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Tuesday, 22 June 2010
Page: 6221

Mr KEENAN (6:42 PM) —I rise to speak on the Crimes Amendment (Royal Flying Doctor Service) Bill 2010, but I do so at the conclusion of the condolence motion for Sapper Jacob Moerland and Sapper Darren Smith, and I too would like to add my condolences to the words of the previous speakers and acknowledge that they have paid the ultimate price for serving their country. All of us in the Australian parliament salute their service and send our condolences to their families.

I will move to the bill. The Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia is one of the largest and most comprehensive aeromedical services in the world. The service delivers extensive primary health care and 24-hour emergency service throughout all of Australia. Notably, today the Royal Flying Doctor Service has a fleet of 53 aircraft operating from 21 bases across the country, flying the equivalent of 25 round trips to the moon in any given year. It provides medical assistance to over 270,000 Australians every year. That is one person every two minutes.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service has come a long way since its first flight in 1928. That was the year in which the Royal Flying Doctor Service was born. The service began as a dream of the Reverend John Flynn, a minister with the Presbyterian Church. He witnessed the daily struggle of pioneers living in remote areas where just two doctors provided the only medical care for an area of almost two million square kilometres. Flynn’s vision was to provide a mantle of safety for these people. On 15 May 1928, his dream became a reality with the opening of the Australian Inland Mission Aerial Medical Service, which was later renamed the Royal Flying Doctor Service, in Cloncurry, in Queensland.

Over the next few years, the Royal Flying Doctor Service began to expand across the country. By the 1950s, the Royal Flying Doctor Service was acknowledged by former Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies as ‘perhaps the single greatest contribution to the effective settlement of the far distant country that we have witnessed in our time’. The RFDS and the contribution of the Reverend John Flynn are commemorated on the Australian $20 note, something I am sure all members would be familiar with.

 The Royal Flying Doctor Service has become a very proud symbol of the Australian spirit. You do not need to look far to find examples of individuals and communities taking pride in their involvement with the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Only last month, the Far North Queensland town of Mareeba was announced as the new home of the Queen Air plane, a long-retired member of the RFDS fleet. The Mareeba community have welcomed the news and have expressed how proud they are to be part of the history of an organisation that so many times has meant the difference between life and death for the people of regional and remote Queensland.

This bill deals specifically with the medical chest service. A good example of how this works in practice is detailed on the RFDS website, as follows:

A worker on a cattle station or exploration camp has an eye infection. It isn’t serious enough for an evacuation flight but it needs treatment. The station is 200 km from the nearest doctor or nursing post so a long road trip would be required to have it seen to.

If there is a medical chest at their location, the worker can call the RFDS on our medical advice line and ask for medical assistance. The call would then be transferred to an RFDS doctor, who will speak to the patient and diagnose the condition over the phone. The doctor will then prescribe a drug from the chest, for example, number “134” antibiotic eye drops, and give the patient instructions on what to do.

At the end of the phone consultation, the doctor will also provide the patient with a consult number which is needed to re-order the drug once it has been used.

This scenario is also applicable to emergency situations. In the event of something serious like an amputation, crush injury or severe burn, medical chest custodians have access to RFDS doctors who will assess the situation via phone, prescribe appropriate pain relief and/or other medication, and arrange for an aeromedical evacuation if necessary.

According to the RFDS website, ‘medical chests contain a range of pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical items’, and a large number of the latter are prescription-only items. The use of prescription-only items is subject to direct consultation with a Royal Flying Doctor Service doctor, and it is the doctor’s responsibility to correctly diagnose and prescribe. Only authorised, registered custodians are permitted to manage medical chests, and they are encouraged to have completed a senior first aid certificate. The Royal Flying Doctor Service emphasises that extreme care is taken to prevent illicit access to the medical chest, and in some circumstances the medical chest can be forfeited.

The RFDS receives Commonwealth funding to replenish chest items free of charge to remote locations where there is a duty of care to the public, such as outback schools, nursing posts, Indigenous communities and roadhouses. The RFDS is responsible for 3,000 medical chests throughout Australia. The chests were, up until the beginning of this year, replenished by delivery through Australia Post because many of the locations were too remote to be serviced by couriers or other transport networks. As a result of the cessation of deliveries, some medical chests have been left without essential supplies.

This bill therefore addresses what is an urgent amendment to ensure that emergency medicines are available to treat serious illness or injury in remote parts of Australia. It will amend section 85W of the Crimes Act 1914 to insert an exception to the offence of ‘causing narcotic substances to be carried by post’ for Australia Post and the Royal Flying Doctor Service and their officers, employees, agents and contractors.

The exception ensures that those organisations may arrange for the carriage of medicines by Australia Post for the purpose of enabling the Royal Flying Doctor Service to administer medicines through its medical chest program. The bill also replaces the reference in section 85W to a ‘controlled drug’ or a ‘controlled plant’, within the meaning of part 9.1 of the Criminal Code Act, with the reference to a ‘prescribed narcotic substance’ within the meaning of the Customs Act 1901. This exception addresses the repeal of that definition in 1990 and ensures that the offence has similar coverage to the domestic drug offences in the Criminal Code and to the original section 85W offence.

The purpose of the amendments in this bill is to insert a further exception to the offence in section 85W for bodies, persons or their employees, or others providing services for and on their behalf, prescribed in regulations who arrange for the supply of medicines to remote locations for the purposes of, and in accordance with, a program prescribed in regulations. The amendment will enable prescribed persons and bodies to arrange for the provision of vital medicines to remote Australian communities, utilising the delivery of services of Australia Post in certain circumstances.

As an aside, I think it is worth mentioning that next month a group of Australians will take part in the Royal Flying Doctor Service Outback Trek to help promote the hard work of the men and women of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The 12-day trip will leave from Melbourne and travel to Broome, across the Kimberley and on to Darwin. Those involved will see firsthand the good work that the Royal Flying Doctor Service does each day right across Australia. The opposition wish them very well on their tour and we hope that it is a success.

In conclusion, the medical chest provides what the Royal Flying Doctor Service describes as a ‘mini pharmacy’ to many remote locations throughout Australia. The medical chests undeniably provide an invaluable service and also provide enormous comfort to those living in remote locations. The coalition wholeheartedly support the good work of the Royal Flying Doctor Service and, therefore, we support the passage of this bill in order for it to continue its efforts.

I understand there were to be some other speakers in this debate, but they do not appear to be in the chamber. I will conclude by quoting the words of the Reverend John Flynn, whose proud work founded the Royal Flying Doctor Service:

Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers; pray for powers equal to your tasks.

On that note, I commend the bill to the House.