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Tuesday, 26 May 2009
Page: 4383

Ms REA (5:55 PM) —I too rise to support the Health Workforce Australia Bill 2009, which was introduced by the Minister for Health and Ageing in the parliament not so long ago, and I am very pleased to have the opportunity to not just speak on it but also support it. The Rudd government was elected in November 2007 most particularly on a platform of restoring the community’s confidence in the government’s ability to deliver vital services and much-needed basic community and social infrastructure. In fact, it was elected on a platform to support the needs of all Australians. For too long the previous government had culled services, selectively funded its pet projects and underfunded very basic and vital services. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the $1 billion that was cut from the federal health budget—an indictment on the previous government but unfortunately also a major challenge for the newly elected Rudd government to restore funding for our health system and to restore the confidence of the Australian people in our health system. This bill is a significant step in restoring that confidence.

The Rudd Labor government also promised to end the blame game. Nowhere was the blame game more evident than in the debate about health and health funding across this country. We all know that we need a health system that will support all Australians, particularly those who are most vulnerable and in need of public services. I come from Queensland, so I know too well how the blame game played out in that state. We all know—it is no secret—that our health system is under challenge. We all know that the taxpayer’s dollar is finite and that governments are always struggling to find a way to put more resources into all of our services—particularly in health—and to ensure those resources are spent as effectively as they can possibly be. The Queensland government has been trying to do that through its support for the public health system. It would have been nice, I think, to have had a federal government over the last 10 years that was in fact prepared to work in partnership with the state government to support our health system and to see that resources coming from both levels of government were used most effectively to ensure that Queensland has the health system that they deserve. But, unfortunately, the health system in Queensland was simply used as a political football, and those who fell through the cracks were simply considered collateral damage as far as the federal government was concerned.

We know that one of the biggest pressures on our public hospital system is the lack of services in our suburbs and our local communities—the lack of trained health professionals and the lack of GPs, particularly in after-hours services and particularly on weekends and in the evenings. We all know that a baby with an ear infection does not confine it between the hours of nine and five. They get ear infections any time—in the case of my children, most often at about one o’clock in the morning. It is then that you actually need a doctor. Unfortunately, in most cases these days, the only place you can find that emergency treatment is a public hospital. So the best way to support public hospitals in the state of Queensland, and indeed across the country, is to support and resource more doctors and more GPs in our local communities.

The Health Workforce Australia Bill is a fundamental part of the COAG agreement of health ministers to provide health services and health professionals to our communities where they are needed most. That is why I believe this bill is of great significance. It is a commitment of $1.6 billion in combined funding from both the Commonwealth and the states. The Commonwealth will put in $125 million over four years to run Health Workforce Australia. It will be a statutory authority established under the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act 1997. It will consist of a board of directors, a nominee of each state and territory and the Commonwealth, an independent chair and may include up to three independent members selected by health ministers. It is important that the governance is right, and I believe that this representation from both the Commonwealth and the states and territories will indicate quite clearly that there is a partnership between those two levels of government to ensure that our health resources and our precious health dollars are used most effectively and most wisely.

What I believe is so important about this authority is that its focus is on training, on planning and on policy development. Why do I say that? I say that because of the comments I have already made. If we had had a coordinated and cooperative approach from the Commonwealth and state governments over the last 10 years, we would not be in the situation we are in now. We would have had the clinical staff on the ground. We would have had the resources put into the training that is needed to build up our health professionals across the whole of the health profession. That is not just doctors but allied health professionals as well. We would have had a body that was able to identify areas like my own electorate of Bonner. South-East Queensland is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. We would have had an independent body that understood the pressure on population growth and was able to plan the health workforce and the services required to meet the demands of that growing population before it was too late. That would have happened before people could not find a doctor at one o’clock in the morning and before the emergency section of the local hospital was understaffed and over-pressured because people were waiting for routine medical assistance that they should have been able to get through their local GP—if it was not after five o’clock in the afternoon.

What is also very important about this bill is that it combines the critical elements of training, planning and preparing ourselves for the needs of the future with policy development. We all know, as I said earlier, that the taxpayers’ dollar is finite. We have to spread it across many services, many needs and many demands on the government. We all know that in the health debate, if you talk to doctors on the ground and if you talk to the nurses in the hospital wards, they will tell you that money is not the only solution. They will say that, yes, of course more funds could always be used in our health system but that just as effective as more money is how the money we have is spent. That is why this authority is so important to delivering a better health service. They will tell you that the critical part of our health system is not just the bricks and mortar—that is, the hospitals, the physical structures—but the staff, the trained workforce. It is the numbers in those hospitals, the GPs on the ground, the quality of the training and the number of trained people in this country to provide health services to our community.

That is why this bill is so important. It does not just say, ‘Let’s throw money at the problem.’ It says: ‘Let’s spend the money where it’s needed, in developing our trained staff. Let’s plan for the future and let’s make sure that we’ve got the right people developing the policies that we need to make our health system even better.’

I know that the good people of the electorate of Bonner will certainly welcome this. We have a small local hospital in the electorate of Bonner, the Wynnum Hospital, which of course provides an essential service to our local community. We also, as part of Brisbane, rely on the three major hospitals in Brisbane, particularly those on the south side, the Princess Alexandra Hospital and the Mater Private Hospital, to provide the much needed services that are required in the city. It is so important to that very fast growing area of Brisbane, one of the fastest growing areas in the country, that we have the health workforce and the planning and policy development that will be able to cater for that growth into the future.

I also have many very good, committed and dedicated local health people working in that area—in particular, the general practitioners who I meet with regularly through the South East Alliance of General Practice that covers the Bonner electorate. They know what is needed on the ground, they know what is needed to support the health needs of our community and they know what the demands in the future will be. I am sure that they will be very pleased to see that this government has actually listened to what they are saying and has said, ‘We are prepared to put money into supporting you and giving you both the policy and the health workers that you require.’

This Health Workforce Australia Bill is also, as I said, part of the overall health agreement that has been discussed and agreed to by the health ministers at COAG—the states and the Commonwealth working together. It will be part of delivering the very important Health Workforce National Partnership. Some significant dollars will see major improvements to our health system across this country: $500 million to support the expansion of undergraduate clinical training places; $86 million to provide 212 additional ongoing GP training places, a 33 per cent increase on the previous government’s cap; 73 additional specialist training places in the private sector; $28 million to help train 18,000 nurse supervisors, 5,000 allied health and VET supervisors and 7,000 medical supervisors; a $175.6 million investment in capital infrastructure to support training of our workforce; construction of new and mobile high-tech stimulated learning environments; expansion of education and training facilities at our major regional hospitals; and $264 million for other important initiatives, including the national health workforce agency.

In conclusion, whilst the establishment of a health workforce authority may not get a lot of publicity out there in the community, I take this opportunity as the member for Bonner to say that this particular initiative will go a long way to supporting the health needs of the people in Bonner and fellow Queenslanders. But, more importantly, it will see the education sectors, the health sectors, the health workforce, the people on the ground, those in government, including ministers, and those working in bureaucracies for the first time in a long time working together to develop a health strategy for our country that will improve our health system, end the blame game and stop health being nothing more than a political football.