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Transcript of joint press conference: St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney: 22 August 2013: the Coalition's policy to support Australia's health system; Kevin Rudd's carbon tax con; People's Forum debate; tobacco donations; Syria; penalty rates



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LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION THE HON. TONY ABBOTT MHR FEDERAL MEMBER FOR WARRINGAH

22 August 2013

TRANSCRIPT OF THE HON. TONY ABBOTT MHR, JOINT PRESS CONFERENCE WITH THE HON. PETER DUTTON MHR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGEING AND THE HON. JILLIAN SKINNER MP,

NEW SOUTH WALES MINISTER FOR HEALTH, ST VINCENT’S HOSPITAL, SYDNEY

Subjects: The Coalition’s policy to support Australia’s health system; Kevin Rudd’s carbon tax con; People’s forum debate; tobacco donations; Syria; penalty rates.

E&OE...........................................................................................................................................

JILLIAN SKINNER:

Thank you very much everybody. It’s my very great pleasure as the New South Wales Health Minister to welcome all of you to St Vincent’s Hospital here. This is a wonderful hospital, it’s a demonstration of the public and private hospital working together in collaboration and I know that they’ve received very warmly, Tony Abbott today and I’d like to particularly mention Malcolm Turnbull of course, the local Member, my very good friend Professor Michael Feneley who runs the heart programme here at this hospital and is revered as a person who has made such a difference to this hospital. Wonderful to see you as a candidate and of course Peter Dutton, the Shadow Minister for Health. Thank you very much. Over to you.

TONY ABBOTT:

Well thanks, Jillian. It's terrific to be here at St Vincent's Hospital, a truly iconic hospital, one of the flagships of our health system not just here in New South Wales but right around Australia and in fact around the world. This is a world renowned hospital. It's particularly world renowned for its heart research and its heart treatments and I'm very proud to be here with Jillian Skinner, my State Parliamentary colleague, the Minister, very proud to be here with Peter Dutton my Shadow Ministerial friend and colleague and of course with Malcolm Turnbull who has many excellences, but in particular he's the local Member here and of course Malcolm has been not only a strong Parliamentary supporter, but along with Lucy, a very strong personal supporter of this particular hospital.

Jillian, thanks for singing Professor Michael Feneley's praises because it was obvious going around this hospital today the respect, the affection in which he's held and it was an honour for me, Michael, to bask in your glory here at this hospital. I want to say how proud I am of all of the candidates who are running for the Coalition at this election, but I am particularly proud of Professor Michael Feneley, one of our country's most respected cardiologists who has been serving patients for more than 30 years, but he now wants to, in addition, serve our country in the national Parliament and I know he will be an adornment to the Parliament should he be elected on September the 7th. Michael is just one of three medical specialists who is running for

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the Coalition in this election in seats we don't currently hold. There's my friend David Gillespie who's running for the National Party in Lyne, he's a gastroenterologist in Port Maquarie. There's the legendary Bill Glasson, former President of the Australian Medical Association, one of Australia's best ophthalmologists, someone that I worked very closely with when I was the Health Minister in resolving the medical indemnity crisis in late 2003 and early 2004. Bill is running for us in Griffith against none other than Mr Rudd. So there are some outstanding candidates but it would be silly of me to let this opportunity pass not to particularly acknowledge the outstanding health professionals who are running for us at this election.

I'm going to speak briefly to the health policy that we launched today and then I’m going to ask Peter Dutton, the Shadow Health Minister, to add to that. We'll take some questions on health issues then I might make a few more general remarks and then we'll take general questions.

You'll notice when you look at our policy that it is a policy for significant incremental change. It's not a policy for shaking up a system which in broad terms works well. I don't say our health system is perfect. No system is perfect. Our health system is always a work in progress but by the standards of other countries, Australia does have an outstandingly good health system. It's relatively well funded, we get good value for money because of the cost effectiveness tests which are at the heart of our system and we have truly outstanding health professionals at every level. We have a strong service ethos in this country which is why we seem to do service professions very, very well indeed. So we do have a good system and our intention, should we win government, is to make a good system even better.

