ADJOURNMENT;Royal Life Saving Society of Australia – 13 Oct 2011

Tonight I rise to speak about something important to a number of members in this place, and that is the Royal Life Saving Society of Australia. In particular I want to speak about the release of its National drowning report 2011. As an ambassador for the society, as I know a number of other members and senators are, I was present for the launch of the National drowning report on 21 September at Parliament House in Canberra. The society undertakes some very important work in promoting water safety, and I am pleased to be able to support the organisation whenever I can.

The report reveals that 315 people in Australia drowned in the period between 1 July 2010 and 30 June 2011. When broken down, state by state, the number of drowning deaths were: 107 deaths or 34 per cent in New South Wales; 93 deaths or 30 per cent in Queensland; 38 deaths in Victoria; 37 deaths in Western Australia; 15 deaths in my home state of Tasmania; 13 deaths in South Australia; eight deaths in the Northern Territory; and four deaths in the Australian Capital Territory. It is a tragic fact that drowning deaths are now at their highest level since 2003 and are 11 per cent higher than the average over a five-year period. The report shows that men are 3½ times more likely to drown than women and that the tendency of men in the 18 to 34 age group to drown is a particular concern. It also shows that 36 per cent of all drowning deaths across Australia occur in rivers, creeks or streams. This figure includes the 38 people who tragically lost their lives in the Queensland floods in December and January of this year.

The report highlights the challenges Australia faces to meet the Australian Water Safety Council’s goal of a 50 per cent reduction in drowning by the year 2020. The report also indicates that there is a great need to focus on prevention strategies to counter river drownings and also drownings by people aged over 55 years of age and men aged 18 to 34. All areas of water safety need to be looked at in order to make a real impact on the number of drowning deaths.

There has been an alarming increase in the number of deaths in the 55-year-plus category with 117 in the 2011 report compared to only 82 deaths in 2008. The deaths in this category account for 37 per cent of all drowning fatalities in Australia. This age group most commonly drown in rivers, creeks and streams while undertaking a variety of activities, such as fishing, boating or swimming. The statistics in this age group are particularly concerning. They are concerning not only because they account for such a large number of deaths but because the figure is likely to rise. It is likely to rise because of Australia’s ageing population and the fact that the baby boomer generation is approaching retirement. When talking about this age group, the society’s chief executive officer, Rob Bradley, states:

Older Australians drown in a range of aquatic settings. Improving fitness and swimming skills, and increasing awareness of the impact of medication and pre-existing illnesses on their ability to stay safe are key strategies to prevent drowning …

Mr Bradley also emphasises the importance of people having a buddy system in place when they are involved in water activities.

Across all age groups, the report also examines the environments in which people drown, such as pools, waterways and the ocean. The society highlights the increased work that has been done to reduce the number of drowning deaths occurring in rivers, creeks and streams because of the dramatic increase in deaths in those circumstances. The number of fatalities in these circumstances have almost doubled since 2008, with 114 deaths this year compared to 58 three years ago. If the deaths that occur in lakes, dams and lagoons are added to this figure, deaths in inland waterways account for nearly 45 per cent of total drowning deaths.

In regard to the 18- to 34-year-old male category, which I mentioned before, alcohol is known to be a factor in more than 10 per cent of deaths and, in that 10 per cent, many of the alcohol readings were high. Many men in this age group continue to take unnecessarily life-threatening risks, including consuming alcohol or other drugs prior to undertaking water activities. Prescription drugs can be a factor in fatalities, especially if they are abused, and people should consult their doctor about the side effects of medications and about whether aquatic activity is suitable while taking their medication. Men in the 18 to 34 age group are also very difficult to reach with prevention messages. The society believes that secondary school students should complete a lifesaving program, such as the Bronze Medallion, because such training is vital to develop strong swimming, water safety and basic rescue skills. This year’s report shows a reduction of 15 per cent in children under the age of five drowning, but the society urges all adults to remain vigilant when supervising children around water as child drowning still remains at unacceptably high levels. The number of child deaths fluctuates and a low number of deaths in one reporting period is no reason for any of us to become complacent.

In the area of backyard pool safety, there has been a significant reduction in drowning deaths in Queensland in this reporting period. This has coincided with the Queensland government’s reforms to legislation around backyard pools. The message of being vigilant about pool safety is starting to get through to Queensland pool owners via increased public awareness campaigns. They are required to register their pools and are subject to mandatory inspections. The society urges state and territory governments to review their policies and programs around pool safety and to continue to encourage people with backyard pools to comply with legislation or best practice.

Keep Watch, the society’s program focused on child water safety, continues to urge all parents to supervise their children constantly when they are near water, and to learn CPR so that they are prepared should they ever need to resuscitate a child. The Swim and Survive program is a wonderful way to introduce children to the water and to teach them the importance of water safety.

Despite the common belief held by society, drowning deaths occur all year round. On average the summer period accounts for 41 per cent of deaths, spring for 22 per cent, winter for 20 per cent and autumn for 16 per cent. Vigilance around water is important regardless of the time of year. It is also important to remember that you do not have to intentionally go into water. Death often occurs when people fall or wander into the water, especially if they have been drinking. In the nought-to-four age group, 57 per cent of fatalities entered the water unintentionally, while in the 55-year-plus age group 14 per cent of deaths resulted from falling or wandering into water.

I want to mention some other statistics before I finish. Sixteen per cent of deaths in the 15- to 34-year age group occurred at the beach, and in the 55-year-plus age group 14 per cent of deaths occurred while using watercraft. In the reporting period, 19 international tourists drowned while in Australia and eight Australians drowned outside of their home state or territory. The international tourists were from a variety of countries: Ireland, China, India and Germany.

The statistics I have just spoken about cannot be ignored. To do so would be at our own peril. These statistics show that drowning can happen to both males and females. It can happen to people of all ages and it can happen in a variety of locations. This is why we all need to be vigilant around water. There are many steps we can take to reduce the number of drowning deaths. We should swim in pairs or groups. We should always watch children and other weaker swimmers around water. We should act sensibly and make sure that we do not go into the water after consuming alcohol. We should always assess the conditions at the beach or the river before we go in the water. Of course, as last summer’s flood tragedy has proven, we need to be cautious in times of extreme rain conditions. We should not drive through floodwaters or swim in drains.

Drowning is an all-too-regular event and it is one that we need to do everything possible to prevent. I am proud to be an ambassador for the Royal Life Saving Society’s important work and I congratulate them on their efforts in making people more aware of the dangers we face in and around the water. I urge everyone to be sensible in and around the water. As I have said, this is important not only in the hot summer months but all year round because we know that drowning can happen at any time of the year. Water safety is everyone’s responsibility and together we can reduce the number of fatalities that occur in the water.