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Thursday, 30 March 2006
Page: 162

Senator SANTORO (Minister for Ageing) (7:26 PM) —I have really enjoyed the contributions from members opposite. I am stating the obvious when I say that everyone in this place has been touched by the scourge of cancer, either directly—and we have heard the personal testimonies of senators who have spoken tonight—or indirectly through closeness to a loved person, relative, friend or colleague, as has been the case in this place.

Let me pay tribute to those people who have spoken here tonight and to a couple who have not spoken on this bill. Senator Moore, as other people have said, has made the journey, and it is wonderful to see her so vibrant and so healthy on a night like tonight. I knew Senator Hutchins was ill, and I prayed for him, as we all did, but I did not know the extent of his illness until he outlined it tonight. I do hope that the public record in his local newspaper is corrected and that he gets the satisfaction which he so richly deserves and which is his due. Jeannie Ferris is a walking miracle, as far as I am concerned. Jeannie has come back looking as well as she does, still fighting the battle. Her courage, like that of Anne Lynch, has touched so many of us. We continue to pray and wish for them a total recovery so that they go about the business of their lives fulfilled in every way possible that they wish. The late Senator Cook blazed the trail as an example to us all with his inquiry and his sheer personal commitment under very adverse personal circumstances.

I know a lot of the feelings. My late father was diagnosed with severe cancer, and I went through the process of the hospitals and the doctors. I was assisted by other people who loved him, but I was there much of the time. Eventually, it was not cancer that got him; it was a heart attack, but cancer was there. I have had very direct experience. He passed away just over a year and a half ago. You cannot help but be touched, particularly by the testimony this evening.

I will not go through a lot of the detail of Cancer Australia. I have not said this before, Senator Moore, but I really do enjoy your speeches, and I really enjoyed the one you just delivered. You deliver them with such clarity and graceful movement always. I really do enjoy your speeches, and tonight was one of your great ones. I hope I do not do your political future any permanent damage by saying this, but you did clearly explain why this bill enjoys so much support in this place, including the support of the opposition and everybody else here.

I want to try to answer, in as bipartisan a fashion as I can, the concerns that have been raised by members opposite. Senator McLucas raised several issues, and I will try to cover them. One of her questions was: will Cancer Australia be in competition with other organisations? I can assure her that Cancer Australia will not be competing with other organisations for charitable contributions. It may, however, receive funding from other organisations, from a state or territory government or from private organisations. But it certainly will not be out there competing for funds for which there is increasing competition, not just by organisations that deal with cancer issues but also by so many other very worthwhile charitable and community based organisations.

The theme that has come through from contributions opposite has been: why has there been a delay in implementing Cancer Australia? Senator Moore invited me to acknowledge that there is concern in the community about the delay. It has been mentioned by senators opposite and by those who have spoken in the other place. I do quite a bit of mixing with people who do very good work in this area of vital research, and Senator Moore is right: some people have expressed concerns, but others think that the process that the government has put in place, and which will lead to a satisfactory outcome in this place tonight, has been a reasonable process. We have been working very hard to ensure that the governance arrangements for Cancer Australia are right, and I think that is an important point to acknowledge.

The consultations have been comprehensive, as one would expect them to be. Comprehensive discussions do take some time. The minister has moved forward where he has been able to; for example, the membership of the advisory council for Cancer Australia was announced on 7 March. I am pleased to hear that the council consists of key members of the Australian community, including a number of cancer experts and eminent professionals. Nobody disagrees with the appointment of an eminent person such as Dr Bill Glasson, the former President of the Australian Medical Association. It is a plus that he has agreed to chair the council, and I think that his stewardship will bring direction and focus to the activities and deliberations of the council. The advisory council will support the CEO of Cancer Australia. The process of recruitment of the CEO is currently being undertaken. The position was advertised in the national press, and applications closed in February 2006.

