Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Statements by Senators
COVID-19: Airline Staff, Medicare
[by video link] Recently I met with Hobart based flight attendants who have been stood down without pay, and I'd like to really thank those workers for coming to speak with me. We all know that the border restrictions introduced as a result of the COVID pandemic have substantially reduced domestic travel, and this has had a dramatic impact on airlines and their staff. One of the big concerns is whether, when border restrictions are eased and previously cancelled flights resume, the airlines will have the capacity to deliver those services. A great deal of time and expense is involved in recruiting and training new staff, so it's important that the airlines be supported to retain staff so they can quickly resume flights when needed.
The Morrison government have introduced two grant programs to help the airlines retain their staff. But, as with many COVID support measures introduced by this government, a number of people have fallen through the cracks, including the flight attendants I met with. The grant assists only those staff who are directly employed by the airlines; 28 flight attendants in Tasmania and hundreds more across Australia receive no support, because they are employed under a labour hire arrangement. This makes absolutely no sense. These flight attendants do the same job as their directly employed colleagues and wear the same uniform. If the purpose of the government's grant program is to retain trained staff and the airline's capacity to fly, why does it matter what the employment arrangements of those staff are?
Another program that the Hobart based flight attendants have looked into for support is the $750 per fortnight COVID disaster payment. This payment is available to workers who lose income because of a state or territory public health order. But you have to be working in the state that is subject to the order to receive this payment. So people working in Tasmania could not receive the payment when they were financially impacted by lockdowns in Victoria and New South Wales. The Hobart flight attendants did have some minor relief through this payment when Tasmania went into lockdown for a few days. But for most of the time they've been stood down they haven't been able to access the disaster payment, even though they've been just as heavily impacted by the pandemic as their colleagues in the other states. These workers are struggling to pay rents or mortgages and to put petrol in their cars and food on their tables. It's unconscionable that the financial relief from the Morrison-Joyce government has not come close to covering their financial losses. If relief does not come soon, that is going to put a significant financial and emotional dampener on their and their families' Christmas celebrations.
One of the flight attendants I spoke to had been in the industry for 20 years. Surely they deserve better treatment than this. I understand the need for state and territory governments to put in place the restrictions needed to keep the public safe from COVID, including border restrictions. We know that the economic impact could have been far worse had these governments not responded and simply allowed the virus to spread. My criticism today is squarely aimed at the Morrison-Joyce government and its design of economic support programs where people fall through the cracks. Not only do people suffer financially as a result of these decisions but also, if people are not supported financially to follow public health measures, it undermines the effectiveness of those measures.
Do you remember the refrain when the Treasurer, Mr Frydenberg, introduced the JobKeeper bills into parliament? I do. He said: 'Australians know that their government has their back.' Well, those words rang hollow for the one million casual employees not covered by the scheme, and they ring hollow now for the hundreds of flight attendants not covered by the current schemes. The consequences of the government's lack of support fall not just on the flight attendants but on their employing airlines as well. If any of these flight attendants can get other employment but are forced to leave the industry to do so, I'm sure they will take up that option rather than continue to suffer financially. Given the considerable time it takes airlines to recruit staff and the further time it takes to train them, the airlines may struggle to meet the demands for flights when border restrictions ease.
The airline that employs these flight attendants has written to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development, Mr Barnaby Joyce, calling on him to fix this problem, which he could do with the stroke of a pen. There have also been representations to Mr Joyce from the union, the Flight Attendants Association of Australia, and from my federal parliamentary Labor colleagues Senator Carol Brown; the member for Franklin, Julie Collins; and the member for Lyons, Brian Mitchell. A few weeks ago I had an opinion piece published in the Mercury which also called on Mr Joyce to act. But all of these calls have fallen on deaf ears.
I once again call on Mr Joyce to act immediately to extend Commonwealth support to all flight attendants impacted by the pandemic. And if Mr Joyce won't do it, then the Prime Minister, Mr Morrison, should direct him to. I urge them to act for the sake of these workers and their livelihoods. I urge them to act for the sake of the travelling public who will need access to flights when border restrictions ease. Furthermore, I urge them to act for the sake of all the businesses that rely on travel, and for the broader Australian economy. This financial support is particularly needed for the tourism industry in my home state of Tasmania. Tasmania has suffered greatly through the COVID pandemic, and we will need interstate visitors to arrive as soon as they possibly and safely can. We are supposed to all be in this together, yet, once again, we have a federal government that continuously and consistently leaves people behind.
I also want to talk briefly about an issue that has been raised with me by medical specialists in Hobart—and, trust me, I've seen a few over the past 12 months. There are three magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, scanners in Hobart eligible for Medicare benefits. All three of these scanners have a magnetic strength of three tesla, or 3T. While modern 3T scanners are the best option for many patients, some patients need access to a 1.5T scanner for safety or medical reasons. This includes patients who have shrapnel in their bodies and patients who have certain medical implants, such as an aneurism clip or spinal metalware. Unfortunately, a 3T scanner cannot be adjusted to provide the magnetic strength of a 1.5T scanner. I'm aware of at least one 1.5T scanner in Hobart. The scanner is safe and it's effective, and around 15 to 20 patients access it every day. But, because of the lack of licences for Medicare-eligible MRI scanners, the patients who access this scanner don't receive any Medicare benefits. Hobart patients who need a 1.5T scanner can end up hundreds of dollars out of pocket, and their only other option is to travel to Launceston, Burnie or Devonport, a round trip of 400 kilometres and possibly up to 650 kilometres. This is especially challenging, as you can understand, Acting Deputy President Faruqi, for patients with mobility issues, and it will substantially increase patient transport costs for the Tasmanian government. Even if patients can get to a 1.5T scanner in Northern Tasmania, this will of course feed into demand for these scanners and increase MRI waiting times for patients in Northern Tasmania.
Demand is already high for Medicare-subsidised MRI scans in Hobart. The Royal Hobart Hospital's medical imaging department has recently written to referring doctors to advise that it is placing a cap on bookings in some specialist imaging modalities. So I am fairly concerned; in fact, I'm extremely concerned that MRI cost and access barriers could lead to delays in diagnosis for some Hobart patients. And, of course, delays in diagnosis can lead to delays in treatment, increasing the burden of disease in Tasmania and adding cost to a health system which is already under strain. Given that MRIs are often used to diagnose serious illness such as cancer, for some patients delays in getting a scan could literally be a matter of life or death.
I've been corresponding with the Minister for Health and Aged Care, Mr Greg Hunt, over this issue, and I have yet to receive a response to my latest letter, which was sent over two months ago. I remain extremely concerned about the health consequences for Tasmanian patients being forced to choose between being hundreds of dollars out of pocket and having timely access to MRI scans when they need them. I'm also very concerned about whether similar issues are faced by MRI patients in other parts of the country, and the consequences for the health systems of those states and territories. Minister Hunt and the Morrison government need to take this issue very seriously. (Time expired)