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Thursday, 20 September 2012
Page: 7536

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS (New South Wales) (15:35): Mr Deputy President, I seek leave to take note of the report.

Leave granted.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: It is opportune that this response is given by the minister. Let me take the opportunity to acknowledge that tomorrow is World Alzheimer's Day which aims to unite the world and raise awareness of dementia. I also acknowledge the significance of Dementia Awareness Week which also starts tomorrow and goes to 28 September. Of course, dementia can happen to anybody but it is more common after the age of 65. However, we know that people in their 30s, 40s and 50s can also have dementia. There are almost 280,000 Australians currently living with dementia. This is expected to soar to 2050 and each week there are 1,600 new cases of dementia in Australia.

I remind the Senate that when last in government the coalition committed $320 million in the 2005 budget to help fund the Dementia Initiative, making dementia a national health priority. As Alzheimer's Australia have said, 'the 2005 Dementia Initiative was at the time a world first'. Despite this initiative providing invaluable help to dementia sufferers—and a government evaluation in October 2009 found that the initiative was very successful—those opposite in the Australian Labor Party deliberately dropped the funding for this program. I am pleased, however, to see that dementia has now been made a national health priority. I also remind the Senate that we had on 13 September RU OK? day and various senators, including myself, made speeches in support of that.

So today we have the tabling of the minister's response, and I find this a bit curious actually because the letter to Senator Siewert from Minister Butler was dated 17 April 2012 and it was supposedly received by the committee, I would assume, on 20 April 2012. I find it very curious—and perhaps Senator Siewert might be able to shed some light on this—why it took five months for the minister's response to be tabled in the Senate. I see Senator Siewert shaking her head, and if you did not get it, Senator Siewert, it makes it even worse. What sort of an incompetent government do we have that it takes five months for a letter from the minister for mental health to actually find its way to the committee? I think it would be appropriate for the minister to provide us with an explanation of that.

Having received the response, I must say the minister's response is not really worth the paper that it is written on because, certainly from the coalition's perspective, it absolutely does not address—and I will leave it to Senator Siewert to deal with the recommendations that were in her chair's report—and offers no comfort in relation to the issues, and in particular addresses the justification for the cuts to Better Access. I remind the Senate that the Better Access initiative was one of the main programs that were under discussion as part of the Senate's inquiry into the funding and administration of mental health in Australia.

In our concluding comments we were very critical of—and indeed the coalition senators' report and a lot of the evidence that was given at hearings was very critical of—the way the government had undertaken the changes to Better Access. There had been, as usual, scant consultation with key stakeholders to properly assess the impact of the changes that were made by the government, most especially the impact of those changes on patients. Indeed, the government had relied very heavily on its Better Access evaluation, which in itself had been criticised for its deficiencies in methodology and datasets. So I believe it was very clear that the government undertook an evaluation of Better Access with the specific objective of ensuring that this evaluation was set up to then result in the cuts that we saw. If you do look at this evaluation, you see several submitters to the inquiry commented on what they considered to be the weak aspects of the methodology or the limitation of the dataset. One of the most important objectives as to why Better Access was established was better coordination of services between mental health services, and this evaluation did not measure this or indeed did not measure important other objectives of the Better Access program. Questions about this evaluation were raised in estimates and, indeed, this evaluation formed very much the basis upon which the minister and his kitchen cabinet made important decisions about cutting huge chunks of money out of the mental health budget, out of Better Access, and redirecting them to other areas.

It is interesting to note for mental health the big headline of $3.7 billion for the reform package but in the end only $583 million was actually the net spend and one only has to look at all the criticism: GetUp! and the candles and the full bit with the 'Mental health: how important is it?' campaign. And I correct myself: it was $3.7 billion for the ageing package, which of course I have spoken about on other matters; in terms of mental health it was $2.2 billion. But in the end it is all smoke and mirrors because of this: how much of it has actually been rolled out? There was the package that had the suicide prevention money. Remember the promise on suicide prevention? '$277 million is what we are going to spend.' In the first year they were supposed to spend $9 million to roll out important programs but they did not spend $9 million; they spent $7 million. What has happened to the rest? It has taken them a year to spend money in relation to addressing suicide issues in the Kimberley, and we have traversed the long and laborious process that this government has undertaken in relation to addressing that issue in the Kimberley. So what has happened to the suicide prevention money? Indeed most recently we had Professor Hickie criticising what is happening in mental health and we have even had Professor McGorry too, despite Professor McGorry having stood side by side and applauded what the government had done. I think he has now realised that what the government has done has just been a smoke and mirrors exercise when, sadly, we are dealing with some of the most vulnerable people in this country, our mentally ill. One in five Australians has a mental health issue. Almost 45 per cent of Australians will suffer a mental problem in their lifetime. These are huge statistics, so where is the rollout of this money? Quite frankly, we are not seeing it.

The latest insult is this road map that the mental health sector has been waiting for. Last week I raised this issue. It was given out on a Wednesday, and the sector was given until the Monday after—four days to respond to a very important document that is supposedly going to be a road map for the next 10 years. But, as Professor Rosenberg said, 'It is in effect a road map to nowhere.' Having seen the latest iteration of it, it basically recommends the status quo. How can you have mental health reform when you are going to keep matters the way they are?