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Adjournment Speech: Lee pays tribute to Bob Walshe and Vision 2020

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (19:21): I would like to share with my fellow senators information about an outstanding Australian, Robert D Walshe. He is a resident of the Sutherland shire; he is an OAM. His work has brought great benefit to many people and he has done outstanding work on the environment. Bob is the only person to receive the Sutherland Shire Citizen of the Year award twice: once in 1995 for his work on the environment and again in 2001 for his writing and support for being healthy in mind, body and spirit as we age. These are values that he exemplifies in a most impressive and quite beautiful way. I think there are many lessons to be learned from him for all of us.

Bob had the opportunity to go to university in a generation and at a time when it was much harder to achieve that. From that time he was politically active, organising meetings, drafting motions, carrying out extensive lobbying and speaking at public rallies—I hear he was a fantastic public speaker. He was a beneficiary of Chifley's Commonwealth reconstruction training scheme and he gained entry to university and then went on to do honours in history at Sydney University. He continued with his studies and had a great passion for education and encouraging young people to develop their skills in a range of areas.

At this time his interest in the environment grew and he began to make some really important contributions that need to be on the record. He brought together about a dozen colleagues, including Milo Dunphy, in the early 1970s when we really had what many have called the first stage of the environment movement. This led to the establishment in 1972 of the Total Environment Centre, a centre that continues to do some excellent work to this day. It was actually Bob's idea to have the name Total Environment Centre. They were able to fund Milo as the first director.

Not satisfied with that contribution to environmental protection, Bob then went on to establish the Sutherland Shire Environment Centre. As we all know in this place, organisations come and go. Bob has just turned 90 or is about to turn 90 but, with his incredible energy and the way he inspires people and organisations he has got involved with, he has found the way to ensure that they are able to prosper and expand their activities, as is very much the case with this environment centre in Sutherland, where he and that centre have been active on a range of issues, including waste—the issue of nuclear waste is a big one for them, with Lucas Heights being in the Sutherland Shire. There are also airport issues, big marine issues with desalination, sandmining and overdevelopment, and particularly around the planning laws that were weakened under the former Labor government and we have seen that continue under the O'Farrell government. He has been right onto that issue, doing the analysis, talking to people and writing articles. Another issue that he has taken up very strongly is shooting in national parks. Through all this work he has developed an incredible network of people that he is on first-name basis with, including a number of key political figures. He has been able to not just do the campaigning work but to translate that into very effective lobbying of our governments.

There is another passion of Bob's I have been very pleased to see because we know that issues in our history are sometimes lost or the full meaning of them can just fade away. Bob has a real interest in the Eureka Stockade. A few years back he formed the Eureka Stockade committee and now he and his colleagues in that organisation host an annual Eureka Stockade dinner. I have been to a number of them. They have some excellent speakers and it is a great opportunity to catch up with many people. His interest in this area is reflected in one of the books he has written on Eureka and democracy, written in 2002. He was actually invited to speak at Melbourne University's and Ballarat's sesquicentennial Eureka celebration, something that I know was very close to his heart because of his interest and passion but also because of what Eureka has meant in Australia.

As I said, his work goes on. He currently chairs the First National Park Committee, which is lobbying to have Royal National Park listed on the World Heritage list. This is a passion I share with Bob. I did my own thesis when I studied botany in Royal National Park and I often revisit the park. I was down there with some of the people working on the First National Park Committee. This is a great campaign. They have got a book out about their submission for it to be World Heritage listed and they have already had one step forward in the continuing success I am sure will come to this important project with the New South Wales government supporting the call for this park and the associated park to the Royal National Park to be heritage listed.

Throughout this long life of activity Bob has been a passionate educationist and also a very prolific and well-published author. He writes in a number of forms. The digital age is with us all and I must admit I always enjoy when I open a letter seeing Bob's writing. We have still got the lovely handwritten notes from him. He writes notes to people and he has special Christmas messages to family and friends. He writes a range of articles and commentaries and he has been known to write plays and history books. This goes back to the time when he was an English and history teacher. At that time he formed a company that specialised in educational books. We are now seeing that this excellent skill is something he has continued. He has some regular columns, including being a regular contributor to the St GeorgeLeader. Often he has been printed in the Sydney Morning Herald and in Shire Life, where he has had a column on the Royal National Park and the World Heritage campaign and other environmental issues for five years. Many people often describe their messages and their notes and letters from Bob as treasures, and I certainly agree with that description.

