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Monday, 24 May 2010
Page: 3748

Ms CAMPBELL (7:03 PM) —I rise today to talk about a budget which will further strengthen our economy and secure future growth as we emerge from the global financial crisis in a position stronger than we had anticipated. I am delighted to be part of a government that takes responsibility for the nation’s future, and this is a budget that will see us move towards a more stable and secure economy for Australia’s families and the generations to come. The actions we took as a government in the face of the economic crisis helped to lessen its effects and we are now working to return the budget to surplus much sooner than we thought was possible. It was HG Wells who said that human history is, in essence, a history of ideas. Ideas inform policy which in turn informs the lives of everyday Australians. If you care about people then you care about policy; if you care about policy then you care about ideas. It is the combination of great ideas and the pragmatic approach of the Rudd government that has carried us as a nation through the global financial crisis and will continue to carry us forward. It is such ideas that shape this budget.

This budget supports what I believe are some of the most important areas for our country. The health of our families and communities has been at the forefront of this government’s investment, and this year’s budget builds on that. For the first time, the federal government will take primary funding responsibility for our health system in order to ensure that our health system and hospitals meet our needs in the years to come. Over the next five years $2.2 billion dollars is being invested to create the National Health and Hospitals Network, which will be funded nationally and run locally.

I have heard first-hand about the problems with our health system and one issue that has often been raised with me by my constituents in Bass is the availability of GPs. The budget measures to improve after-hours GP access as well as training more GPs and nurses will build on previous investments and go a long way towards helping make our health system a top quality one for the future. The government is introducing a new four-hour emergency department target and guaranteeing elective surgery waiting times with a new national target that 95 per cent of Australians receive elective surgery within clinically recommended times by 2015, as well as delivering 1,300 new hospital beds. We are also building another 23 new GP superclinics and upgrading over 400 GP clinics and primary care services across the country to provide improved health services to the community.

While I strongly support the Rudd government’s tremendous investment in health, I do wish tonight to bring to the attention of the House the matter of the planned removal of access to Medicare rebates to mental health trained social workers and occupational therapists under the Better Access to Mental Health scheme as announced in the budget. There has been an outcry nationwide against this measure by those mental health workers, the doctors who refer to them and their clients, and I thank Minister Roxon for agreeing to delay the changes and to consult further. I would like to acknowledge in the chamber this evening the National CEO of the Australian Association of Social Workers, Kandie Allen-Kelly, together with Dr Maxine Manifold, a local GP in Launceston who felt so strongly about the removal of the Medicare rebate that she took charge and initiated a local petition. In just five days she managed, together with a team of passionate and committed health professionals, to obtain 1,860 signatures, which I will table in the chamber at a later date. I would also like to thank the many constituents who took the time to email or write to me in relation to this very important matter.

People in Bass are concerned, and concerned they should be. I note in the minister’s press release of 19 May the plan to move the services of these highly trained and experienced clinicians to the provision of packages of care for those in our community with severe mental illness. But clinicians in my electorate tell me that the use of packages will not substitute for the present system of Medicare rebates. The rebate system allows people to visit their clinician and seek assistance for what might be a transitory illness, like a reactive depression or suicidal thoughts after the loss of a relationship. This system has assisted many people in our community to restore quality of life and get back to work and family. Anxiety, depression, mania and neurosis can be debilitating illnesses, and we must encourage people to seek assistance by treating them as if they were the same as any other illness. Imagine if you were to visit your doctor for a flu shot, only to be told that before he or she could treat you that you would have to apply for a package of care. What if you went your clinician and said, ‘I have diabetes and depression.’ He or she would reply, ‘I can treat you for your diabetes, but for your depression you’ll have to apply for a package of care.’

The minister’s press release says that the packages will support people with severe mental illness, but this should not replace a system where people are assisted by clinicians so that they do not develop a severe mental illness. Packages of care should not replace the current system of Medicare rebates. The hardest thing for a person to do when in a state of psychological distress is to bravely come to the doctor and spill the beans, so to speak—that is, to tell their story. Imagine the anxiety they would suffer to have tell that story over and over to a psychologist, then to a social worker, then to an occupational therapist and perhaps to a mental health nurse, to each of the team members administering the package of care. Effective care is coordinated care, but this proposal will leave us fragmented care, not coordinated care. The current system where GPs can refer patients to mental health social workers and occupational therapists in the community just works so well and has been hugely beneficial to thousands of Australians. Because the system is built into Medicare, it is easy to access by those people who represent the most marginalised in our community. No doubt there is a place for packages of care for people with a severe mental illness, but it should not be at the cost of the present system of Medicare rebates for people who are experiencing an episode of mental illness from which they will recover if treated.

