House debates

Monday, 23 March 2020


Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Bill 2020, Guarantee of Lending to Small and Medium Enterprises (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, Australian Business Growth Fund (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, Assistance for Severely Affected Regions (Special Appropriation) (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, Structured Finance Support (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, Appropriation (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill (No. 1) 2019-2020, Appropriation (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill (No. 2) 2019-2020, Boosting Cash Flow for Employers (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020; Second Reading

11:30 am

Photo of Chris BowenChris Bowen (McMahon, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Health) Share this | Hansard source

It is. The member for Rankin has very eloquently outlined that we support the measures because they are appropriate for these desperate times—desperate measures for desperate times. Despite our reservations about some of them, we will not stand in the way. Of course, the ultimate stimulus is to defeat this disease. The best rescue package for the country is to beat coronavirus. I've heard some people say the government has to balance the economic impact with the health impact. I disagree. The best economic policy in this environment is the best health policy. The sooner we stop the spread of this disease, the better our country is, the better our economy is, the better our society is.

We have to be honest with the Australian people: it's currently not happening. We have to be honest with the Australian people not in a partisan way. If we want the people to trust us, we have to trust them with the facts. And the fact of the matter is that this virus is doubling in reach every three days. If it continues on that trajectory, our health system will be under enormous pressure. Our health system will be stretched beyond the limit. That's why it's incumbent on government to lead on business and community and individuals to cooperate and follow the lead of government to beat the spread of this disease. Hence, we've supported every single measure the government has proposed from the beginning, some of which, looking back, shouldn't have been controversial, knowing what we know now, but were at the time; some of which I had complaints about from Labor Party supporters saying: 'Why are you giving the government so much support? Stop agreeing with them on these things.' I had to respectfully say that this is a time when we need to support the government in an environment which is rapidly changing. But that doesn't mean that we won't also call for more or that we won't also make constructive suggestions about what more can and should be done. We've done so and we'll continue to do so. That's our job as a constructive opposition. I'll just outline a few of those areas. I'm not going to cover them all—I'm going to leave plenty of time for other members to make contributions—but I'll outline a few of the very important ones.

Firstly, in relation to testing, the World Health Organization has made it clear that the key to beating this virus is to test, test, test. That's what other countries have done that are showing success. I want to make it crystal clear that the government and the country have done much better than many other countries. I want to make that clear. What I've seen happening in some countries is mind-boggling—the low level of testing. I don't mind saying here in this chamber that the United States is the key example of that. But we should be the best in the world. Australians deserve nothing less. We're testing 3,300 people per million. That's a good figure. South Korea is testing 5,500. That's a better figure. Again, I want to make it clear that I don't for one second underestimate the complexity of the task facing the minister and the government—the shortage of reagents and other things. We believe it should be the objective of government to test every Australian with symptoms—not everybody who wants a test, not everybody who feels like a test, not everybody who asks for a test but every Australian who presents to their general practitioner with symptoms we believe should get a test. That should be the objective of government. I'm not saying it's easy. It should be the goal, the aim, the hope. The Deputy Chief Medical Officer has made clear the criteria they've recommended to government is based on the number of tests available. He said, 'If we had unlimited tests, we might have different criteria'. Of course, I understand the constraints that the Chief Medical Officer and his state and territory colleagues are working under in this regard, but I stress the view that we should have the objective of having the best testing regime in the world—that is currently South Korea—and we should be able to say that we are testing everybody with symptoms.

The other matter I want to touch on is telehealth. Some Australians at home might not understand what I mean by telehealth. It's very simple: it's being able to ring your doctor, Skype your doctor or in some way communicate with your doctor from home—and not just your doctor but also, ideally, your allied healthcare professional, your dietitian, your psychologist, your counsellor and others. There are some for whom it's not possible—it's pretty hard for a physiotherapist to provide a telehealth consultation, or a podiatrist, in some instances. They're going to be doing it very tough. But where a medical consultation can occur over the phone or over some form of technology, it should be allowed to happen.

The government has expanded the telehealth rebate, but I say not by enough. I can see no reason that the telehealth rebate shouldn't apply to every Australian, every doctor and every allied healthcare professional where appropriate. And, importantly, it should apply to doctors and others working from home. At the moment the rules are that it has to be done from the surgery—the telephone call has to occur in the surgery. That makes no sense to me. If you've got a doctor working from home, for obvious reasons—maybe they're self-isolating; the chances of being exposed to this virus for our medical and healthcare workforce are much higher than for the rest of us, so they may be self-isolating—they should be able to continue their service to their patients over the phone and to provide bulk-billed Medicare service by phone or Skype. This is absolutely essential, in my view. I say, not in a point-scoring way, that I don't understand the reluctance. The government's throwing billions at this problem, as they should. Throw some more at telehealth and provide the support to our healthcare professionals to do the job they do so well.

The final point I want to make—as I said, I'm not going to cover the field; I'm not going to talk about everything—is a new one. I understand that everybody's focused on physical health. I completely understand that and I agree with it. We also need to begin to focus much more on mental health. Australians are worried and stressed. Children are worried and stressed. If you have an existing mental health issue, that will be exacerbated. Many Australians have stopped going to see their psychologist or their counsellor. Today I'm writing to the Minister for Health with a range of suggestions that should be taken up, in our view: about telehealth, about support for Lifeline in this crisis and their new text service, which provides support for Australians who need help via text. These are sensible suggestions. There's an obligation on all of us to look out for each other—while practising social distancing—to check on your neighbours and your friends and family. There's an obligation on all of us, of course, to do that. There's an obligation on government as well to lead on mental health, and I make the suggestions in good faith.

The final point I will make is that we all understand the seriousness of the task before the House, before the government and before the country. The member for Rankin referred to it. We feel the weight of history on our shoulders here. This has often been compared, including by myself, to the last big national health crisis that our country faced: the pandemic of 1918-19, the Spanish flu as it was called in the day. It's true; this is the biggest crisis since then. I know a little bit about that pandemic. It came in two waves. Australia got through the first wave pretty well. We applied strict quarantine. We applied the best health advice of the day and restrictions on movement, and we got through pretty well. The rest of the world suffered the first wave, the 1918 wave, very badly, and Australia did well.

Then we got complacent. We relaxed. We lifted the quarantine restrictions. The second wave was devastating for Australia: 102,000 Australians gave their lives in the flu pandemic. One of them was my great-grandmother, Magdalene McNally, who died at age 29 a few years after giving birth to my grandmother. Obviously, I never knew her; she died 50 years before I was born. I don't know what her personality was, what she felt about life, what she felt in her dying days—I have no idea. I have one photo of her, her wedding photo. That's all I know about my great-grandmother. But I know this. The impact was long lasting. Eighty years after her death, as my grandmother was dying, and it was obvious to all—to her and to us, her children and grandchildren—that she was dying, we asked her: 'Where would you like to be buried, Nan?' Eighty years after the death of her mother, she said, 'Put me next to mum, please', which is exactly what we did. Eighty years of grief that she went through, not having really known her mother—her mother died when she was an infant. Eighty years later we remedied that the best we could, by burying her next to her mother, burying them together, reuniting them.

May as few Australians as possible have to go through that in this public health crisis. May we minimise the grief and the loss. We cannot accept defeat. We cannot accept that this virus is going to kill Australians. We know the size of the task. We know the enormity of the project. As other countries have arrested the spread of this virus, so must we. It means sacrifices for all of us, sacrifices across the country, but tackle it and beat it we must.


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