Live coverage: Big issues debated at 2015 CWA National Conference in Port Macquarie

Senator Jacqui Lambie speaks at the 2015 National CWA Conference
Senator Jacqui Lambie speaks at the 2015 National CWA Conference

They are strong women and salt of the earth – there is little wonder Senator Jacqui Lambie fit right into the mix when the CWA took her under their wing during her toughest moments.

Senator Lambie arrived in Port Macquarie on Wednesday with just one thing in mind – to meet the women, who for the last 70 years, have been a part of an organisation that has rallied with grit for change in rural and remote communities.

The voice of the Country Women’s Association is louder than ever, with the national conference in Port Macquarie tackling some of the nation’s biggest and most challenging issues.

“Prime ag land is where these ladies are born and bred from. You’ve got their nice side and their attitude of tough love, and then you’ve got their political side,” Ms Lambie said.

“Helping others is what these ladies are about. You’ve got to give back to the life you receive and that’s exactly what they do.

“Some of the issues these ladies hit are the ones our own politicians are putting into the too hard basket. And that’s their toughness. They don’t shy away from what people are asking for.

“They are the last entry at the gate in looking after our rural  communities.”

She spoke candidly to the Port News about her catapulting into politics saying she has learned a lot in 12 months.

The single mother of two and proud Aussie digger for 10 years before being medically discharged, said politics is her way of making a difference.

“I think I’d be the only woman in the crowd who has fired an M60 machine gun and has a licence to drive a tank,” she said.

“One lesson I’ve learned in politics so far is that an M60 and a tank would come in handy.

“I admit I’ve made mistakes and when you get knocked down you just have to get back up again.

“These women here today are leaders in our country. They are no bullshit women – put them in politics and we might get something done.”

Ms Lambie reacted emotionally to the positive response she had received since sharing her personal story of her son’s addiction to ice. She also hit out at those who said she’d ‘thrown her son under a bus’ by mentioning his addiction before parliament as well as media slurs implying she was a bad mother.

It’s a “wicked drug” she said, and time the Australian government took the epidemic seriously before more young lives are lost.

“Overall the feedback I received was very caring and supportive and many people shared with me their tragic and terrible stories.

“Not all feedback kind and I expected that criticism because not all people know what it is like to have a child on a drug takes on their body and mind. Some went out of their way to write hurtful comments that I was a bad mother.”

Ms Lambie called for a reintroduction of national service to help give young people direction in life which was met by a round of applause.

“I think the state of Australian politics at the moment is embarrassing. We are a laughing stock on the international scene. It’s time for us to clean up our own backyard and that needs to start with employment.

“The people who make it, mine it, grow it and show it are our primary wealth creators.

“I want our politicians to get out there with their boots on and see first-hand what is actually going on in this country.

“I’m just getting on with it.”

On Wednesday's agenda:

  • Energy Drinks
  • Lyme Disease
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder
  • Ice
  • Domestic Violence
  • Mental Health
  • Women and Children in Mandatory Detention
  • Women in Poverty
  • Equal Pay
  • Drought

The Country Women's Association of Australia (CWAA) will pressure federal, state and territory governments to ban the sale of energy drinks to children under the age of 18 and to require proof of age at purchase.

The forum heard that in 2014, the CWAA presented a petition containing 13,000 signatures to the House of Representatives to ban the sale of energy drinks to children.

Their concerns included the dangers posed by high levels of caffeine and guarana and the impacts on the health and behaviours of young people including hypertension, anxiety and caffeine dependency.

The Australian Medical Association has acknowledged the increase number of young people presenting with caffeine toxicity is 'alarming'.

The sale of energy drinks is increasing by eight per cent every year. IN Australian and New Zealand in 2010, more than 155.6 million litres were consumed, representing 35 per cent of all drinks sold through stores.

Fiona Brooke, policy advisor with the National Rural Health Alliance (NRHA), addressed the 150-strong Country Women’s Association of Australia National Conference forum about the scourge of domestic violence across Australia.

The issue has now become an epidemic she says and the Country Women of Australia can lead the way as a community voice to all levels of government to demand action.

The fact one woman dies every week at the hand of a perpetrator of violence, usually her partner, is unacceptable, Ms Brooke said.

She spoke with honesty about her own personal experience caring for a woman who has been a victim of violence and while under her care, continued to be intimidated and harassed by her perpetrator.

Ms Brooke said country women, living in communities can lead the change.

“You’re the centre of your families and the glue that binds your community,” she said.

“We have to stand up, we have to do something.”

The NSW CWA has partnered with Rape and Domestic Violence Australia to develop workshops and personal development courses in rural and remote areas for sexual health workers dealing directly with victims of domestic violence.