I don't want to be too Party political just in this stage of the discussion but the current Government infamously has cut Medicare, it has cut hospital funding, it has tampered with the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme approval process, it has managed to alienate many of the professional groups in the system. So I am very confident that an incoming Coalition government can do very much better. What we intend to do is to maintain existing levels of health funding, but try to ensure that some of that money is redirected from bureaucracies to front-line services and that's the essence of the policy today which Peter will speak to in a moment.

We want to try to ensure that the additional health professionals that are now coming out of universities because of the expansions which the former Coalition Government put in place have proper training to go to. That's why there's money here for an expansion of general practice training and money here for an expansion of internships particularly in a private hospital setting, but essentially what we want to do with our health system is make a good system better. The last thing we want to do is to impose an overall cut in health funding which, as it happens, gives the lie to some of Mr Rudd's more shrill and hysterical claims last night. So on that note, Pete, over to you to speak to the policy.

PETER DUTTON:

Thanks very much, Tony. To Malcolm and to Jillian, also to Professor Feneley, thank you very much for being here, thank you very much to the staff. They do amazing work at St Vincent's, not just here in Sydney but around the country. They are first class professionals and I am incredibly proud of the health workforce that we’ve got across the country both in the public and private system but unfortunately our doctors and nurses have been let down by a bad Government that continues to put more money into these bureaucracies and to take it away from front-line services.

The policy that we announced today is designed to make it easier for mums and dads to get in to see their GP. It's designed to take people off elective surgery waiting lists, particularly older Australians who under Labor have been waiting years. It's designed to make sure that we can get as much money as possible back into front-line services. At the heart of this policy is a desire to rebuild general practice which has been under attack over the course of the last six years. I want to make it easier for Australian trained doctors that are coming out of our universities now because when Tony Abbott was Health Minister he doubled the number of medical schools. I want to make sure that we can capture those doctors and put as many into general practice as possible.

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So, today we announced we will increase the practice incentive payment up to $200 so that we can make it easier for young doctors to practice alongside long experienced doctors to make sure that they can deliver the best medicine possible to Australian patients. Mr Rudd promised a lot in health but unfortunately he just hasn't been genuine in what he's delivered and when Tony Abbott was Health Minister he promised money for doctors, we gave money to doctors. He promised to computerise general practice, we lifted the rates from under 20 per cent to well over 90 per cent. This Government promised 650,000 people would access the medical health record, only 4,000 of those people are using that record at the moment at a cost of a billion dollars or $250,000 a patient. Doctors have resigned in disgust from the e-health policy unit that sits within the Government and they now say that that record is unsafe.

The Government promised money to GP superclinics which was designed in part to undermine our doctors around the country. We are promising to put more money back into to general practice, but also to provide certainty to the drug listing process in this country. We have one of the best pharmaceutical systems in this country, but over the course of the last few years, the Government put pen to paper by way of agreement with the industry, but before the ink was dry, tore that agreement up and I want to make sure that we make medicines more affordable for all Australians. The Government has lied a lot about what they think the Coalition will do to health. We promise in this announcement today to keep money in health, to make sure that we can get more of it into front-line services, into those doctors and nurses and ultimately into better patient outcomes. That's what we promise today if we're elected on September 7 and I want to thank Tony very much for the input that he's had. He's obviously got an abiding interest in health, particularly medical research. We made some significant announcements in response to the McKeon review only a couple of weeks ago, the Government's played catch-up on that since and there is a lot we can do for the health of Australians and this policy today says to people that we want to get money back onto the front line.

I might also say, as has been in some of the press today, we have committed a significant amount of money to bowel cancer screening. The Government said that they would have their system in place by 2034 and we have announced today that we will roll that programme out from between 2015 and 2020. It will provide biannual testing for people between the ages of 50 and 74 and there's a big contrast here. Whilst the Labor Government over the course of the last six years has increased their bureaucratic numbers by 35 per cent, on the advice of the Cancer Council with this announcement today, the Coalition will save 35,000 lives and that's what the health portfolio should be about and if we win the election I'm positive that we can get great outcomes for all Australians. Thank you.

