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Wednesday, 3 March 2004
Page: 25912


Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR (6:07 PM) —Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2003-2004, Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2003-2004 and Appropriation (Parliamentary Departments) Bill (No. 2) 2003-2004 offer members on both sides of the House a very important opportunity to highlight key issues of concern to their electorates. Some of those issues have national connotations; others are quite local. In my case, there are some very important issues of real concern to my constituents. The first one is health. Previous members have contributed much in this debate to the issue of health. When looking at the health system in the Geelong region, it is fair to say that at the moment it is in crisis. That is not a reflection on Barwon Health or the workers who earn their living in this very important industry, but it is a reality.

There are several elements to this crisis situation. The first is the shortage of GPs in the Geelong region. I have had representations from the General Practitioners Association of Geelong about this particular issue. Many of my constituents are not able to access a general practitioner and, of course, that is of real concern to them in meeting their primary health care needs. This factor and several others have put immense pressure on the casualty department at Geelong Hospital and also on waiting lists at the outpatients department of that hospital. Some of that pressure comes from the fact that in the region we have a shortage of aged care beds. People are being kept in the Geelong Hospital when they should be attended with care in specialised nursing home facilities. I will say this to the government: you can find $1 billion for a war in Iraq but you cannot find the resources and funds necessary to enable older people in Geelong to live out their days in dignity and receive appropriate standards of care.

When I talk about a crisis in Geelong's health system, I also refer to the impact of the government's policies on the pockets and the incomes of families in my constituency. We have seen a substantial increase in health costs for families in Geelong. Firstly, this has come from the rapid decline in bulk-billing in the Geelong region. I will provide to the chamber some statistics on that in a minute. The other particular pressure on health costs has come from the increase in private health insurance premiums. We have a rather high level of private health insurance usage in Geelong, with GMHBA based in the city. We have seen recently, as a direct result of government policy, some very substantial premium increases that are impacting on Geelong families to the tune of $150 a year.

When the bulk-billing rate declines in a community, low-income earners and families under economic pressure face real difficulties and pressures on their household budgets as a result. Bulk-billing was designed as an essential part of the universal health care system of Australia. It enables low- and middle-income Australians to gain access to a universal health care system—a quality one at that—at a reasonable cost. Bulk-billing delivers an economic advantage to people who use bulk-billing doctors. The last time Mr Howard released bulk-billing figures for each federal electorate was in the September quarter of 2003. At that time, the rate of bulk-billing in the electorate of Corio stood at 58.4 per cent. In the Liberal-held electorate of Corangamite, over the Barwon River, it stood at 41.8 per cent. The figure for both of these Geelong based federal electorates stood well below the national average of 67.4 per cent.

When you look at the national figures since the Howard government came to power, you can see that the rate of bulk-billing has generally fallen by around 13 per cent. At the same time, the average cost of seeing a GP has risen by 64 per cent. In September 2003 that increase stood at around $13.40 per visit. When you take the rising costs of seeing a GP and the economic disadvantage that flows to low- and middle-income families from reductions in bulk-billing and when you add to this the increased premiums for private health insurance, the economic pressure on Geelong households in this health area alone has been quite substantial.

Labor do have a plan for the health care system, as we did when we structured the great universal health care scheme in Medicare. We have a plan to restore bulk-billing. We will immediately lift the Medicare patient rebate for all bulk-billed consultations to 95 per cent of the schedule fee—an average increase of $3.35 per consultation. Labor will subsequently lift the Medicare patient rebate for all bulk-billed consultations to 100 per cent of the schedule fee. That will be an average of $5 per consultation. We will offer doctors an incentive of up to $22,500 to meet stipulated bulk-billing targets and we are going to provide more GPs and nurses in areas of critical need. This is a plan to address the damage that has been done to Australia's health care system by the Howard government. Members opposite can run but they cannot hide. The electorate are now poised with their baseball bats, ready to take them to this coalition government because of the broken promises and the burdens it has visited upon them.

The second important area of concern for Geelong families is that of educating their children. Australian families, and Geelong families in particular, do not ask much from their governments and their education system. They simply ask that a decent opportunity be provided to their children—that their children have the opportunity to develop their skills and personalities and become good contributors to Australia, to the ongoing development and greatness of this country. We know that at this particular point in time in our history that there are gross inequities in the opportunity that is available to students in this country to access a good education. These inequities are no more pronounced than they are in the Geelong area. We do have schools that are very well resourced. I cast no aspersions on the parents who choose to send their children to those schools—they make a sacrifice to send their children to those particular schools. But the economic reality is that many of the parents who do send their children to those schools have an economic capacity that far surpasses that of others in the Geelong area.

We have an extraordinary situation in Geelong where schools that exist within two to three kilometres of each other are like chalk and cheese when it comes to the level of resourcing and, of course, access to real opportunity. That is where it is the responsibility of government to make sure that educational institutions most in need have the first call on the resources and that every Australian child—including every child in Geelong—gets a fair crack of the whip at getting the education that will propel them along a road to new opportunity. That is not the case in Geelong, and that is a reality that the community in Geelong has to face.

