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Monday, 7 September 2009
Page: 8724

Mr HUNT (7:30 PM) —I rise to address the Health Legislation Amendment (Midwives and Nurse Practitioners) Bill 2009, the Midwife Professional Indemnity (Commonwealth Contribution) Scheme Bill 2009 and the Midwife Professional Indemnity (Run-off Cover Support Payment) Bill 2009. In doing so, I wear a number of different personal hats. Firstly, I am the son of a midwife; secondly, I am the husband of a nurse; and, thirdly, on 6 July 2009, just over nine weeks ago, I was present at the birth of my son, James Anthony Allan Hunt, who was brought into the world at the hands of three midwives. The obstetrician, Dr Andrew Griffiths, who does a fantastic job—indeed, he was the guiding light during the recent confinement of the member for Dunkley’s wife—was not able to be there for the denouement and there were three midwives present. So I have a deep, personal family history with the role, the work and the majesty of midwives in our society, and I thank them for what they have done for my family and for so many other families.

Having witnessed only a matter of weeks ago in the most humane of circumstances the calmness of the three midwives who helped my family—the way they were able to lift the umbilical cord from around the neck of our little child, who faced a serious risk as a consequence of the way nature delivers things into the world—I have a sense of the extreme professionalism and compassion of midwives. Against that background, I have a deep and powerful belief in the professionalism and competence of midwives and the importance of the midwifery profession to our healthcare system, to our maternity system and to our general hospital and homebirthing system. In that context, let me make it clear that I fully support the push by those who work in home based midwifery to allow continued choice. That choice has been under assault. The choice of mothers around Australia to determine whether they will bring their child into this world in a hospital, as is the case for the overwhelming majority of people, or in their own home was about to be taken from mothers around Australia and from the home based midwifery sector in our society. The women are for the most part dedicated, committed, professional and have an extraordinary history of success.

We were about to see, at the hands of the Minister for Health and Ageing, an entire section of the health profession, and a major part of the personal choice of mothers, taken away. Fortunately the campaign waged by those involved in home based midwifery—with the common sense of the shadow minister for health, Mr Dutton, and the support of those on the coalition side, amongst others—has led to a reversal of the government’s position. This is a good thing. It is, however, only a partial reversal. We now have the grey situation where home based midwifery will be able to continue but only for two years. The government has given a two-year stay of execution on the entire profession and on the choice available to every mother in Australia. That is not an acceptable solution, we say to the minister. It is a partial, interim solution which gives no professional security, which gives no long-term choice and which is anything but an expansion of the services available to those who call upon midwifery in Australia.

Our view is very clear. We accept that, as an interim solution, this is better than what was on offer until last Friday. But that is all—it is better than what was on offer until last Friday. It does not provide a solution to the magnificent women I have met who work in home based midwifery on the Mornington Peninsula and who represent the role of midwife to so many expectant mothers who choose of their own volition to give birth in their own home. It is one of the most deeply personal experiences in life, and it must surely be up to the mothers to make that decision. Yet the government’s decision is temporary, the solution is uncertain and the future of the profession is in doubt. Against that background, let me say this to Minister Roxon: you have a very serious and profound duty to an entire profession to provide them with certainty. The minister must ensure that all of the actuarial figures on the success rate, the complications and the tragedies are released. This data will provide an unimpeachable base for real public debate. That material should be released by the minister posthaste. There can be no reason for failing to disclose such information—it is within the grasp of the government, it will enlighten public debate and it will allow us to give home based midwifery a certain future.

Having said that, I want to make two other comments. The first is specifically in relation to my electorate of Flinders. We have seen the closure of the midwifery unit at the Rosebud Hospital. This is a public hospital which has had its midwifery unit closed under a state Labor government. This in itself denies choice to mums and their partners on the Mornington Peninsula. In some cases it creates risk, in that emergency cases must be transported much further than they would otherwise have needed to be. It certainly creates inconvenience and in many cases it creates heartache. That support has not been provided by the state government in Victoria, and I urge them to rethink the closure of the maternity unit of Rosebud Hospital. They promised expanded services; they delivered diminished services.

Against that background, it is absolutely clear that the peninsula has lost its maternity services, but so has Bass Coast. Bass Coast, however, has been more ill treated. The entire Warley Hospital at Phillip Island has been closed, and it was closed as one of the first acts of the new federal government. Warley Hospital was not a private hospital, as has been asserted. It was a community hospital. It was in fact a bush nursing hospital. Its original purpose was midwifery. It carried on a midwifery service until a few years ago, when again the state Labor government would not support midwifery on the Bass Coast. So the people there have had a double blow. They have lost their midwifery unit and they have lost their hospital.

Against that background, there must be support for Warley Hospital. There must be support for a future hospital, whether it is a stand-alone unit or an integrated hospital, on Phillip Island. The federal government came to office claiming that it would end the blame game. Sadly, the first act of the Minister for Health and Ageing was to say, ‘It’s not mine; it’s the state’s.’ At the same time, the Victorian Premier, Mr Brumby, said, ‘It’s not mine; it’s the Commonwealth’s.’ So a hospital which we protected, nurtured, fostered and supported under the previous government lost its funding, lost its future and closed within the first three months of the new government, after eight decades of operation. That is a sad legacy to leave the people of regional Victoria.

The third thing that I want to address is that all of this is part of a broader pattern. One of the foundation promises upon which the Labor government came to power was that, if the hospitals were not fixed by 1 July 2009, the federal government would take over the hospitals. The hospitals are not fixed. The hospitals that have been in the hands of state Labor governments have continued to deteriorate. Services have worsened and yet we see paralysis, inaction and a breach of a fundamental pledge to the Australian people. That must weigh heavily on the government. They should be called to account on this foundation promise which related to their election. This promise has been honoured only in the breach, which means that there is no calling to account the drift in services under the state Labor governments in our great hospital system.

Ultimately we believe deeply in better health services for people. I have seen taken away in recent years the Rosebud midwifery unit. I have seen Warley Hospital, which, during our time in office, we fought to protect, to preserve, to keep open, closed by a federal Labor government that said it was not its business and ignored by a state Labor government which said that it was Prime Minister Rudd’s business. Neither tier of government owned the hospital, and that hospital passed out of existence because of that collective indifference.

We will not let similar indifference cloud the future of the home based midwifery sector. We believe that sector is critical. We believe it provides choice. We believe we can trust those people. We do not take the view of Minister Roxon that these midwives are to be doubted, derided and denied the trust which is due to them on the basis of their historical performance. So I endorse wholeheartedly the push of the coalition to give certainty, to give a future and to give permanency to home based midwifery. Insofar as this legislation provides an interim solution, we will not stand in its way, but we will fight for permanency, certainty and a future for home based midwifery.