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Wednesday, 27 May 1998
Page: 3851


Ms WORTH (11:04 AM) —This year's budget consolidates our finances and sets the scene to ride out the economic difficulties in Asia and Indonesia which are impacting negatively on us. We are in the best economic position for 25 years—in the black with a $2.7 billion surplus.

There are plenty of great economic reasons for the coalition government to be working so hard to repay Labor's debt. But it is not just about economics; it is about the quality of life we leave for our children. Currently, we have to raise $8,000 million in taxes to pay the interest bill on Labor's debt. I look forward to the day when this money will be spent on health and education instead of our interest debt.

This budget contains certain initiatives that will have a direct impact on the quality of life of Australian families. A budget initiative in my own portfolio area brings together what my constituents tell me are the three most important issues to them—health, the environment and jobs. The budget includes funding for a national medicines disposal program, building on pilot projects already under way in South Australia and New South Wales. This Australia-wide program will improve the health of Australians by removing unwanted and out-of-date medicines from the home, where they pose a danger, particularly to our children. On an average day in Australia, seven children under the age of five years are admitted to hospital because they have taken medicines not prescribed for them. This budget initiative will help the environment by removing up to 700 tonnes of medicines from landfill and sewerage systems each year. While the national program is in its early stages, it is expected to help create jobs across Australia.

I am very proud that this national project will grow from an innovative and extremely successful scheme that has its roots in my own state of South Australia. The overseas pharmaceuticals for aid life—or OPAL—program is the brainchild of Geoff Lockyer and his wife. They have had the support of a number of organisations and individuals in setting up and maintaining OPAL—people like Dr Joy O'Hazey, the former Mayor of Mitcham, and Humphrey George, the President of the Pharmacy Guild in South Australia, and those opposite will be interested to know that their former colleague Peter Duncan has also taken a leading role and now chairs OPAL. I look forward to seeing OPAL work with the New South Wales based Return of Unwanted Medicines group to develop a national program that I expect will attract international attention, as so many of Australia's other quality use of medicines initiatives have already done.

Most of us believe that having good health is one of the most important things in life. The government agrees, which is why it has featured so strongly in the budget. Free flu vaccines for people over the age of 65 years will be provided from autumn next year. More than 200,000 people in South Australia alone will benefit from this measure.

Visits to the doctor will remain affordable, with $127 million being allocated over the next four years to fund rebate increases for GPs. There is $6.1 million for anti-smoking initiatives, a national approach to cancer control will be implemented, and funding for the National Health and Medical Research Council will be restored to a level of $165 million per year—an increase of more than $50 million.

The importance of medical research to the community cannot be overemphasised. It enables us to keep pace with our overseas counterparts, it creates jobs, it attracts investment—the spin-offs are endless—and it also means that we do not have to keep doing things in the same old way. New ways of treating diseases are found and put into practice and everybody benefits.

This week is National Reconciliation Week, and National Sorry Day yesterday provided an opportunity to reflect on the injustices which indigenous Australians have suffered and continue to suffer. I regret this suffering and I regret the fact that many indigenous Australians do not have the same health, education and employment status and general state of wellbeing that other Australians do. I believe that reconciliation is important—far too important to ever politicise. This budget provides more than $22.6 million to immunise indigenous Australians and ensure early detection of sexually transmitted diseases. There is also increased funding for indigenous health care services and for health infrastructure and capital replacement.

Hostel residents will have access to the medication reviews currently available to nursing home residents. This will be provided by accredited pharmacists, and doctors will also be able to identify patients in their own homes for such a review. The pharmaceutical benefits scheme is one of the most generous and best systems of its type in the world. The government is committed to doing all it can to ensure that all Australians—and in particular older Australians as high users of pharmaceuticals—make the most of this system and also use their medicines wisely.

Our endeavours are not helped by people like the member for Dobell (Mr Lee) and various Labor candidates who seem intent on scaring the most vulnerable members of our community by making ridiculous and completely insupportable claims about the safety and effectiveness of medicines on the Australian market—much to the horror of health authorities and the pharmaceutical industry. In fact, in relation to another argument about medicines, in the 15 May edition of the Australian Doctor the medical editor wrote of the shadow health minister:

We really don't need woolly, unscientific thinking on health.

It is grossly unfair to mislead members of the community over something as important as their health. Those who hold public office or who seek to hold public office should not prey on people in this way just because they want to score some cheap political points.

When it comes to older Australians, the federal government has a different agenda to the Labor Party. As we head towards the International Year of Older Persons, we have made a real commitment to helping older people retain their independence, both physically and financially. The budget includes $280 million in the form of the staying at home package to help older people remain in their homes and to give support for their carers.

Changes have been made to nursing home arrangements to improve the standard of accommodation for the fewer than five per cent of elderly people who enter residential care. Labor had a poor track record in this area, and as it was put to me at the seniors information service in Adelaide, `Why should people leave the comfort of their own homes to die in dormitories?' Improving accommodation where necessary is important.

Many low income self-funded retirees have contacted my office over the years expressing concern that they are not eligible for a health card. This issue is addressed in the budget, which provides for 220,000 people in this category to receive a seniors card which will entitle them to cheaper medicines. This initiative rewards people who have taken financial responsibility for themselves. A further 50,000 Australian World War II veterans will have access to a gold card for health care, which provides them with free treatment as a private patient with their choice of doctor in hospital, plus a wide range of other services, free of charge.

The budget also includes $291 million for the environment program, up from $256 million—a 14 per cent increase on last year. Funding has been allocated to clean up Australia's rivers, for landcare and bushcare grants and to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than five per cent by 2012.

Recently, Australia's unemployment rate dropped below eight per cent for the first time since 1990. About 280,000 new jobs have been created since March 1996. Along with others, the government has worked, and continues to work, very hard in the community to bring that figure down to create opportunities for the next generation. It was concern for our young people's future that triggered us to abolish the CES and install a new system of privately run employment agencies. While it is still early days, the needs of those looking for work are already being catered for by having 19 different job providers operating in my electorate of Adelaide alone—and until recently three CES offices were providing this service.

The federal budget builds on the government's commitment to creating a brighter future for young Australians by allocating $350 million over four years to improve education, training and job prospects, including increased funding for the work for the dole program and for literacy and numeracy training. There will be an extension of the job placement employment and training program until the year 2000, which will help people up to 21 years of age who face multiple disadvantages, particularly the homeless. From July, for the first time some 70,000 students will receive rent assistance under the new youth allowance.

The government will set up a volunteer ambassadors for development program to provide about 500 people up to 30 years of age with the opportunity to live and work as volunteers in the Asia-Pacific region. We are also providing funding of about $215 million over five years to reduce the demand for and supply of illicit drugs in the community, for drug treatment and rehabilitation and for community education. Earlier this month the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) said:

Our ambition must be to build a nation whose economy is strong and innovative, whose society is fair and tolerant, and whose contribution to the region and the world is valued because it is principled and generous.

I think that appropriately sums up the government's wish list and emphasises the goodwill with which it caters for the people it was elected to serve. I look forward to continuing to work towards this goal in partnership with those who share it.