Senator ARBIB (New South Wales)(5.44 pm)—I present the government’s response to the report of the Senate Community Affairs References Committee on its inquiry into suicide in Australia.
Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia) (5.44 pm)—I seek leave to take note of the government response to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs report entitled The hidden toll: suicide in Australia. I am pleased to be able to take note of the government’s response and I congratulate the government and Minister Butler for meeting the three-month time line in responding to a committee inquiry report.
I think it is probably the first time that I can remember in the 5½ years I have been here that the government has responded within the deadline of three months, so I would particularly to congratulate the government for that and I would like to note a couple of really important issues. Having said that, however, I will note that we were not given the usual period to review this. I have literally had this response for about 10 minutes. I am sure that other speakers following me will also be seeking leave to continue their remarks so that we can go through this in a bit more detail.
I will point out a few of the key areas that the government has responded to. One of the key things that kicked this inquiry off was the fact that we do not know the real impact of suicide in Australia. We know that the figures are not correct. The official figures are around 1,800 suicides in Australia a year. We know that this is underreported and it is more likely that somewhat over 2,000 deaths are attributable to suicide. We also know that in Aboriginal communities deaths as a result of suicide are proportionately higher than in non-Aboriginal communities.
One of the key areas of recommendation we as a committee focused on at the front of our inquiry was this issue around the statistics, because it is so critical. Of course, any suicide is too many and there was some notion in the community that the number of people taking their own lives was decreasing, because the statistics were not showing the true numbers on suicides. We need to get a good understanding of the statistics because we need to be looking at whether we need to be increasing our investment in suicide prevention. Our inquiry clearly showed that the statistics are not showing the true numbers. I am pleased to say, in my quick look at the response, that the government has agreed with most of our recommendations around improving statistical collection and working with the states to improve coronial responses and approaches to suicide. In some states unless there is an inquest they do not actually report the cause of death and that is very important if we are going to address the high rates of suicide in Australia.
The government also notes in its response that its package that it announced during the election campaign—the $274 million for mental health and suicide prevention—is, as I understand the government’s response, a key plank of its response to the committee inquiry. While at the time I did welcome the $274 million—and I still do welcome it—we are looking for more. The previous debate that we had in this chamber, for example, indicates that we need to significantly increase our level of investment in mental health. One of the recommendations of the committee inquiry was increasing investment in mental health, so we need to be doing that. One of the other areas of recommendation was a doubling of investment in the Suicide Prevention Strategy and the government has increased investment in the strategy, but there are still some key areas in which we need investment, so we will be continuing to pursue that.
The other area that I am particularly pleased about—as I said I have not had the chance to go through all of our recommendations yet—is Indigenous suicide. One of our recommendations was that under the Suicide Prevention Strategy there be a specific strategy to address Indigenous suicide. The government, I am really pleased to say, has taken that recommendation up. It is particularly important because, as I noted in this chamber last week, there have been a number of suicides in northern Australia and I understand in other places as well recently and that needs to be urgently addressed.
I note that the government has said that it is setting up a consultation process early in 2011 to coordinate recommended appropriate mental health and wellbeing approaches for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and I understand that will link into how some of the $274 million is spent in addressing Aboriginal suicides. I cannot say how pleased I am that the government has taken up that recommendation and will invest some of that $274 million in Aboriginal communities. As has been identified through estimates, only $8.1 million of the $274 million is actually going to be spent in this financial year. My plea there is that we need to get investment on the ground in some of these communities as soon as possible be-cause we know through this report that there are significant differences in Aboriginal communities relating to people taking their own lives. There are more what are called ‘clusters’. I should preference that with saying that a high number of the recent deaths have been young people. We know through the evidence presented to us that there are a significant number of what are called ‘copycat’ suicides in Aboriginal communities and so there needs to be a lot of really intense postvention. That needs to be driven by the community in addressing community needs. I implore the government to get investment going on that as soon as possible.
One of the other areas that we focused on was other high-risk groups such as men and members of the LGBTI community and I notice that the government has addressed that through the strategy. I will look at that in more detail as I can. One of the other areas that we addressed was the need for awareness raising of the issue but the issue that is always struggled with is in trying not to glamorise suicide. What we recommended was that there needs to be a five-year long-term investment in awareness raising, but that research needs to be done to look at how we invest in that to get the best quality outcome.
So I am going to be pursuing that through the recommendations and ensuring that that recommendation is pursued. I will look at it through the current investment but, of course, continue to pursue the government over a higher level of investment for mental health, because we cannot get away from the fact that, when we are addressing issues around suicide, we absolutely have to address issues around mental health.
As I said, I congratulate the government for its comprehensive response in a timely manner. I am not saying I am totally satisfied with it yet, because I have not had a chance to read it all, but I have certainly read some of the key areas now. I think it is a very significant step in the right direction. I am particularly pleased about the response on a specific Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander strategy, and I will continue to follow up with the government on that issue, but the message is also: ‘You’ve invested $274 million. That’s great. You’ve addressed some of our recommendations. We will continue to pursue investment in these other recommendations.’