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Thursday, 26 May 2011
Page: 4899

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (10:34): I would like to raise several issues today in relation to the federal budget and also some broader concerns within my electorate. Firstly I want to highlight the need for the federal government to support an application for $65 million to expand and enhance the Latrobe Regional Hospital under the Health and Hospitals Fund regional priority round. This application is for funding to build a new improved emergency department and additional endoscopy facilities and offer more beds for acute care.

By way of background, LRH is a designated regional health service and major provider of acute, subacute, mental health and specialist age care services for the Gippsland community. LRH is also an important teaching and training facility working in close partnership with Monash University School of Rural Health and Monash University Gippsland Medical School. Gippsland has some of the poorest health outcomes in Victoria. Current facilities fall well below existing standards and are not adequate to meet growing community needs, which are affecting LRH's ability to meet its designated role as a regional hospital and a teaching facility. This situation will be exacerbated in the future with predicted growth in demand of 13 per cent over the next 10 years. It is critical in that regard that the federal government recognises the growth that is going on in the Latrobe Valley community. With an ageing population, the increase in demand on our health services is apparent and I encourage the federal government to continue to invest in facilities at LRH in particular. The improved facilities and the increased capabilities will also make it easier for us to recruit and train medical specialists in the region and reduce the burden on Melbourne health services. Naturally there is a double benefit in that regard—we can actually service more people in our local communities rather than having them be forced to go to Melbourne, adding to the waiting lists in Melbourne. This is an opportunity for us in regional areas. I am advised that the cost of unnecessary patient transport at the moment is in the vicinity of $29 million a year, and that money could be recouped by government as a result of expanding this facility so that more patients can be treated in the Latrobe Valley.

We also have the hidden health issue of patients who are deciding not to seek treatment because it is too difficult for them to access it, particularly in communities like Gippsland where the travel to Melbourne can be in excess of three or four hours. People are making the decision that it is all too hard to go to Melbourne, find accommodation and access services in the city. I admit it is hard to measure this particular issue, but I constantly receive anecdotal information about people from the more remote parts of my region who are choosing not to pursue advanced treatment because they have to go to Melbourne. It is a key concern for us in our regional communities.

It is one of the reasons I have been so keen to be an advocate in this place for Rotary Gippsland Centenary House, which provides accommodation units for people who are receiving treatment at LRH. I would like to congratulate the federal government and the state government for continuing the level of bipartisan support for this magnificent facility. The Gillard government has supported the community fundraising efforts by providing $1.5 million for the next stage of the development, which will see nine more units being built. I actually inspected the progress on these units only a few weeks ago and I can report to the House that all is going very well there. It is going to be a magnificent addition to this facility, which has been such a crucial part of providing accommodation and care for people as they are away from their home at a very stressful time in their lives. I do take this opportunity to encourage the minister to visit our region for the official opening of this facility. It would be great to see her there for the occasion, which we hope will be towards the end of this year. I am sure she will be impressed by the work of local builders. I congratulate the organisers and the board of management for engaging the local building firms to undertake this project.

The planned upgrade that we are talking about is stage 2A of a larger redevelopment, so we are talking about substantial amounts of money. A master plan has been endorsed by the Victorian Department of Health, under both the previous Labor state government and the current coalition government. The project does have government support. It also has widespread community support, particularly the rebuilding of the hospital's emergency department where waiting times have become an issue of increasing concern. I have a great deal of sympathy for the staff at the front-line of the emergency department. They often cop all the poor headlines in terms of people being forced to wait for treatment and to wait on trolleys for extended periods of time. The staff bear the brunt of that criticism when, really, they are completely overwhelmed by the demand for services. I do encourage the federal government to continue to work with the state government on this most important upgrade and opportunity to expand the facilities at LRH.

