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Tuesday, 21 June 1994
Page: 1785

Senator COONEY —My question is addressed to the Minister for Trade. Does the government see any potential for the sale overseas of Australia's health system and services? If so, does it intend to realise that potential in any way?

Senator McMULLAN —This is a very important aspect of the growth in services trade and services exports, which are such a big part of increases in international trade, not only for Australia but also internationally, particularly in the health area in our region. Of course, health exports go beyond the mere provision of services to issues of equipment. Australia has a reputation—a well deserved reputation—of being at the leading edge in many health and medical technologies and there is the potential for this to become a major new export sector.

  My understanding and advice is that Australian expertise is recognised internationally in a number of areas of technology in the health area. The services supplied in surgery are well known to a number of Australians and internationally as being of world leading quality. Of course, there is significant aged care expertise, amongst others, which could be referred to. Australia offers higher clinical standards at rates which are competitive in the region.

  The government commissioned a major study on services exports generally. The study suggests that health export revenues have the potential to increase by an average of 25 per cent over the next five years from roughly $30 million last year. It appears on the basis of that survey and other evidence that Australia is well placed to take advantage of developing markets for health products and services in the Middle East and Asia—a product of the changing living standards in those areas and the burgeoning middle class in that region. The government is actively encouraging the health industry to form strategic alliances to increase exports and promote the internationalisation of Australian health suppliers.

  There is, for example, through the Melbourne-based Australian medical and services export group, which represents, as I understand it, about 25 companies, a very interesting example of the success of this type of cooperation. The group is expecting sales worth $18 million to $20 million to Thailand over the next year for equipment and services. There are other significant strategic alliances in scientific research and R&D generally which have the potential to generate significant revenue for Australia.

  A particularly significant area of the market relates to Japan's rapidly increasing population of elderly people. There are opportunities there for the provision of health services and aged care. The special trade representative John Button, who is well known to Senator Cooney, led a health mission to Japan as recently as November of last year. As a result, several initiatives were developed to enable Australian health providers to capture opportunities in this market, and I think most Australians would welcome that.

  In April I discovered that there is significant potential in the Middle East for Australian-Saudi joint ventures to improve the Saudi health system at significant potential profit to Australia. There is a significant amount of Australian involvement in health in the Middle East already but there is significant potential for it to be significantly enhanced.

Senator Crane —There have been lots of `significants'—five in a row.

Senator McMULLAN —A significant proposal was put forward to me that has the potential to return $200 million a year to Australian health providers—which, I am sure Senator Crane would agree, is very significant. In addition to health services there is the potential for export of medical equipment, which exports currently represent over $300 million a year and I think all of those opposite would welcome.