March 08, 2022



RICHARD KING, HOST: Many parts of regional Australia in particular, there is a GP shortage. I saw an item yesterday down in Victoria, and not far actually from the Melbourne CBD, where they're struggling to attract doctors even though it's not that far from Melbourne. Maybe you've got some thoughts on that, maybe you are in an area where it's very difficult to get to see your doctor, maybe you can't afford to because they don't bulk bill. We had in the Newcastle Hunter Valley region had something that's unique, a GP access after hours service. Unfortunately the Federal Government's cut some of the funding to that, it's meant that one of them has closed completely and in other GP access after hours services they've actually had to reduce the hours. Any thoughts on that I’d love to hear from you, but joining me now, in fact, he's in Newcastle today to make an announcement, is the Shadow Minister for Health and Ageing Mark Butler, who is on the line. Good morning, Mark.
MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER HEALTH AND AGEING: Good morning, Richard. I'm actually in Charlestown looking out at a very grey morning.
KING: All right, and getting excited about the – you’re a Port Adelaide supporter, aren’t you Mark?
BUTLER: I am. I've had a couple of very tough years, we’ve played in home prelim finals two years in a row and lost the ability to get through to a Grand Final, but we've got a great young team and very hopeful about a good 2022.
KING: All right, well, good luck for the season. The problem is, and it's not just something that's unique to the Newcastle Hunter Valley area, the shortage of GPs in regional and rural Australia. I mentioned a moment ago, this scheme by the Federal Government aimed at attracting medical professionals to regional and rural Australia, this idea of paying off the HECS debt for doctors and nurses who work in regional or remote communities. And I know a number of health professionals say “well that's great, but it doesn't address the main problem.” Because the Government's been throwing money at this for a couple of decades. Trainees go to work in a regional or rural hospital for a couple of years and then go straight back to the city. Were you happy with this scheme when it was announced in December, Mark?
BUTLER: I think the scheme will have some benefits for parts of Australia. The argument we have against the Government, though, is that Scott Morrison made a number of changes that effectively pretended that some of the regional areas that are a little closer to the capital cities, Hunter Valley is a classic example, are the same as Mosman or Rose Bay in Sydney when it comes to recruiting GPs. So a range of changes made in 2019 have seriously affected the ability of the Hunter Valley, of the Central Coast, and a whole range of equivalent regions around the country, to recruit GPs.
The health network for the Hunter Valley gave evidence to the Senate over the last 12 months that around 150 GP practices in their region, in the Hunter Valley, in the Central Coast, lost their ability to recruit GPs who are trained overseas, and that has had an enormous impact on your ability to see a GP in this area. And where you do see one, the sorts of fees that you're paying. And where we see this really ending up is people get sicker because they can't get into their GP, and they end up at the emergency department of our hospitals, which are overwhelmed at the moment, particularly in the middle of a global pandemic.
KING: Right. Now, you're in Newcastle, you're about to make an announcement and obviously this is with one eye on the election coming up. What can Labor do to help overcome this shortage particularly in this area?
BUTLER: It's pretty simple, really. We will restore the status of the Hunter Valley as a priority area for the recruitment of GPs. That is what GP practices, the health network, have argued for in a Senate inquiry we initiated to hear detailed evidence about this. We didn't simply want to respond to a couple of calls without really understanding the implications. We've looked at this carefully, local MPs like Pat Conroy, Sharon Claydon, Meryl Swanson, our fantastic candidate in the Hunter, Dan Repacholi, have been vocal about this, just as they were vocal about the loss of after hours funding in the area, which we've also pledged to reverse.
So we will make this decision. We're announcing it down at Windale this morning. And it will have a real impact on reversing the crisis in accessing GPs in the Hunter Valley.
KING: This GPs access after hours service has been unique to the Hunter. You're aware of the model, would you like to see that expanded around the country?
