Social Development Committee: Inquiry into Regional Health Services | SPEECH


Mr VAN HOLST PELLEKAAN (Stuart) (11:50): I rise to add my comments on the Social Development Committee’s inquiry into regional health services. There is a very long history to this report. I believe it was back in April 2011 when I first asked the government if it would undertake this work, and I was told by then health minister, John Hill, that if he and I, Liberal and Labor parties, could agree upon sensible terms of reference then he would be more than willing to do the work. We had a very good positive conversation. I took him at his word and I still do not doubt what he had to say at the time.

We sat down and together we came up with the terms of reference which we both agreed on. His view at the time was that he had nothing to hide, that Country Health had nothing to hide and that he was more than willing to have an inquiry. My view at the time was that there were a lot of areas that needed to be addressed, a lot of areas where rural people, whether they be healthcare providers or healthcare receivers, had a great deal of concern and that these things needed to be looked into.

Deputy Speaker, you know that I have not been in government so I might be unaware of exactly how difficult it can be, but from that point on the processes of government have meant that we are today finally discussing this report in parliament many years later. I have to say, though, that through that process and a succession of health ministers, we have finally got to the terms of reference being inquired upon and reported upon.

I want to thank my colleagues particularly who have supported me over many years to not let this fall off the state Liberal opposition’s agenda. I would also like to thank the hundreds and hundreds of people in regional South Australia who put their time and effort into providing information towards this inquiry over all those years, because when the government first agreed to do this report, I think it was back in late 2011 or it might have been early 2012, people got ready to go and they started putting their submissions together then in anticipation of being able to provide the information they wanted to.

Of course, they did not get to provide that information until last year and this year, but I would like to thank those people as well because good people from within and without the health system have contributed in a very positive way to this report. The desire for this report, the terms of reference, and the interest of people making submissions are not because those people want to bag the health system. It could not be further from the truth. Regional people in South Australia know very well that they want a good health system in country areas. They are very aware of the fact that by international standards they, we, are exceptionally fortunate in South Australia, but we have to fight to stay at that high standard.

We in regional areas also have to fight to keep our high standard relative to the standard in metropolitan Adelaide. We have seen over nearly a decade now that I have been actively involved in this work, and much longer for other people who have been involved longer than me, a transition of focus from the government, with resources moving from the country to the city area.

I remember very well asking former treasurer Kevin Foley about this in parliament when he was, at the time, in my opinion, boasting about the increased funding that was going into health back then in country areas. I said to him, ‘It is not even keeping pace with a health cost index,’ inflation in health, essentially. ‘You are in real terms going backwards in country areas, but in real terms you are not going backwards in city areas,’ was essentially what I said to him at the time. He in his usual style said, ‘Yep, that’s right.’ So there was no doubt it was not an accident, no doubt that he was not aware of it or anything like that. It is just what he saw, as treasurer at the time, as the right thing to do. Clearly, that is not the right thing to do.

If we jump forward to our most recent budget, I was highlighting the fact in a public radio interview that unfortunately in the state government’s most recent budget there was not one dollar to upgrade a regional road, not one dollar to upgrade a regional school and not one dollar to upgrade a regional hospital. The current Treasurer’s comment on that was, ‘That’s all okay because country people will get to come down and use the new Royal Adelaide Hospital shortly whenever they want to.’ It seems unfortunate, at least from the treasurers’ perspectives over time, that not much has changed.

It is good that this report has been done. I thank the Chair of the committee, the member for Fisher, who has done this work in a very straightforward and open way and received submissions from those people who were allowed to make submissions. What I am talking about there is the fact that hundreds and hundreds of people, as I said before, came forward with their submission. But I would say that there are 10 to 15 people who work in Country Health SA who have come to me over the last few years and said, ‘Would we be allowed to make submissions?’ I said, ‘From my perspective, absolutely, yes. From the parliament’s perspective, absolutely, yes, but please don’t get yourself caught out. Please do check with your managers and supervisors within Country Health SA about whether you are allowed to make a submission.’

Picking up on the comments that the member for Mount Gambier made a little while ago, and no doubt others as well, it happens very regularly that people currently working in Country Health SA say, ‘I would love to share this information, but I am just not allowed to. I am told in no uncertain terms that I can’t, and I fear for my job if I do.’ Two people have come to me with essentially that perspective in this current week, and it is a huge shame that that has happened.

They came to me unprovoked. They are not people I went to seeking information, but people who came to me not at hospitals, not in health forums, but in totally different community forums saying, ‘I want you know this, but I am not allowed to say it. Dan, can you try to help?’ Of course, the conversation goes on to say, ‘Yes, of course I will. Yes, of course I will do my very best to do that, but if I can’t have some substantiation of the information that you are giving me it makes it very difficult.’ That is something that has clearly not changed at all. As I say, even as late as this current week, that is still what is going on.

I briefly turn to the new Royal Adelaide Hospital. We on this side, including country and outback representatives, want there to be an outstandingly good hospital in Adelaide. There is no doubt about that. Let’s put aside for today all the previous debate about renovate on site versus brand new, etc. We want there to be outstandingly good hospitals in country South Australia. We know that country people come down to Adelaide for medical care and service all the time, and we appreciate that. We do not expect that cardiac surgery, for example, will happen anywhere else in the state except in Adelaide, and country people accept that. If you need that sort of support you will have to come to Adelaide for it, but that is not true of every single service at the moment.

Country people deserve to have their hospitals supported. Country people deserve to know that, when they need care that could appropriately be delivered in country areas, they can receive that care. It is a great shame on this government that that opportunity has been taken away step by step, steadily and slowly, over the last 16 years of this government. People deserve to know that they can get care near home. In the same way as nobody in Adelaide would expect to be in a hospital 300 kilometres away in Port Augusta, people in other parts of the state deserve to know that they do not always have to come to Adelaide.