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Thursday, 24 March 1994
Page: 2217

Senator NEWMAN (3.04 p.m.) —I move:

  That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Health (Senator Richardson), to questions without notice asked by Senators Newman and Herron this day, relating to his pending resignation and the administration of the Health portfolio.

The Minister for Health (Senator Richardson) spent considerable time earlier this year trudging around—and admirably so—the backblocks of the Northern Territory and northern Australia generally. There were headlines in newspapers all over Australia such as, `Senator vows to help blacks' health'; `Richardson targets Aboriginals' health'. The fine print stated that the political will had not existed to deal with the problems of Aboriginal health until now. He said he was `an accident of history'. He said, `I happened to be here at the right time'. This is the man who now thinks it is the right time to move on.

  If he thinks that fixing a tap in an Aboriginal community is the way to fix this appalling problem that has lasted for far too many years—11 of them under a Labor government—then he has no compassion whatsoever and it was a hollow exercise. Yet black Australians believed he was going to do something. The reports of his travels stated that the trip had been well received by Aboriginal groups who believed Senator Richardson had a genuine commitment to improve health conditions. People were interviewed on television and radio, saying, `This one will be different; he is different from all the others; he is committed'.

Senator Hill —In for the long haul.

Senator NEWMAN —In for the long haul, and he is out within two months. It is not just Aboriginal people who are disappointed having regard to the promises and expectations that have been raised; there are the people referred to in the Burdekin report, the health care providers and their patients who were getting nowhere with Mr Howe. Senator Richardson came along a month ago to a conference in Sydney of the Australian Catholic Health Care Association and said, `I'm going to fix this. I'm going to get your money. Don't worry about what has been said before. Now that I'm looking after you, you're going to be all right'. He said this to women with breast cancer. Only this week, two days ago, he put out a press release from his private office stating that he was going to have a national symposium in mid-May. So much for his commitment!

  He was making appointments this week for next week with health care providers. This is the man who says he knew back in January—back in January, when he was visiting Aboriginals in central Australia and northern Australia, and he knew he was not going to be around to implement these policies. He has also been talking about doubling the funding for medical research. There is a fat chance of that happening when he walks off and leaves midstream. What about those in private health insurance, and women worried about breast cancer, as I said? Five weeks before a crucial budget, he has bailed out.

  Only this week he was making arrangements to serve on. What has happened? Only last week he gave details to the Senate of his April overseas ministerial trip. He gave us great detail. He told us where he was going, what he was going to do, that it was all to do with the pharmaceutical world. He was going to have a bit of private time on the way back and he would pay for that; that was separate.

  He has been going around the country saying things like, `Private medicine has not got much of a future if we do nothing', and, `There are too many people waiting too long in pain for vital operations'. He has been saying that it is going to come to a crunch point very soon for those low-income people who are in private health insurance. He said, `It just isn't far away'. People believed he listened, that he cared, that he understood and that he was prepared to put something in place. How wrong they were. Today, the Australian Private Hospitals Association has put out a press release calling on any new minister to get on with the job; that there is no time to lose. It said:

Senator Richardson was the first Labor health minister in 11 years to admit there was a problem.

That statement says something—the trouble is, he could not convince the rest of his party there was a problem and that it needed attention. The press release continued:

We will never know whether Senator Richardson was actually capable of addressing the problems which confronted him.

It also said:

The new minister simply can't afford the luxury of taking six months to settle into the portfolio. Much of the hard work in the reform process has already been done and we must continue to move forward. Taking no action is simply not an option.

These are serious matters. This minister is bailing out on the eve of the necessary implementation having to take place. He has had a year of talking. But he did say last December, `When the crunch comes, I can't and won't take on the Prime Minister'. The crunch has come and the job is not done. I am not convinced there is any justifiable reason for his going except he has not got the numbers; he cannot persuade his party; and he has not got the support of his Prime Minister (Mr Keating).