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Wednesday, 23 June 2010
Page: 4101

Senator POLLEY (12:45 PM) —I rise today to speak on matters of public interest and certainly matters which are initiating topical debate around this country. Indeed, it is not a simple task to overhaul years of neglect by the former Liberal government as far as the health system is concerned, but our Labor government has shown the intellect and resolve to tackle the monumental task of reforming Australia’s ailing health system from the ground up.

In attempting to reinvent the failing, disillusioned and fragmented health system that we inherited from Tony Abbott in 2007 a complex process of research, consultation, planning and budgeting was initiated. Amazingly, the essential task of government consultation around the country attracted criticism from those opposite, not the least from Senator Fierravanti-Wells, who alluded to the government ‘spruiking the new system around the country’. She made this assertion during a recent Senate inquiry into the COAG health reform. Such attitude typifies how dangerous it could be putting health responsibility back into the hands of those who inflicted so much damage to the system over such a long period of time.

Imagine the complexities facing those charged with overhauling an outdated, poorly funded and underperforming service. Each and every area of health provision requires attention from aged care, health generally, hospitals and mental health through to the training of doctors and nurses. Australia’s young and old alike have been let down over a long period of time. Those opposite had 11½ years in government to reform health but what did they do? They did nothing. The one constant running through the Senate hearing that I alluded to earlier was the unanimous agreement by all the witnesses that the Australian health system had not just collapsed and faced difficulties in the last 2½ years. There were many experts who gave evidence to that committee about the unprecedented lack of attention given to it by the previous government. This was another repetitive note of agreement. As I said, it was acknowledged that it was due to the total neglect of the previous government that we inherited this system. In fact, the witnesses were very supportive of the Prime Minister and Minister Roxon’s task of going around this country consulting with those that work in the health system to ensure that when we made the reforms that were necessary we had the foundations that were needed.

Increased funding and centralised administration of these moneys will provide a more streamlined and efficient use of available finances. This is long overdue as was highlighted by the Australian Healthcare Association way back in 2005. They said that inefficiencies due to cost-shifting and funding duplication were reducing the efficiencies and effectiveness of our system.

It has taken a new government and a new health minister to formulate a clear plan and policy that is integral to reforming our health system. At the same time as noting such positive support for the National Health and Hospitals Network reforms I wish to highlight the differences in attitude and policy between the opposition and the government. I would like to pre-empt these points with a quote from Tony Abbott printed in the Sydney Morning Herald attacking the Prime Minister even before an announcement concerning the National Health and Hospitals Network reforms was made. Referring to the Prime Minister, Mr Abbott said:

I think it is hugely improbable he is going to come up with a policy that we are going to support.

That was from the Leader of the Opposition, from the leader who has no policies and, in fact, no credibility when it comes to his record in health.

Such negativity is reflected by the following figures. In 2003 Mr Abbott cut $108 million from public hospitals. In 2004 he cut $172 million. In 2005 he cut $264 million, in 2006 a further $372 million and even more in his final year as the minister for health. That is more than $1 billion slashed from our hospitals in five short years. Imagine the number of Australians that money could have assisted—$1 billion slashed. No wonder Tony Abbott is considered such a risk to our health system, let alone to the Australian economy. In the time that Mr Abbott was the health minister he relinquished his federal funding responsibilities and the states were forced to fund the 10 per cent discrepancy. This is another example of Phoney Tony disappointing the country’s health community. Mr Abbott has a record of failure as the minister for health. Why would you trust him as a leader? That is why the community see him as a risk. Mr Abbott—

Senator Bernardi —Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. If the Senator is going to refer to the Leader of the Opposition I would ask that he be referred to by his correct title.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Ryan)—That is quite correct. Senator Polley I would ask you not to use that terminology when referring to a member of the other place.

Senator POLLEY —Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President, but as you just heard I said Mr Abbott continues to blame everyone else for his mistakes, his blunders, his inefficiencies, his lack of consultation and his slashing of funding. That blame game can no longer continue. Let’s hail Prime Minister Rudd and health minister Roxon for their efficiency in working quickly to make the reforms that Australia has been waiting for.

If we were to include all the cuts over every facet of the health system that the opposition would be making under the commitments that they have already made, they would come to $820 million from the health sector. The opposition have indicated that under an Abbott government—God forbid—the investments in GP practices and advances in e-health would be discontinued. The final total of slashed funds could be well over another billion dollars under Mr Abbott. I think Mr Abbott actually likes the billion-dollar slashing out of health; it must be a quirk in his policymaking. He has also committed to reviewing the diabetes funding—quite a questionable decision, as the funding has been hailed by those within the medical fraternity, let alone the community, as being a fantastic initiative of this government.