TONY ABBOTT:

Ok, are there any questions?

QUESTION:

Mr Rudd has been visiting Medicare Locals in recent days and telling the workers there that you'll sack them. I notice here that you're saying you're going to review the Medicare Local system. Can you give a commitment you won't dismantle it or none of the Medicare Locals will be closed?

TONY ABBOTT:

There will be a review and the object of the review will be to try to ensure that we maintain the actual health services that are being provided by Medicare Locals while minimising the bureaucracy associated with them. Now, can I say that absolutely no Medicare Local will close? I'm not going to say that, but I am giving an absolute commitment here today that the overall levels of health funding will be maintained. Overall levels of health funding will be maintained. We just want to ensure that we get the best possible bang for the buck that we want to maximise health services while minimising health bureaucracy.

QUESTION:

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Can you quantify how many public service jobs will go for that money to go back directly into the health system?

TONY ABBOTT:

No, we will be indicating in good time before the election any savings that we will make for reinvestment in other parts of the health system, but I want to make it absolutely crystal clear there will be no fewer nurses, no fewer doctors, no fewer workers in hospitals and other health facilities. We are about preserving front-line health services, preserving and improving front-line health services but quite frankly we have had a massive growth of bureaucracy under this Government. There are something like 18 separate Commonwealth health agencies now quite apart from the department itself and we just don't need all of these agencies in their existing form.

QUESTION:

Mr Abbott, on the private health insurance rebate, is this a concession that you will not be able to get rid of the means testing over the course of the forward estimates? In other words the 30 per cent rebate tested at present, it won't be restored?

TONY ABBOTT:

It is our firm intention to restore it as quickly as we possibly can. We invented the private health insurance rebate. We have support for private health insurance in the marrow of our bones. Under the former Government, private health coverage went up from 30 per cent to about 50 per cent. It stayed static under the current Government and it threatens to fall given the big cuts that have been imposed on private health insurance by this Government. Mr Rudd was almost hysterical last night claiming that the Coalition is going to cut health. Well, this Government has cut private health insurance, its cut hospital funding, its cut Medicare funding and its blocked medicines going on to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

QUESTION:

Will to be your intention to restore it within a first term of an Abbott government?

TONY ABBOTT:

I'm not making a commitment to do so at this time. I simply want to restore it as quickly as we can.

QUESTION:

Smoking is of course one of the leading causes - preventable causes of death and illness. Mr Rudd said he would legislate to keep the tobacco industry out of politics. Will you match that commitment or at least rule out accepting donations from the industry?

TONY ABBOTT:

If I could make a general observation about my record when it comes to smoking and then I will get to your specific question, David. As Health Minister, I wrapped graphic health warnings all over cigarette packets and under the Howard Government, smoking rates declined by about 20 per cent over the life of the Howard Government. So I have a terrific record when it comes to getting smoking rates down and doing what is dictated by public policy, not what might be desired by donors, ok. I do what is right in the interests of our nation. I don't simply listen to people who may or may not have donated money to my political party. Now, on to the actual question, I've instructed the Liberal Party to accept no further donations from tobacco companies and on that note, I suggest that Mr Rudd might like to refund the airfare that he received from a

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German tobacco company to attend a conference. If he's going to get sanctimonious about this, he might like to come to it with clean hands and refund that money.

QUESTION:

You'll accept no further donations from tobacco forever? This is a permanent policy of the Liberals?

TONY ABBOTT:

No further donations.

QUESTION:

Why have you decided that now? You've resisted for so long, why now?

