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Monday, 4 June 2001
Page: 27136

Mrs DE-ANNE KELLY (2:42 PM) —My question is addressed to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Transport and Regional Services. Would the Deputy Prime Minister advise the House of how federal government initiatives will help to provide people living in rural, regional and remote communities, such as those in Dawson, with access to improved health services?

Mr ANDERSON (Deputy Prime Minister) —I thank the honourable member for her question. I know that she has a real interest in this matter and has been particularly delighted with the recently announced $1½ million funding for a new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander medical centre in Mackay.

Nothing is more important than access to health services for all Australians. Wherever you work, wherever you live, wherever you seek to be productive in this country, you need to know that you can have fair and reasonable access to medical services. Of course, we have had a real problem in Australia. After many, many years of neglect and poor planning, we reached a chronic shortage of GPs and specialists in regional Australia, essentially because we had not been training enough rural and regional students to practise medical services in rural areas. Medical students from the country are about nine times more likely to practise in the country than are urban students. We now have the situation where we are 500 GPs and 700 to 800 specialists short in regional Australia. Indeed, an illustration of this is my own home town, Gunnedah, with a population in the town and district of 13,000 or 14,000 and a waiting list of two to three months to see a GP for a non-urgent matter. Australians would not normally accept that. It is not as if it is new: that has been the situation for two or three years.

In response in large part to an excellent package put forward by the Minister for Health and Aged Care after he had visited many rural areas with me, we put together the More Doctors, Better Services package last year—a $562 million commitment, a real commitment, involving such things as the John Flynn scholarships, the Rural Retention Program for GPs, the rural women's GP service and the medical rural bonded scholarships. But this year we have added a very important element which takes it to virtually $700 million as a package, and that is nurses for rural and regional areas. In this year's budget there is around $104 million going towards enabling general practices in rural Australia to employ additional practice nurses and another $13 million for 100 new rural nursing scholarships worth around $10 million. That will see us supporting students of nursing in much the same way as we now do doctors. We will also be investing around $43 million in programs using nurses to reduce the workload on rural GPs, which will of course assist us in not only recruiting but retaining more rural GPs.

We have heard nothing from the ALP in this area—about the most appalling policy failure on their part when they were in government. We have heard nothing from them at all. The best we can hope for—given that we heard nothing from the member for Dickson on regional policies when she was responsible for that area and, when the member for Batman appeared, he found there was nothing ready; and we have seen nothing from him either—is that they will go and have a yarn to their expert on rural and regional policy, Bill Kelty. Remember Bill? He was the bloke who travelled around the bush and recommended what they ought to do for rural and regional policy.

After 13 years of real decline in rural health, as doctors were not trained up for rural and regional Australia, we have seen no commitment—none—from the ALP to a regional health policy. All we have heard about are last week some health initiatives worth around $148 million. What we have done for rural and regional Australia is worth many, many times that alone. No wonder we have had the National Rural Health Alliance applauding the government, saying that these commitments build on the major boost to rural general practice in the 2000 budget. We have had Dr Julie Thompson, the Chair of the Australian Divisions of General Practice, saying that in the short term the funding set aside for upskilling nurses who are willing to take on additional roles and responsibilities will have a positive effect but in the longer term the scholarships will help. But, in a way, it is all said by the mother of a second year student at the University of Sydney who said:

The Australian rural Australia medical undergraduate scholarship has really helped. Our son is enjoying the city but looking forward to returning to the country, and can't wait to be a country doctor.