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Transcript of press conference: Canberra: 27 June 2011: national health reform; plain packaging of tobacco; immunisation

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TOPICS: National Health Reform, Plain Packaging of Tobacco, Immunisation



NICOLA ROXON: Thank you very much. My name's Nicola Roxon and I'm the Federal Health Minister, and I'm delighted to be here again at Canberra Hospital with Katy Gallagher, the Chief Minister and Health Minister for the ACT.

We have good news to announce today about our National Health Reform agenda and how it's delivering to different jurisdictions across the country.

So, I'm delighted that Katy could be here, and we're also joined by Gai Brodtmann, the local member.

We're delighted to be here to show how our national health reforms are delivering across the country.

Today, we're announcing the details of the first tranche of implementation money for the ACT, and I'm going to turn to Katy to take you through what those Commonwealth investments will mean on the ground here in Canberra.

But I do just briefly also want to make clear that, of course, this comes on top of a range of partnerships and investments that we have been making in the ACT with the ACT Government since 2007. In fact, more than half a billion dollars - 518 million, to be precise - has been invested in the ACT where we're starting to see incredibly busy hospital, like this one, doing more and more elective surgery procedures, of course, dealing with growing demands in emergency departments.

We're investing more in the number of GPs that are needed in the ACT. Still a persistent problem here. And it's given me a lot of pleasure to be able to work with Katy.

I'm pleased that as Chief Minister she's been able to keep the Health Ministry, something that I know may be difficult to do for a long period of time, but it means that we have a very good working relationship to make sure that our national health reforms are delivering to the community in Canberra.

So, I'm going to turn over to Katy to take you through the details of the announcement. I'm happy then to take any questions, whether it's on this or tobacco, but we do need to warn you that we have a relatively short timeframe

for today.


KATY GALLAGHER: Thanks Nicola. And I will keep it short as well. But I think the opportunity today is about showing the partnership that exists between the Commonwealth and the ACT Government.

Some of the benefits that we're seeing rolling through, particularly in our elective surgery and in the emergency department where we run one of the busiest emergency departments in the country. And in elective surgery where,

today, we have about 40 hours worth of emergency work lined up to do across our 12 operating theatres just shows how busy it is.

The money that the Commonwealth have provided, through National Health Reform, about 14 and a half million dollars, will allow us to do hundreds of more elective surgery operations. It's allowed us to employ three new emergency department physicians in our emergency department, which has really helped, considering we're having the busiest year on record for our emergency department here at the Canberra Hospital.

It's also allowing us to purchase some work from the private sector in elective surgery, which, again, is making a difference, particularly for those who have been waiting too long for care.

So, some of the results we've seen in the past 11 months is that our waiting list is the lowest it's been since 2004. The number of people waiting too long for surgery is the lowest it's been since 2003. And we've exceeded 10,100 operations already this financial year.

So, I think, you know, that is the real concrete example of … I guess, working with the Commonwealth, signing up to the National Health Reform-National Partnership and being able to implement that on the ground. And what it means is hundreds more people have had their elective surgery and we've got the capacity to see more people in the emergency department than ever before.

And that just makes a real difference to the people of Canberra.

NICOLA ROXON: Okay, thanks very much for that, Katy.


JOURNALIST: What's your reaction to the legal action launched by Imperial Tobacco?

NICOLA ROXON: Look, we said from day one, when we released to the public our plain-packaging plans for selling cigarette and tobacco in these very drab packets, with very clear health warnings that we were determined, as a government, to do everything we could to stop or reduce the harms caused from tobacco-related illnesses.

Fifteen thousand Australians still die every year from tobacco-related illnesses, and you can come any day you like to this hospital and see people who are getting treatment at great expense to taxpayers from illnesses that are caused by tobacco.

So, our government is determined to take every step we can to reduce the harm caused by tobacco. We won't be deterred or intimidated by tobacco companies making threats or taking legal action.

We believe we're on very strong ground. This is a world first, so, of course, you would expect tobacco companies to want to fight what our government is doing. But I think the Australian public expects us to put the interests of the public and, particularly, the health interests of the public, before the interests or profits of tobacco companies.

JOURNALIST: If you are found to be in breach of your trade obligations, are you prepared to overlook these [indistinct] legislation?

NICOLA ROXON: Look, we've taken very clear advice that we believe that we are on strong grounds. Of course, there will be an argument with tobacco companies who will pursue every avenue available to them.

They've been campaigning in the media, they're running a political campaign, they're running a public campaign and they're going to run a legal campaign. That's a matter for them, but our government will defend its right to take action that will protect the public interest.

We believe that this is very important action - a world first - which our government is proud to be taking. And we're confident that we're on strong grounds.

JOURNALIST: Will you renegotiate this international trade agreement if you're found you've breached it?

NICOLA ROXON: Well look, I think we're getting a long way ahead of ourselves. We don't believe that we are in breach of any of our legal obligations. I think it's important for journalists and the public to understand that the World Health Organization makes clear and recommends in its tobacco control convention that states should consider taking this step of

introducing plain packaging for the sale of tobacco products. We are doing that and we believe that we are on very strong grounds in terms of making sure we've got the legal ability to do this and that we are not in breach of any

of our international obligations.

JOURNALIST: Are lawyers going to be the biggest winners out of this action and how much - what size budget have you set aside to defend the legal consequences of this legislation?