We have the greatest deceiving government in Australia's history at it again in the electorate of Corio. I refer to the recent announcement in a press release by the Minister for Education, Science and Training of a number of places at Deakin University. It stated:

... the Geelong region will benefit from 164 new Commonwealth scholarships ...

On the face of it, the electors of Corio might say, `That is the government doing its job and expanding opportunity.' But we find that the scholarships are spread across all Deakin campuses, including Burwood, Toorak and Warrnambool as well as Geelong. So the Geelong campus is one of four that will share in these 164 scholarships. I welcome the initiative. I am not going to turn my back on 164 scholarships for Deakin University, but the minister ought not come into my electorate and put out a press release claiming credit for addressing a need in the Geelong region when in fact some of those scholarships will go to Melbourne.

Under the Howard government, we have seen the recently announced slug on Geelong families of a 25 per cent Deakin University fee hike. This 25 per cent fee rise has also been announced by Griffith University, the Queensland University of Technology and La Trobe University and we understand that a number of other universities are about to follow suit. The minister has stood up in this parliament, day after day, week after week, claiming that his new policy for higher education would not lead to maximum fee hikes. We told him that it would. We told the minister that his policies would lead to these 25 per cent increases. What has happened? We now have 25 per cent fee increases, and they will impact quite heavily, for instance, on working families in Geelong who seek to send their children to Deakin University in their own community.

Labor will remedy this situation, and we are committed to removing that 25 per cent fee hike. We are going to provide an extra $300 million to universities over the next four years to make sure that they can deliver a quality education to their students not only at Deakin University but at universities right across the country. We will fully index grants to those universities to make sure that they have the capacity to deliver the quality education that we expect. We will also create 20,000 new places not only in the higher education sector, at universities like Deakin, but also at TAFE institutions, such as the Gordon Technical College in my electorate.

In the time remaining, let me talk very briefly about Geelong's transport network. We all know how important the transport network is to the economic wellbeing and growth of communities. When Labor was in power, the Keating government, in its great infrastructure spending, created the Western Ring Road around Melbourne. That particular public investment has altered the economic geography of the 13th largest city on the face of the earth. It has certainly made it a little easier for me to get to Melbourne airport, but now with the Jetstar announcement to fly out of Avalon I may not be using Melbourne airport as much as I have in the past.

The issue of real concern now is the Geelong ring-road or the Geelong bypass. It took the community of Geelong many years of very difficult and sustained lobbying to get the third lane on the Princes Highway between Melbourne and Geelong. That has proved to be a great advantage to commuters and has provided a great economic benefit to constituents in the Corio electorate. I do not doubt that. Unfortunately, that third lane on the Princes Highway ends at the northern suburbs of Geelong. The Bracks government has committed some $190 million to the ring-road and has requested that the federal government make a matching contribution under its Roads of National Importance program.

I think it is fair to say that, in discussions we have had with the minister and, indeed, the shadow minister, as would be expected at the first cut and call of these particular lobbying efforts, the community has not been successful. We will keep on trying because we think we have a very important economic and social case to make. That ring-road will certainly connect the Princes Highway from Melbourne with the Bacchus Marsh Road and the Ballarat Road—and I note the presence in the chamber tonight of the member for Ballarat, an excellent member who will hold the seat at the next election—and around to the Midland Highway. It will, of course, rejoin the Princes Highway going into the western district, into the heartland of the electorate of Corangamite, and it will also connect with the Surf Coast Highway. This is a very critical piece of road infrastructure which will alter the economic geography of the Geelong region.

I ask Minister Anderson, in a spirit of bipartisanship, to consider the representations that are being made. I ask the shadow minister, the member for Batman, to also consider carefully the arguments that are being advanced by the community. This piece of infrastructure will connect Melbourne with the Great Ocean Road, one of the premier tourism attractions in Australia as well as in the state of Victoria. Ayers Rock, the Great Barrier Reef and the Great Ocean Road all occupy a special place.

So the economic advantages of connecting this last piece of the puzzle are quite substantial. But there are also safety considerations, because at the moment that traffic goes through the middle of Geelong via Latrobe Terrace. We have traffic jams and degrees of congestion and environmental pollution in that stretch of road through Geelong that could be mitigated should this bypass be completed. As well as the safety aspect, there are enormous social benefits, because many of my constituents and the constituents of the member for Corangamite travel to Melbourne to work. They have seen the benefits of the great lifestyle in the Geelong region. I hope good sense will prevail and ministers and shadow ministers will open their minds to argument and that we can have a sensible debate and discussion on this very important piece of infrastructure for the region. Health, education and transport are the real issues for my constituents, and these are the issues that I bring to the attention of the House tonight.