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Tuesday, 13 June 2006
Page: 172

Senator IAN MACDONALD (11:23 PM) —Tonight, the Tuesday immediately following the Queen’s Birthday weekend, is the 10th anniversary of two events, one of fairly great significance to our nation and the other not quite so important except to those who were directly involved. The first event is the crash of the Black Hawk helicopters outside Townsville this night 10 years ago, when a number of Australia’s finest serving men lost their lives. Those men gave their lives working for Australia. Some of their relatives and close associates, I understand, have not been dealt with quite as well as perhaps we have come to expect of our government. I hope that is addressed at some time in the future. Those men certainly died on active service in the defence of their country.

Not all that long before, I had in an interview with 60 Minutes, as I recall, criticised the then Labor government for their poor maintenance of those Black Hawk helicopters. Work was done on them in the months immediately following the Howard government’s election to power in early 1996. I am not quite sure what the military inquiry eventually determined—whether it was a problem with the helicopters or a problem with the two helicopters travelling very closely together. However, it was a great catastrophe and very sad. It is an event which is remembered in Townsville. There is a memorial to the Black Hawk helicopter crash, to those who died and those who survived, at the Palmetum in Townsville. I think it is important that we pause on this 10th anniversary and recognise the sacrifice of those men.

The other event that happened 10 years ago was of importance only, as I say, to those directly involved. That was the night before my heart operation in the Mater Misericordiae Hospital in Townsville. I had had a leaking valve in my heart for most of my life. The doctors determined, last Friday 10 years ago, that it very quickly needed to be operated on and they inserted an artificial valve. That operation happened 10 years ago tomorrow. I mention that to record the great care I was given not only by my doctors, Dr David Thoreau, the cardiologist, and Dr Tony Xabregas, the surgeon, but also by the staff at the Mater hospital who looked after me so very well for that six-week period, I think it was, in my life immediately following the heart operation.

The Mater hospital in Townsville is a great hospital. The medical staff who work there have been of a consistently high standard over a great number of years. My stay at the Mater hospital in Townsville 10 years ago was my only ever experience of a hospital. I was particularly impressed—and I think this applies to nursing staff throughout Australia—with the quality of the staff, their care, their ability, the way they dealt with all of their patients and the way they made those of us who had had rather major surgery, such as myself, feel so much better and made it so much easier to recover.

That leads me to the point I really wanted to make tonight about nursing and the health system in Queensland. I think it is now legend that the health system in Queensland has suffered horribly under the mismanagement of Mr Beattie’s Labor government. Books will be able to be written about how Mr Beattie and his succession of health ministers have criminally mismanaged the whole health system in the state of Queensland to bring what was once a very great system practically to its knees. I suspect what Mr Beattie did, as Labor governments normally do, was use all the money that should have been put into medical and hospital resources to build up the public service, bureaucrats, pen pushers, clerks and sinecures for Labor people who could not get a job anywhere else, and as a result the whole system cranked down to the disastrous state it is in now.

In an attempt to get nursing staff back into the hospitals in Queensland, the Queensland government has offered a wage increase to those nurses of 25.3 per cent compounding, covering the period October 2005 to 2009. In order to maintain required staff levels at an absolute minimum, private hospitals in Queensland will now have to match those huge wage increases. To keep people in and to get nursing staff back into the public hospital system, because nursing staff like medical staff had left the Queensland hospital system in droves and gone elsewhere—overseas, interstate and into the private sector—this enormous wage increase has been offered to nurses. Quite clearly, that will attract people back into the Queensland hospital system. But what will it do to the many private hospitals, such as the Mater hospital, which was so good to me 10 years ago? Forty-six per cent of total hospital separations in Queensland are accounted for through private hospitals. To maintain their nursing staff, those private hospitals will have to increase their salaries commensurate with what the Queensland government has offered. Hospital systems in other states will quickly feel the drain into Queensland if those sorts of wage increases are not matched by the states. In Victoria, for example, you can bet your last dollar that very soon the Victorian government will be forced to offer that sort of increase in wages to maintain the nurses in that state.

My point is that the private hospitals in Queensland, particularly those in rural and regional Queensland, are going to find it very difficult to match those wage increases given the way their finances are currently set up. Most of them are funded through the private system. The private health funds—the Medical Benefits Fund, Medibank Private, HCF and so on—all have their budgets. They work out the premiums and what they have to allocate to various areas to make their bottom lines pay. Of course, they cannot overnight suddenly increase the payments to the private hospitals, because they simply would go broke themselves. The private hospitals in Queensland are caught in the situation where they will have to match the huge wage increases being paid by the Queensland government if they are to maintain their services. Mind you, if they do not do that and they have to shut down a lot of their wards in the private hospital system, it will mean that more and more people will go into the public hospital system, which has never been able to cope in Queensland. This situation is going nowhere and is getting worse. It is not just impacting upon the public health system in Queensland; it is also impacting on the private hospital system.

For the private hospitals to match the wage increases, they will have to look to the private health funds for increases. The private health funds cannot do it unless they get a premium increase. I think, regrettably, our government will have to start looking at some sort of a premium increase for the private health funds so the private health funds can pay the private hospitals, which will allow them to meet the huge increases in wages being offered by the Beattie government in Queensland. All this will mean that we will go nowhere: prices will go up right across the whole health system and the Queensland health system will still be no further ahead than it is. (Time expired)