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Thursday, 17 September 2015
Page: 7187


Senator McALLISTER (New South Wales) (16:05): I wish to add some remarks to those of my friend and colleague Senator O'Neill in relation to this interim report of the Select Committee on Health. I want to start by thanking the witnesses who appeared before us in our inquiries into Australian Hearing. One can imagine that for a hearing-impaired person or for a person who cares for a hearing-impaired child it would be enough to advocate for your own needs or for the needs of your child. It reflects a very great generosity indeed that these individuals not only seek to advocate for their own needs but also take responsibility for advocating for the needs of other people in their situation. They were very fine advocates indeed and I thank them very much for their time.

The most significant thing that I took away from those hearings—and I confess that I do not come to this issue with a deep knowledge of the health sector or, particularly, of the needs of hearing-impaired people—was the unique services that are currently being provided by Australian Hearing and the challenges that we might face should we seek to design another system for delivering those same services. Senator O'Neill talked about the services that are currently available for a newborn baby who is identified as having a hearing impairment. The evidence we heard is that the nature of that service is dependent on intensive training and experience in paediatric audiology. In other countries a standard is set for paediatric audiologists which requires that they undertake a certain number of those kinds of specialised consultations every year so that their level of exposure to those cases and their level of professional knowledge is maintained at the necessary standard to deliver those services competently and excellently. My very great concern is that a misguided attempt to break up a very well functioning institution such as Australian Hearing and disperse that service provision amongst audiologists who may not receive the same level of regular exposure to paediatric cases will produce a diminution in the level of service that is able to be provided to these very vulnerable babies and their families.

I want to speak also about the role of Australian Hearing in providing services to Indigenous people, particularly those in remote communities. I think that many people listening will understand that one of the many, many injustices heaped upon Indigenous people in this country is that they suffer disproportionately from hearing impairment and hearing related illnesses. Australian Hearing has a specialised service that is tailored to providing support to remote communities. They go to those remote communities. They are people who are regularly in touch with remote communities. They have specialised cultural knowledge that allows them to provide appropriate support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people—support that those families will be willing to engage with. Again, my concern is that a misguided attempt to break up Australian Hearing to make these services contestable will leave us with no-one who is actually in a position to provide services of this kind to these remote communities.

The nature of demand for these services is that it is very specialised and it requires a very specialised service in response. I was shocked by the lack of clarity provided by the departmental witnesses about how this level of specialisation is to be provided under the new model. I was shocked by the lack of detail about the new model that is proposed, and, like Senator O'Neill, I was shocked by the lack of consultation and engagement with the affected community. This is not a process that is being handled well. People who are vulnerable who already face disadvantage on many fronts do not need a process foisted upon them that is difficult to engage with, that adds uncertainty and difficulty to their lives and that leaves them without any clarity at all about how their needs will be met in the future.

You will know that the committee's recommendation is that Australian Hearing should not be privatised. We should be very careful about the destruction of institutions that have been carefully built up over decades to play a very important role in the public health of Australians. If it is not broken, then we probably should not seek to fix it. No credible justification has been provided for this intervention, beyond an ideological fixation on introducing contestability, whatever the consequences. I say to people here: think very carefully before you meddle with an institution such as Australian Hearing.

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.