Mr CHRISTENSEN (Dawson) (12:03): We are here in the 21st century talking about the threat of TB in the Australian parliament. Tuberculosis almost disappeared with 19th century novelists, who wrote of consumption as an everyday occurrence, both giving it to their characters and falling victim to it themselves. Sadly, TB, which was the cause of the death on the death certificates of all the famous Bronte sisters and at least two more of their siblings, is not a thing of the past. Not only has it remained commonplace in some countries, it is now bigger and badder than ever before. Having developed effective treatments for TB last century we now see a growing trend of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis. It is commonly found in many countries, including Papua New Guinea.
The Western Province is one of the most marginalised areas of PNG and also the closest province to Australia. The current Australian border is only a short boat ride away in a little open dinghy. Let us not forget that PNG gained independence from Australia as recently as 1975. Health care in the Western Province of PNG is not like health care in Australia. That fact has seemingly been forgotten by those opposite. A recent report revealed how Daru Hospital was basically just a hospital in name only. The facility was without a doctor, had a radiography and pathology unit that was not operational and had a pharmacy devoid of even the most basic medicines that we would find here in Australia. The hospital building itself was dilapidated and had no access to clean water and no regular supply of electricity. Yet this is the very same hospital that those opposite think is a suitable defence at the moment against the spread of tuberculosis through the Torres Strait Islands and onto mainland Australia.
Let us be clear about one thing. The spread of drug-resistant TB to Australia is not only inevitable under the government's current approach but is already happening. In March, Queensland Health was investigating six cases of TB amongst Torres Strait Islander families with connections to Papua New Guinea. Alarmingly, two Aussies living in the Torres Strait have already developed a deadly strain of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis. The spread of TB into Australia is not unexpected. In fact, Cairns based TB specialist Stephen Vincent assured us that it was inevitable. He predicted in the Australian on 30 October that we would see multidrug-resistant TB in Australia in the next six to 12 months at the most. That inevitability was drawn from two certainties: Australia's border to the north being extremely porous and, on the other side of the border, a disastrously high prevalence of TB—in particular, dangerous growth in the incidence of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis.
Australia—for now—has one of the lowest rates of TB in the world. But in Papua New Guinea, TB consumes 13 per cent of all hospital bed days and is the cause of 11 per cent of all deaths in the Western Province. TB in that incredibly close neighbouring country is more prevalent than the rampant HIV, and a person with untreated infectious TB of the lungs can infect another 10 to 16 people every year. It is a country where the spread of TB is out of control and where the strains of TB are increasingly uncontrollable. It is a country whose shoreline is a short tinny ride from Australia. Of course this disease is going to find its way into Australia without the frontline defence.
The Torres Strait treaty allows thousands of PNG national to cross the border every year for ceremony and for trading. They are not meant to cross the border for the purposes of seeking health care, but they do. PNG nationals who are desperate for tuberculosis treatment know they are not going to find it in the Western Province and choose to take the boat ride south in search of lifesaving treatment. To date, they have found that treatment on Saibai and Boigu Islands in the Torres Strait. Queensland Health has been treating PNG nationals on compassionate grounds at these two clinics. It is an expensive exercise but, it has to be said, it is worth it. These two clinics have been frontline defence for this disease. Without these clinics, those same desperate people will continue their journey, probably even further south to the more populous part of Australia, bringing the disease closer to the mainland and closer to a very expensive health and humanitarian disaster in Australia.
But, without warning, the federal government—who should know only too well how porous those borders are up there—decided that it did not want to fund those TB clinics. The Queensland government earlier this year ordered the closure of TB outreach clinics on Saibai and Boigu, effective as of June, that decision being based on the discontinuance of federal funding for the service. The federal government decided instead to provide funding for treatments in the Western Province. That decision immediately raised concerns in that area. At the coalface we have the mayor of the Torres Strait Island Regional Council, who said he was concerned about the health risk to his Islander residents when PNG nationals continued to turn up regularly for treatment and continued to come to the island. Health professionals, too, raised serious concerns about the effectiveness of trying to treat and prevent TB through a health system in the Western Province that is at best dysfunctional and at worst completely broken.
It now appears that the World Health Organisation has taken an interest in the situation that is now developing in the Torres Strait and PNG. While Australia spends nearly $5 billion a year on foreign aid around the world and we have a Prime Minister wanting to send more money to the IMF to lend to the European Union to bail out Greece, we see a paltry $1.1 million invested in the prevention of this deadly disease right on our doorstep. Once again, we see a government struggling to deal with something of basic importance to this nation and taking something that is currently working and trying their hardest to break it. But it is not just a matter of wasted money. It is a very dangerous threat to the health of Australians. This is a move that takes health care back to the 19th century. Spending foreign aid in a place of dire need in our own region is commendable, but it is not enough to be effective.
And to withdraw the safety net of the protection afforded by the TB clinics in the Torres Strait clearly endangers the Australian public.
The Australian public is just as concerned as health professionals and the people of the Torres Strait. Residents in my electorate have contacted my office with their concerns: Renate Kupfer of Slade Point; Sandra and Richard Ruddock of North Mackay; Laura Terry of Mackay; Mark Lauder of Habana; Terri Leota of Mackay; Bridget Foley of Walkerston; Lily Hutchinson of Beaconsfield; Chris Land of North Mackay; Keith and Ann McCollim, who are both pastors at the Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Mackay; Leanne Shepherd of Bucasia; and Deborah Rae of Glenella. These residents who have contacted me are North Queenslanders who, even though they live 1,000 kilometres from the Torres Strait, are acutely aware of the dangers posed by the premature closing of TB clinics on Saibai and Boigu islands.
We have a great Torres Strait Islander population in Mackay. There are also fantastic people of that descent in Townsville and Cairns, many of whom travel back to their island homeland regularly. Without these clinics, the front line of defence against tuberculosis, the risk of infection for those people—residents of Mackay, residents of Townsville, residents of Cairns—grows and grows. And what happens when they come back home—perhaps infected with TB—back to Mackay, back to Townsville, back to Cairns? The closure of these clinics is a great risk to North Queenslanders everywhere.
Funding and developing a tuberculosis program within the Western Province—yes, it is admirable, and it is to be encouraged, but it must be given time to work. Those opposite say that the TB clinics in the Torres Strait are a bandaid solution. But you cannot rip off the bandaid without the healing process beginning. The optimal solution must be properly funded, it must be developed intelligently and it must be given time. Advice must be sought from health professionals and the people on the ground. Advice must be sought and it must be heeded. We are asking the federal government to fund the treatment of foreign nationals. It is also a defence against TB spreading to our own country. The continuation of TB clinics must be funded on humanitarian grounds but also as insurance against a health disaster in this country.
I have sat through a fair bit of this debate and have found it very disappointing hearing the comments coming from those on the other side—disappointing that Labor are walking away from something to which there should be a bipartisan approach. I am disappointed that they are prepared to sacrifice the health of Torres Strait Islanders and North Queenslanders. I am disappointed that they have suddenly adopted a partisan approach to this. I am disappointed with the attacks on the local member, for goodness sake! There have been attacks on the local member, who knows all about this, by people from Adelaide who would not know Saibai from Samoa. But the local member, the member for Leichhardt, does and he knows that these clinics need to stay open. The people up there know it. The government is the only one saying they should not.