The association also hopes to host forums to educate the community about how to identify signs of domestic violence and raise awareness about the services available.

The forum agreed that at the local courts level, matters of domestic violence are not being dealt with effectively and harshly enough and conversations must be had with magistrates and police about how the process can change.

“It’s such an enormous problem . Women are presenting to court and the guy that is beating them up is representing himself and he can have free shots at them in court. This has to stop. Their safety has to be given a higher priority,” Ms Brooke said.

“We need to find ways to address ways that honours and supports the victims, and does not empower the perpetrators.”

Country women will demand all levels of government  commit to investigations into the existence of Lyme disease in Australia, how it is contracted and diagnostic tests.

NSW CWA representative Gail Commens said it was time for a united approach to address the devastating health implications of this little known disease and provide some hope and support to people seeking treatment.

“This disease is officially not recognised in Australia,” Ms Commens said.

“Our government and medical practitioners refuse to acknowledge it.”

Lyme disease is contracted by ticks presenting itself initially as a bullseye rash and manifesting into a range of symptoms including nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, blindness and crippling muscle pain.

The forum heard the story of five-year-old Sydney girl Genevieve Huntly Jackson who was bitten by a tick and presented symptoms shortly after.

Genevieve on her worst days living with the disease, cannot get out of bed and is confined to a wheelchair.

“Since she was bitten in 2012, she has seen 30 doctors. It took 23 months and 23 health professionals to come up with a diagnosis,” the forum heard.

Many Australians are assistance overseas, particularly in Germany, where diagnosis and treatment can cost up to $200,000.

The CWAA will put forward a recommendation to all governments to have fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) recognised as a disability so services will have adequate access to funding and support to assist families in rural and remote areas.

The forum heard that FASD is a serious health condition across all regions of the country, arising from fetal exposure to alcohol, and is totally preventable.

“It is the invisible disability,” the forum heard. “It takes a village to raise a child – this does not happen in isolation.”

Dorothy Coombe, Victorian CWA representative, said while the disorder itself was already recognised, classification as a disability will ensure the right services are funded to address the issue.

“If we acknowledge it as a disability, children and adults can be given the care they need to live their lives at the highest possible level of function,” she said.

“Early diagnosis provides access to intervention.”

Judy Richardson, NSW delegate, believes not much has changed in terms of equitable access to care for all Australians.

“It’s taken them so long but we have to stand our ground on these matters. If you took a state child you were given all these things to raise them, if you took an Aboriginal child you were given one set of clothes and sent on your way.

“Nothing much has changed unfortunately, we really need to try and make this one country.”

An emotional discussion about how to address the epidemic of the ice has resulted in a call for more resources to address the effects and impacts of the drug on all Australian communities.

Many of the women in the CWA forum shared their own experiences of how the drug has affected their families.

Sharon Pendergast, Victorian delegate, said families in all corners of the country are suffering.

“Every day when we turn on the radio or TV, pick up paper there is another article about ice,” she said.

“You may say it’s not your problem, it’s everyone’s problem.

“Last week , Senator Jacqui Lambie came out and said her son was on ice. I too have a son on ice. I can’t get help. It’s embarrassing to admit you can’t help your child. It’s hard to face and deal with it.

“I know she is not alone. Many families all over Australia are in the same dilemma.

“Sweden has mandatory rehabilitation and it seems to be working very well.

“Prison is not the answer - I know from life experiences that even after being incarcerated, because there is no drug rehab in prison, they return home and back to their old habits and eventually back in prison again.”

The forum called for better security for health workers treating ice addicts and adequately trained staff capable of managing aggressive and threatening behaviour.

“Sadly we do not have enough beds in rehab in this country and many are waiting up to 10 months to enter rehab. For many who decide  to kick this habit is too long.

“We need services for those who come forward and say need help. That help is now.”

Julie Morrison, Riverina delegate, said her hometown of Wagga has been named the ice capital of Australia.

“The police said it’s the hardest thing for them go to an accident because in many cases they are drug related and many are on ice.  They can be attacked and the same with our ambos,” she said.

As a result, Wagga police have been resourced with four additional drug response officers.

Jan Peasnell, NSW delegate said more resources for police is required if the problem is to be tackled at the source.

MORE than 45 percent of Australians will experience a mental illness at some stage in their life.

The CWAA is call on the government to stand up and recognise the shortfall in resources and support services to address mental health, treatments and recovery.

Sharon Pendergast, Victorian delegate, said it was time for the stigmas attached to mental illness to be broken down and attention to focus as a priority on providing services to address what is a national health crisis.

“More than 40 percent of the population will be affected by depression. It is oone of the most common conditions among our young people,” she said.

