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Thursday, 13 August 2009
Page: 7859

Mr DUTTON (4:00 PM) —Today in question time we saw another opportunity for the Prime Minister to recommit to his election promise and he failed to do it. It has been six weeks now since the deadline has come and gone, the deadline that the Prime Minister set himself back in the election campaign, to fix public hospitals by mid-2009 or he would seek to take financial control of those hospitals. Every Australian heard this Prime Minister say at the last election that he would end the blame game, that on health the buck would stop with him and that he had a solution to fix public hospitals or, if he could not have the hospitals fixed under the control of the state Labor governments, he would seek to take them over.

Over the last 18 months since this government has been elected nothing has happened under this government to improve our health system. In fact, at every turn, decisions that Kevin Rudd has taken have made worse the outcomes across hospitals and the health system around the country. This is a government which has, by way of decisions on private health insurance, those relating to IVF and those relating to GP super clinics, only added pressure to, not taken pressure away from, public hospitals—and for that it should be condemned. This is a government which promised so much but has delivered so little.

It is certainly the case that this government led people to believe that it had a plan. It was the Prime Minister who as far back as about two years ago promised, by way of a speech to a health summit in New South Wales, that he had a plan at that time, two years ago, to fix hospitals. That is how far back this Prime Minister had the Australian people believing that, if elected into government, he was going to carry out this plan as promised. It certainly has been an appalling record when you look at some of the examples that I want to outline as part of this debate today.

The time frame was not set by the opposition; it was set by the government. The Prime Minister made that promise knowing how difficult the task would be, how difficult trying to undo the health system trashing that had taken place by state Labor governments over the last 10 years would be, but nonetheless he made that commitment. Since that time, by driving people out of private health insurance, by making sure that he was pouring more Commonwealth taxpayers’ money into the black hole that is the state Labor governments, he has condemned us to failure in the next 10 years that we have seen over the last 10 years.

But this was a promise that we knew from day one was going to be broken. We knew this promise to fix public hospitals was at risk when that wording was removed from the Prime Minister’s website only a few months ago. It was replaced with ‘improve’, which gave way to ‘assess’. So the signals were there, but Australians chose to believe that the Prime Minister would be true to his word—as of course they should. They gave this Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt. They did not believe that Kevin Rudd was just another Labor premier; they believed that he was going to end the blame game, that he was going to change the system and deliver health outcomes which would be of benefit to this nation’s hospitals and to all of the doctors and nurses—who are so passionate about the health system and who crave changes, just like Australian patients. They were hoping that Kevin Rudd was not just going to break into more state premier speak. But, of course, the opposite has been shown to be the case.

Let us assess just what this government has done. The government and ministers can spin all the stories they like about the supposed wonderful things that they have done in health, but the truth is that, rather than fix hospitals, the Prime Minister has made them worse. And the truth in health is there for all to see in the streets of towns not very far from where we are today. Let me take the Australian people to the streets of Cootamundra, where hundreds of people are protesting this afternoon about the state of health under Kevin Rudd and his state Labor mates. They are protesting about the bleak future of their local hospital. Two weeks ago the Greater Southern Area Health Service in New South Wales told doctors at Cootamundra that their funding would be slashed this financial year—slashed by more than $600,000 from the budget of last year. Cootamundra has a skilled medical staff. It is a town that has two obstetricians, two general surgeons and other qualified staff. But the disastrous decision by Labor could rob this community of that expertise.

Under Rudd Labor, those doctors have been told that they will have to slash the number of medical procedures that they carry out this financial year by more than half. If this decision holds, three of these doctors have indicated they will have to leave the town so that they can practise somewhere where they can keep their skills current. The people of Cootamundra believe that this is simply the thin edge of the wedge and that, with surgery cuts, admissions will fall and, if admissions fall, the hospital may well close. That is how this Rudd government has gone about fixing public hospitals over the last 18 months.

It is ironic that earlier this year the health minister was actually in Cootamundra to open a primary health centre. It was, she said, a blueprint for cooperation between community, private investors and input from government. You can almost hear the sound of the sincerity. One wonders how the people of Cootamundra consider the input from this government this afternoon. Cootamundra is not alone. Apparently a secret government report is calling for emergency surgery at Mount Druitt Hospital in Western Sydney also to be scrapped. The situation at Blacktown Hospital in Sydney’s west is so bad that even a state Labor MP is saying that lives will be lost.

I also wonder whether the young teenager from Dubbo thinks that Mr Rudd has fixed health. She badly injured her thumb recently—it was virtually torn off. She was rushed to Dubbo Base Hospital where doctors decided she had to be flown to Sydney where specialist surgeons could save the thumb. Unfortunately for this girl, it did not happen. It did not happen because it took New South Wales Health 10 hours to get her from Dubbo to Sydney. She could have driven there in half the time. One needs to remember that this is the same hospital that earlier this year could not pay its basic bills: it could not pay for bandages, it could not pay for batteries for vital equipment and it certainly could not pay for food for patients. And that is how Kevin Rudd has fixed health over the last 18 months.

Then there is Townsville, and I turn to my colleague the member for Herbert. The Prime Minister has been in Far North Queensland in the last week. Hopefully, he heard the message about the failures of his Labor colleagues in Queensland, and I hope that he heard it loud and clear. Queensland Health does not believe that Australia’s largest regional hospital in Townsville has the need or the expertise to operate vital life-saving equipment.

