Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Blank Page Summit on Suicide

Location: Billard, Western Australia

Program: ABC Radio National Breakfast

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FRAN KELLY: Federal and state ministers, bureaucrats and Indigenous people from around the country will meet this week in one of the most remote locations in Australia for a national summit on Indigenous suicide.

Down the end of a bumpy, sandy track near Beagle Bay on the Dampier Peninsula, more than 200 people will sleep in swags and tents. The setting is the tiny outstation of Billard, normally home to just a handful of families.

In recent years, those families have known great tragedy, losing many of their young men to suicide. This summit is a direct result of that tragedy to, quote, find ways to stop Indigenous people killing themselves.

Indigenous Affairs Minister, Jenny Macklin, will open the summit today, and she joins us very early this morning in Broome on her way.

Minister, good morning. Thanks very much for getting up to talk to us.

JENNY MACKLIN: It’s my pleasure, Fran. I just want to say, unfortunately I won’t be camping out because I have to get to Adelaide to Community Cabinet. But it really is going to be an extraordinary forum that the people of Billard have organised.

FRAN KELLY: It’s a forum to talk about national suicide. Why is it being held there in Billard in Western Australia? What was it about that community that’s inspired this summit?

JENNY MACKLIN: This family has faced their own tragedy. They lost two of their own boys, and as they said themselves, they could have remained inconsolable and they could have turned inward and been angry and bitter, but what’s extraordinary about this small group of people, a family in Billard, is that they’ve asked themselves what can they do – this is how they’ve put it to me and to themselves – what can they do to close the gap.

And they’ve really embarked on the most extraordinary program, this summit of course, but also really focusing on the importance of learning, education, having a job, looking after your own health, tackling alcohol problems.

But this venture that they’ve embarked on for this week, this suicide summit, they’ve called a blank-page summit. And it’s really about saying to all of the people who are coming: come together, look at the evidence, look at what’s working, look at what isn’t working; what do we have to do to strengthen individuals and families; what are the warning signs; how do we intervene; how do we better address the alcohol and drug abuse, family violence, mental health problems.

This is the picture they’ve painted. But to use their own words again, they’re not about being bitter and angry themselves from their own tragedy; they’re about getting on with it.

FRAN KELLY: You mentioned alcohol and drugs a few times there. It appears that those things are heavily implicated in Indigenous suicide. The WA Coroner found in one recent report that 24 of the 27 cases investigated, the toxicology results showed high levels of alcohol and/or marijuana at the time of death.

Is alcohol the root problem here?

JENNY MACKLIN: I think the point that Alastair Hope, the Coroner, would make is that alcohol and drugs are an enormous part of the problem, but not one of these people would say there is one answer or one solution.

The Coroner made a number of very important recommendations, and I’m sure his contribution to the summit will be critical.

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We have seen some outstanding leadership here in Western Australia in some of the towns from local people, so in Fitzroy Crossing where you saw the women really come out themselves and say, we want alcohol controlled in our community. The same has happened in Halls Creek where there’s been a strong campaign, particularly by the women leaders saying, we want alcohol controlled.

And now that it has been in those two towns in Western Australia, we are seeing a reduction in the level of violence, a reduction in the level of abuse. There’s still a huge amount of work to be done, but there’s no question this is one place to start.

FRAN KELLY: That’s true, no question about that, and it’s true it’s having some impact, the restriction of alcohol, though some in the area say it’s moving the problem to other areas.

Last year in Queensland, the federal and state governments committed $109 million to a whole-of-government approach to alcohol management in Indigenous communities, and after – because after five years it was realised that restrictions on their own weren’t working well enough and diversion and support programs need to be funded as well.

Isn’t that…

JENNY MACKLIN: That’s right.

FRAN KELLY: …what’s required in the Kimberley?

JENNY MACKLIN: It’s really doing all of those things and more. Just to go back to the people of Billard, they would say, yes, make sure you’ve got the alcohol controls in place, put the services in place for mental illness and for those who are addicted to alcohol. But you also have to get to the basics – make sure you focus on education, get the kids into school, make sure that they can get a job so that they can be proud of what they can do, make sure they’re responsible for looking after their own health. These are the words of the people from Billard.

FRAN KELLY: Well, I ask you this because we’ve been contacted on this program by one group in the Kimberley which runs a youth diversionary scheme which has been hailed by local magistrates as a real success story, yet they’re struggling to get funding, which seems counterproductive.

The WA Coroner concluded last year that it appears that no one in the Kimberley – that it appears that Aboriginal welfare in the Kimberley constitutes a disaster but no one in government is in charge of that disaster.

Will you take charge? Will you make sure, for instance, that these diversionary programs that are working have ongoing funding?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well, that’s exactly what we’ve got to do: look at the things that are working, make sure that they are funded. All of these issues are exactly what’s on the table for this summit.

If we go back to the point you made about Queensland, and particularly what’s happening in Cape York, we’ve seen, following the leadership of Noel Pearson, the establishment of the Family Responsibilities Commissions, we’ve got a whole range of different services in place, youth diversionary activities, as you’ve just mentioned. But it’s also about families themselves taking responsibility for making sure their kids go to school, controlling alcohol, making sure that we have people paying their rent and being good tenants.

So it’s really recognising that we have to act on each and every one of these fronts.

FRAN KELLY: And Minister, just finally, you’ve got another deadline looming, which is the deadline next month for the takeover of the town camps in Alice Springs.

Now, there’s been some concern – resistance there for handing over responsibility to the Northern Territory Housing to manage the camps. And again, there’s reports of another area that the Northern Territory Housing Department is managing in the Barkly Shire where shocking conditions have eventuated. There’s raw sewage in the floors of houses.

Why are you so keen to let Northern Territory Housing take control of the town camps?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well, you’d have to say everything we see in these town camps is nothing short of horrific. We have appalling levels of violence, terrible overcrowding in houses, elderly women with renal disease living outside on mattresses in the freezing cold. No one would say that what we’re facing with these town camps is anything short of dreadful.


JENNY MACKLIN: I am determined to act to fix it, and we’ll do everything we possibly can to address these terrible living conditions.

FRAN KELLY: Minister, thank you very much for your time.


FRAN KELLY: Indigenous Affairs Minister, Jenny Macklin, joining us from Broome.