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Opposition Leader discusses Medicare hotspot teams; Bush visit; Iraq; French terror suspect; and Boys Town visit.



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LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION

TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW - JOHN MILLER & ROSS DAVIE, RADIO 4BC, BRISBANE, WEDNESDAY 29 OCTOBER 2003

E & OE - PROOF ONLY

Subjects: Medicare Hotspot Teams; Bush visit; Iraq; French terror suspect; Boys Town visit

PRESENTER: Joining us live in the studio this morning, the Leader of the Federal Opposition, Mr Simon Crean. Simon, welcome to Queensland once again.

CREAN: It’s good to be back, John.

PRESENTER: Mr Crean, you’re running very, very hard on the issue of Medicare. Do you think you’re getting any hits on the Government here?

CREAN: There is no question about that. The reshuffle forced the Government’s hand on this. Quite frankly, the thing that has really shown up is this dramatic decline in bulk billing. I was up on the Central Coast of New South Wales yesterday. Bulk billing has almost disappeared up there. It was a classic example of where you can put these Medicare hotspot teams.

PRESENTER: Right. That’s what you were talking about yesterday. Let’s elaborate a little bit more on that. You’re going to put in what you call ‘Medicare Hotspot Teams’. A, how will that work and, B, how will you identify the hotspots.

CREAN: Well, the first point is that they are Government-funded Medicare clinics. So the Commonwealth would pay the team, which is essentially two doctors and a practise nurse. There would be up to four teams in each of the identified hotspots, and the hotspots would define themselves because they would be the areas in which bulk billing has basically been wiped out.

So I don’t think there is any rocket science in this. This is just a smart way to target real areas of need. The other thing we did yesterday was to identify the ability to locate them in the public hospitals, John. And why? Because

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when people can’t get a bulk-billing doctor, they go to the public hospital, they go to the emergency department. Now, that puts additional pressure on the hospital, because you’ve got people coming into the emergency department who could have been seen by a doctor, but it also means that’s where people know to go. If what we can do is locate some of the teams in

the public hospitals, we’re not only providing free medical treatment to see a doctor, we’re taking pressure off the public hospitals as well. It’s a smart solution.

I might say, this is the second stage of what we announced a couple of months ago. The first stage was to say, we’ve got to get bulk billing rates up by lifting the patient rebate. My plan is to lift it by between $5 and $11 for every patient that is bulk billed, depending on the area, $5 to $11. The Government’s package only lifts it by $1 in the metropolitan areas. That is not going to be enough to get doctors back into bulk billing.

We’ve got to put real incentives back into the system, because it’s been run down for so long. We have had independent analysis done on this. The independent survey showed that if our plan was put in place, bulk billing will go back to 80% and the cost of seeing a doctor will come down. Under the Government’s plan, bulk billing will further decline and the cost of seeing a doctor will go up. It couldn’t be a starker contrast.

PRESENTER: How carefully is Tony Abbott looking at your plan, because we hear that he is cautiously accepting the Australian Democrats’ plan.

CREAN: I think it’s pretty interesting. In Tony Abbott’s response yesterday he effectively didn’t bag our plan, which is an important start. He embraced more the Democrats’ plan. But why wouldn’t he, because the Democrats are not proposing to lift the patient rebate. They’re proposing to extend the $1 to everyone who is bulk billed, but if you accept the argument that $1 is not going to be enough to make a doctor bulk bill, then it’s a plan that won’t work. Why would a doctor bulk bill anyone for just $1 if they can get $15 or $20 off the patient through the swipe card? So, all the Democrats have done is to tag on to the failed Government proposal.

What I’m saying is that if you’re serious about restoring bulk billing, you’ve got to lift the patient rebate and you’ve got to target the areas of need. What I’ve put out a few months ago, plus yesterday, does just that. It’ll get bulk billing rates up. It’ll make medicine and healthcare more affordable. It’ll enable people to see a doctor when they need it.

PRESENTER: Clearly, by the tone of your campaign - and I’m saying campaign - over the last few months on this issue of Medicare, you identified this as being a key issue in the upcoming Federal election. However, is it going to be enough to roll a Government that can stand up and beat its chest and say, “Look at this: we’re awash with cash, everything is going swimmingly. We funded troop deployments. We’ve done all the right things economically and it’s showing for the people of Australia. Interest rates are at an all-time low.” Is that going to be enough to get you across the line?