A doctor in my electorate presented the following scenario to me. A 35-year-old woman living with three young children in a caravan on a bush block with a physically and financially abusive partner is hardly likely to want to be referred for a package of care with its associated paperwork, telephone calls and so on, which might alert a potentially violent partner to her cry for help. Under the current arrangement, when she comes to the GP with panic attacks and needing an exit strategy from her situation, this woman can get a Medicare rebate of $70.45, paying only a small gap, or even be bulk-billed by a caring local mental health social worker who agrees to see her quickly and discreetly after a phone call from her doctor. Under the proposed changes, this woman will no longer be able to pay the full fee to see a mental health social worker and will likely go without appropriate help. By contrast, however, a woman of the same age who wishes to fly to Paris with her company director husband, but who is prevented from doing so because of a phobia of flying, will still be able to access a rebate of $117.65 for seeing a clinical psychologist for the treatment of her phobia. Where is the justice in this?

I would also like to take this opportunity to acknowledge ‘Deb’ and ‘Geoff’, who had the strength and courage to attend my electorate office and to share their individual stories and experiences of being patients in the mental health system. It was a system, they tell me, that left them feeling extremely confused and vulnerable until the door was opened for them, and they came into contact with a mental health social worker. They both emphasised to me the importance of continuity of care. ‘Deb’ and ‘Geoff’ have exhausted their sick leave and advised me that, if the Medicare rebate were not available to them, they simply would not be able to afford any care or treatment at all. As a society, we cannot allow this to happen to people who are vulnerable and at risk. It simply is not good enough.

I have also spoken to David Hunnerup, a mental health social worker from the Blue Door counselling practice in Launceston. The Blue Door was a collaboration between two mental health social workers and one psychologist. Over a five-year period it was developed specifically to meet the needs of disadvantaged clients whose needs were not being met elsewhere. The business was built without government assistance and built, I might add, on a confidence that the government’s commitment to Medicare’s better access program would be stable. As David advised me, if this reversal goes ahead it will put practices like the Blue Door in jeopardy and could therefore put mental health social workers under considerable disadvantage, let alone the clients who walk through their door. So, again, I sincerely thank Minister Roxon for agreeing to delay these changes until April 2011 and to consult further. This is a good decision, and on behalf of the people I represent in Bass, I urge the minister not to remove Medicare rebates for social workers and occupational therapists who treat people with mental illness in our community under referral from their GPs. The current system works well and there are many doctors, therapists and most importantly ordinary Australians who are grateful for it.

As Australia is facing an ageing population, we have to make provisions for aged-care workers to have access to better training to improve their skills in the workforce. This investment benefits not only older Australians but also those who are looking for career opportunities in aged care as the funding will also go towards scholarships. The funding from this year’s budget will allow aged-care service providers to train and retain a level of expertise amongst workers. This will mean that Australians will receive the best aged care possible from trained and caring staff. From 1 January 2011, eligible parents—including full-time, part-time, seasonal, casual and self-employed workers—will have the financial assistance and security of the national minimum wage, currently $543.78 a week before tax.

Our first ever Paid Parental Leave scheme has been waited for with anticipation for some time by parents. The assistance with the balance of work and family responsibilities will take financial pressure off families and give them time to spend with their new child in those first impressionable weeks. Parents of children born or adopted on or after 1 January 2011 can claim leave of up to 18 weeks if their individual annual income is $150,000 or less. Our government is making its families and the future of Australia a priority whilst helping businesses maintain the skills of their employees for when they return to work. Parents will be able to stay connected to their place of work through Keeping in Touch provisions, which will help to retain jobs and skills.

This year’s budget provides relief for working Australians through a 50 per cent tax break for the first $1,000 of interest on savings and tax cuts for the third year in a row. From 1 July, individuals will be able to earn up to $16,000 without paying income tax due to increases in the low-income tax offset. This is just another way we are providing support for low-income earners trying to make ends meet. The compulsory employer contribution to employees’ superannuation will also be increased from nine per cent to 12 per cent by 2020, providing added financial security for people in retirement.

Further to this, from July 2012 it will be easier for individuals to lodge their tax returns with the new standard deduction option. When I talk to people in the Bass community about tax, what they want to see is a less complicated system in which everybody pays their fair share. This is a really important step towards a tick-and-flick system—a prefilled tax return—an idea that has been very popular with the residents of Bass. Soon you will be able to forget about the hassle of having shoeboxes full of receipts and the costs of getting your taxes done at the end of each year. These reforms will make a real difference for the people I represent. From 1 July 2012, the government will give people the option of choosing a standard deduction of $500 instead of claiming work related expenses. This standard deduction will be increased to $1,000 from 1 July 2013.

