FRIDAY, 1 OCTOBER 2021
SUBJECTS: GP Shortages; pressure on health systems due to COVID; borders; Morrison-Joyce Government picking fights only with Labor states; Peter Dutton backing legal challenges to state borders.
BRIAN MITCHELL, MEMBER FOR LYONS: I'm Brian Mitchell, I’m the Federal Member for Lyons here in Tasmania. I’m joined here today by Mark Butler who is the Shadow Minister for Health and Ageing, he’s here visiting Tasmania to hear all the concerns that we've got about our GP shortage and some of the concerns that we've got. We're here today at Brighton Regional Doctors. This is one of the fastest growing suburbs, not just in Tasmania but in Australia.
We have a chronic shortage of GPs, we've been finding incredible difficulty to attract, retain, recruit GPs in this area and that's why we're here today, with Doctor Mary Lumsden to listen to her and hear from her, what some of these issues are. You may be aware that the Senate has launched an inquiry into these very issues. This is a Senate inquiry initiated by Labor Senators.
I'm very proud to say that two Tasmanian Labor Senators, Anne Urquhart and Catryna Bilyk, are on that inquiry, and they will be taking evidence from experts, from people in the medical fraternity, from members of the public about what the issues are.
Why can't we attract GP to regional areas and why can't we retain them? And most importantly, what are some of the recommendations they can make about how we can improve this long-standing issue. It's clear that after eight years, the Federal Liberal Government simply has not done enough to fix this problem.
JOURNALIST: What have you put in your submission that you put in yesterday?
MITCHELL: In my submission I'm keen not to try and propose that I've got all the answers. I've got some ideas and you'll see them in my submission, but I've outlined some of the issues. We did a survey in this community, we letterboxed, we talked to people and we're taking evidence from people about what they think the issues are, and most importantly, from doctors. Trying to find out from doctors, why they don't want to come to regional areas.
This is one of the fastest growing suburbs in the Australian community. We're half an hour, 40 minutes from Hobart. Yet we can't get people to commit to places like this. We've got Ouse closing on the 31st of October. We've had trouble over the years attracting and retaining doctors throughout regional communities in Tasmania. And of course this is a nationwide problem, having similar issues in regional Queensland, regional Western Australia and regional New South Wales. Regions offer a fantastic lifestyle, but we just can't get GPs to commit and we need to know why, and we need to find what those solutions are and then act on those solutions.
JOURNALIST: How much worse is it here in Tasmania than what you might see in regional Queensland?
MITCHELL: Hopefully that's one of the things that the Senate inquiry will uncover, but I can tell you that in my electorate, it's bad. We've lost at least seven GPs just in this local area over the last few years. We’ve seen Ouse closed with no guarantee that a new doctor will come on board, fingers crossed that they will. We've had issues up in Bothwell, luckily resolved. We are relying increasingly on locums. You know they come in, they leave, we just can't attract and retain doctors over the long term. That leads to poorer health outcomes. Here in Tasmania we have generally poorer health outcomes than the rest of the country. One last thing, before I go to Mark.
I've learnt that in the last year the Federal Morrison Liberal Government has given $1 million to the north of the state to attract and retain GPs, $1 million to attract and retain GPs in the north of the state. That's $1 million that has not been made available to the rest of Tasmania. You've really got to ask why? Why is it? If there is a GP shortage in Tasmania, and we know there is, why are they making $1 million only available to the north of the state? I would hate to think it's because there are two marginal Liberal seats up there because if they are making health decisions based on their political interests and not the health interests of all Tasmanians then I'm really concerned about that.
JOURNALIST: Do you know how expensive it is to get a locum GP into the state? And obviously we know they are expensive, but that $1 million wouldn’t go very far when you consider how expensive they are as well.
MITCHELL: Locums are more expensive per capita than fully staffed and full-time GPs, same as with nurses, it costs a lot more to put on agency nurses than it does to employ nurses in the health system. That's a question that governments will need to answer themselves. We're paying these high spot prices for locums, rather than having a proper plan to recruit long term. I’ll hand over to Mark and see what he has to say.
MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER HEALTH AND AGEING: Thanks very much. I've spent the last three days now talking to doctors and to pharmacists and nurses about the state of the health system here in Tasmania and I think we see a health system already under extraordinary pressure. Elective surgery waiting lists have blown out over last several years here in Tasmania. Waiting times at emergency departments are the worst they've ever been in Tasmania and ambulance response times are the slowest in the nation and all of this pressure on our health system here in Tasmania is without COVID on the island.
What we've seen from the AMA this morning is a warning that there is a perfect storm coming across Australia, particularly to those states that are COVID-free, as you see, the extraordinary pressure already evident on our health systems collide with the potential for COVID cases in jurisdictions that are currently COVID-free. What I've been calling for, and the AMA has been calling for now for weeks, is for Scott Morrison and premiers like Peter Gutwein to release the modelling that they commissioned weeks ago into the capacity of our hospital system to deal with an increase in COVID cases. They are keeping that modelling secret not only from the Australian community, but importantly from the frontline health professionals who have been going to work every single day right through this 18 or 20 month pandemic.