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CREAN: That remains to be seen. I think the Australian public takes into account a whole range of things. But you talk about the Government being awash with cash. That did show up a month or so ago, John. But if

the Government has got so much money, why can’t it invest more in our public hospital system? Only a month before that surplus came out, they dudded the States to the tune of $1 billion over four years from hospitals, and yet they produce a $3.5 billion extra surplus in one year. Don’t tell me if

you’ve got that money it can’t be invested better to save our health system.

I talked before about bulk billing rates, but the other side of the equation, which we are still to announce our policy on, is hospitals. And we have to have a better working partnership with the States. People are sick of the buck-passing. They don’t like this argument where the Federal Government blames the States and the States blame the Federal Government. They want a solution. They want to know that they can get into a hospital, and you could only do that if both levels of Government are prepared to invest together in it.

So, if they are awash with cash, why can’t they fix the hospital system? If they are awash with cash, why can’t they create more university and TAFE places, because this is the future for our young people. You talked about the entitlement to health care, what about education? These are the two most fundamental issues that we need to address as a community. Sure, we have to deal with all of the other issues, I don’t deny that, but I think that health and education are front and centre, and what you’ve got for the first time in a long time is a real alternative. I’m offering a real alternative to fix both of those.

PRESENTER: Well, surprise, surprise - as we near an election, Tony Abbott says he is considering overhauling the $900 million package anyway.

CREAN: Well, the $900 million package is a failure, and it’s a failure because it doesn’t get bulk billing rates up and it doesn’t address the crisis in our hospitals. The previous Health Minister, Ross, wouldn’t even turn up to talk to the States. She boycotted the meetings.

I will be very interested to hear what Mr Abbott has to say to the State Governments and to the Doctor Reform Alliance that proposed not just fixing it with money, but better ways of delivering the health services. When you

think of it, State and Federal Governments and us as a nation spend collectively $60 billion in healthcare a year. It is a huge amount. Don’t tell me we can’t make the system work better. And that is the challenge, but you can only do it by State and Federal Governments working better together. And I’m up here talking to Peter Beattie about that very thing today, because I know he’s committed to that. And I look forward to the opportunity that a Labor Federal Government has working with Labor State Governments to actually solve this problem, because it’s only the Labor Party that believes in Medicare.

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PRESENTER: Mr Crean, recently we had the visits by George Bush and the Chinese President. How do you consider both of those visits to have been important and have they been successful?

CREAN: I think they were important for this country, yes I do. It is always important that a head of government visits here to use the opportunity to advance the agenda. I think that the Chinese President did well to advance his agenda and I think that the President Bush visit was more constrained in terms of what it was trying to achieve and we still haven’t

heard anything about what is going on in this so-called Free Trade Agreement. And how can you tell whether you are for or against it until you know what’s in it?

PRESENTER: That’s a good point. But there is a general principle. I like a lot of other Australians believe in fair trade but I’m a bit wary when you talk about dealing with the Great White shark.

CREAN: In the end it has got to be is it good for Australia? And does it give improved access, importantly, for our agriculture? If those sorts of things aren’t in then I just don’t see how it can be good for this country. And the other thing is that there is no point in countries doing special deals if those deals can’t be replicated in other markets. If we get squeezed out of other markets, or other countries go and do their one to ones like the ASEAN group has just done with China. What are the implications of that? China is a much bigger market for us than the US. What we should be really doing is if we are going to cement the Free Trade Agreement with the US it’s got to be an agreement that drives our ability to get into other markets not just the US. There has got to be the ability to get our products and services overseas. Our future is in exporting and we’ve got to get that improved access. I don’t know what’s in that agreement and until we know I don’t see how you can realistically decide whether it’s good for us.

PRESENTER: You delivered a, if may I say, a beautifully crafted speech to George W Bush, not quite so beautifully crafted were the words of Bob Brown and Kerry Nettle. What did you make of their behaviour?