I am proud to be a member of a government that is determined to make lasting reforms in tax that make the system fairer and simpler while building a stronger economy for the Bass community. Small businesses will also benefit, being able to instantly deduct the cost of assets up to $5,000. I know this is welcome news for the 7,863 small businesses in my electorate of Bass, many of which will also benefit from a reduction in the company tax rate. It is great to see the important role of small business in our economy recognised, as these businesses kept many people in work during the global recession.

Measures in this year’s budget will invest in the skills we need for our future economy, taking action to increase training place apprenticeships: $243 million over the next four years is going towards the transformation of our vocational education and training system This is part of the $660 million Skills for Sustainable Growth package. The measures that make up this package will improve access to training opportunities, giving more Australians the opportunity to undertake training, including high-level qualifications to advance their careers. We are also working with the states and territories to improve the performance of our largest VET providers, providing performance based funding in order to better the outcomes of our students.

We will also be introducing the National Entitlement to a Quality Training Place, which will guarantee an entitlement to a place for all Australians under 25 in any training course above their current highest qualifications and for which they meet the prerequisites. In addition, the Commonwealth is investing $53.6 million over four years to expand VET FEE-HELP, providing greater access to these loans, meaning that more than 477,000 people will be able to access a loan to help support them with their studies. This new package builds on the government’s previous initiatives to support the VET sector and brings the overall spending on VET for the government’s first four years in office to $15.8 billion from 2008-12, in contrast to the $9.5 billion in the past four years of the previous government.

This government is committed to making sure that all Australians have access to quality education and training opportunities so that they are able to build their skills and improve their employment outcomes. Apprenticeship training is also important to building a stronger economy, and the budget has seen a further investment of almost $80 million to extend the Apprentice Kickstart initiative. This initiative, which more than triples the commencement bonus for employers of traditional trades apprentices in the first year from $1,500 to $4,850, has been a resounding success. Apprentice Kickstart boosted the numbers of traditional trade apprenticeships above pre-global recession levels in just one year. Last summer in Bass, we helped 124 apprentices get started in a new career. This new funding will be targeted to help small and medium sized businesses to put on more apprentices and will support around another 22,500 apprenticeship places across the country in traditional trades that are experiencing skills shortages.

The economic downturn was damaging to apprenticeships but, thanks to the Apprentice Kickstart initiative and the support of employers and young people, we have seen a boost in the number of apprenticeships. I have received many emails of gratitude from constituents in Bass for the government’s budget commitment to increasing Australia’s Official Development Assistance to 0.5 per cent of gross national income by 2015-16. There is both wide support for the government’s position in Bass and confusion and disappointment with the opposition’s proposing a $300 million cut to foreign aid.

The Rudd government is committed to giving our youth opportunities to express their concerns for the poor and to act responsibly as a global citizen. I have recently been involved with young local activists in Bass who are raising awareness of the Millennium Development Goals. One such young lady is Laura Sykes, who is a student at Launceston College and has been heavily involved with the recent Make Poverty History road trip, organising concerts and petitioning the Launceston Council to become fair trade certified. Young Australians in Bass understand global poverty and have clear ideas about what should be done and what can be done. The Rudd government is harnessing this energy and enthusiasm and building on it for the future.

The people of Bass are pleased to hear that Australia is investing, over four years, $303.7 million in education programs and $173.4 million to improve health services for the poor in developing countries. The Bass electorate confirms its support for Australia being an active and responsible citizen in our global community. There is broad and enthusiastic support for the government to continue its commitment to reduce carbon pollution and tackle climate change. For this to occur, Australia must be wise and resolute in transitioning to a low-pollution economy prior to the commencement of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

The government will invest $652.5 million dollars to establish a Renewable Energy Future Fund to support renewable energy projects such as solar, wind, geothermal and wave energy. The fund will also help households save on power bills through energy efficiency measures.

The Local Sporting Champions fund has doubled, with an increase in the 2010-11 budget to $3.17 million, which means that budding sports stars in Bass will have double the chance of receiving funding. Up to $25,000 is available for younger athletes wanting to compete in state and national events. In Bass this means that 26 individuals and four teams will now receive the grant. The program has been popular for young athletes in Bass since it was launched in 2008. We need to invest in our sporting champions; some of our kids in Bass could be our next Olympians, Paralympians, tennis stars, football or netball professionals.

It is the best ideas that are producing the best outcomes for Australia’s future. These ideas are informing policy which is building our future. This is an economically responsible budget, which targets investment where it is needed—in family budgets around the country, by reducing tax, boosting superannuation and simplifying tax returns. The Rudd government is optimistic about Australia’s future. Our nation has led the world in getting through the global recession and we are preparing Australia for the challenges of the future. The strong position of the nation’s economy means that the people of Bass will be better positioned for the opportunities of the future. I commend the bills to the House.