In 2008 he received an OAM and he continues to be in regular communication on a professional basis with leaders across I think most parties, as well as with councillors, general managers of councils, business people and writers. I imagine not a day goes by without Bob sitting down and writing in detail suggestions, ideas and concerns about a range of social justice and environmental issues. So I very strongly congratulate Bob and all those involved in the committee that he is working with for Royal National Park to gain World Heritage listing and congratulate him for all the work he has undertaken.

On another matter I would like to speak tonight about the outstanding work undertaken by Vision 2020 Australia. Over the past 20 years the world has made great strides in reducing the number of people who are needlessly blind or vision impaired. This story really reminds us why we need an aid budget that is increased in size and not cut.

When it comes to the issue of vision impairment there are many statistics to remind us how important this is. The global prevalence of all forms of blindness in those who are 50 years of age has fallen by one-third from three per cent in 1990 to 1.9 per cent in 2010. Millions of people's lives have been improved by some of the simplest medical interventions available. But often the people who are doing it tough in life, who live in poverty, are not able to access this assistance. We know that reducing blindness and vision impairment can play a crucial role in reducing poverty and meeting the Millennium Development Goals that all countries, including Australia, signed up to. We also know that blindness in the developing countries often means decreased life expectancy and an even greater level of poverty that those people are exposed to.

So while it is right for us to celebrate the progress made, we clearly cannot be complacent or afford to believe that the problem has been solved because the number affected in this way is reducing. There is still much work to be done. The World Health Organization estimates that currently more than 220 million people worldwide are blind or vision impaired, and 90 per cent of those live in developing countries—live in countries where our aid budget is so important. That 80 per cent of all blindness and vision impairment is preventable or treatable is an unacceptable figure. We know that, so clearly these people need to be treated.

What I also find alarming is that we see when we look at so many aspects of poverty is that women are overrepresented in these figures. Studies suggest that nearly two-thirds of blind people globally are women. Yet in some countries they are only half as likely as men to be able to access eye care services. That is why Vision 2020 Australia, the peak body for the eye health and vision care sector, have come together to develop a comprehensive strategy to realise the right to sight where possible and freedom from discrimination where it is not.

I was fortunate to have a meeting with Vision 2020 Australia earlier this year. The strategy that they have developed to take this important work forward is very impressive. They are calling for a five-year commitment to take us closer to the end of avoidable blindness in Asia and the Pacific—something that clearly is achievable when you look at the advances in medicine. For a total of $167.8 million we could make a real impact on eye health and social exclusion in our region.

It is probably worth noting at this point that prior to the coalition taking government, when they were in opposition, one of their criticisms of the aid budget was that it should concentrate more on the Asia-Pacific region. If they actually looked at the figures, there is already a concentration in the area of, I think, over 80 per cent. But if they want to be true to that statement, if that is what where they want to put their efforts, this is a program to get behind. It is a program that needs funding and a program that should not suffer because of the cuts to the aid budget the coalition has said they are bringing in. That $167.8 million would be money very well spent. This is a program that has been thought out in great detail.

PricewaterhouseCoopers has found that for every $1 invested, $4 dollars was returned to the economy, a return on investment that even the most hard-nosed would find impressive. When that money is put in to programs in low-income countries—and I believe, in all countries—when you work to identify the programs that are needed to reduce blindness and vision impairment, the economic benefits are there, and that means it is there for all society.

For just $8.5 million we could eliminate trachoma, the leading cause of infectious blindness in the world. That is the money that is needed to eliminate trachoma from our region. Again, surely an objective that the government should take on in terms of our aid program. For $17 million we could introduce eye tests and treatments into schools and make a real dent in the number of children—currently 500,000, half a million children—who become blind each year. These are startling figures. But when you put those figures against the money that is needed you can see that it is money that would be very well spent.

There would be a knock-on effect here on school enrolment. The UN estimates that at least one-third of the 57 million children currently missing out on a primary education do so because they have a disability. Again, we know with targeted programs that that could change. Reducing avoidable blindness would help get these children through the school gate and ensure that those with permanent vision loss can be properly targeted with support.

Australia has a good reputation in eye health and we should build on this success—build on this success in our region as a starting point. I do urge parliamentarians from all sides of politics to come together to develop awareness of the work of Vision 2020's agenda to realise the right to sight and the right to participate for all. It is a program that is well detailed. I would again argue that this work underlines the need for the Australian budget to be increased in line with the commitment made in 2000 by Australia to raise our aid budget to 0.7 per cent of gross national income. Obviously I am aware that that is not going to happen under this government, but let us put it on the record that it was the former Howard government that made that commitment. Recognising the importance of the Millennium Development Goals, it was certainly linked with our budget increase. That is something that we must not lose sight of.

Question agreed to.

Senate adjourned at 19:36

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