TONY ABBOTT:

Look, I don't want Mr Rudd's distractions - Mr Rudd is going to run a distraction a day. He is going to run a distraction a day and I don't want furphies like this to distract peoples’ attention from the main issues of this campaign which are which Party is best able to reduce the cost-of-living pressures on Australian families, which Party is best able to help our workers' jobs be more secure and which Party is going to give us the sort of border security, the economic security that a great nation like Australia should have.

QUESTION:

Is that an admission it was the wrong decision to be accepting donations from tobacco companies up to now?

TONY ABBOTT:

Well, let’s hear Mr Rudd - Sam, let me speak. Mr Rudd accepted a very substantial amount of money, a very large travel sponsorship from a German tobacco business. Now, let's not allow Mr Rudd to get sanctimonious about this. Why did he accept that sponsorship if he thinks that this is such a terrible problem? And while we're on that subject of donations, is the Labor Party going to refund all the money that it's received from the Health Services Union, given the findings of various inquiries that that union had been almost systematically looted by dodgy officials including one who was a member of Mr Rudd's Caucus and another who was the National President of the Labor Party. So I think Mr Rudd can run this distraction but I think it's important to focus on the principal issues of this campaign.

QUESTION:

In last night’s debate, was the shut up comment…

TONY ABBOTT:

I'll take more questions on health and then we’ll go on to general subjects.

QUESTION:

The policy document says the Coalition’s policy will cost $340 million over four years, is that the net cost of the policy or is that before savings are found and a sort of a related question, when will the Coalition look to privatise Medibank Private?

TONY ABBOTT:

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Look, we will privatise Medibank Private at the appropriate time and that obviously depends upon market conditions and so on. The $340 million is the cost of the policies that we announced today. There will be some modest savings in the health bureaucracy to fund these but the point I want to make is that there will be no overall reduction in health spending under the Coalition.

QUESTION:

You say that you're going to restore the independence of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee, does that mean that you guarantee that you will use any brands that they recommend?

TONY ABBOTT:

Again, look at our record. I was the Health Minister for four years and there was a smooth flow of drugs through the system. We had an internationally respected Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee process that applied rigorous cost effectiveness testing to proposed new listings and invariably when a listing was approved by the PBAC it went through the system smoothly and swiftly so that it was then made available to members of the public and that's exactly what we want to do again and one thing that we are doing is restoring the ability of the Health Minister to approve listings provided those listings don't cost more than $20 million in any particular year because one of the real difficulties under this Government, even where they have approved drugs, is that because their Cabinet process has been so chaotic and shambolic, things that had to go to Cabinet took months and months and months rather than the weeks that they should take.

QUESTION:

Mr Abbott, on tobacco…

TONY ABBOTT:

I think we’ve done this one to death…

QUESTION:

…have you asked the Party to also refund any of the donations?

TONY ABBOTT:

What I've said is the Party will, from this time forward, take no further donations from tobacco companies.

QUESTION:

Just on that, does that include State branches of the Liberal Party and do you know what the National Party will do?

TONY ABBOTT:

As I said, Mr Rudd ought to tell us why he accepted that sponsorship from a German tobacco business before he gets…

QUESTION:

He said he didn’t know about that.

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TONY ABBOTT:

Oh, yeah right, Mr Rudd never knows. He's like the Sergeant Schulz of Australia. When it suits him not to know, he doesn't know and yet he reckons he knows everything about the Coalition's policies, he doesn't know anything about his own actions. We can't take him seriously.

QUESTION:

Mr Abbott, will you refund the money that's been taken by your campaign already? No. I will refund, I will gladly ask the Liberal Party to refund the money from tobacco companies when Mr Rudd refunds the Health Services Union subventions to the Labor Party. That's, I think, a fair deal. If Mr Rudd wants to get sanctimonious we will hand back the relatively modest amount we've received from tobacco companies if he's prepared to hand back to the members of the Health Services Union the many hundreds of thousands of dollars that he has received, his Party has received, from a union which according to official reports has been systematically ransacked by corrupt officials. Any more on health?

QUESTION:

Mr Abbott, what's the new policy to benefit mental health?

