Senate debates

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Matters of Public Interest


1:25 pm

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Today I rise to speak about a key issue of public interest—that is, the need to plan for and invest in Australia’s health system. Despite the global recession and falling government revenues, the Rudd government has achieved a great deal and has a strong record on health. This includes injecting a massive 50 per cent increase into the health budget, funding 1,000 new nurse training places to ensure patients have the care they deserve, investing in new cancer research and treatment centres, and funding a 30 per cent increase in GP training places to help address a shortage, especially in regional and rural areas. We are working with all levels of government, with health professionals and with local communities to bolster the ailing health system that we inherited. The government is also constructing an effective program for lasting reform.

On the other hand, the Leader of the Opposition has shown himself to be uncommitted to Australia’s health system and out of touch with Australians’ aspirations for health reform. As Minister for Health and Ageing in the previous government, Mr Abbott ripped $1 billion from public hospitals, froze the number of GP training places and ignored the need for more nurses, despite the shortage of 6,000 nurses across the country. Now, as Leader of the Opposition, he has shown contempt for the extensive consultation currently being undertaken by the Rudd Labor government, consultation involving literally thousands of Australians.

Late last year I attended one such consultation at Geraldton Health Campus. Geraldton is located about halfway between Carnarvon and Perth in Durack, an electorate which covers a massive area in the north of Western Australia. There were about 84 people at this consultation, including people from the Indigenous health sector and the Geraldton Regional Aboriginal Medical Service, hospital staff, doctors, nurses and allied health professionals, as well as workers from community services and people from the aged-care sector. The Prime Minister gave a presentation on health reform outlining the recommendations of the Health and Hospitals Reform Commission and of the recent reports on preventative and primary health.

The audience of professionals, community representatives and consumers responded enthusiastically. They were very eager to offer suggestions and to consider the options for health and aged-care services in the region and nationally. They raised many significant issues, including the use of capital funds required for infrastructure in regional Western Australia, the integration of nurse practitioners into the health system, the importance of the GP incentive program, training for Aboriginal health workers, transport issues for patients in remote areas, and the fact that people in regional and remote WA get far less of the health dollar spent on them than those in metropolitan areas. There was also a lot of discussion about the need for local solutions to local issues.

There were a great number of positive examples of how existing health agencies have created strong partnerships to improve service delivery in WA’s mid-west. I was particularly pleased to have the opportunity to meet personally with staff and board members from the Geraldton Women’s Health Resource Centre and the Geraldton Regional Aboriginal Medical Service. It was great to be part of a dialogue with local consumers and health professionals. Geraldton is not as remote as places like Durack but is certainly—and people know this—a long way from Canberra. So it was great to see this community make the most of this opportunity to have a dialogue with government about health reform. Their contribution will help the Rudd government make the best choices for our health system. Given the size of Durack, I am pleased to note that another health consultation was held as far north as Derby.

A further 10 consultations have been held in WA as part of a nationwide process of over 100 consultations, stretching from the inner city to our outermost regions. And that is not to mention the many hundreds of submissions to the reform commission or the tens of thousands of people visiting the yourHealth website, many of whom have offered their comments and suggestions. This direct input from professionals and consumers is vital to the success of our health reform. These consultations reflect our determination to structure a stronger, more equitable health system geared for the challenges of an ageing population.

Australians want a health system we can be proud of, and most of us know that to achieve this we must all work together. That is why, when the Rudd government came to office, we were determined to end the blame game on health. However, it seems that the opposition learnt nothing from 12 years of playing the blame game. In particular, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Abbott, learnt nothing from his five years as Minister for Health and Ageing—five years in which he ripped a billion dollars out of public hospitals while blaming the states for their condition, and five years in which he could have instituted reform but did nothing while the pressure on our hospitals mounted.

Despite this record, what does the Leader of the Opposition have to say about Labor’s plan for health reform and the consultation that underpins it? He has said that it is improbable that it will bring forward a policy that the opposition can support. He is ready to reject Labor’s plan without waiting for the final outcome and without considering the views of the thousands of Australians who have participated in health reform consultations—participated in health reform. In the meantime, Mr Abbott struts about, pronouncing his health policies on the run. One wonders why Mr Abbott did nothing to implement any solutions to the health system’s problems during his term as health minister. Under the coalition there were 12 years of no action on health reform, which left our health system under intolerable strain. Australians recognise that. Australia has had a gutful of Mr Abbott on health and has come away with nothing but heartburn.

In contrast, the Rudd government are taking the steps required to construct a program for lasting and meaningful reform. Where problems are pressing and the way forward is clear, we are making changes immediately. We are delivering improvements to the health system right now, often in the face of opposition from this chamber. Many of these improvements are forerunners of the reforms proposed by the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission and point the way to a better future. We have increased health funding to relieve the worst pressure points. For example, under the Rudd government in 2008 the Commonwealth’s share of funding for public hospitals showed the highest growth rate in a decade, whilst from 2004 to 2007, when Mr Abbott held the health portfolio, the Commonwealth’s share decreased. The Howard government could not find the money needed for health even when Commonwealth revenues were rising. In stark contrast, the Rudd government have increased total health funding to a record $64 billion—and this at a time when global conditions have put extreme pressure on our federal budget.

We have also acted to relieve elective surgery waiting lists, devoting $600 million to this end. We have required the states and territories to meet specific targets, and reward payments are available where targets are exceeded. This new approach to health funding is indeed paying dividends, with tens of thousands of extra elective procedures already having been performed. The Rudd government have also recognised that rising health costs will require us to save resources. That is why changes have been instituted to the PBS and the MBS to cut red tape and ensure value for money, without compromising patient care. We will persist with plans to save $100 billion between now and 2050 through changes to private health insurance subsidies. I think the Liberal Party should reverse its irresponsible opposition to these changes so that all Australians can benefit from the extra resources that will flow to the health budget.

To further contain health costs, we are investing a record amount in preventative health—over $872 million. Hopefully, this chamber will get its act together soon and pass the legislation needed to establish a national preventative health agency so that we can get on with the work of fighting obesity, chronic disease, alcoholism, and tobacco addiction. We also need to redesign health services around people, not systems, including by building on the role of general practice. Our signature program, GP superclinics, are a critical first step in this direction. They are bringing together services, opening for extended hours and targeting chronic disease. I am really pleased that the government have committed to three GP superclinics in WA.

The Rudd government knows we must also invest in the health workforce. Again, we are doing just that, by investing in clinical teaching and training, by investing in infrastructure and undergraduate health professionals, by removing the previous government’s cap on GP training places, by funding 1,000 new nurse training places and by establishing Health Workforce Australia to build a skilled, sustainable health workforce that can meet the needs of the Australian community.

Given the large number of regional, remote and Indigenous communities in WA, I am also pleased to note that we have initiated a subsidised locum program that is going to give rural and remote doctors, obstetricians and anaesthetists a well-earned rest. We have provided funding for new Indigenous health project officers and we have invested heavily in health infrastructure and equipment in rural and remote areas.

We know that every family in Australia depends on the healthcare system. That is why Rudd Labor is committed to providing affordable high-quality, comprehensive and integrated health services that are accessible, convenient and sustainable. That is why we are improving services right now and that is why we are determined to get on with health reform for the long term.

Building health services for the future needs vision, planning, determination and a financial commitment. It needs a commitment to equity and efficiency, to consultation and to making tough decisions when required. The Rudd government is up to this task. The opposition never has been and, as Mr Abbott’s record proves, it never will be.