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Monday, 2 June 2003
Page: 15661

Mrs DE-ANNE KELLY (7:07 PM) —I would like to deal with three topics tonight in discussing the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2003-2004: the education measures announced in the budget and also in the higher education reforms, the changes to health, and communications and the ABC.

With regard to education, the $15.8 billion that has been put into higher education in this budget includes an additional $1.5 billion over 10 years specifically for higher education for a total of $10 billion over 10 years. It is imperative that education is affordable and accessible to students right across Australia and I believe that the changes that the minister has made, particularly with regard to higher education, will make it more accessible to students in rural and regional areas—and, I trust, more affordable.

Central Queensland University is a band 3 university and will get an additional loading of five per cent on the funding that they would otherwise have received. James Cook University in North Queensland, a band 2 university, will have an additional loading of 7.5 per cent. Further, many of the additional places will go to growth areas such as regional Queensland and, I understand, Western Australia. That is timely, because there have been many young people in those areas who have not had the access to higher education that perhaps their counterparts in other areas of Australia have had with the same—to use an old-fashioned phrase—matriculation result.

There is partial deregulation of the system for higher education. Universities will be able to set fees that recognise the socioeconomic reality of the pool that they draw their students from. That really is welcome. I believe that it is most unjust to expect that taxpayers in my electorate, those who are apprentices or perhaps going to work in the mills or the mines, should pay a proportion of the education of somebody who has the opportunity to earn considerably more than they do over their working life. At the same time, there is no differentiation: these taxpayers in my electorate equally subsidise those who are well able to subsidise their own education and those who do not have the capacity to do that. The HECS changes are very welcome in that regard, particularly for full-fee paying students who now have the opportunity of being able to pay their education off over a period of time as other students do.

The changes are very welcome for someone coming from a rural and regional area where there have been insufficient places in the past and where access has been difficult. In many cases, it still is; the local university campuses certainly need a broader range of subjects and faculties, but it is coming. I am pleased that the minister has resisted the pleas from those in areas of sandstone universities that attention be given to them. I firmly believe that higher education has to be accessible right across Australia, so I am very supportive of these changes. I believe they will benefit people in my area as they will students across Australia.

I would like to move now to health and the changes that the minister has announced in the Fairer Medicare: Better Access, More Affordable budget package. The government announced in April that they were going to invest $916.7 million over four years to ensure that medical services would be, again, more accessible and affordable—the sort of thing that we are trying to see in education. For the first time, we will see that doctors will have a financial incentive to bulk-bill patients with concession cards. That is very welcome. I understand, for instance, that from November this year a GP in a capital city will get an additional $3,500 a year as an incentive to bulk-bill those concession card holders; places like to Geelong or Newcastle will receive $10,250 a year; rural centres—Toowoomba, I presume Mackay, Cairns, Broken Hill—will receive $18,500; and remote and outer rural areas will receive $22,050.

For many GPs that will offer an incentive to bulk-bill those concession card holders, and that will be very welcome—as will the $3 payment for each consultation with a veteran who has a gold or white repatriation health card. Bulk-billing in Dawson is running at about 65 per cent; it is up from about 58 per cent two years ago, so it is on the increase. We are certainly not at the dizzying heights of some of the inner city electorates where it is in the 80 or 90 per cent range, nor are we in the very despairing situation of many of the more remote electorates where bulk-billing is very low. Nonetheless, a great number of people in my electorate go in and pay the fee to the doctor when they have finished being seen for the consultation. These changes will make it a great deal more attractive for those low-income families who do not have a concession card. They will just pay the difference between the Medicare rebate and whatever the doctor's fee is. For them, rather than having to pay out $40 or $45—perhaps a couple of times if they have a few kiddies with them or they have all got colds or whatever—they will be paying $10 or $15 up front and not having to worry about getting their Medicare rebate and going to the Medicare office, or Medicare Easyclaim, as they currently are. So it is a far more attractive proposition for patients, particularly low-income patients, who will not have to find the full amount up front.

As welcome as the minister's changes are—particularly those to private health insurance which allow for the insurance of out of hospital medical expenses—they do not change the fact that, ultimately, there are not enough doctors in rural and regional areas. When you look at the vast number of referred attendances in the cities, it is quite plain to see that there are more doctors in the cities than in the country. I firmly believe that the only way we will change this is by looking at geographically allocated Medicare provider numbers.

At the heart of Australian life is the principle that people should have fair and equal—or, at least, comparable—access to servcies; perhaps we cannot have access to every service, much as we would like to. It is not going to be possible to have a brain surgeon, for instance, working in every country town. But at present there is certainly a maldistribution of doctors across Australia. Ultimately, the government will have to face the fact that, while these incentives have great merit and will go some way to making health care more accessible and affordable, there is no way you can persuade doctors to leave metropolitan cities and serve in country areas. In particular, rural and remote areas and Aboriginal communities have even more difficulty than most of us do, and much stronger measures, such as geographically allocated Medicare provider numbers, will have to be taken in the future.

I turn now to the budget as it relates to communications and the arts, with special emphasis on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The ABC's triennial funding base will be maintained in real terms for 2003-04. The government will provide the ABC with $488.7 million in 2003-04, $501 million in 2004-05 and $512 million in 2005-06. The ABC will receive a total of $742.6 million in 2003-04, taking into account additional funding sources such as that for ABC Pacific. While there has been no overt increase in funding, funding is being maintained.