NICOLA ROXON: Well, I think the public stand to be the biggest winners out of this measure that the government is taking.

Fifteen thousand Australians die every year from tobacco-related illnesses; if we can reduce the number of people, particularly the number of young people or new smokers from ever taking up what is a very addictive habit, we will reduce those deaths and we will reduce the burden of disease that costs

Australians billions and billions of dollars every year and enormous heartache and grief in many thousands of families. It's the public that will ultimately win if this measure is able to be introduced and we can reduce the harm from tobacco.

JOURNALIST: Minister, the Big Tobacco [indistinct] putting a lot of resources into their legal fight to try and wear down their opponents. What might you do there, to fight [indistinct]? Are you worried that this will be the first legal challenge of many in various jurisdictions?

NICOLA ROXON: Well, I think if Big Tobacco think that by threatening or taking legal action they will intimidate our government into taking another course, they have picked the wrong government.

Now, it may be that Big Tobacco are famous for taking on victims; we've seen that over the past decades. Our government is determined that this is a course of action which is in the public interest. We won't be frightened off by threats of legal action. We do live in a democracy. Organisations can take legal action and we will fight that action because we believe that this is an important public health measure where thousands and thousands of Australians stand to benefit.

JOURNALIST: Minister, in regard to immunisation, [indistinct] parents are following government advice to get their children immunised, should there be a no-fault compensation scheme for victims who do end up with lifelong impairment?

NICOLA ROXON: Look, thank you. I mean, obviously, this is a very sensitive issue; a very, very small number of people are affected and, of course, there is great public good which is achieved by a broad public health vaccination. And in Australia we have a very successful and high rate of vaccination against many, many diseases. Of course, that doesn't help for an individual family if their child has had a reaction.

I'm happy to look at any advice and options that are put forward; it's something that's been talked about for decades; it's something that may well be able to be considered as our government works through a national

disability insurance scheme, which is also being considered. But it's not the sort of thing that we would make a commitment to in haste.

I have a lot of sympathy for the individual families involved, but I'm a very ardent defender of the value of vaccination and the vast public good that it does to the community.

JOURNALIST: Are you worried that if you do proceed in something like this it could open a very costly legal minefield?

NICOLA ROXON: Look, I know that seems to be the flavour of the day today, how much lawyers can benefit from a particular action that's taken; but ultimately, governments make decisions on what is the right policy prescription for any particular problem. We take legal advice, but the threat of legal action is not the reason that - to not take action and we would obviously consider all of the materials when they're put to us.

JOURNALIST: Ms Roxon, when are your health reforms going to start delivering changes in patients' lives? The COAG Reform Council reported recently that waiting times with elective surgery were getting larger despite the hundreds of millions of dollars of extra money. Are you frustrated and wanting some answers through the states?

NICOLA ROXON: Well, I think that the public needs to understand that our investments in Health Reform are starting already to have an impact. Our 70,000 extra procedures were undertaken as a result of our investments and, of course, those figures would be even worse if the Commonwealth had not made those investments for the first time ever directly in elective surgery.

We've just visited two of the new elective surgery theatres that have opened here. I mean, as the population booms and ages, we knew that we were facing a trend which had health pressures going like this, whether it's costs, whether it's your number of procedures, whether it's people presenting. Without our reforms those would have, you know, been even more exorbitant. And actually, we're starting to see some very good results, for example here in the ACT; that doesn't mean that there are not going to continue to be enormous pressures from a population which is growing.

Our reforms are starting to deliver. The announcements today are just another step. You know, when you look back at the investments in the ACT, the nurse Walk-in Centre, the cancer centre which is going to be established, the extra elective surgery theatres, you know, doubling of the number of GPs that are being trained. And just this week, on 1 July, the GP after hours service will come online; people will be able - by telephone to contact a GP at any time of night or over the weekend for that reassurance that is often needed; again,

being able to help balance the demand across the system in a more effective way.

Our telehealth initiatives come online on 1 July - this Friday - enabling specialists maybe working at this hospital here in Canberra to be able to have video consultation with someone that might be on the south coast or elsewhere; again, a benefit to ensure that people can see a doctor or a health professional closer to home at a time of day that they need to and with more convenience.

So these reforms are starting to deliver. It's very exciting to see them starting to come online, but there is a hell of a lot more to be done.

JOURNALIST: Minister, disability groups have raised concerns that federal funding for a program that helps keep young people out of aged care homes will end this week; will the government reconsider that decision?

NICOLA ROXON: I'll have to take that on notice.

JOURNALIST: Minister, just in regards to the carbon issue, the Lowy Institute figures show that something in the order of 41 per cent of people no longer see climate change as a serious issue. Is the government losing traction on this? And is there a point where you or your Labor colleagues would go to the Prime Minister and say, most people say that this isn't an issue, why are we still persisting with the policy?

NICOLA ROXON: Well, I think the Prime Minister's already been out giving several interviews this morning on our carbon pollution reduction plans. I'm very determined that this is something that the public wants us to do.

And, you know there are some comparisons when you look at health reform; serious, long-lasting, long-term reform is difficult to do; it's difficult to deliver; it requires a determined government. Our government has been determined

and you're starting to see the benefits now flow in terms of health care, and I am sure that as more information is provided to the public, they will see the benefits that flow from the need for us to take action against climate change.

Okay; is that all everyone's got? Thank you.