House debates

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Questions without Notice

Petrol Sniffing

3:14 pm

Photo of Tony CrookTony Crook (O'Connor, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

My question is to the Minister for Indigenous Health. In March this year, the federal government announced a $2.3 million program to roll out Opal fuel into the Northern Goldfields of Western Australia, the Central Desert and the Ngaanyatjarra Lands to curb the alarming occurrence of petrol sniffing. While the announcement advised that Opal would be available from mid-2010, the rollout of Opal fuel to the Northern Goldfields is yet to occur. Petrol sniffing, along with other substance abuse, is a major problem in this region and it is destroying lives and communities. Can the minister please inform the House as to when Opal fuel will be available in these communities and, secondly, what measures are being put in place to ensure that regular unleaded fuel is prevented from reaching these communities?

Photo of Warren SnowdonWarren Snowdon (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Defence Science and Personnel) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for his question and his interest in this very important subject. I first became acquainted with the horrors of petrol sniffing when I was working in and out of the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands of Central Australia in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Over the period, many things have been tried to address what is really a dreadful problem for many individuals and communities—something which has split families—and, obviously, young people, who are dying very much earlier than they should.

Many strategies have been tried. One which was introduced by the now Leader of the Opposition as Minister for Health and Ageing was the rolling out of Opal fuel, which is a BP product, starting in 2005. In 2008, the government did an evaluation of the program of rolling out Opal fuel and discovered that we were able to reduce petrol sniffing in the communities which were surveyed by 90 per cent over the period. As a result of that, the government further took a decision to roll out Opal elsewhere.

You are right: in March of this year we took a decision, and Minister Roxon, Minister Macklin and I announced the rollout of Opal fuel into the Kalgoorlie region, a $2.3 million project to roll this out, working with BP, who would supply the fuel. We would pay for the storage and they would then distribute it. Unfortunately, as you have noted, it has not come to pass, mainly through technical difficulties confronted by BP in getting the facilities in place in Kalgoorlie. However, I am assured by BP that they are looking at providing alternative strategies to supply Opal into the communities by the end of the year, subsequent to the completion of the fuel storage facility, which will be in the middle of next year, we believe. So we are hopeful that we can get Opal into the communities in a far more sustainable and reliable way by the end of this year or early next year, thus providing the opportunity for people in those communities who retail fuel to substitute Opal for their regular unleaded fuels.

You asked me about what we can do to prevent regular unleaded fuels being introduced into these communities. Frankly, not a lot. What we have done is look at the possibility of mandating the supply of Opal fuel, but we have taken the decision that it is better in the first instance to provide voluntary compliance. However, we do have in our back pocket the possibility at some future point, if we are not successful in rolling out Opal in those communities that need it, to look at a legislative option.

I should say that in the last budget we announced $38.5 million of new expenditure to roll out Opal into 39 additional communities across the Top End of Australia, starting in the western Arnhem Land region around Jabiru and Gunbalanya. That is happening as of December. As with the rollout of the fuel in Ngaanyatjarra communities, we will obviously have a public communications exercise to assure consumers that Opal will not affect their motors either in their vehicles or, in the case of Gunbalanya, in the small boat motors of fisherfolk.

It is very important that we adhere to this strategy of rolling out Opal fuel into these communities. It is an extraordinarily successful project which, as I said earlier, was initiated in the first instance by the current Leader of the Opposition. But I am hopeful that we will be able to satisfy the needs of the Ngaanyatjarra Lands in the not too distant future.