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Wednesday, 29 March 2006
Page: 131

Ms HALL (6:28 PM) —Before the member for Cowper leaves the chamber, I would like to tell him that I visited the Coffs Harbour Health Campus as recently as last week or the week before. It is a fine facility, and I congratulate the New South Wales state government for building that facility. I think it is one of the highest quality regional hospitals, and I think the people of Cowper are very fortunate to have such a facility servicing the Coffs Harbour area. I hope the member for Cowper appreciates the health campus and the services that are available to the people in his area.

I would also like to pick up on the points the member for Cowper made about the training of radiotherapists and pathologists for the workforce and encourage him to take up in his party room the cause of getting the government to make more places available at university so that more radiotherapists and pathologists can train. I know that in every public hospital throughout this country we have an enormous shortage of allied health professionals. The way to get around that, and the way to get around our shortage of doctors and nurses, is to have more of those positions created. I wanted to make that comment in relation to the Coffs Harbour Health Campus while the member for Cowper was still in the House and, in doing so, to acknowledge the contribution made by the state government to that fine facility.

This legislation establishes Cancer Australia as a new statutory agency for cancer policy and coordination as well as research. As I am sure many members in this debate have pointed out, cancer is the leading cause of death in Australia, with over 36,000 Australians dying each year from cancer of one type or another. One in three men and one in four women will be directly affected by cancer before the age of 75. Like I am sure every member of this House, I have had members of my family who have been affected by cancer. I think it would be a very rare family that has not had cancer affect them in one way or another.

There are 88,000 new cases of cancer diagnosed each year in Australia. The good news is that more than half of those are successfully treated. The survival rate for most common cancers has increased by more than 30 per cent in the last two decades. Whereas once a diagnosis of cancer was an immediate death sentence, it now has some hope associated with it. That is why decisions that we make in relation to cancer can reflect on the overall wellbeing and further gains in the survival rates of people who suffer from cancer. That is why our decisions are so important.

The most common cancers in Australia are bowel cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, melanoma and lung cancer. Cancer costs $2.7 billion in direct health system costs, which is about 5.7 per cent; and $215 million is spent on cancer research. The figures for that come from 2000-01. That is about 18 per cent of all health research expenditure in Australia. That is what makes it so important that research is targeted and properly supervised and that all research into cancer is coordinated properly. That goes to the role of Cancer Australia, and I will talk a little bit about that in a moment.

Cancer incidence in Australia is higher than in the United Kingdom and Canada but lower than in the United States and New Zealand. However, Australia’s mortality rates are lower than in all those four countries. That shows that there has been fine work done here in Australia, and we want to make sure that that continues. The melanoma incidence rates in Australia and New Zealand are around four times higher than those found in Canada, the UK and the United States. I do not think there would be any member of this House who would be surprised by that. However, the mortality rate for melanoma is quite low compared to other countries. Once again I think we can attribute that to the fine work that is being done by the Cancer Council, by the cancer specialists and by all those dedicated researchers and people who work in the field.

The incidence of colorectal cancer in Australia is higher than in the US, Canada and the United Kingdom but lower than in New Zealand. The thing that I find quite disturbing, though, is that Australia’s mortality rate for colorectal cancer is high by world standards. It is higher than those of Canada, the US and the UK. These figures were released in December 2004—just to put them into the right time frame so members and people listening to or reading this debate will be aware of where those figures fit into the spectrum. The importance of governments ensuring that policies and promises that are made and delivered in relation to cancer is evident. It is also really important that there is proper coordination to ensure that the delivery is timely.

In speaking to this legislation, I would like to spend a little bit of time on the establishment of Cancer Australia. I have to say that I am quite disturbed by the unconscionable delay in the implementation of this election commitment. What that means in relation to the National Cancer Control Initiative of the Cancer Council is that the work and staff that were originally planned to be subsumed into Cancer Australia have been disbanded because the funding has ceased. Rather than a seamless move from the NCCI into Cancer Australia, what we have had is a situation where expertise has been lost and there has been a hiccup, a stalling, of the process. This can only be detrimental to the way Cancer Australia operates and to the way cancer services and policy are implemented in Australia. I also believe that it will have an impact on research.

Given the delay and the loss of expertise, the government should hang its head in shame. Something that could have happened with no problem at all has happened under a poor process that has caused problems for people involved in the fight against cancer, people involved in the treatment of Australians suffering from cancer, people involved in developing the policies and implementing those policies, and people involved in research projects. They have not had the certainty of knowing where they are going and how to get there.

