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Thursday, 17 September 2015
Page: 7184

Senator O'NEILL (New South Wales) (15:55): I present the third interim report of the Select Committee on Health.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Senator O'NEILL: I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I would like to put on the record some remarks today in light of the hearing into hearing that we held in Sydney. Australian Hearing is at the centre of the inquiry. It was a full day's hearing from 8 am till 6 pm into this institution that was established as long ago as 1947. Australian Hearing was established to provide services for children whose hearing had been affected by a series of rubella epidemics and to assist World War II veterans who had suffered hearing damage.

The Australian Hearing submission to the inquiry shows that in the 2013-14 financial year, given an amazing and powerful history across our nation, Australian Hearing provided 446,870 hearing health services to Australians, they visited 217 outreach sites to support the hearing needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and they fitted and followed up over 150,000 hearing devices, with a total revenue of $212 million.

Despite the amazing esteem in which Australian Hearing is held around this nation, the Abbott-Turnbull government, on coming to power, called on the Commission of Audit to consider what should happen to this wonderful institution that is in the hands of Australians. In February 2014 the National Commission of Audit recommended that privatisation of a number of bodies should go ahead, and in the first round of those privatisations they recommended the sale of Australian Hearing. When that is proposed, a scoping study is then undertaken. That will be undertaken by the Department of Finance into selling off Australian Hearing. Of course, this has caused incredible alarm.

What I want to do in the time that I have, apart from addressing the recommendations in the report, is to put on the record for the people here in the gallery today and people listening around the country and, indeed, here in the chamber what actually happens. Tomorrow morning a baby will be born in Australia who is either hard of hearing or deaf. Australia has absolutely world-class procedures around what will happen. Within 48 hours that baby will have its hearing tested. If problems are noted, within the next 48 hours a more significant testing regime will be undertaken, and within a week of birth that baby will be in the care of a specialist.

In Australia, by the time young babies are five weeks of age we are fitting them with hearing devices and cochlear implants—an amazing Australian innovation. It is quite intensive support that these children have, because we all know how quickly babies grow, and Australian Hearing manage that whole process for the families as they go through the first phase of coping with a surprise that they were not perhaps expecting at the birth of their child. They go through the process of helping them learn how to adjust the hearing and the devices over the ages of one, two, three, four and five, with many, many fittings, and then they continue to be a support to that family going forward.

The great thing about this capacity that we have as Australians is that it happens for any child. It does not matter if your parents are rich or poor. This is happening for every Australian child who needs this services. We are committed to it and we are having incredible success, because the vast majority of the babies who get that service are going to school hearing and speaking. That is a profoundly important outcome not only for those children but for their families and for their capacity as Australians to participate fully in the whole life of our community and to participate in the workforce as well.

The committee makes two recommendations, and I am joined by Senator McLucas and Senator McAllister, who attended the Sydney hearing. I want to be clear about these at the outset. Based on the evidence and concerns that were outlined by stakeholders, the committee recommends that Australian Hearing not be privatised. We do that on the back of the evidence that we received from parents, including groups such as Parents of Deaf Children, who were not consulted. Parents of Deaf Children, one of the major peak bodies and advocates for this cause—and they provided us with the most amazingly diligently prepared submission for our inquiry—were not consulted. That should ring alarm bells for all Australians who care about the future of any child who might be born into their family in Australia with a hearing impediment.

The committee also recommends that the government provide clarity around the work that has already been done on the transition of the Hearing Services Program to the National Disability Insurance Scheme. We argue that any blueprint or implementation plan should be made public as soon as it is finalised so as to reassure stakeholders of the quality of the services provided by Australian Hearing, so that they can continue to ensure that hearing-impaired Australians can live the life that they deserve. That was to address a concern about a lack of communication between this government and the advocates of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.

One of the serious concerns that I and my fellow committee members who were at the hearing have is that the scoping study that was undertaken appears to have been very selective in who was consulted. They have been very secretive in the way that information was forwarded. We heard evidence from witnesses that they were consulted often just because they had known someone who was part of the PricewaterhouseCoopers grouping and they got to participate because of that familiarity and being known to somebody. Other groups had gone to incredible lengths looking for information in the papers simply to find out if there was any way that they could put their point of view forward. That is how excluded they felt from this process. Powerful advocates for children and other members of the community who are deaf and hard of hearing felt so excluded and marginalised by this government that they went to the papers looking for tender documents to find out what the government was up to.

That is what we are seeing—a cover-up. First of all they ignore the needs of the community, then they deny that the community has the story right. When we go ahead and do a hearing and put on the public record the things that this government does not want to be known, they want to deny it and cover it up. It does not surprise me, but it does disappoint me, that government senators have chosen to lodge a dissenting report. They reject the recommendations of our committee. They believe that it is okay; they are going to have some further consultation. We know that when they consult it looks like they ask whoever they think is going to give them the result that they want and they exclude voices that are doing genuine advocacy. They also reject our second recommendation about clarity for the community in providing information to the community in a timely way.

The argument that the government has constantly put for selling Australian Hearing is that the government needs to get out of this space: 'By privatising it we can put people in there. We will be able to have competition. The cost will go down and it will all be good for the Australian people.' That is their argument on so many occasions. But I ask you, my fellow Australians, at this time when we have the chance to prevent this government from taking away an institution that is enabling us to give the best standard of care in the world to our young children who are deaf and hard of hearing, can we possibly trust what they are saying? Do you really think that the parents of a child who is born deaf or hard of hearing—and it could be the child of your neighbour or one of your colleagues—are in a position to find out about the market and make an informed choice about who is best? They need care and support to wrap around them and their child. Australia is doing it brilliantly. We are providing the best outcomes in the world, but that is not good enough for the Turnbull-Abbott government. They will take what is well and will break it. The people who will pay the costs of this are all of those children, who will no longer get the wraparound care that they need and deserve.

I thank my fellow members on the committee for their ongoing endeavours with the committee, but particularly on that day when we let Australians have their voice. I also acknowledge the work of the secretariat, particularly Stephen Palethorpe and Jed Reardon, who do extraordinary work on behalf of our community and here in the parliament. I would also very much like to acknowledge Anne Charlton, one of my staff members, who is significantly enabling this committee, and also the advocates of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. (Time expired)