TONY ABBOTT:

We’ll have more to say on mental health. This is our overall health policy with obviously a focus on workforce issues because probably the key to a better functioning health system over time is to try to ensure that we have more front-line professionals. Now if I may I'll go on to a couple of other issues.

Look, it was obvious last night that Mr Rudd had a plan to tear down a Prime Minister but he has absolutely no plan for the future of our country. What we saw from Mr Rudd last night was a series of misleading assertions and outright lies about the Coalition and frankly it is embarrassing that the Prime Minister of our country should have no record to defend and nothing to say about our future and should be campaigning for office entirely on the basis of a series of lies about the other side. I want to make it absolutely crystal clear. Overall health and education funding will be maintained. Peoples’ pay and conditions will be protected and talk of a $70 billion black hole is simply a lie. It is simply a lie but we have all sorts of lies coming from Mr Rudd and his team. I noticed today a dodger which has been distributed in seats in Western Australia "Kevin Rudd and Labor removed the carbon tax." Well, this is an outright falsehood. It is nothing but a lie. What Mr Rudd is proposing to do - he's done nothing, he's actually done nothing - what he is proposing to do is to move from a fixed tax to a floating tax. That's what he's proposing to do and what was confirmed by the economic statement and the Pre-election Fiscal Outlook statement just a few weeks ago is that under this Government, the carbon tax will rise to $38 a tonne, $38 a tonne in 2020 and we know if this Government is returned that the carbon tax will go on to heavy transport as of the 1st of July next year.

So, I want to say to the people of Australia, I won't play these political games with you. I will be candid with you. I will tell the truth about our policies. I won't tell lies about the other side because that seems to be all that Mr Rudd has left in his desperation.

QUESTION:

In the debate, you asked perhaps a rhetorical question, "Does this guy ever shut up?" What did you mean by that? Did you think he was too verbose?

TONY ABBOTT:

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Well look, one contest that I can never win against Mr Rudd is a talk-a-thon. I just never can win a talk-a-thon against Mr Rudd and I'm not against talk, my problem with Mr Rudd is that he's all talk and no action and when he does take action it's invariably action that damages people.

QUESTION:

Do you have any advice for Mr Rudd on how he should treat make-up artists?

TONY ABBOTT:

Look, I was pleased to be looked after by Tilly last night. I thought she did a great job making my craggy face as presentable as possible. We had a great conversation and I think as for other conversations or lack of conversations that might have been had, I'll just leave that to Mr Rudd.

QUESTION:

Did you witness any rudeness from the Prime Minister?

TONY ABBOTT:

I was looked after in one room and I imagine that the Prime Minister was looked after in a different room.

QUESTION:

Just on the debate, what did you think of the format last night? Kevin Rudd has already agreed to attend the one at Rooty Hill provided the rules are the same and you're both on stage at the same time.

TONY ABBOTT:

I'm happy to proceed on that basis.

QUESTION:

On Syria, there are very disturbing report this morning that as many as 1,300 people including children were killed by a gas attack by the Assad regime. Do you think the time has come for the international community to take stronger action on Syria? As Prime Minister, would you put forward considerations to international leaders to that effect?

TONY ABBOTT:

On the reports that are coming out of Syria, they are shocking and if proven would appear to constitute a crime against humanity, but I don't want to rush to conclusions as to facts because there are all sorts of reports that come out of war zones like this. But, if true, an utterly reprehensible thing and I've got to say of a piece with the kind of horror that we have come to expect from one of the worst regimes in the world.

QUESTION:

Has the time come for greater action?

TONY ABBOTT:

I think it is important that the international community do what it reasonably can to try and bring a measure of peace and a measure of justice to that tragically war-torn country. I don't want to pretend that there is any magic wand that can be waved here. I mean, we've seen the difficulties of Western intervention in countries

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in the Middle East and while I don't say that the interventions that we've seen have been misguided, no-one should underestimate the difficulty of trying to bring about better outcomes in the Middle East.