On another positive note, it would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity now to mention the $23 million worth of funding announced by the federal government on 7 April last year. This funding was to expand the Gippsland Cancer Care Centre and provide an additional 414 radiation treatments and 8,000 chemotherapy treatments. I understand expressions of interest will be advertised next week for construction on this project. Again, it is a project which is much needed, tragically, in my community. The expansion of the Gippsland Cancer Care Centre will make LRH one of the prime facilities for the delivery of cancer care services in Victoria and according to LRH staff this funding will allow for a significant expansion of the radiotherapy, chemotherapy and dialysis units as well as an expansion to the pharmacy. It is tragic but it is a fact of life in my region that there is a growing need for cancer treatment in the broader Gippsland community and it is essential that patients can access these services in our region. The expansion will make LRH a leader in this area as the cancer centre doubles in size. On behalf of my community, I do welcome the funding from the federal government in that regard.

It is also important, in the context of that federal funding, to mention the fact—and reflect on it—of the inspirational efforts of the local community and the financial contribution they have been able to make to support this initiative. The Gippsland Cancer Care Centre has been the beneficiary of many fundraising events in recent years, several of which I have had the opportunity to attend. They have always been very well run. I refer to things like gala balls and community fun runs. It is a remarkable effort when you look at the socioeconomics of my community. They have been able to raise in excess of $3.5 million since the Gippsland Cancer Centre Appeal was launched in 2003. That is in addition to the fundraising that has been going on for Gippsland Rotary Centenary House. So I do take this opportunity to thank my community for their work in that regard. I thank the various board members who have served as volunteers on those fundraising committees, the business sponsors, the philanthropic organisations and the members of the broader general public who have been prepared to give their time and their money in such a generous manner. I think regional communities are renowned for such efforts and it is a real tribute to the people of Gippsland that they are such committed stakeholders in our health services. Although I have focused a lot on the Latrobe Valley here today, let me assure the House that right across my region there are auxiliaries and community based boards which are doing an extraordinary job every day of the week to supplement whatever government funding is available through the various health budgets. Without the efforts of these volunteers the health situation in every part of Gippsland would be far worse.

On a separate issue also to do with public health, I want to draw the attention of the House to an issue which is developing as quite a significant concern in the Bairnsdale district—a colony of flying foxes which roosts on the banks of the Mitchell River. It has been the subject of increased public debate in East Gippsland. I acknowledge that this is primarily a state issue but federal responsibilities do come into force under the provisions of the EPBC Act. I have brought this issue to the attention of the minister for environment but the urgency of the issue is about to escalate following the issuing of a health warning by the Victorian Department of Health only yesterday. A flying fox found at Bairnsdale has been detected as carrying the Australian bat lyssavirus and I will refer directly to the warning by Victoria's Chief Health Officer, Dr John Carnie. He says:

Under no circumstances should people handle flying foxes on their property as some diseases they carry, such as Australian Bat Lyssavirus, are transmissible to humans, …

Australian Bat Lyssavirus is a rare, but fatal disease which may be transmitted from flying foxes to humans.

Domestic pets may also be at risk. The virus is transmitted through being scratched or bitten by a flying fox.

It goes on to say:

Although it is known that many flying foxes across Australia carry the virus, instances of transmission to humans are very rare, with only two cases ever having been recorded—both of which were seen in Queensland.

Australian Bat Lyssavirus is detected from time to time in flying foxes in Victoria, but no human cases have ever occurred here. The disease has never occurred in domestic pets in Victoria.

While that is reassuring to some extent, the fact that the Victorian Chief Health Officer has had to issue a warning in relation to flying foxes in the Bairnsdale area is of great concern to my community. I would also like to refer to comments from a nearby resident who has written to the federal minister for regional development to raise her concerns in this regard. The letter describes the situation in Bairnsdale:

Since 2003 we have had a problem with bats. The bats have created a very comfortable colony amongst the residents of Bairnsdale, which increases by the year and have extended to 33,000 in number at times … As we have had an unusually wet year, the putrid smell has become unbearable for anyone living within the town.

The bat colony is in a forested area along the Mitchell River amongst poplar trees, situated within meters, between and in front of residential homes in the township and affects residents as far as a kilometer away …

The letter goes on to describe the battle by residents to have poplar trees removed. It is worth reflecting that the poplar trees are an introduced species and they are affected by white ants, in this particular case. The resident is critical of the lack of action by the Department of Sustainability of Environment, and I quote her again:

We do understand that the bat colony is protected, we are not asking for them to be killed, just removed. We feel that if the trees (which are considered dangerous and overhang a public footpath/bicycle track along the river banks) are removed, the bats are intelligent enough to find another forested area (of which there is plenty in the Gippsland area) in which to live.

