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Doorstop at Parliament House, Canberra

Transcript of Minister for Health, Greg Hunt's doorstop at Parliament House, Canberra regarding the launch of the Royal Life Saving National Drowning Report 2017.

The Hon Greg Hunt MP
Former Minister for Health and Aged Care

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The National Drowning Report shows that our drowning deaths in Australia have sadly gone up by nine in this year to 291.

One life lost is too many, 291 is a national tragedy. We have a very extensive national water safety program, but frankly, we have to do better.

The fact that the last year has seen an increase in the loss of under-fives, our education has to be better, our reach out to parents has to be better, and so whilst we do an incredible job as an aquatic nation, we can do a better job, and it’s Royal Life Saving that can be a part of that.

On that basis, I have issued an instruction for a review of our national water safety approach. We want to work very cooperatively with the states, with the volunteer sector, and with the Commonwealth together to review what we can do, but this report is, sadly, exactly what we need to know.

It tells us that, however well we may be doing, it’s not good enough and we have to do better. Justin?


Thank you, Minister. Royal Life Saving’s released the Drowning Report. There are a number of issues that we’re very concerned about this year. Children under four continue to be a national disgrace.

We see far too many children drowning in backyard swimming pools. Of course, a backyard swimming pool is a great, fun, happy, family environment, but it’s vitally important people maintain their pool fence, check their gate before summer, and reinforce the importance of constant supervision of children around water.

The report also reveals somewhat of a surprise. Many Australians would be concerned to hear that people over the age of 65 now drown in increasing numbers in this country.

It’s somewhat a consequence of increasing activity of Australians retiring, enjoying our wonderful waterways, but we urge all older Australians to understand their limitations, to practice their skills at the local swimming pool, and to also understand the implications of other pre-existing medical conditions and the medications that they may be on, because often that has an impact on their safety.

And finally, of course, men. Men, you continue to ignore safety messages. Our drowning data shows that increasingly alcohol and drugs, and sometimes both, but certainly risk-taking behaviour, is a significant factor in Australian male drowning, and as a community we need to do much, much more to look out for each other.

We launched a campaign with the Minister’s help last year, calling on all men to look after their mates around water, and reinforce the importance of reducing alcohol consumption in and around the water.


I’m happy to take any questions.


Is the Government willing to consider increasing funding for water safety education as part of this?


We’ll get the advice of the experts and the community on this, but if it’s a funding issue, but at this stage it’s an education issue, I’m open to all of their suggestions.


Would you consider extending the season for lifesaving as part of this review? Is that something you’ll look at?


I think Justin’s probably better placed to ask that.


Certainly, some of the factors over summer we realised that there may be a need to extend patrol hours, particularly in some places when the weather’s great, people are on the beach until much, much later and into the evening.

Local government often controls the lifeguarding services. In relation to swimming and water safety education, our view is that many Australian children get more and more lessons than they’ve ever had in generations before, but worryingly, some kids miss out entirely.

There are some communities in Western Sydney and outer Melbourne where children simply aren’t getting any lessons at all, and as a consequence, schools are cancelling their swimming time, and that’s un-Australian in many respects, so it needs to be targeted, state governments play a significant role. The Federal Government also does its bit.

There are GST-free swimming and water safety education lessons, which is a significant federal policy contribution to this space.


What sort of timeframe are you talking about for the review?


I’d like to see it done before the summer commences. So, as quickly as possible if more work is needed to be done, but let’s see if we can improve our warnings, improve our education for this summer.


Justin, inland waterways account for most of the deaths. Do you think there is a misconception around beaches being more dangerous?


Certainly, the public and the media assume beaches are hazardous, and of course, they are, but inland waterways are often calm, still, people might be using watercraft, they might be boating, or they might even be picnicking and wading, but often a steep drop-off, changes in water temperature, particularly in the Murray River.

Royal Life Saving, again with the Government’s support, has analysed river drowning over the last 10 years.

We have a top 10 river drowning black spot, and with federal support, we’re doing the Respect the River program with those rivers constantly, educating the local community about the dangers of rivers, and also working with tourism companies to make sure that the tourists understand that a river can be just as dangerous as the ocean when it comes to drowning.


Why do you think that we have seen an increase in that under-four age group? Increase in drownings, [inaudible].


Well, there are many factors here. Largely, state governments play a role in reinforcing swimming pool fencing legislation.

This year, unfortunately, the increase actually stems from Queensland. We’ve seen a reasonable increase in young children with their lives lost. The way we describe it in Royal Life Saving, at least, is this year’s parents probably weren’t listening to the Drowning Report 12 months ago, they were planning for a very young family.

The reality of child drowning is that the peak risk is 12 months. Once a child starts crawling, the backyard pool can be very, very dangerous, as with the bathtub or blow-up and portable pools, and so we need to constantly get the message out to parents.

If they’ve got pools, check the pool fence, check the gate, make sure that older children understand the importance of supervision, and watch their children constantly around the pool during summer.

Once they get to three or four, generally things are okay, they’ve got some water safety skills, but before that, it’s vitally important we keep watch.


I think the message is that a moment’s diversion can lead to a lifetime’s loss, and so for those young parents of young children, now is the moment for us to reinforce that there’s no time when your child is near water to take your eyes off that child.

That has to be your total focus, because everything else by comparison is irrelevant. Everything else by comparison is of distant importance.


Should every parent with a toddler and a backyard pool have first aid training?


Well, we’ll look at all of the different ideas that can put forward. I don’t want to be prescriptive today. We’ll approach the recommendations of Royal Life Saving, we’ll invite the views of the states, but above all else, it’s vigilance, it’s water safety training, and it’s taking care of each other.


Do the findings skew differently across communities of different backgrounds? Are there some communities that are particularly impacted by this?


Certainly, in the last 12 months we have seen a number of high profile drownings of international students. There are about 500,000 international students in this country at the moment. It’s a massive export industry.

Many of those students are coming from nations in Asia where the drowning rate is about 15 to 20 times higher than Australia’s, there is a total lack of water safety culture, so there’s something that we can do there.

But obviously, with migration increasing, with many families struggling to understand Australia, let alone understand the dangers that water presents, there’s much more we can do in this area. In relation to CPR, though, the way I describe this is, first aid is important for parents to understand, but it’s an absolute last resort.

Having resuscitated a young child myself pulled out of a swimming pool, it’s something that no parent ever wants to have to do, and so I think the focus really needs to be on reinforcing the importance of supervision.


What steps have you taken to reach out to those migrant communities already? I mean, have they been effective?


Yeah, the most effective thing, for many years, people create brochures and translate them, and we’ve found that that’s ineffective.

The most effective thing is getting into the community, working with local ambassadors, recruiting local community members as pool lifeguards, as beach lifesavers, as swimming instructors, and this is a really excellent way to embrace the whole community. In their local swimming pools, principally, is our work.

We’ve recently, in Victoria, they recruited some Sudanese refugees, been in Australia for just a couple of years, and now they’re working as pool lifeguards, earning a good income, being local leaders, talking to their local community, encouraging water safety more broadly.

So I’d like to see a little bit more than an advertising campaign or a few brochures. It really requires us to work in the communities where we know are quite highly multicultural from those high-risk groups, and certainly, we know that Vietnamese communities were drowning, unfortunately, 10 years or so ago, and by and large, they’ve embraced the Australian way of water safety.

Possibly some of the more recent arrivals from the Middle East and Africa, we probably need to work a little bit.

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