Mr Turnour interjecting

Mr DUTTON —Whilst this government carries on with silly, petty political interjections, people in Townsville—people around the country—are dying in public hospitals. So why don’t you refrain from interjecting and start to concern yourself with people who are dying in public hospitals. The member for Leichhardt is an absolute joke in his local community because people know that the Cairns Base Hospital, which they expected to be fixed, has actually got worse since he was elected. He is a disgrace and he represents the failure of Labor members across the country to fix hospitals.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke)—Order! The member will withdraw.

Mr Dutton —What should I withdraw, Madam Deputy Speaker?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —You will withdraw the unparliamentary remarks in respect of the member for Leichhardt, please, so we can continue.

Mr Dutton —Madam Deputy Speaker, I would be happy to oblige, but I am not aware of anything that I said that was unparliamentary. If you point me to it, I would be happy to withdraw it.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —You referred to him as ‘a disgrace’. I think you will find that, in the context, that is unparliamentary.

Mr DUTTON —I withdraw. If incompetent or impotent is more applicable, then I apply that. So we have swine flu intensive care wards in North Queensland. A flu victim was recently flown to Sydney for intensive care treatment because there was not space at the Townsville hospital. We know that a week before that, at great cost, two rescue helicopters were needed to ferry another flu victim 700 kilometres around North Queensland—from Atherton to Cairns to Townsville and finally to Mackay—before he could be admitted into an intensive care ward. This cost tens of thousands of dollars. There were no spare beds in the two major hospitals in Northern Australia—and that is how Kevin Rudd has fixed health. The litany of woe goes on state by state—and this is how Labor manages health.

The Australian people should understand that this Prime Minister, the Prime Minister of this Labor government, will deliver nothing different to that which state Labor has delivered in health over the last 10 years. The bigger problem in health at the moment, I say to the Australian people, is not the money that is going in; it is the way in which the money is being spent and managed. Under this Labor government we have seen over the last 18 months only worse outcomes, not better. Twenty months into the life of this government, the situation has got worse and it shows the potential to deteriorate further. It is this Prime Minister who less than two years ago made the promise that he had a plan to fix hospitals and who less than 18 months ago promised to fix the hospitals or take them over. This Prime Minister, on the back of the recent inquiry which sat for 16 months with 10 of the top medical practitioners and contributors in health around this country and which provided to the government 123 recommendations—he had made the same commitment 18 months or two years before that that he had a plan to fix hospitals—says that not only is he walking away from that key election promise but also now needs another six months to consult around the country, to visit 25 hospitals so that he can get photo opportunities and so that people can believe he is doing something, implementing a plan, when nothing has been adopted. All of those recommendations are sitting there and this government has not adopted one. So we are well and truly looking at another 12 to 18 months before this government can introduce the radical reform that it promised at the time of the last election.

A couple of weeks ago the Minister for Health and Ageing suggested that the government would not be able to implement the changes that it thought it could or that it thought were needed in health because of the way that it had spent the money in the cash splashes. This really goes to the core of the difficulty that this government has got. I suspect that the government would seek to take over hospitals if it had its way. What I suspect, though, is that because it has spent the money over the last 18 months, because it has plunged this nation into enormous debt, because this country is going to be saddled with millions and millions of dollars of interest repayments over the next 10, 20 or 30 years, it has lost its capacity to implement properly the change in health that it promised. I think the Australian public now understand what we have been talking about over the course of the last 18 months. It is why we spoke about caution when this government went into a spending spree. We spoke about caution because we knew there were serious asks of the Australian people and of the taxpayers of this country coming up—and health was one such area.

We need to get health right in this country, but we cannot do it if we continue down the same failed Labor path of the last 10 years. We cannot just have Commonwealth taxpayers’ money being tipped into Nathan Rees’s government or into Anna Bligh’s government, because we know that, regardless of the money that has been tipped in the last 12 months which the health minister will speak about in a moment, outcomes in our public hospitals have not improved. If the health minister comes to the dispatch box today and suggests to the Australian people that somehow the government have improved hospitals over the course of the last 18 months then people should hold the government in the contempt that they deserve to be held. The government will not improve public hospitals or, indeed, the health system until they make the substantial change that they have promised for two years. The Australian people know—commonsense tells them—that we cannot continue to operate with the management practices that we have got in public hospitals and in health sectors around the country. We need to introduce that reform so that the money that we are spending, the extra investment that we will make in future years, will enable better health outcomes for Australian patients.

We do not want to see young families with sick children waiting for eight or 10 hours in emergency departments around the country. We do not want to see older Australians dying on waiting lists. In some cases people are on waiting lists for up to 10 years because there are bad practices that continue to suck up all of the money that is being poured into health by the Commonwealth and state governments. By its every action over the last 18 months, this government has made outcomes in health worse than they were when this government took office in 2007. This government has driven people out of the private system and onto waiting lists in the public system. This government has made bad outcomes even worse in relation to our emergency departments around the country. That is what this government should be remembered for, and certainly the Australian on people are right to draw the conclusion that the Prime Minister is not serious about health. He is now talking about putting this off until the next election. He wants to turn this into a political advantage. We know that more than 4½ thousand people die every year because of inefficiencies in our health system, and this Prime Minister, for political advantage, wants to put off any decisions. He should be condemned— (Time expired)