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Transcript of doorstop: Wednesday 19 February 2003: Parliament House, Perth: Health Minister's no-show at ministerial meeting, opinion polls.



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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, Perth

Wednesday 19 February 2003

E & OE

Subject: Health Minister’s No-Show at Ministerial Meeting, Opinion Polls

SMITH: Well, the only reason Kay Patterson’s not turning up to the meeting with the State and Territory Health Ministers on Friday is because she can’t give a guarantee that the Commonwealth is committed to restoring bulk billing and she can’t give a guarantee that the Commonwealth isn’t intent on slashing funding in real terms to our public hospitals.

I said yesterday in a speech to a Health Summit that the State and Territory Ministers had to extract two guarantees out of Minister Patterson on Friday.

One was an absolute commitment by the Commonwealth to restore bulk billing and the other was a commitment that funding to public hospitals in the new Australian Health Care Agreements would not see a reduction in real terms to our public hospitals.

The reason for that is quite clear. Since John Howard came to office, we’ve seen an 11% drop in bulk billing rates. Half of that has been in the last 12 months as bulk billing has gone into free fall. That’s placed enormous pressure on the emergency departments of our public hospitals.

In New South Wales, for example, over the last three years we’ve seen a 300,000 increase in presentations to emergency departments. That far outstrips the population growth.

In Western Australia, over the last 5 years, we’ve seen a nearly 10% increase in presentations to emergency departments. Now this puts enormous additional pressure on our public hospitals. It means that our public hospitals will need even more resources.

We find two things from the Howard Government: not committed to restoring bulk billing; and now, apparently, hell-bent of going down the track of slashing funding in real terms to our public hospitals to worsen the crisis.

There’s only one reason why she’s not turning up on Friday. She’s not in a position to give those guarantees - guarantees which all Australians and their

families are enormously concerned about, because they want to ensure ongoing access to quality health care.

JOURNALIST: Is she being childish?

SMITH: Well, there is an arrogance about not turning up to a planned meeting of State and Territory Health Ministers.

We know that when the State and Territory Health Ministers last met with the Commonwealth in November last year, she refused to give a guarantee about the funding. She refused to guarantee that there wouldn’t be a funding cut in real terms to the public hospitals.

We saw last week in Senate Estimates, on Thursday, the Minister refusing to give that same guarantee. So, there’s only one reason she’s not turning up - she’s not in a position to give that guarantee.

We also saw last week, when she came under pressure, her media advisor running through the Press Gallery in Canberra saying that they had a $1 billion plan to address bulk billing. No details were given but it was a $1 billion plan over four years. Less than four days later, Treasurer Costello said that there’d be no new money for health in the forthcoming budget. So that left that so-called plan in tatters.

She’s no doubt highly embarrassed about that and also highly embarrassed about the fact that she’s not in a position to give that guarantee. I would understand the State and Territory Health Ministers at such a meeting would be very angry about this double crime here committed by the Commonwealth, hell bent on slashing funding to public hospitals and happy to sit back and see bulk billing continue in free fall.

JOURNALIST: Do you think she’s running scared from facing the State Ministers and, if that’s the case, do you think that she should be in the position she’s in?

SMITH: Well, it’s quite clear that Health Minister Patterson stumbles from one fiasco to another. As I just said, the most recent one we’ve seen, Monday of last week, running through the Press Gallery saying that she had a $1 billion plan over four years to help address the decline in bulk billing.

The only reason she did that was because at her media conference that day, on two occasions she failed to rule out means testing for bulk billing purposes and on two occasions she failed to commit the Commonwealth to the principle or the notion of universality for access to Medicare.

Less than four days after she said she had a $1 billion proposal over four years, Treasurer Costello squashed it.

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So, I can understand her embarrassment. I can understand her timidity and I can understand the Government now being concerned about the Health Minister being out of depth in this portfolio.

JOURNALIST: She claims that it’s because she doesn’t have statistics of money. She can’t talk money yet and last time she met with the Health Ministers in November, it deteriorated into a discussion about money and she didn’t have the answers then - she clearly told them that the discussion should be about reform.

SMITH: Well, if she’s not in a position to talk about money now, when will she be in a position to talk about money? We’re talking here about the Australian Health Care Agreements. The new agreements take effect from 1 July this year. They are five-yearly agreements and they range in billions of dollars. The last Commonwealth commitment to the Health Care Agreements was over $30 billion.

So, if she’s not in the position now, with about four months to go before the new agreements take place, when will she be in a position? She’s using that as an alibi, as cover.

What she is essentially doing is delaying the inevitable and the inevitable is quite clear, given Treasurer Costello’s comments late last week. The Commonwealth will slash funding in real terms to State public hospitals in the forthcoming Health Care Agreements. That’s why she’s not turning up. She doesn’t want that cat out of the bag now. She’d rather wait until we’re much further down the track.

So, all notions about talking about reform or not being in a position to say this or that, it’s all cover. It’s cover for this: the Commonwealth Government, the Howard Government, will slash funding in real terms to our public hospitals, placing greater pressure on them. That’s in addition to the pressure we’ve seen on them as a result of the collapse of bulk billing under John Howard.

JOURNALIST: Mr Smith, on another issue - Simon Crean - is he a dead man walking?

SMITH: Well, Simon’s the Leader and I’m working on the basis that Simon will be the Leader at the next election. Opinion polls come and go and I think it’s quite clear that Simon is out there making the point about Iraq in crystal-clear terms: we believe that the starting point for all that ought to be a resolution of the Security Council.

I think there’s a long way to go so far as the opinion polls on Iraq are concerned and opinion polls on leadership.

JOURNALIST: You must be stunned by [inaudible] losing ground in the polls rather than gaining?

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SMITH: No, I’m not stunned at all. Opposition is a hard slog. It’s a hard slog. You’ve got to get up there day in, day out, dust yourself down and do the best that you can.

One of the things that is causing us difficulty and problems is, in the fog of war, it’s very difficult to get people to focus on what you’d regard as the real issues around the kitchen table - very difficult to get people to focus upon the collapse of bulk billing and the Howard Government about to slash funding in real terms to our public hospitals.

So, we will have these troubles. We hope sooner rather than later and we hope peaceably rather than through use of military force, the fog of war will pass. When it does, Australians will return in my view to those issues which

are of paramount importance to them. They are about family living standards, about financial pressure on families, health and about education, and in those areas Labor will come to the fore.

I want to make this point about the opinion polls. For the first time since August/September of 2001, we’ve seen some shine taken off the Prime Minister’s approval rating. That’s the first point.

Secondly, when you look at the primary votes of the two major political parties, they are about where they were at the last election. That has been a consistent trend. So in terms of being within striking distance, we are in striking distance, but there is also a long way to go. When the fog of war lifts, the issues on which we believe we have the commitment and the policies and the presentation to take to the Australian people, they’ll come to the fore and they’re families under financial pressure, health, education and living

standards.

JOURNALIST: But those polls convey the point that if you can’t make ground in this environment, when Crean is running with the majority, when will he?

SMITH: Well, I think that the fog of war is a very difficult environment. People are uncertain, people are worried. My view is wait until the fog of war lifts. We’ll then see a return to those domestic issues in respect of which people are most concerned. That’s when you can start to make judgements.

JOURNALIST: Some Labor MPs are obviously white-anting Simon in the media though. Does he have your support?

SMITH: I’ve made it clear, in the past as I do now, he’s the Leader. I believe he’ll be the Leader at the next election.

Ends

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