CREAN: Well, look, I didn’t like it. The reason I say that is look, parliament gives you a great opportunity. It is the forum of free speech. No one restricts what you say, how you say it - but within the rules. And the rules require two things, it’s about showing respect for the institution and if the institution invites a leader from another country you’ve got to show that person respect. That doesn’t mean that you have to change your views or kowtow or do anything of that but you have to show respect. I was always brought up in my family - both my parents argued very strongly the importance of showing respect, and the other qualities I think are important are honesty and loyalty. And these are issues that I abide very strongly by. But the other thing about Bob Brown is that having broken the rules, he then didn’t abide by the Speaker’s ruling. Now the next day he wasn’t allowed in. I think that was appropriate. But he didn’t need to do what he did to express his views in opposition to President Bush.

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PRESENTER: He called for the PM to be censured on the Iraq situation, should he be censured for his behaviour?

CREAN: He’s been disciplined, I mean that is a censure after all, but he has been disciplined and that is the important point here. He was not able to represent his constituency in the Parliament where he was elected to represent them, when the President of China was here.

PRESENTER: Let's look at the Iraq situation. It's been very, very nasty over there in the last 24 - 48 hours, not that it's ever been anything different really I suppose, but particularly violent with attacks on the Red Cross staff. We're told that the Australian security detachment that they are very concerned that everyone is fair game, everyone associated with the action is fair game.

CREAN: This is the inevitable consequence of what we got ourselves into. By restricting the Coalition that went into Iraq, that, of necessity as an occupying force, have to be responsible for law enforcement. So it's no wonder that more Australians are going to have to be sent over. The solution to that of course is to get the United Nations more actively involved as they should have been involved from the outset. But I think the great irony here is that America and Australia went to war in Iraq to stop the spread of terrorism and all that seems to be happening is that it is spawning it. We had a plan to win a war, but not to secure the peace, and I think that there has to be some really hard, cold heart searching amongst the Americans and the Australians and those other allies to get the United Nations in and come up with a plan that secures the peace.

I think the other tragedy about this is quite frankly who is being attacked? The very people who are providing the humanitarian aid. The very people trying to build the country and it's a dreadful disaster that they can't go on safely. The plan to secure the country and rebuild the peace has not been thought through and has not been effectively carried out.

PRESENTER: What about the communications here within our own country between our own security people and the French security people with this current bloke who has been out and about and we heard about it too late from the French government.

CREAN: Well, we acted quickly once we found out about it. The real question is why didn’t we find out about it earlier? There is no point saying we’ve got to be concerned about terrorism if we haven’t put in place good communications between the countries to actually share the intelligence. And we know the statements coming out of our Government against the French when the French wouldn’t support the Americans going to war. That’s not a very conducive environment to encouraging cooperation. But quite frankly we need to have closer cooperation with those countries. I think the fact that the federal police and the intelligence gathering agencies were able to move quickly against this person and have him deported, I think they should be

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commended for that. But obviously what we’ve got to establish and ensure, I have a briefing with them yesterday, is what the consequence of Mr Brigitte’s attendance here for almost five months actually extended to. That’s the real issue.

PRESENTER: I’ve never seen anyone look less like a terrorist in my life than that gentleman.

CREAN: Well, look at the people who got into the United States on September the 11th.

PRESENTER: You’ve got this mental image of what a terrorist is supposed to look like but most of them don’t.

CREAN: Well that’s because the Government wants to paint them in a particular way. But these people they can be anyone trained anywhere. The important thing is that we are narrowing down the circumstances in which they are trained. But we have got to share much more effectively our intelligence information. That can only happen if you build strong relationships, this is why we have to strengthen our relationship with Indonesia, it’s why we have to do it with the Europeans, not just the Americans.

PRESENTER: Time is against us, we’re going to have to let you go because I know you’ve got an important visit today, you’re off to Boys Town.

CREAN: Yes I’m out to Boys Town today. I’ve had an invitation for some time. My mother has been a long time patron of Boys Town. Carole my wife is up there with us today. We are both going out there and having a look at Glugor House. I think organisations such as this that are helping young people who are at risk, and in the case of Glugor House young women who have either been the subject of abuse or the likelihood of that, I think these are terrific organisations, just seeing how they function and where Governments can work much better with them as they go about their important tasks. This is our future and we have to build a more cohesive society. These organisations do that and I am delighted to go out and see their good work.

PRESENTER: Okay Simon Crean thanks for coming on the program. We are out of time, we were going to get you to sing but we’ve just run clean out of time.

CREAN: Well just as well because my forte is not singing!

PRESENTER: Are you sure?

CREAN: Absolutely!

(ENDS)