House of Representatives speech

Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (11:24):  Having spent three years throughout the course of the 43rd Parliament trying to wreck this joint, the Prime Minister now in government is determined to wreck the country. There is much bad news in budget—bad news for pensioners, bad news for the unemployed, bad news for families, bad news for motorists and particularly bad news for those in rural and regional Australia. But I cannot think, frankly, of anything more threatening to those in rural and regional Australia than a diminution of our health work force planning. There is no greater role for any government than the provision of affordable health care services to its people. Nothing, maybe other than the defence of the country, is more important for the broad community. The abolition of Health Workforce Australia is a backward step which undermines our capacity as a country to properly plan our health work force and therefore properly deliver health services to our people.

We have an ageing population in our health work force, like so many areas of our economy, and that is posing a bigger challenge than ever before. There was a Productivity Commission report—and I know those who sit opposite, including the Minister for the Environment at the table, are fans of the Productivity Commission, as, I am happy to say, am I. This was not a lightning bolt idea from the former government. Health Workforce Australia was a considered policy proposal first from the PC and then of course considered by COAG. In other words, it was an agreement by the then Labor government here in Canberra and each of the state governments around the country, because it was a good idea. It was a good idea to, for the first time, have some real policy based strategies for our work force issues.

In my electorate for many, many years—the first 10 years, almost, of my 18 years in this place—there was no bigger issue than the capacity of people to see a GP. People who live in the capital cities, including people in this place, would not understand this concept. In most capital cities there is a doctor, a GP, on just about every corner. It is the reason bulk-billing rates are so much healthier in the capital cities—in most areas, at least. That is, there is competition amongst GPs. We are lucky just to see a GP in rural Australia. But, thankfully, with the advent of the Rudd government in 2007 that situation dramatically improved. It improved because of initiatives of the former Labor government. It improved because we have taken health work force planning by the nose and done something about the issues. Today, I am happy to say, in places like Cessnock, Maitland and right throughout the upper Hunter—although it is not always easy, still, to see a GP and bulk-billing rates are not what I would like them to be—things are much better than they were for the first 10 years I was in this place, including throughout the period the now Prime Minister was minister for health, an appalling period in health policy in my opinion.

It is not just GPs and the capacity to see them; it is the training of GPs. I have always said the best way to ensure that bush communities, rural communities, have a GP or two, and hopefully three, is to train people from the bush—the people who are most likely to go back and live and practice in the bush. That is why we were making sure more rural students had an opportunity to do medicine. We were funding the training of more nurses and other clinicians, and I fear this is all going to be unravelled as a result of this government's approach to health planning.

I fear for our Medicare Locals. When a doctor unexpectedly leaves a rural town in my electorate, I go to the Medicare Local. They are the people who understand the structure of our health work force in the Hunter Valley. They are the people who know where to go, whose door to knock on, to find a replacement doctor, to provide the relevant incentives et cetera. If Medicare Locals go, it will be a big hit on GP services in my electorate.

This goes to another point. It is a point I made in this place yesterday. If you cut $80 billion out of the budgets of the states, it will have ramifications and knock-on effects. I am asking myself whether the state government in New South Wales is today willing to pledge, despite these cuts from the Commonwealth, that it will maintain all the public health services in my electorate that we have enjoyed up to this point.

I fear for Kurri Kurri Hospital, for example, which has been a marginal hospital because of the size of the town but is a hospital that delivers important local community services, including some specialist services. Will the New South Wales state government agree today that Kurri Kurri Hospital or any other hospital in my electorate will be protected despite these massive cuts? And it is a question that all those who sit opposite and represent rural and regional areas should be asking their Prime Minister today—the member for Braddon and the member for Eden-Monaro. I should say that the member for Eden-Monaro at least had the courage to talk on this bill—one of only four on his side. He was one of only four in here defending this, despite their huge backbench—one of only four backbenchers in here prepared to back this proposal to abolish Health Workforce Australia. I want a guarantee from both the Prime Minister and the New South Wales Premier that no public health services will be reduced in my electorate as a result of both that $80 billion worth of cuts and what they are doing in this particular bill. I am opposed to this bill absolutely. It is a backward step, and it should be rejected.

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