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Thursday, 24 May 2001
Page: 27019

Mr GIBBONS (1:41 PM) —As the previous speaker indicated, the Health Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2001 contains minor adjustments relating to appointments to the board of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. It involves changing the name of the Health Ethics Committee of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. It also provides recognition of specialist medical practitioners, payments of Medicare benefits where cheques are made out to general practitioners which are not presented within a specific time frame, and minor changes to the 30 -per cent rebate for private health insurance scheme.

Health is always a major issue in regional Australia, even more so as we head into the new millennium. I am reminded in this debate about the need for the Commonwealth government to fund nursing home bed licences in Dunolly, a small community in my electorate. I applaud the steps the Bracks Labor government has taken in securing the future of the Dunolly hospital. I remind the House that in 1997 the then Liberal-National Party government of Victoria, led by Jeff Kennett and Pat McNamara, moved to close this very hospital. They had already closed 12 country hospitals as part of their war on country services and facilities since coming to office in 1992. This was part of the overall massacre of public services and public sector jobs that went on in country Victoria under the Kennett and Howard governments. In total in the Bendigo region these two coalition governments together have robbed the community of over 2,000 jobs since 1992. This includes the jobs that Bendigo had been cheated out of with the Vectus call centre and the recent vanishing of the Kennett government's promise made during the 1998 federal election that Bendigo would receive 400 call centre jobs.

There have also been hundreds of jobs lost to the district because of the coalition's privatisation mania. Hundreds of jobs were lost in the slash and burn policies applied to hospitals and health services. This district is still suffering from the wounds inflicted on its health services by Mr Kennett and Mr Howard. The coalition's attack on the country community stripped central Victoria of jobs and services not just in industries like Telstra, ADI and the railway workshops at Bendigo and not just in our schools and education institutions but also in hospitals, community health centres and other health services and community services.

The Dunolly community fought back against this attack on its hospital. During the Cain government years, the hospital had been funded for a major redevelopment when David Kennedy was the local member for Bendigo West. The then health minister was Caroline Hogg, whom I am delighted to say now lives in my electorate in Castlemaine. She was an excellent health minister for country people, just as she was an excellent education minister for country people. Her health successor today is Labor's John Thwaites, and he is doing a great job helping country communities revive and secure their health services.

In 1997 the Dunolly community were determined to fight the closure of its hospital. With the energetic support of my state parliamentary colleague Mr Bob Cameron, the MLA for Bendigo West, they won. Dunolly has just won again. In last week's state budget the Bracks government allocated $1.2 -million for the hospital's expansion. This will enable the hospital to redevelop the existing nursing home accommodation and to provide an additional six nursing beds, making a total of 15 nursing home beds. This is vital for older people in the Dunolly district who want to go on living in their community if they need nursing care. The only obstacle now to the redevelopment of the hospital is the Howard government, which is holding back nursing home licences. It is time the federal government lifted its blockade on the Dunolly hospital and gave the go-ahead for the nursing bed licences. I urge the government to do that immediately. The need for these beds is extremely important.

Recent events have shown us that this federal government is tricky, mean spirited and out of touch. That is what its own backbenchers have said through the recent words of the federal Liberal president, Mr Shane Stone, to the Prime Minister. I refer to the deplorable performance of this government and the former Kennett government over the promise for a vital radiotherapy facility for Bendigo. This facility is now under construction at the site of the Bendigo Health Care Group, thanks to the no-nonsense stand taken by the Bracks Labor government.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Hawker)—Order! I remind the honourable member that this is a fairly precise bit of legislation. The member has had a fair bit of latitude. He might like now to come back to the bill.

Mr GIBBONS —Mr Deputy Speaker, I hear what you say. This bill deals with health issues, and there is no more important health issue than the radiotherapy services in Bendigo, to which I was just about to refer. As I said, the facility is now under construction at the site of the Bendigo Health Care Group, thanks to the no-nonsense stand taken by the Bracks Labor government and the funding it has allocated for the project. The coalition parties played an appalling game of party politics over this facility. The promise of a new radiotherapy unit for Bendigo was first rushed out during the federal election in Bendigo in 1998. These were the very coalition parties which, in the last weeks of the federal election, promised 400 jobs in Bendigo.

The delay of the Commonwealth government in holding up this facility has cost the Bendigo Health Care Group dearly. Because this minister chose to play politics with this vital service, the blow-out in the cost of the imported radiotherapy equipment because of the weak Australian dollar is close to $1.5 million. That is an extra $1.5 million that the Bendigo Health Care Group has to find because this minister chose to play politics. Add to this an extra $730,000 in GST—and remember, this equipment was not subject to wholesale sales tax—all because the Howard government stalled the project. The Bendigo Health Care Group can claim back the GST component, but they do have to find the money up-front. The Bracks Labor government allocated $12 million in the last budget to assist hospitals to cope with these cost blow-outs. The equipment for this project will now cost some $8 million—almost more than the cost of the building. What is also evident is that the federal government did not really want the unit to go to Bendigo. It claimed that it was worried about whether it would be cost-effective and that the Bendigo district did not have the population to justify it. What a disgraceful attitude! It shows the government was more interested in trying to manipulate Bendigo—

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Nehl)—Order! Like my predecessor in the chair, I am loath to interrupt the flow of eloquence from the honourable member for Bendigo, but this bill deals with the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare Act, the Health Insurance Act 1973 and the amendment of the Private Health Insurance Incentives Act 1998. I doubt that the member would find one reference to Bendigo if he did a word search on the whole bill. We would be most grateful if the member could endeavour to relate some of his remarks to the contents of the bill.

Mr GIBBONS —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Fitzgibbon —I rise on a point of order. I do appreciate your contribution, Mr Deputy Speaker, but of course the member for Bendigo is talking about the welfare of his constituents in his electorate.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —We all do that. The member for Bendigo does have the call, and the chair trusts that he will sometimes stray close to the subject of the bill.

Mr GIBBONS —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will endeavour to do that because you have asked me to. All health bills are very important not only for this parliament but for the whole nation. But the example of this radiotherapy unit shows that the government was more interested in trying to manipulate Bendigo district voters in the federal election in 1998 than genuinely meeting the needs of people with serious health problems. That is very important. I conclude on the radiotherapy unit by saying that the building project is now well under way and that funding has been provided for it in the state budget. However, the stalling and party politics of the federal government have exacted a ferocious price from the taxpayer. I conclude on that remark.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —I call the honourable member for McMillan, whom I know will stick to the subject of the bill.