8 August 2023

Teacher protest, MND funding pledge mark Premier's surprise Griffith visit

| Oliver Jacques
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Helen Dalton and Chris Minns at Lake Wyangan sunset

Murray MP Helen Dalton tells Premier Chris Minns that she used to be able to swim at Lake Wyangan but can’t anymore. Photo: Supplied.

NSW Premier Chris Minns reaffirmed his commitment to funding research into the Riverina’s extraordinarily high rates of motor neurone disease (MND), but also left local teachers disappointed in a surprise first visit to Griffith on Monday (7 August).

Tipped off on the unannounced trip, a group of NSW Teachers Federation representatives waited for Mr Minns at Griffith Airport, holding “Honour the Deal” placards and accusing the NSW Government of reneging on a pre-election promise to raise starting salaries for teachers by $10,000 to address chronic staff shortages across the state’s schools.

The Premier was reportedly driven to the tarmac to board his plane and did not meet the protesters. His social media posts chronicling his Riverina trip have been spammed by angry teachers who have criticised him for not visiting local public schools and for his stance on teachers’ pay.

Earlier, the Premier made his way from Wagga to view water tank art in Narrandera, then went to Leeton to inspect the SunRice facility before heading to Griffith for lunch at Calabria Wines and a tour of agricultural equipment store Collier & Miller.

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In the afternoon, Mr Minns announced the much-awaited Southern Industrial Link was now opening, which means that freight trucks will be able to bypass the town centre rather than going through it.

His final stop was at Griffith’s Lake Wyangan, where he told media that $2 million in funding was now approved to research the causes of MND, a mystery disease whereby muscles weaken over time and most sufferers die within five years of diagnosis.

“This $2m investment delivers on our election commitment to fund research on MND in the Riverina,” Mr Minns said.

“It’s estimated that motor neurone disease affects around eight per 100,000 people in Australia, and we know around 90 per cent of cases occur sporadically, without any apparent reason or family link.

“The NSW Government has committed this funding to support people affected by MND and to better understand the causes of the condition.”

Teacher protest

Griffith teachers protest against NSW Premier Chris Minns at Griffith Airport. Photo: NSW Teachers Federation.

A Macquarie University study in 2015 found the rate of MND in Griffith was seven times higher than the national average. The university’s researchers tried to work out whether this may be linked to toxic blue-green algae in Lake Wyangan, but conclusions were never published as the study collapsed a few years later due to a lack of funding by the previous NSW government. Overseas studies suggest exposure to blue-green algal blooms in waterways over a long period could be a triggering factor linked to high MND rates.

READ ALSO NSW Government refuses to fund research on Riverina’s skyrocketing motor neurone disease rates

Whether the $2m announced by the new Labor Government will go to Macquarie University to enable it to finish the investigation it started is still not decided. Gilles Guillemin, the neuroscientist who led the Riverina research, no longer works for the tertiary institution.

“The funding will be allocated using a merit-based assessment and in close consultation with key academic groups,” Mr Minns said.

Macquarie University’s research indicated Wagga is an MND hotspot, but data is difficult to obtain because NSW Health does not classify MND as what’s called a ”notifiable disease”, meaning the department is under no obligation to record and monitor cases.

Independent Murray MP Helen Dalton, who had lobbied for the MND research funding, took Mr Minns on a walk around the lake, explaining how she could swim in it when growing up but that it had been largely out of action for public use for the past decade.

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