health told me:

The causes of death vary according to the particular age group and geographical area, but in general prematurity, gastro-enteritis, chest infections, malnutrition, dehydration and infections such as those causing meningitis all play a significant part.

He said that the major role played in causing deaths in Aboriginal children between the age of one month and one year in Western Australia was highlighted by figures indicating that around 92 per cent of the deaths in those age groups were associated with infections of one sort or another. The Minister also informed me that in some areas malnutrition is almost certainly of much greater significance than it would appear at first, due to the underlying effect in enhancing the development of terminal infections. So it seems quite certain that the causes leading up to mortality, as spelt out by the then Minister for Health, are closely associated with as I said earlier, deplorable living conditions which could in turn largely be removed if the conditions were raised to a much higher standard.

It would not be a simple process to do this, but it would not be over difficult if the Commonwealth itself were prepared to set up the necessary body to carry out the work or otherwise ensure sufficient finance to the States and to those people who are prepared to carry out such work and in fact devote themselves to it. In the latter respect, I refer to the Australian Inland Mission and other organisations which are at present doing a sterling job in very difficult conditions, largely due to a lack of sufficient finance. For instance, in 1966 the AIM began to employ a sister to do field work in Aboriginal care. Judging from the reports she subsequently has submitted there can be no doubt that, provided reasonable finance and equipment is available together with sufficient staff, a large part of the existing problem could be removed in a fairly short time. The work would probably have to be continued over several years to educate properly the parents and children, but even in the short term it would certainly be well worth while.

Unfortunately, time does not permit me to read the reports of the sister of the AIM, which prove just what can be done in that respect. But I will refer to a few passages just to give the Committee some idea of what this lady set out to do and what she achieved in a fairly short time. She worked an area around Fitzroy Crossing where there was a population of some 700 Aborigines. During 3 years she drove a Land-Rover approximately 39,000 miles, which is no mean feat in that sort of country and climate. Her original aims were to cut down the infant mortality rate and admissions to hospital by raising the standard of child care. Reference is made in the reports to gastro-enteritis which was prevalent and dangerous in its results. It is important to point out that there were 15 infant deaths in the Fitzroy Hospital' during the 3 years prior to this sister's work but only 2 deaths during the 3 years she was working in the area. That result alone is indicative of what can be done. The report refers to trachoma, which was almost 100 per cent active when the first check was carried out. A further important point is raised in this regard. After almost 12 months treatment with eye drops the 100 per cent activity amongst the preschool children remained the same but at. the United Aborigines Mission school where the children were housed in dormitories and had regular balanced meals, fruit and vegetables, and their own towels and face washers, there was an approximately 80 per cent cure, which shows what proper living conditions can mean.

The sister states that in the final year she gave 271 immunisations of tetanus toxoid to adults. She also introduced Sabin oral polo vaccine which she said entailed a tremendous amount of work setting up a card system for almost 800 people. In order to undertake leprosy checks she attended the Derby leprosarium to learn what was required in that field and subsequently took leprosy smears. Then in her final summing up. after all that work and effort, she said that in Fitzroy just a toehold had been gained but little lasting value would result because of the lack of security and adequate equipment and the need for a team approach to the problem. In her second year report the sister had this to say:

I have come to realise more fully that unless all of us here, working for the benefit of the natives, start working together as a team we will achieve nothing. I realise also that the station people will have to be involved more tellingly with their natives and provide more facilities and accountrements for better hygiene. At present my maximum efforts only bring minimum results because all I am doing is to teach their natives to survive in filth.

I am quite sure that anyone who reads the reports to which I have referred will have not only a great respect and admiration for the sister concerned but also will quickly realise that a concentrated drive must bc made on the problems referred to by upgrading the living standards of the Aboriginal people, particularly in the northern parts of Australia. This can be done only if the Commonwealth accepts its proper responsibility, which it was given in 1967 as the result of a referendum. The Department of the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts is surely the department which must take the initiative even though it will have to obtain the co-operation and assistance of those other departments to which I have referred.

In the early part of last year I directed a question to the then Minister-in-Charge of Aboriginal Affairs regarding these particular problems. As a result of the reply which I received some 12 months later - it took him 12 months to reply, so he must have given it some fairly deep consideration - 1 was hopeful that at long last something was to be done. The Minister told me:

The eradication of leprosy amongst Aboriginal people of Australia is seen by the Commonwealth as being within the framework of the general improvement of the health of Aborigines. My Office of Aboriginal Affairs and the Commonwealth Department of Health are planning an Australia wide study of these health problems that will produce a programme to improve the problem areas that we know exist.

That reply naturally led me to believe that a move was at last being worked out. So I asked another question to find out when the study would commence and also when positive results could be expected from the study. I am sorry that the Minister is not interested enough to listen.

On 27th August of this year I received a reply which was, as I see it, a complete contradiction of the reply I received earlier. The answer to the second question was in these terms:

At the present time no specific survey into the health problems of Aborigines, either on an Australiawide basis or in Aboriginal communities and fringe settlements, is under consideration by the Department of Health and Office of Aboriginal Affairs.

So we have a situation in which we were told in February that the 2 departments were actually planning an Australia-wide study of Aboriginal health problems, and then in August we were informed that such a study was not even being considered. Does this mean that the new Minister has banned a study earlier proposed, or does it mean that the previous Minister was a little reckless in his reply? I certainly hope that the Minister for the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts, who is at the table, notwithstanding that his interest seems to be very little, will give us some satisfactory explanation of the contradiction that exists between those 2 replies.

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