Can I also say that this morning Peter Dutton shamefully backed in a threat by Graham Turner, the head of Flight Centre to take legal action to tear down the border controls that states like Tasmania, WA, SA and others have in place to keep their states COVID-free until such time as there are proper vaccination levels. This this just shows form on the part of the Morrison Government. The Morrison Government it must be remembered, backed Clive Palmer in his legal action in the High Court against border controls in place in WA and if Scott Morrison and Clive Palmer had had their way in the High Court back then, border controls across the country, including here in Tasmania would have been torn down by a court challenge.
Now we're seeing again Peter Dutton encouraging, on behalf of the Morrison Government, encouraging legal action to be put in place before a state like Tasmania has taken its own decision based on the circumstances of this state and the public health advice the State Government is receiving to consider lifting border controls.
JOURNALIST: I'm concerned about if the borders were to open, were being forced to open at 80 per cent in Tasmania rather than 90 like Peter Gutwein would want.
BUTLER: Labor support states being able to take their own decisions about these matters. They both support states taking those decisions based upon the circumstances of the state, the history of COVID in that jurisdiction, the capacity not only of the hospital system but also our primary care system, our GPs, our nurses and our pharmacists working out in the community to deal with an increase in COVID, and most importantly the public health advice that that State Government receives.
Right through this pandemic, too often we've seen a situation where the premiers felt that the Prime Minister just didn't have their back while they were taking really hard decisions, often to keep their community safe. We've seen political attack after political attack from the Morrison Government on state governments that have made the tough decisions to keep their community safe.
So at the end of the day the Prime Minister needs to lead and bring the nation together. At this moment you have two very different experiences being lived in Australia right now. You've got COVID-free jurisdictions like Tasmania where life is relatively normal, albeit with closed state borders, and you've got the lockdown states where for months now children have not been going to school, workers haven't been going to work. There's been enormous economic dislocation and mental health distress. Now we've got to bring those two experiences together in a safe, and a measured way, and that requires some leadership and some unifying from the Prime Minister. Not this constant division and political attacks on state governments like the Tasmanians.
JOURNALIST: Do you have anything to say in regards to Tasmania flying under the radar essentially from the Morrison Government. We've seen attacks on, say Queensland for example about its border controls, but Tasmania, despite taking quite a harsh stance, seems to not get much of a mention.
BUTLER: Well, that's really a matter for Scott Morrison and Ministers like Peter Dutton, to explain why they focus so much attention, usually on Labor governments, but Gladys Berejiklian was reported only a couple of weeks ago as describing Scott Morrison as “an evil bully” because of the constant backgrounding from the Morrison Government against the New South Wales Liberal Government.
But have no doubt, the comments this morning from Peter Dutton, a very senior Morrison Government Minister, encouraging legal action against border controls is just as much an attack on Tasmania as it is on the Labor governments of Queensland and Western Australia.
JOURNALIST: Do you think it's right that people from New South Wales could travel to Paris but they can't travel to places like Perth or Tasmania?
BUTLER: Well, let's see how the announcements around international borders play out, and the response of the commercial airlines to those announcements, but I just come back to the point that state governments have taken hard decisions to keep their community safe and as a result of some of those decisions in states like Tasmania, my own state of South Australia, people are living relatively free lives right now, compared to the one half of Australia that is enduring these chronic debilitating lockdowns, and it's understandable that those state governments will want to take the decision to lift their borders carefully and consistently with public health advice they receive rather than legal actions started on the mainland and encouraged by Ministers like Peter Dutton.
JOURNALIST: Still on the borders - obviously meant to see an announcement about changes to our international borders later today. How do you think that should be managed?
Do you think it is too early to open our international borders?
BUTLER: I’m not going to speculate on the announcement and the date. Obviously all of these decisions should be taken in accordance with public health advice, and again I call on Scott Morrison to open up that public health advice to the broader Australian community and to the frontline health workers who have to deal with these cases on a day by day basis.
For weeks now we have been calling for this material to be laid out before the community before the media, before health workers, and the Government has relied upon these spurious defences of cabinet confidentiality, saying that a National Cabinet document is somehow Cabinet-in-Confidence, in spite of the fact that the Federal Court threw out that claim weeks ago. It's time to stop keeping these things a secret.
Show us the advice, if the international border is going to be opened on a particular date, show us what the public health advice supporting that decision is.
JOURNALIST: Labor must have a position on this though, you've had plenty of time to work out a position. Can you give us some indication of what you'd like to see happen?
BUTLER: Well, we want to see borders open and lockdowns finish when it's safe to do so, and to make that decision requires access to the public health advice that frankly, governments like Scott Morrison and also Peter Gutwein’s are keeping secret not just from Labor, not just from the media, but from the broader Australian community and the community of frontline health workers who are working so hard to keep us safe. We all deserve to understand what that advice is.