We are now given to understand from a report issued by the DSE that they want the bat colony to remain, as they consider it to be a tourist attraction and if the trees are removed, they will erect artificial roosts for the bats! The report also states that they wish to educate us on the benefits of 'co-habiting with wildlife'. We think that this is plain stupidity given that the people writing these reports do not live anywhere near the bats and consequently, do not have to tolerate the constant noise and putrid stench from these animals, with which we have to live.

Having had the opportunity to inspect the colony personally, I have to agree with the letter writer: there is a stench associated with the flying foxes. The quality of life of nearby residents is being severely compromised and the constant noise is having an impact on people's health—and that is without even considering the issue of disease which may be borne by the flying foxes. So this warning from Victoria's chief health officer will, I think, escalate the concerns within my community. At a local level I have been working with my local state MP, Tim Bull, who I know is trying to find a way through the layers of bureaucracy to resolve the situation. At a federal level I will be seeking assurances from the federal government that it will not be using the provisions of the EPBC Act as an excuse to interfere in this matter. The location of the colony is a real problem for my community, and the local agencies need to develop a management plan which balances difficult environmental issues but clearly places the rights of the human population ahead of the flying foxes.

In the short amount of time I have left I would like to reflect on one other matter which relates to the federal budget, the federal government's failure to support my efforts to secure Commonwealth funding for the Princes Highway east of Sale. I have raised this issue in the House on several occasions in the past. I have also raised it directly with the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport and, to be fair to the minister, he has given me a fair hearing in this matter. I have tabled petitions from my community, which reflects the level of concern throughout the Broader Gippsland region. The Princes Highway east of Sale is currently not eligible for Commonwealth funding in any form whatsoever; it is a responsibility primarily of the state government. The highway from Sale to Traralgon has been the beneficiary of about $140 million of federal funding under a joint project to see some duplication works undertaken. That does not gel with the people of Gippsland. It does not make sense for them that such a major highway, which is in desperate need of government funding to improve it from Sale to the New South Wales border, will not be able to access Commonwealth funding in the future. The stretch of highway I am talking about has one of the highest accident and fatality rates in Victoria. Tragically, there was another death this week. Hardly a month goes by without a fatality on that road. I am not saying every accident is a result of the condition of the road, but there is no question that it is a contributing factor to the high accident and fatality rates.

I have been working with my local state MP, Tim Bull, in relation to this matter and just recently we both wrote a letter to the state minister seeking support to fund a safety audit and the development of a 10-year strategy to upgrade the highway east of Sale. We also want the state minister to assist us in lobbying the federal government to make the highway east of Sale eligible for Commonwealth funding.

From my previous discussions with regional VicRoads staff, there does not seem to be a long-term plan in place for the staged upgrade of even the most basic safety features such as shoulder sealing, more overtaking lines, realignment of dangerous corners and improvements to the road surface. With an increase in the use of the road by large recreational vehicles, along with the increased size of the commercial vehicles on the road—the trucks, the caravans and those large Winnebago type vehicles—we are seeing a very close interface between large vehicles when they pass each other on some sections of the road, particularly east of Orbost to the New South Wales border, where there is no shoulder for more than 40 kilometres. The margin for error is so small that we desperately need to do something about it. I fear that we are going to have a major accident on the road involving a bus carrying children or tourists through the region and it is going to take a situation like that before the state and federal governments recognise their responsibilities to undertake a major program of upgrading this stretch of highway. In my view, too much of the current debate about highway funding east of Sale is based on anecdotal evidence. There needs to be a complete safety audit with a view towards developing a 10-year strategy so the federal government can then buy into it and take responsibility for parts of the road that need to be upgraded.

In addition to the petition, which is still out there gathering signatures, our view is being supported by the local chambers of commerce. I believe that there is a real opportunity here for both the state and the federal road ministers to work in partnership with my community. I invite both the state and the federal road ministers to come to Gippsland, take a firsthand look at the road and see for themselves the risks that our motorists are faced with on a daily basis. (Time expired)