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Thursday, 13 April 2000
Page: 15945


Mrs DE-ANNE KELLY (2:12 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Health and Aged Care. Would the minister inform the House how the federal government is ensuring better quality of, and better access to, general practice for all Australians, and particularly for people living in rural Australia such as my constituents in Dawson? Is the minister aware of any alternative policies in this area?


Dr WOOLDRIDGE (Minister for Health and Aged Care) —I thank the honourable member for Dawson for her question. Medical work force issues have been a very difficult and intransigent problem over decades but we have had very substantial success in work force issues relating to general practice because of the provider number legislation that was passed by this parliament and came into effect on 1 November 1996.

This legislation was recently reviewed by Ron Phillips, a former health minister of New South Wales, who found that the legislation had been particularly effective in two areas. In having a look at the government's success in getting more doctors into rural Australia, Mr Phillips said data received from a number of organisations indicated there had been an increase in the number of doctors in rural areas. While not ascribing it solely to this legislation, he went on to say that the likely reason was that it was the result of a package of reforms of which the provider number legislation `is a fundamental element'. The second thing that Mr Phillips found that this legislation had been successful in doing was addressing bottlenecks in work force supply. In his words, `exceptions to the legislation, for example, the rural locum relief program, have ensured that particular work force supply bottlenecks have been addressed'.

When this legislation was passed a sunset clause was placed in it. It was placed in the legislation because of concerns at the time put quite hysterically by young doctors and vested medical interests. The claim at the time was that 400 doctors a year would be out of work as a result of this legislation. Well, by now we would have 1,600 doctors unable to gain a training place because of this legislation. The parliament put a sunset clause in so that we could be sure that no young doctor would be disadvantaged. Mr Phillips looked specifically at this area and made the following point:

... an attempt was made throughout the review to identify a single junior doctor who had missed out on a training place. Despite continued anecdotal assurances that such people did exist the review was unable to identify any such individuals.

Here we have a piece of legislation that has been single-handedly responsible for the rural locum replacement program and a fundamental element in getting more doctors into rural areas. You can understand my surprise that when this sunset clause came up for appeal yesterday into the parliament the Labor Party voted against it. The net result of voting against the sunset clause is that the rural locum replacement program will die. The direct result of voting against this sunset clause is that up to 150 doctors in rural Australia, who are there today because of exemptions to this legislation, will no longer have their practice restricted to areas of need.

To give the honourable member for Dawson some idea of the success of the rural locum replacement program, in the electorate of Capricornia, for example, in the December quarter of 1999 alone—in one quarter—37 doctors went in and provided locum relief for local doctors. Somewhere closer to town, in the electorate of McMillan in Victoria 10 doctors in the December quarter alone went in to provide locum relief. Locum relief is actually very important, as even the opposition understands. On radio station 2CR Central West the shadow minister, in an interview with James Gruber on 30 March, in saying what was important to get doctors into rural areas, said:

It is these other issues about getting a locum. It is so they can continue to get their medical education or just have a day off.

The opposition here is prepared to destroy the one thing that has got locum doctors into rural Australia, a fundamental issue in helping us get more doctors into the country, all for expediency. Ron Phillips put it very well when talking about the effect of this legislation on young doctors. He said:

There is no doubt the sunset clause has been used as an effective weapon to create a climate of fear for medical graduates. Therefore, its removal will ensure a more certain and secure environment for the future of medical graduates and lessen the unrest which has been effectively fomented by vested interests.

The Labor Party have given in to vested interests. They have been prepared to do what is expedient rather than what is right by rural Australia. The Leader of the Opposition has got no ticker on this. He is prepared to tag along with whatever is easiest to do, and he has sold out rural Australia.