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Monday, 19 November 2012
Page: 9027


Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS (New South Wales) (17:06): I rise to take note of this response to the Senate's motion, which is a very important motion passed on World Mental Health Day. For the benefit of the Senate, I think it is very important that we reiterate some key statistics in relation to mental health. One in five Australians, as we know, will experience mental health issues in any one year and it remains an area where there is a lot of stigma. Despite worthy attempts—in particular, the Senate has on different occasions marked days such as World Mental Health Day, R U OK? Day and various other initiatives such as Sock it to Suicide and other things—there remains, regrettably, a lot of stigma in the community in relation to mental illness and there is discrimination that people suffer as a consequence of it. Importantly, the motion noted that people affected by mental illness can recover to live a happy and rewarding life with adequate and high-quality services and broad community understanding.

The motion called upon the Australian government and states and territories to continue reforms in relation to a range of different areas, and it is that that I would like to focus on today. There are criticisms being levelled at this minister and this government for the delay in rolling out important programs in the mental health area. We know that this government was finally shamed into taking some action on mental health in the 2011-12 budget and this followed a sustained campaign by both the coalition and eminent stakeholders. Coalition motions were passed in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, in this place with the support of independent Senator Xenophon and then independent senator Fielding and in the other place with support from the Independents. But those opposite and their Green alliance partners voted against them.

But when we did finally have this $2.2 billion package, we saw, when we scratched the surface, that, like most things that this government has done, there was a lot of spin and not much substance. Scratch away and you are really only talking about a net spend over the forward estimates of $583 million. In real terms that, net spend, despite the big headline figure, because that is what this government is good at. There is a big headline figure but when you scratch the surface there is not much there. Most of this was achieved by ripping out $580 million from the Better Access program. We know that this government has been heavily criticised for its actions in relation to Better Access but most importantly by making this decision, as it has done repeatedly in the health and ageing space, to rip so much money out. They continually misrepresent this and peddle this misrepresentation about the then health minister, Mr Abbott, but here they are themselves ripping out of health about $1.6 billion and out of mental health $580 million, from the Better Access program. They are doing that without a proper evaluation, without looking at the object of Better Access, which was to give better coordinated care for people suffering from mental illness. At the time in the Howard years when Tony Abbott was the health minister this was the biggest ever spend in mental health: $1.9 billion was allocated over five years, and indeed a lot of people got access to mental health services who had never had that access in the past.

So that is why for a lot of people the changes to Better Access, which were made without consultation with practitioners, caused widespread concern—because in the end the important thing was what would have been the effect on patients. This was something that the government failed to take into account because it had wasted and mismanaged so much money on pink batts, on Julia Gillard memorial halls and on all the rest. So what did they have to go and do? They had to go and make cuts from places like Better Access and in the mental health space, where people are in desperate need. Let me remind the Senate of another statistic, that particularly amongst our young people aged between 15 and 24 suicide is the leading cause of death. Suicide currently ranks 15th in the overall causes of death in Australia. The National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing in 2007 talked about more than 360,000 people having contemplated suicide that year.

Let us look at some of the criticism of this government in relation to its so-called mental health reform. It keeps talking about this roadmap, this roadmap to nowhere—a 10-year roadmap in mental health. One in five Australians needs help now, Minister Butler. They do not need to wait 10 years for your government to get its act together to roll out a plan. It is understandable why eminent professors such as Professor Alan Rosen have referred to this 10-year roadmap as just an illusory false start. Professor John Mendoza referred to it as yet another Pollyanna document from our federal health bureaucracy that commits no-one to anything. Professor Ian Hickie AM said: 'As a result of the mess left at the end of the Rudd era, key structural issues in mental health services remain unresolved.' Professor Rob Donovan said: 'This is a 10 year program but there is no timeline for the proposed action. The document simply refers to two imprecise, undefined time frames: short-term actions and long-term actions.'

Minister Butler the other day appeared on Australian Agenda, and Paul Kelly put to Minister Butler the criticism that is being levelled against him and the government for its failure to roll out reforms—these so-called reforms or programs. We have been talking about suicide prevention for years. It was a 2010 election commitment to roll out $277 million in relation to suicide prevention matters. Yet we are still no closer to the rollout of this money. Indeed, I understand that only $7 million was rolled out in the first year and we are still no closer to understanding what this government has actually done in relation to that. So, understandably, Paul Kelly is criticising this and raising these justifiable criticisms against Minister Butler for his failure to roll out programs.

So, Minister, until you actually move on this, you will continue to have criticism—and justified criticism—as to why you are not rolling out these programs in a timely manner. It makes me wonder, as Paul Kelly asked the minister, and we did not get a very clear answer, as to whether moneys allocated in mental health are actually going to be left in mental health or whether they are going to be clawed back to pay for the waste and mismanagement of this government.

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.