BUTLER: This is the thing, it is without a doubt the best after hours model we have in Australia. We have a range of other after hours programmes operating in different parts of the country, in the big cities and in regional areas like the Hunter Valley, but I know there is none better than the Hunter Valley one. It's already received cuts to their funding which has seen the clinic at the Calvary Mater close and cut backs to other clinics, and there is a recommendation on the Federal Government's table to make even further cuts so that you would see the level of access, the level of service that this region gets, reduced to the lowest common denominator that we see elsewhere in the country. That's just crazy. What we should be doing is around the country learning the lessons that we've seen for years now in the Hunter Valley, the ability of people to get service, get support after hours, whether it's over the phone or face to face. And that means not only are they getting good quality care where and when they need it, it means they’re not ending up in our hospitals, because we know our hospitals are overwhelmed. And when these sorts of services are cut, there is a very immediate impact on our hospital system.
KING: On the subject of ageing, the Royal Commission, not a great deal has been done r.e. the recommendations, what do you think should be done? I mean, we do have a crisis in aged care, as highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic, what do you think should be happening?
BUTLER: I've worked closely with aged care for 30 years now, very closely before I went into the Parliament, and then and in the Parliament, I've been the Minister for Ageing, and I've seen aged care go through bad periods. But I've never seen the depth of crisis that we're seeing right now. And we were seeing it before COVID. COVID has really just aggravated some really serious problems in the aged care system that have been building for a number of years and were aggravated by a series of budget cuts that Scott Morrison made when he was the Treasurer. Taking two and a half billion dollars out of aged care and putting it into some other programme, nothing to do with looking after older Australians.
The key recommendations of the Royal Commission that this Government has not accepted, go to the question of staff. We know that the main guarantee of quality of care, really the overwhelming guarantee of quality of care, is the number and the quality of people you have caring for older Australians. We simply don't have enough people in our aged care facilities, with the right training, able to do the job that they want to do. That's why people go to work in aged care, a sense of mission, a sense of love for the people they're caring for, and they just don't have enough hours in the day to do the work they want to do.
KING: And you believe they should be paid more?
BUTLER: Absolutely. For years we've known this, we tried to fix it when we were last in government, we worked with the aged care providers, with aged care unions, seniors’ groups, because they all recognise the key problem in attracting and keeping the sorts of people you want working in aged care was that they were paid less than they would be paid working in the local supermarket and it’s just not sustainable. And Tony Abbott cut that programme that we'd carefully negotiated over a number of years. And the problem has simply got worse over the nine years of this Government.
KING: We have an election coming up. And I know climate change is another area of interest for you. Given the number of natural disasters we've had, droughts, floods, bushfires in recent years - do you think that climate change will be a major election issue?
BUTLER: There's no question we've been warned for many, many years, that these terrible events that we're seeing, particularly up the East Coast right now, were going to get worse and will continue to get worse if there's not strong action taken to deal with climate change across the world. We've seen bushfires in the west, over the course of this summer, the level of sort of bushfire activity will increase as well. This is not new, we've been warned about it for many, many years by qualified scientists. And it's time we had a government in Canberra that was willing to take strong, sensible action around climate change. And that's the plan that Anthony Albanese and Chris Bowen, with the very strong work of Pat Conroy from the Hunter Valley, announced before Christmas.
KING: And finally, Mark, International Women's Day. Is there one particular woman that for you has been an inspiration in your life? Apart from your mum of course.
BUTLER: My mum over the course of my long, lucky life of 51 years, but my beautiful wife Daniela gave birth to our son Charlie four weeks ago. And this was my first night away from home for those four weeks. She's just doing a fantastic job as a new mom with a beautiful son, my third child.
KING: Congratulations. And do you think the world would be a better place if more of our leaders were women, Mark?
BUTLER: We've got a fantastic record in the Labor Party. Over the time I've been here we've gone from a very small number of women in a Parliament like the Australian Parliament, to now having pretty much 50 per cent of our caucus are women, 50 per cent of our Shadow Cabinet are women, 50 per cent of our leadership team are women, and that has just changed the sorts of discussions we have. When you're properly representing the community in that way, you just come up with better decisions and I think it's something that other parties should be looking at.
KING: Thank you very much for your time this morning. Enjoy your stay in our neck of the woods this morning, Mark.
BUTLER: Thanks Richard.
KING: Mark Butler, Labor’s Shadow Minister for Health and Ageing, the Member for Hindmarsh, who happens to be in the Newcastle Hunter Valley area.