Those of us in rural and regional areas who depend on the ABC obviously would have preferred the ABC receive more funding. Nonetheless, we are in a difficult budgetary climate. We are facing one of the worst droughts in the last 100 years across much of Australia. Having seen Australia participate in a righteous war in Iraq, we are looking at the needs of our defence forces over the next 10 years and the requirement to properly resource our young defence personnel. This budget, in a difficult situation, maintains funding in real terms for the ABC and a whole host of other programs. The Treasurer has done very well; this budget balances our security needs with the need to go forward and the need to maintain programs.

There has been debate recently about editorial accountability in the ABC, but we should focus on financial accountability as well. I would like to deal with the latter first. In the recent Senate estimates hearings, one of the senators went fairly close to the heart of the problem. I will deal firstly with where I think financial accountability could be improved. Recently, in response to a question Senator Santoro elicited that there was a $25 million shortfall of which, I understand, $20 million was due to digital conversion and some technical shortcomings—factors that could have been better managed.

If financial accountability were much tighter—and this is not a criticism of the board or the new CEO of the ABC—there would be a great deal more sympathy with funding requests. I will give a small example from my own area. Radio National recently sent a Brisbane based reporter to do a reef based story in Mackay about jellyfish or crown-of-thorns starfish. The journalist was flown up for a couple of days, leading to accommodation costs and, obviously, the cost of the flight. Many of our local journalists in the ABC are very capable people and I am sure that several could have undertaken the role. When this journalist arrived back in Brisbane, Radio National decided that the editing could not be done there—and, while I know Brisbane is a bit of an outpost, I think they have pretty good capability to do editing—so the journalist was flown to Sydney.

It is only a small example, and it may just be one of those things that occur. I do not wish to be sanctimonious about it or pretend that every level of government—even my own electorate office—could not be more efficient in administrative matters. But I think it is symptomatic of the fact that there needs to be a sharper look at accountability. Channel 7 and Channel 9, for instance, have two overseas bureaus and fly journalists in and out as required. The ABC has 15 bureaus—in Amman, Auckland, Bangkok, Beijing, Brussels, Jakarta, Jerusalem, Johannesburg, London, Moscow, New Delhi, New York, Port Moresby, Tokyo and Washington. That is a considerable number of bureaus and it may well be that they are all necessary. On the other hand, it may be necessary to look at the way in which the existing funding is allocated and at whether some of it could not be used to better effect.

I would like to make a few points about the financial situation at the ABC. While there is concern over funding and the fact that funding is only being maintained, I would be very disappointed—as I have mentioned—if resources were diverted from rural and regional services to what appear to be extraordinarily well resourced studios in Sydney and Melbourne. I realise that this is a decision to be made by the ABC. I would certainly have liked to have seen additional funding. That has not been possible, although the funding is being maintained. There are areas of the ABC that could be looked at a bit more closely. I hope we do not see what normally happens in statutory organisations which are dissatisfied with their funding arrangements; I hope they do not decide to take funding from some of the most vulnerable parts of the organisation, which happen to be rural and regional services.

Mr McGauran —And digital television.

Mrs DE-ANNE KELLY —Yes. I do not believe that that will be the case. I hope it will not, because our rural and regional radio services in particular are very much stretched. I know that the people in my own area work very hard and very long hours to put out their local news. The member for Corio is laughing! The ALP thinks it is funny that I mention that ABC people in rural areas work hard—they do. It is lovely to know that the ALP thinks that is funny. I am sure the member for Corio will mention it in his address.

I go now to the matter of editorial accountability. There has been quite a debate recently about bias in the ABC. Bias is a bit like beauty—it is very much in the eye of the beholder. But I think there is a wider question about balance and bias in the ABC which concerns the unique role the ABC has in Australia. It was entirely through the reporting on ABC radio in particular—and that includes News Radio and Radio National—as well as ABC television that most of my constituents had access to detailed information and a broad range of views on the recent Iraq conflict.

In rural areas most people do not get a daily newspaper. For those who do, the newspapers have very much a local focus. They might talk—quite properly—about local families who have people in the defence forces and so on, but there did not appear to be an opportunity to flesh out the arguments on both sides about the recent military action in Iraq. Local television, while it is fair and balanced, is not a medium that lends itself to complex debate; it tends to run short stories. That is entirely appropriate to the medium but, again, it is not easy in a 15-minute local or perhaps even statewide news bulletin to flesh out the arguments and provide the information people need to be able to make an informed judgment or form an opinion on something as important to Australia as the recent deployment of troops to Iraq.

It is here that the ABC really has almost a sacred duty. It is the only medium that can reach people right across Australia at any time of the day. Even if you live in one of the most remote parts of Australia you can probably still listen to ABC news, AM, PM or World at Noon. In a complex world it will become increasingly important that the ABC be able to deliver to people right across Australia a broad range of views, detailed information and the opportunity to make an informed judgment on the events of the day.

The ABC needs in some ways to develop more of a corporate culture that enables it to focus on professionalism, and I think that Mr Balding, the new CEO, is working to enhance those credentials through greater attention to corporate governance. But that does not change the fact that only the ABC can deliver every day to my constituents and to our constituents right across Australia detailed information, a broad range of views, and opinions for and against whatever the argument of the day may be and allow them to make an informed judgment. It is absolutely fundamental in a democracy that every citizen be able to do that. (Time expired)