QUESTION:

Mr Abbott, were you out campaigning with Jaymes Diaz in Greenway this morning and are you trying to shield him from the media?

TONY ABBOTT:

No, I wasn't out campaigning with Jaymes Diaz this morning. I have been out campaigning with Jaymes Diaz on different occasions but, no, I'm not trying to shield him. Like all of my candidates, he's there amongst the public and when the media come across him obviously…

QUESTION:

You weren’t outside the Seven Hills train station this morning?

TONY ABBOTT:

No. Maybe I've got a body double but no I wasn't outside Seven Hills train station. I’ll tell you what I did this morning. I got up at 5 o’clock, I did the river circuit in Brisbane on my bike with a group of people who I ride with. I did a radio interview in Brisbane on the way to the airport. I came from Sydney Airport to here and I think I've been under - I think I've been in the protective custody of the media ever since.

QUESTION:

Mr Abbott, should workers be concerned as the ALP have claimed about the Coalition's decision to support small business’ push to reduce Sunday penalty rates?

TONY ABBOTT:

There is nothing to stop workers or unions bringing an application to the Fair Work Commission. That's how our system works.

QUESTION:

But you have signaled that you support the application from small business previously, April of this year for example?

TONY ABBOTT:

At different times, governments of all persuasions have brought submissions to the Fair Work Commission or the Australian Industrial Relations Commission as it then was. All governments do it. The important thing is that these things will always be decided by the independent umpire. The Fair Work Commission that this Government established and this Government staffed, will be the Fair Work Commission, the independent umpire which decides all these things under an incoming Coalition government.

QUESTION:

The Government's support for the application does carry some weight. Labor has backed in union submissions for low paid workers with the commission and they have got the result that they want. Wouldn't it work in reverse as well?

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TONY ABBOTT:

I absolutely accept that the important thing is to maximise jobs, maximise pay and respect the independent umpire.

QUESTION:

Just on that point, you would concede, wouldn't you, that penalty rates are punishing many small businesses, they're not actually helping boost employment and, secondly, do you think your economic team would be stronger than people anticipate should you win the next election based on some of the structural changes to your frontbench?

TONY ABBOTT:

I think you're verbaling me if I may say so, Joe. To suggest that there are changes along the lines that you wrote about this morning. Look, I accept that businesses are under pressure and I would like businesses and their workers to come to the kind of fair and just arrangements that will maximise employment and maximise pay. That's why we've got an independent umpire and I want the independent umpire to do its job.

Labor's Fair Work Commission, Labor established and Labor staffed, will do this job. Your pay, your conditions, your overtime, your penalty rates are all going to be the preserve of the Fair Work Commission under a Coalition government. As to the other question that you put, I've said that should we win the election, my Shadow Ministers can expect to be doing more or less the same thing after the election that they're doing before the election and I absolutely maintain that position. It's been my clear and consistent position all the way through. We've got a strong, united team, it's a very good team, it's an absolute contrast to Mr Rudd who lost a third of his Cabinet when he became Prime Minister again because people didn't want to serve with him. We've got a strong and united team and I owe it to my Shadow Ministers to respect the job they've done, to respect the trust they've put in me.

I've got to say though that every one of my Shadow Ministers has an economic role. I mean, Malcolm here will be responsible for rolling out an effective National Broadband Network for about $60 billion less than Labor. That's a very heavy responsibility and I know he's going to discharge it magnificently. Peter here will be responsible for a federal health system which has an annual budget, depending upon what you include in it of about $50 billion a year. What a massive responsibility. I can remember when I was the Health Minister looking at the federal health Budget and in those days it was greater than the gross domestic product of 75 per cent of the countries of the world. So, anyone who is responsible for the stewardship of the federal health Budget has a massive economic responsibility and I know that all of my Shadow Ministers, should we move into government, will do the economic job extremely well because building a stronger economy is the foundation of a better society. I want to build a stronger economy because that's what's needed to build the better society that all of us want in our hearts.

Thank you.

[ends]