JOURNALIST: So you can't say right now that it’s safe or unsafe?
BUTLER: That's a matter for Scott Morrison. We don't first of all know the details of the announcement he's intending, I understand, to make today, so I'm not going to speculate about a hypothetical at this stage, but we want to see the advice.
JOURNALIST: If they do say, though, that it is safe open today would you support that?
BUTLER: Well, we want to see the advice. That has been our approach right through this pandemic and it's not an unreasonable approach.
JOURNALIST: Would you support it though?
BUTLER: Well, let me finish my answer. It's not an unreasonable approach. We have supported the public health advice right through this pandemic. Being a constructive Opposition when the Government has come to the Australian community and often put in place difficult decisions based on public health advice, we have supported those decisions.
JOURNALIST: Do you see an issue with some states potentially being open to international travel while others aren't, say for example someone from New South Wales being able to go to England but not WA?
BUTLER: Of course that is going to raise anomalies through the Federation. We've seen those anomalies right through this now. As I said, there are two very different experiences being lived in Australia right now.
The people of Sydney and Melbourne and regional communities in those states, and the ACT for months now have been living a life that is so fundamentally different from the life we've been living here in Tasmania, in South Australia and other jurisdictions, and the challenge for the Federal Government and for state governments is to bring those experiences together so that again we are one nation living a life that's not much different from Perth to Brisbane to Hobart, and that requires leadership from the Prime Minister, leadership from the premiers, rather than political bickering.
JOURNALIST: So do you want to see a blanket rule, essentially, announced today about one date for all states?
BUTLER: As I've said, states are going to take their own decisions about when their orders are lifted, we should respect the ability of the states to do that.
There is a National Cabinet plan. It has a number of principles set out in that plan. We want to see that plan implemented safely. We want to see it implemented in a way that means that communities are not exposed to risk of COVID that particularly can't be supported or can't be dealt with by their hospital and primary care systems.
JOURNALIST: Just lastly from me as well. What do you make, obviously you did mention it earlier, but what do you make of Peter Dutton comments that it's fair enough for Flight Centre to lodge a legal challenge to closed borders? You talked about it before.
BUTLER: This is a course of conduct from this Government, you know, supporting legal action against state governments that are taking tough decisions to keep their community safe.
We saw it with them supporting Clive Palmer against state border restrictions in the High Court, we saw it a few weeks ago when the nation’s Attorney-General Michaelia Cash essentially put out the welcome mat to anyone willing to take further legal action. And now we've got that legal action foreshadowed by the Flight Centre boss we see Peter Dutton giving him the go ahead. I mean this is not the sort of approach we need at a time as I said, when National Cabinet needs to show unity, they need to show leadership, not this sort of division.
JOURNALIST: Could I ask one question about Ouse as well if that’s alright? What would you like to see happen with Ouse at this point given than we are about to see 1,200 people without a GP.
MITCHELL: What's clear with Ouse is that we can't afford to have that community without a GP there. We have 1,200 people on the books. Many of them are elderly and vulnerable. They can't not have a GP, so it really is incumbent on the Premier. This is his mandatory vaccine regime, which I support, but his decision to have a mandatory vaccine has meant that the staff there decided to close the clinic.
We can't have that area without a clinic. The Premier must step up and ensure that a GP comes into that community so that community is not left stranded.
JOURNALIST: How would you like to see that happen?
MITCHELL: Well, the Premier I believe is in talks now with the relevant parties, the Council is involved in those parties. Fingers crossed we've got a good announcement on the way. I think they're finalising details. I'm hearing stories and rumours as I keep up to date on this that there is some good news on the way, but we have to wait to see.
JOURNALIST: Do you think it's likely we will see another GP step into that clinic?
MITCHELL: Not only do I hope that it's likely, it's essential. It's absolutely essential. We can't have Ouse without a GP. What people need to remember is Ouse about 40 kilometres from New Norfolk and Norfolk itself, its GPs are full, so we're talking about 1,200 people, many of them elderly who would not have a GP before Hobart, and most of Hobart’s also full, so we can't have that situation. The Premier must ensure that when those doors close on October 31, that on November 1 a new GP is ready to go.
I'm hopeful that will be the case, but it's essential that that's the case. We can't just have a case where Ouse is without a GP.
JOURNALIST: You're hearing the Premier is in discussions with someone then?
MITCHELL: I'm hearing that, very hopeful signs that a GP is on the way, so those negotiations are underway.
Just one last thing for me, I'm on a unity ticket here with Peter Gutwein when it comes to the vaccination rates in Tasmania. The Premier has talked about 90 per cent plus for 12 and over, and I believe that that's the right call for Tasmania. Premier Peter Gutwein has kept this state safe from COVID and I put my money and faith in him over Scott Morrison any day of the week.
BUTLER: Thanks everyone.