Ultimately, this will destroy families and their children, who will suffer from the opposition’s lack of interest in properly funding health in this country. After all, they had 11½ years, and what sort of reform did we see? We saw no reform at all. In contrast, the Rudd government is investing heavily in ensuring that we have a workable and efficient health system now and into the future. There will be more specialist doctors available through a $145 million education program. We have improved access to physicians and expanded clinical capacity, courtesy of a $632 million package aimed at training more general practitioners. A further $148 million has been made available to assist junior doctors in early stages of their career. At a recent Senate inquiry on COAG, Senator Fierravanti-Wells asked:

Why were the Prime Minister and his health minister travelling the country consulting health professionals?

That, I think, sums up the opposition. Why would you want to consult those people who are at the coalface, treating our patients and looking after the health welfare of all Australians? That is obviously why those opposite have no policy at all. That is what they have to do: they have to go out and consult and demonstrate that they have the capacity to come up with policies. We are doing that. I know it is a novel idea for those people opposite to get out and talk to real Australians, but that would be my tip to them.

The 250,000 diabetes sufferers will be relieved to see a $436 million injection to keep them healthier and out of hospital. This comprehensive National Health and Hospitals Network reform package will total $7.3 billion over five years, a commitment which will benefit all of us.

There are three specific areas I would like to comment on further today: e-health, aged care and mental health. E-health is the establishment of a secure national electronic personal health record system. It is one of the most fundamental and substantial reforms of the National Health and Hospitals Network package. As Minister Roxon explained yesterday in her speech:

E-health will save lives, reduce medical errors, keep people out of hospital and save money for the taxpayer.

E-health has been widely supported by doctors, nurses and health experts. Its benefits include improved safety and quality of care as well as reducing adverse outcomes by eliminating errors. Some major stakeholders have publicly recognised the importance of this aspect of the National Health and Hospitals Network reform when forwarding submissions to the COAG health inquiry held this month. As well as citing the Australian Medical Association, I would like to quote others. Mr Vern Hughes, a committee member of the Australian Health Care Reform Alliance, said at this same Senate inquiry:

… the flagged introduction of a person controlled electronic health record is fundamentally important to any kind of health reform. If you imagined a banking system trying to do banking operations without an electronic system, it would be laughable; yet we have exactly that in health. So in my book—and certainly from the point of view of parents, families and carers of people with complex conditions, whom I represent—it is the most fundamental requirement of reform.

That is one of the elements of this reform that the Leader of the Opposition has canned. We could go on talking about aged care. Before I do that, I remind those in the chamber of one of Mr Abbott’s comments back when he was Minister for Health and Ageing, in November 2003. He set a five-year deadline for establishing ‘an integrated electronic health record and for paperless Medicare claiming’. This quote on Open Forum in 2008 is just amazing:

The inability of ministers, public servants, managers, IT experts and health professionals as yet to move the health sector into the modern world, at least in this one critical respect, constitutes an important systemic failure.

Tony Abbott is demonstrating that his attitude to health policy today is basically what he showed Australians when he was in office as Minister for Health and Ageing: cut funds and don’t support the health system. That was his mantra as minister for health. I cite several other clear examples. Between 2003 and 2007, Mr Abbott cut funding for GP training places despite a massive shortage, he cut funding to our private hospitals by $1 billion, as I alluded to earlier, and as health minister he left a national shortage of 6,000 nurses.

Unfortunately, when it comes to aged care, it is incredible that time after time those opposite come in and lecture us about the need to act now. If we go back to their record of almost 12 years—11½ very long years—they did nothing except go from one crisis to another when it came to aged care. We know that there is still more to be done, but there is no way that any government can come into office and, in 2½ years, clean up a mess that was left by those opposite over such a long period of time, as they expect. I remind those in the chamber and those listening that during the years from 2000 to 2007 there were no fewer than five different ministers for ageing in this very important area: Bronwyn Bishop, Kevin Andrews, Julie Bishop, Santo Santoro and Christopher Pyne. Do you know what they were responsible for? They were ministers for crisis after crisis after crisis in the aged care sector. It is once again left to us to clean up that mess.

There has been criticism about mental health. We as a government acknowledge that there is more to be done, but it might be an opportunity for those opposite, who come into this chamber day after day trying to lecture us about aged care, mental health, health and the economy, to reflect on the 11½ years that they had in office to make these sorts of reforms.

Nobody that came before the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration Inquiry into COAG reforms relating to health and hospitals laid the blame for the issues and the challenges that we as a country are facing in health at the feet of the Rudd government. So it is unrealistic for those opposite to expect us to clean up their mess in such a short time. But what we are doing is ensuring that there is proper consultation and that the foundations are built strongly for a robust and healthier health system that is governed by local hospital networks which I, as a Tasmanian, can assure you are widely welcomed by my community. I look forward very much to the time when we can discuss this issue further and bring about the sorts of reforms that this country deserves and that are essential for the Australian community. I also lay down the challenge to those opposite to come up with a policy. Tony Abbott is a risk to health, he is a risk to be Australian community’s health, he is a risk to their jobs and he is a risk to the economy. I urge those opposite to go out and consult to find out what is really happening in the community. (Time expired)