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Parliament House, Canberra: transcript of doorstop: bulk billing; Mal Colston; Meg Lees.



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T R A N S C R I P T

Stephen Smith MP Member for Perth Shadow Minister for Health and Ageing

TRANSCRIPT OF DOORSTOP - Parliament House, Canberra Tuesday 12 November 2002

E & OE

Subjects: Bulk Billing, Mal Colston, Meg Lees

SMITH: Yesterday we saw general practitioners from throughout Australia going through the Parliament telling all Members of Parliament how there’s a crisis in general practice. That’s true, there is a crisis in general practice.

Today, if Senator Patterson is to be believed, we’ll see the latest bulk billing figures released. I say if she is to be believed, because the last occasion we had bulk billing figures out, Senator Patterson said that they would be released automatically, six weeks after the end of each quarter.

Well, it’s six weeks and one day from the end of September quarter, so according to Senator Patterson, the September bulk billing figures should be out today. But don’t hold your breath for that. Don’t be surprised if we don’t see these figures released until Friday, after the Parliament has got up.

It’s important that these figures are released in the course of the week so that Parliament has the opportunity of considering them.

I expect those figures will show another very serious decline in bulk billing. That’s because the Government has kept the screws on the medical rebate so far as general practitioners are concerned, and because it’s shown no long-term planning so far as workforce arrangements for general practitioners are concerned. So there’s a crisis in general practice, there is a crisis in bulk billing.

Labor’s absolutely committed to restoring bulk billing. The problem we have is the Government is now achieving by process of attrition what John Howard said he wanted to achieve in the early eighties, namely to destroy bulk billing. If bulk billing is destroyed that will undermine the universality of Australia’s health care and it will see people not getting the primary and preventative health care that they need.

JOURNALIST: Doctors yesterday were still blaming the Hawke/Keating failure to raise the scheduled benefit fee for the crisis in general practice?

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SMITH: Well, it’s been a long time since the Hawke and Keating Governments. The problem is that this Government hasn’t raised the medical rebate for general practice over a six year period. They’ve kept the screws right on it and John Howard’s done that deliberately. He’s achieved through the back door what he said he would achieve through the front door in the 1980’s. He got no public support for that when he was Leader of the Opposition in the 1980’s, saying that he would destroy bulk billing and would destroy Medicare.

So, over a six year period we’ve seen the Howard Government not increase the rebate. We’ve seen them pay no attention whatsoever to the shortage of doctors, the shortage of nurses, the shortage of health and allied health professionals. There is a crisis in our national workforce planning so far as general practice is concerned. What we’re committed to is ensuring that general practice is sustainable and bulk billing rates are restored.

We’ve seen in the most recent figures, in the June quarter figures, the biggest annual decline in bulk billing rates since bulk billing was introduced in 1984. That’s at its worst in rural and regional Australia, but we see the problem grow not just throughout outer metropolitan Australian, but metropolitan Australia generally.

We have a national crisis in bulk billing and when the September quarter figures are released, I’m sure that will be underlined.

JOURNALIST: Should Mal Colston be making a doctor’s appointment to see if he’s fit to stand trial?

SMITH: Absolutely.

JOURNALIST: Would you like to see him face trial?

SMITH: Well, that’s a matter for the Director of Public Prosecutions. The Director of Public Prosecutions has indicated that in the past he has determined not to proceed with the matter on the basis of medical evidence so far as former Senator Colston is concerned. As I understand from overnight reports, he’s contemplating fresh medical evidence and I welcome that approach.

JOURNALIST: It’s about time [inaudible]?

SMITH: Well, it’s a matter for him. He’s an independent officer. He’s indicated overnight, as I understand it, that he’s proposing to go down that course of action. It seems to me, given that a couple of years have elapsed since his original decision, it’s an appropriate course of conduct.

JOURNALIST: What do you think of Meg Lees forming her own party now rather than just staying an independent?

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SMITH: Well, it doesn’t surprise me. It doesn’t surprise me and frankly it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the current Democrats ultimately joined her.

JOURNALIST: Are you concerned that Labor could lose support to a new centre left party?

SMITH: No, we are out there trying to focus attention on a range of domestic issues. You’ve just seen a couple of my colleagues, Alan Griffin talking about bank fees, Wayne Swan about social welfare and security matters. I’m out here talking about the drastic decline in bulk billing. By concentrating on issues like that, I’m sure we’ll see our primary vote increase and be in good shape for the next election.

JOURNALIST: What should she call the new party?

SMITH: Well, that’s a matter for her.

JOURNALIST: Do you think there’s a vacuum somewhere between yourselves and the Liberal Party?

SMITH: There’s an enormous intellectual vacuum between the Liberal Party and the Labor Party. I’ve held that view for over thirty years.

Ends

Contact : Andrew Dempster - 0407 435 157 or 02 6277 4108