In the context of the discussion about the time that it has taken to arrive at the stage where we are tonight, I think it is important to state on the record that the Strengthening Cancer Care policy does deliver $189 million to improve cancer care in Australia. To date, the government has delivered on the vast majority of the commitments in the Strengthening Cancer Care package, including $10 million to the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne and $7 million for the first round of local palliative care grants. That means funding for more than 80 local palliative care groups to support patients and their families. Grants of $1 million each have been provided to the Make-a-Wish Foundation and Camp Quality. The Breast Cancer Network has been provided with $200,000 per annum to assist with the development and dissemination of resources to help those diagnosed with breast cancer. We have also entered into a grant agreement with the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre to provide $3.5 million over four years for training nurses specialising in cancer care.

In addition to those very worthwhile funding initiatives and the implementation of good policy, the government is currently finalising $5 million worth of grants to support clinical trials to 10 groups around the country. We are finalising $4 million in grants to some 20 organisations for mentoring regional hospitals and cancer professionals, and we have allocated $5 million for an MRI unit at the Sydney Children’s Hospital.

The question was also raised as to what is going to happen to the NCCI. The government recognises the valuable contribution made by the NCCI. That organisation’s management committee made a decision to wind up the initiative from the end of May this year—it was their decision—and the functions of the NCCI will be incorporated into Cancer Australia, but we will continue funding until the end of June this year.

The other serious point that was raised, and which I think deserves serious comment, is the claim that the response to the Senate committee report has been slow. Let me state right from the word go that we regret the delay in responding to Senator Cook’s important inquiry. Having said that, while there has been a delay in the response, the government has moved to implement one of the key recommendations from that inquiry.

Honourable senators would be aware that at last month’s COAG meeting the government committed to providing a new MBS item for case conferencing. From November that will provide increased support for cancer specialists to bring together all experts working with an individual patient. That has been one of the major themes of the contributions from all senators, including the very forceful way in which Senator Webber put the need to look at the totality of the treatment and the totality of the impact on a cancer sufferer’s attitude and physical wellbeing and the psychological consequences. Without in any way wishing to sound political, I am sure that all senators would agree that the best response to Senator Cook’s very worthwhile report is action on his recommendations. We have moved very substantially on what could be considered one of Senator Cook’s major recommendations.

It is also important to note that the peak organisation, Cancer Council of Australia, has described the commitment of the Howard government to improving cancer care in Australia as:

... the most comprehensive set of government-funded cancer control priorities ever announced in a Federal budget.

I wish to remind honourable senators opposite, who have not been stridently critical but have been critical of the delay in bringing to fruition Cancer Australia, that it was this government that actually put together that package that was so described by Cancer Australia; it was not the party of members sitting opposite. However, I do very richly and genuinely acknowledge their support for the initiative. I want to be totally moderate in my comments in responding to statements made by senators opposite by acknowledging the very strong bipartisan feeling that I sense in here tonight.

I would particularly like to talk about the national bowel cancer screening program. I was briefed quite extensively on this program this morning, because it is going to be a topic of some interest and possible contention at the forthcoming meeting of federal and state ministers at the ministerial conference in Wellington on Friday week. Because time is moving on, I will not say a lot about it other than to again remind the Senate that the Australian government provided $43.4 million over three years in the 2005 budget to phase in a national bowel cancer screening program, which is scheduled to commence in mid 2006. The Australian government is fully funding all the infrastructure and direct program costs of the national program. States and territories are being asked to provide colonoscopies where a program participant is referred as a public patient. Currently around 70 per cent of these procedures are funded under the Medicare Benefits Schedule. If any senators opposite wish to receive further detail as to where the implementation of that program is at, I would be happy to provide them with a briefing at a later stage or as early as is practical, which could be any time tonight or tomorrow after we wind up this debate.

I reiterate what I said at the beginning: I have really enjoyed this debate because of the bipartisan nature of it but, more importantly, because of the strength of the human spirit in facing adversity. Cancer is one of the most difficult adversities that anybody can face. I again pay tribute to those senators who have spoken here tonight. Good on you. As you continue to look after yourselves, just know that you have the best wishes, goodwill and prayers of everybody in this chamber.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.