“People living with mental illness are also likely to be victims of violence, sometimes by themselves. It is not purely physiological, it can have physical features as well.”

“Up to 85 percent of homeless people suffer from mental illness. I’m shocked by these figures.

“There are just not enough facilities around Australia and families continue to wait for places for their loved ones so they can have the best chance of recovery.

“It is unfair to just expect families to care for people with mental illnesses 24 hours a day – even nurses get to go home after a bad eight hour shift.”

All women and children must be removed from mandatory detention centres in Australia.

That is the call of the CWAA to the Australian government in a bid for urgent policy change.

Heather Scott, Victorian delegate, said Australia is a signatory to the UN convention on the rights of the child and is bound to protect children.

There are currently 127 children held in immigration facilities in Australia, 88 of those are on Nauru while a further 642 are in community detention.

“There is still no change to legislation which requires all those who arrive in Australia without a visa to be detained. Detention is used as a first and not a last option. Australia is the only country in world with such a policy,” she said.

Ms Scott said a 2014 Australian Human Rights Commission investigation into children in detention found significant negative health and well-being impacts, physical and mental illness.

“The best interests of the child should be our primary consideration. Prolonged detention is having profoundly negative impacts on mental and emotional health.

 “Over a 15 month period, 128 children in detention engaged in acts of self harm including attempted suicide. “

Judy Anictomatis, Northern Territory delegate, was told by one detainee that she’d rather have died on the ocean than remain in mandatory detention.

“To quote one mother ‘it would have been better if I fell in the ocean and sharks ate my body’,” Ms Anictomatis said.

“Closed detention for an indefinite period is not a healthy environment  for women or men either,” she said.

“Alternatives can include community arrangements in line with international human rights laws. Community placement is much cheaper than mandatory detention. There are fewer risks to mental health and safety of asylum seekers and refugees ad lower rates of suicide and self harm.”

The current superannuation system is failing women forcing many to live in poverty in retirement, and even leaving some homeless.

The CWAA is urging the federal government to implement policy to enable women who have not had adequate superannuation contributions during their working life to live poverty free.

 Lyn Harris, Victorian delegate, said the aim of the current retirement income system encourages an individual to accumulate wealth to provide financial security in their post-work years.

This, she says, “does not serve women well”.

“A gender gap arises when you link the retirement income system – superannuation – to engagement in paid work and levels of learning,” Ms Harris told the CWAA forum.

“This disadvantages women who move in and out of the paid workforce due to caring responsibilities, and women generally earn less than men and have lower superannuation coverage.”

RENEWED acquaintances, shared ideas and working together are some of the goals Country Women's Association (CWA) member Carol Clay has for the organisation's 2015 national conference in Port Macquarie this week.

The past state president of Victoria said it is her third national conference, having joined the CWA in 2001.

"It's great to talk with each other so we all sing from the same hymn sheet," she said.

"The CWA carries great weight with the government; that's why the national president is on so many committees," the Packenham, Victoria resident said. "People sit up and listen when the CWA weighs in."

Of the 18 resolutions the conference has on its agenda Mrs Clay said the banning of the sale of energy drinks to young children is important to her.

"Children are our greatest asset and we don't need them polluted by all this rubbish so early in life.

"We are concerned mothers and grandmothers who want the best for the next generation. So many influences on them are not for the better."

Mrs Clay said people from all walks of life, some who struggle to finance the trip and others who generously sponsor someone to attend, bring with them diverse achievements.

"It is great to be among so many positive women looking for the best in each other."

Taree resident Jacqueline Hyde has been a member of the CWA for 62 years.

The former Pilliga (530 kilometres west of Port Macquarie) resident worked the family farm there until she retired.

"The CWA was our life. We didn't get drought assistance much but we got personal support from each other," the 85-year-old said.

She loves to cook and still does but agrees the organisation is about so much more.

"Bush nursing home and baby health centres are two of the most important things the CWA brought to people on the land back in the day," Mrs Hyde said.

"The scholarships were also vital, so people in remote areas could study medicine.

Mrs Hyde was a state executive at the age of 37, at the time, one of the youngest.

"But the drought came and I didn't have time to devote to it.

"Now we tackle the big issues like domestic violence and awareness of things like organ donation."

She would like to see the CWA get more young members.

"In Victoria they have 50 new branches and I think we need to discover their method of attracting members," Mrs Hyde said.

"It's a bit harder on the coast because everyone has so many opportunities for entertainment.

"And these days women have to support their families by going off to work so they don't have the freedom to be involved."

The conference continues until Thursday afternoon.

This story LIVE: CWA tackle the big issues | photos, video first appeared on Port Macquarie News.