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Wednesday, 29 March 2006
Page: 69

Mr BOWEN (1:50 PM) —Cancer has touched every Australian. Twenty-eight per cent of all deaths in Australia are caused by cancer. Some 88,000 new cases of cancer are diagnosed in Australia each year. This is in addition to the more than 300,000 people who have possibly cancerous skin growths removed each year. To put this in context, there are approximately 88,000 people in each federal electorate. That is an entire federal electorate diagnosed with cancer each year. One in three Australian men and one in four Australian women will develop cancer before the age of 75.

I was very encouraged to hear the honourable member for La Trobe indicate to the House that he supports the listing of Herceptin on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme once it has been through the TGA processes. Some 11,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. I would suggest that the disease has touched almost every Australian family in some way. Of the 11,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer each year, between 2,000 and 2,500 will be HER2 positive. That means that they are possibly able to be treated with Herceptin. The difficulty arises because Herceptin is not on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme schedule and one year’s course of Herceptin can cost approximately $60,000. We see women and families selling their houses and taking out a second mortgage in order to fund their cancer treatment. That is not a situation that is acceptable. The decision will go to cabinet because it would cost more than $10 million to put Herceptin onto the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme schedule.

In the last week and a half I have been organising a petition in my electorate to support the listing of Herceptin on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme schedule. In 1½ weeks, over 10,000 signatures have been obtained. Although I cannot table them in the House at this point, I will be, and I would like to bring the attention of the House to the 10,260 signatures which have been collected in the electorate of Prospect over the last week and a half. I recognise the contribution of other honourable members in this campaign, particularly the honourable member for Holt and the honourable member for Cunningham, both of whom have been very passionate advocates for the listing of Herceptin on the Parliament Benefits Scheme schedule. I also acknowledge and thank all the people in my electorate, many of whom have been going up and down their streets collecting signatures after I wrote to them asking them to support this campaign.

I acknowledge the comments of the honourable member for La Trobe that the process through the TGA has been fast-tracked. But I also acknowledge the comments of the head of the Sydney Breast Cancer Institute, Dr Richard West, who said that the delays in making this drug available are ‘reprehensible’. I call on the government to recognise the importance of the drug when the matter comes before cabinet and to acknowledge that, although this would be an expensive decision, that is what the PBS is there for.

Cancer Australia is established by the Cancer Australia Bill 2006. I support that as a step in the right direction. I do hesitate to make political criticisms of the government in a debate on a life and death matter such as cancer, but I also believe this matter is so important that there is an obligation on all members to point out the shortcomings of this bill, which I will turn to shortly. But, firstly, let me deal with the positive aspects of the bill.

This bill, of course, establishes Cancer Australia, and the time for this idea has come. There are many groups, foundations and organisations dedicated to fighting different types of cancer in Australia. The establishment of Cancer Australia will provide leadership and coordination to these efforts. The role of Cancer Australia will be to provide national leadership in cancer control; to guide scientific improvements to cancer prevention, treatment and care; to coordinate and liaise between the wide range of groups and health care providers with an interest in cancer; to make recommendations to the government about cancer policy and priorities; to oversee a dedicated budget for research into cancer; and to assist with the implementation of Commonwealth government policies and programs in cancer control.

It is, of course, impossible to argue that any of these roles would not be very worthy or that Australia would not benefit from the creation of Cancer Australia. My main criticism of the government in this regard is the very long period of time it has taken to establish Cancer Australia and what this has meant for the National Cancer Control Initiative established by the former Minister for Health and Aged Care, the Hon. Michael Wooldridge. The National Cancer Control Initiative advises the government on cancer. Indeed, the NCCI’s work has led to the Strengthening Cancer Care policy that Cancer Australia will be charged with implementing.

Whenever a new organisation is created, it is important that the corporate knowledge existing in other organisations is not lost. While many people had assumed that the NCCI would be incorporated into Cancer Australia, this will not be the case. Indeed, the NCCI has been left to wither on the vine. The head of the NCCI, Professor Mark Elwood, sent out a letter to cancer groups outlining that the future of the initiative was unclear and that funding was running out. This situation is very disappointing. It is also in contrast to the experience in New South Wales.

In 2003, the New South Wales government established the Cancer Institute NSW. The New South Wales government have been keen to ensure that the new institute works closely with the existing New South Wales Cancer Council and that the Cancer Council’s work is not lost. While I am on the topic, I regard the efforts of the New South Wales government in cancer control as world’s best practice. They are punching way above their weight. They have a minister directly responsible for the fight against cancer, a chief cancer officer and a state cancer plan. This is an area that a state government could very easily ignore, but the New South Wales government have not ignored the issue of cancer; they have been very proactive. I do not always agree with the New South Wales government’s actions, but I have nothing but praise for their actions, in particular the actions of Minister Sartor, in relation to cancer.

Another issue I want to touch upon is the issue of conflict of interest. This is perhaps not a major issue, but it is an issue where I think this government has again neglected to follow the best practice of the New South Wales government. The Cancer Institute (NSW) Bill 2003 outlines at considerable length in clause 8 of part 2 what must be done to avoid potential conflicts of interest. However, the Commonwealth legislation simply says that conflicts of interest must be declared. This is an area where I think the Commonwealth could have done better by following the lead of the New South Wales government in having a much more prescriptive approach to how conflicts of interest on the boards of various cancer authorities should be dealt with.

Another area where I think the government could have done better is in its response to the Senate Community Affairs References Committee report The cancer journey: informing choice, which was the final contribution to this nation of the late Senator Peter Cook. The government has not responded in any substantial way to this report. Unsurprisingly, the government has not responded to any reports by parliamentary committees in recent times. I am sure government members who work so hard on their parliamentary committee work would share the frustration of opposition members that the executive in this nation has shown utter contempt for the parliamentary committee process. The government has ignored this very important report, which was a unanimous report—agreed on by both the government and the opposition—and it has ignored the lasting legacy of Senator Peter Cook. Minister Abbott did indicate during the condolence motion for Senator Peter Cook that he would be responding soon, but we have seen no formal response.

It is also something that has been recognised by the Australian Labor Party. At the last election, our policy was to fund a multidisciplinary conference on care provision for newly diagnosed cancer patients. This would have included surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists and genetic counsellors. Labor’s proposal would have involved 120,000 team consultations for cancer patients. I recognise that this would have been a small step, but it would have been a significant step in the right direction of encouraging and funding a multidisciplinary approach to cancer treatment and in recognition of the thrust of the Senate committee’s report and, in particular, in recognition of the work of the late Senator Peter Cook.

This was just one aspect of Labor’s cancer policy. Other aspects included the national roll-out of a new cancer screening program for the early detection of bowel cancer; educating young men about testicular cancer to ensure early diagnosis and, hopefully, cure; and strengthening the links between Australia’s research institutions, to which I referred earlier, and public hospitals across the country to ensure the speedy adoption of new cancer treatments, including new gene therapies.

In conclusion, I would like to support the comments of the honourable member for La Trobe, who supported the listing of Herceptin on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme schedule. I would also like to again acknowledge the efforts of the honourable members for Cunningham and Holt on this very important matter.

The SPEAKER —Order! It being 2 pm, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 97. The debate may be resumed at a later hour and the member will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.