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Thursday, 5 December 2013
Page: 993

Senator McEWEN (South AustraliaOpposition Whip in the Senate) (15:12): After question time today the people of Australia would have to be asking: did Prime Minister Tony Abbott deceive the Australian people before the federal election when he promised that there would be no cuts to health? Today in the chamber the Assistant Minister for Health, Senator Nash, refused to come in behind her Prime Minister and confirm that there would be no cuts to health. Despite repeated questions from the opposition, she refused to confirm that commitment given by the Prime Minister before the election. We can only assume that there has been another backflip on the part of the government in its commitment to the Australian people and that the Prime Minister has deceived the Australian people.

Today Senator Nash refused to rule out cuts to integral parts of Australia's health system. Anyone in Australia, particularly those in regional Australia, would be worried about the future of health services in the regions. The failure of the Assistant Minister for Health to guarantee things like Health Workforce Australia is particularly worrying. I asked the assistant minister many times to confirm that Health Workforce Australia would continue. This agency of government was set up after the Productivity Commission review with the specific purpose of making sure that health services would continue to be provided in Australia, including in rural and regional Australia, in the places where they are needed and that those services would be for all Australians. The Assistant Minister for Health was unable to confirm that Health Workforce Australia would continue and she would not guarantee the futures of employees of Health Workforce Australia in South Australia, in particular.

Hiding behind the usual conservative government strategy of having a commission of audit, the assistant minister was unable to guarantee the future of Health Workforce Australia or indeed of Medicare Locals or of other important health infrastructure. We know what commissions of audit are all about, don't we? We have seen them used by conservative governments repeatedly as cover for health cuts and for cuts to other important social services in Australia. We have had no reason to expect that this government will do anything other than use the commission of audit as a smokescreen for health cuts. In particular, this government will use the commission of audit to cut the independent advisory bodies like Health Workforce Australia because they do not want to receive independent advice about what is most important in the health sector, just as they have refused to rule out cuts to Medicare Locals.

We have listened to a tired tirade from Senator Fierravanti-Wells about Medicare Locals. I have actually been to Medicare Locals, as have most opposition senators. In particular, I spent some time at a country South Australian Medicare local in Murray Bridge in the electorate of Barker. I can tell you that organisation is doing a fantastic job of coordinating important health services to rural and regional South Australia, in particular in the Riverland and in the south-east. There was no dissent from the doctors, the nurses, the providers, the other health professionals, the families or the children of families I met on the occasion I was there. They clearly understood that Medicare Locals, like other health infrastructure, are integral and essential to the provision of health services in Australia.

It was very disturbing, and I am sure it is disturbing for all Australians today, to hear the Assistant Minister for Health fudging her answers on commitments that the Prime Minister made to Australians about the future of health funding in this country. I would ask the government to be upfront with the Australian people about what they actually have in store for Australia's health budget and for the provision of health services to Australians, because what we saw today was them running away, backtracking, backflipping and denying what the Prime Minister had promised to Australians. It is a worrying time for Australia when we do not have a commitment to the health budget. (Time expired)