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Thursday, 26 November 2009
Page: 13148


Mr GEORGANAS (1:06 PM) —I rise to give my wholehearted support to the Health Insurance Amendment (New Zealand Overseas Trained Doctors) Bill 2009. We have been encouraging labour to flow into the Australian market at times of heightened demand, in all sectors. The longstanding skill set of visas, be they temporary or permanent residency visas, has assisted diverse industries such as construction, engineering, accounting, business and even health and nursing. This has been a long-held practice by this and previous governments. It gives our economy and our essential services the skilled labour that we desperately need. From time to time, the skilled labour needs change, but these are things that we have to look at continuously in contributing towards the targets in periods of increased demand. The last thing we want is unnecessary artificial barriers that discourage the flow of targeted labour across our borders that is required by our economy and service sectors, which from time to time will continue to supply our nation and our economy with the people it may need desperately. The medical professionals who make up our medical teams in Australia do tremendous and important work.

It has been an honour to chair the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health and Ageing. It has given me a great opportunity to meet many people within the medical industry with specialisations as diverse as every profession you can think of. Each profession has unique and captivating stories to tell us and lessons to teach us in their contribution to our Commonwealth. They are truly remarkable people whose work I, as chair of the committee, am usually more than happy to support and serve.

The longstanding position of pretty well everyone who looks at this is that we as a Commonwealth have neglected to provide the training opportunities that we have needed to sustain our medical workforce. In the case of nurses, for example, I believe there is plenty of training available, but there is an unacceptably high attrition rate. Far too many nurses leave the industry because of the poor conditions they are expected to endure, but with doctors the situation is somewhat different. In the past we have failed to provide sufficient numbers of prospective doctors or the training that they need to meet the expectations of our population in the public services provided, or paid for, by the Commonwealth. The retirement of individual medical doctors—in high numbers as a proportion of their workforce—foreshadows very real shortages in this area. I believe that one can conclude that the training of sufficient numbers of doctors here in Australia has been a problem and a mistake for a generation. It is the generational turnover that is causing an extremely alarming drop in the supply of medical labour.

So it is right and it is good that we look further afield for supplementary and replacement labour. There is no more obvious place to look than the country which, many years ago, could have become one of the states of our Commonwealth. There probably is not any one country that is more similar to Australia. There probably is not any one people that has more in common with us here in Australia. And there is not any set of teaching institutions that turns out doctors with levels of skill and knowledge so similar to those here in Australia. Also, there is not any foreign country to which we have made our national border so permeable and open.

The bill before us amends the strict embargo placed on doctors trained in New Zealand. Currently, there is a 10-year moratorium on such doctors performing services that attract Medicare benefits, whether they be New Zealanders or Australians who are trained across the Tasman. As it currently stands, the 10-year moratorium can extend well beyond that, depending on the residency status of the individual concerned. This was not the original intention of the moratorium.

The training that such professionals receive is very much akin to that which professionals receive here at our own institutions, both being accredited by the Australian Medical Council. Similarly, New Zealanders can and do elect to train here in Australia, at Australian institutions accredited by the Australian Medical Council. The quality of training is not an issue in each of these categories of professionals being welcomed into our workforce. Let us be clear about the professionals we are talking about here. We are talking about Australians who train in New Zealand and New Zealanders who train either in New Zealand or here in Australia. We are not talking about professionals who train in other countries who make their way to New Zealand, whence they enter Australia. We are talking exclusively about the people of these two countries, Australia and New Zealand, who undergo training within these two countries at an institution that will, as a matter of course, be accredited by the Australian Medical Board.

The original intent was for such professionals to wait 10 years from the date they obtain Australian medical registration—no more, no less. Within the moratorium, such doctors were to be able, and are able, to take up salaried medical positions for which billing against Medicare is not required, such as within a hospital. Nothing makes more sense than the objects of this bill. Nothing makes more sense as we seek to expand the pool of readily available labour that provides Medicare services. Nothing makes more sense as we seek to provide medical services to our ageing Australian population, medical services that increase the quality of life of our population. This is the ultimate objective, and this bill is a good and proper means of furthering the realisation of this objective, together with many other things that this government is doing.

We know that the government is investing $64 billion in the hospital and health system across the country over the next five years. That is a 50 per cent increase on the previous agreement by the former Liberal government. We have invested $600 million in our elective surgery program. Stage 1 committed to a target of 25,000 extra elective surgeries in 2008 but delivered in excess of a whopping 41,000 procedures. We have invested $750 million in taking pressure off the emergency departments of more than 30 hospitals around the country. We have see the government rolling out 2,000 new transition care beds for senior Australians. That is a $293.2 million program to help our mums and dads who have no reason to be in hospital—taking the bed of someone who really does need it—transition back into the community and thereby reduce the capacity pressures on our hospitals.

The government is also investing $1.1 billion in training more doctors, nurses and other health professionals, and $1.1 billion is the single biggest investment in the health workforce ever made by an Australian government. We will see 812 additional GP training places from 2011 onwards and a 35 per cent increase on the cap of 600 places imposed, since 2004, by the Liberals. This bill is a continuation of the good things this government is doing to ensure that we meet the needs of an ageing population by having the doctors and medical staff to look after the ageing population and to look after all Australians. I therefore commend this bill to the House.