” Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion ignored a plea from a government MP more than a year ago to implement a $25 million policy to combat sexually transmitted diseases gripping Aboriginal communities, instead adopting a $9m program that remains stalled.
The Australian has obtained a letter penned by Liberal senator Dean Smith warning that the rise of STIs in indigenous communities was “disturbing” and urged Senator Scullion to take immediate action, describing the situation as “critical”.
See Minister Scullion’s Correction part 2 below
” The Minister for Indigenous Health, Ken Wyatt, has confirmed that the surge response is not “stalled” as The Australian has claimed and is being rolled out in partnership with the States and Territories as well as Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations.”
Front Page of the Australian this morning
“I’m sure you would agree that the increase in rates are disturbing and it’s critical that we tackle this challenge head on to ensure the problems do not escalate to a crisis point,” Senator Smith told Senator Scullion in December 2016.
When contacted yesterday about the letter, Senator Scullion shifted blame for the government’s inaction to Indigenous Health Minister Ken Wyatt.
Senator Scullion’s spokesman told The Australian he passed Senator Smith’s letter on to the “health portfolio”.
The letter, addressed to Senator Scullion and copied to Mr Wyatt and former health minister Sussan Ley, outlined a detailed proposal drafted by experts James Ward and Frank Bowden, in consultation with the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, to tackle a syphilis epidemic in indigenous communities.
Professor Ward yesterday confirmed he had meetings with Senator Scullion, Mr Wyatt and Health Minister Greg Hunt about his policy proposal. The Ward-Bowden policy was drafted following meetings with Ms Ley.
Six children have died from gestational syphilis since the epidemic emerged in north Queensland in 2011 and later spread to the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia.
The government sat on the $25m policy until last November when it agreed to adopt one third of it as part of an $8.8m plan to tackle the syphilis outbreak in central and northern Australia.
The two other elements of the proposed three-year program — to reduce HIV risks and broader STI risks in Aboriginal communities — were rejected.
Since announcing the watered-down policy, the government has failed to rollout the program despite bureaucrats holding meetings about its implementation since August, before its funding was signed off by Mr Wyatt.
Mr Wyatt said yesterday the rollout would begin in Cairns and Darwin in May. He said the syphilis outbreak was an “absolute priority” and had been targeted on a national basis since 2015 but more funding was needed because the states had not contained it.
“This is why the Chief Medical Officer is leading a nationally co-ordinated enhanced response to the outbreak in conjunction with states and territories who have the primary role for delivering sexual health services and dealing with infectious disease outbreaks,” Mr Wyatt said.
Professor Ward said adopting only a third of the policy would reduce its efficacy and cost the community more money to address the problem in the long term.
“We put it to them in December 2016 and they still haven’t rolled out any of it. I don’t mean to make any judgment about whether they are dragging their heels or not,” Professor Ward said.
Olga Havnen, chief executive of the Darwin-based Danila Dilba health service, said she was consulted on Professor Ward’s policy and expressed anger it had not been adopted in full.
“It is obscene, it is ridiculous. If you are going to tackle STIs then it would have made sense to do a comprehensive response,” she said. “This is a preventable disease and, I can tell you now, if this was happening in the major suburbs of Sydney or Melbourne there would have been urgent and immediate action.”
Retired Aboriginal magistrate Sue Gordon, who chaired the Howard government’s Northern Territory intervention taskforce, said it was about time state and federal governments took the issue seriously.
Labor indigenous senator Pat Dodson said: “The government has not taken the outbreak seriously enough and have not taken appropriate action to tackle the outbreak, otherwise we would not be in this situation.”
Part 2 **CORRECTION**
Minister for Indigenous Affairs
Senator the Hon. Nigel Scullion