There is a need for improved access to cancer services for people living in rural and regional Australia. There is no commitment in the establishment of Cancer Australia to specific initiatives to address this issue. We previously heard from the member for Cowper. He spoke about initiatives within his health campus at Coffs Harbour, where they are bringing on line cancer services. It is very sad that this is happening only now, even within an area such as Coffs Harbour. In Newcastle, the Hunter and the Central Coast services are still wanting. This delay has not helped. Where there is delay, where there is failure to implement policy, there are groups of people that suffer: the people who are fighting battles with cancer, their families and those researchers who are developing the new techniques, technologies and cures that could be operating and that could give certainty.

Unfortunately, even the establishment of Cancer Australia has not met the test that I referred to earlier. Its implementation should be properly coordinated to ensure the timely delivery of services, programs, policy and research. It is very sad that it has taken so long to establish Cancer Australia, with the incidence of cancer as high as it is in Australia, with the figures like those I presented to the House just a moment ago. One in three or four women will be directly affected by cancer before the age of 75. It is sad that we have a situation like that here in Australia, where we have so many highly qualified people who are interested in being involved and working with these people that are suffering from cancer. There are so many researchers who would like to have their work funded. Problems have eventuated because of the slow start. There has been a loss of expertise caused by the fact that it has taken the government so long to establish it.

This has also had impacts on individuals and families. There are both social and financial costs associated with this. Whilst the person is not having that treatment, their level of illness is increased. Whilst the research is not taking place, the human cost and suffering is enormous. That also leads to economic costs, such as loss of working hours. It is very sad that it has taken so long. Because of the demise of the National Cancer Control Initiative, as I mentioned before, key expertise in the areas of cancer prevention, treatment and palliation has been lost. It is going to take some time before we can manage to make up for that loss.

I would like to spend a little bit of time discussing what I hope Cancer Australia will achieve in Australia: providing national leadership and coordination for cancer control; providing coordination and liaison between a wide range of groups and providers with an interest in cancer; making recommendations to the Australian government about cancer policy and priorities; overseeing a dedicated budget for research into cancer; assisting with the implementation of the Australian government’s policies and programs in cancer control; and undertaking the functions that the minister delegates to them. They are supposed to provide a national voice, with more research funding for cancer care.

Because of this delay and because of the government’s failure to demonstrate adequately to me and those of us on this side of the House that it will achieve its goals—goals that I believe are important—we have some doubts as to whether those very noble goals will be achieved. The government gives a lot of lip-service to supporting cancer and to the need for better management of dollars that are going into cancer, for better research and for more money for research. But that lip-service does not achieve results in a timely manner. If ever there was an example of something not happening in a timely manner, it is the establishment of Cancer Australia.

I will now turn to the Howard government’s cancer policy, which was put together just prior to the last federal election. I am very sad, because the government has not delivered the promises it made to the Australian people back then. I have before me the Howard government’s 2004 election policy document, Strengthening Cancer Care. This document contains a costings summary in relation to fighting cancer and talks about bowel cancer. I find it very disturbing that, once again, the government has failed to deliver on its promise. The government promised to introduce bowel screening, which has been costed in this document at $8.5 million for the year 2005-06. I cannot see the government spending that amount of money in the time that is left. The government has also failed to deliver on a cancer prevention program for women that would help women to stop smoking when they are pregnant.

It is pleasing to see the Minister for Health and Ageing in the House. I sincerely hope that he will ensure the implementation of the program to help pregnant women quit smoking. I would also like the minister to give some reassurance that he will implement a bowel-screening program and that the $8.5 million that he promised the Australian people will be spent accordingly.

Finally, as many members on this side of the House have done, I would like to mention the Senate Community Affairs References Committee inquiry that the late Senator Peter Cook was involved in when he was in the end stages of cancer. The inquiry’s report was called The cancer journey: informing choice. When Peter died, we acknowledged the fine work that was involved in that document and his amazing legacy is contained in those recommendations. Right up until the end, he fought to see that that report’s recommendations were implemented. Minister, I would like to see your response to that report. I would like to see some move towards implementing the recommendations in that report. I would like to see the minister make a real commitment to cancer rather than a half-hearted attempt that is fraught with delays and procrastinations, as has been the case with the establishment of Cancer Australia.