SUBJECTS: Bushfire crisis across Australia; recovery process for the bushfires; proposal to Government regarding health impacts from bushfire affected people; US-Iran tensions.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Well, thanks very much. The Shadow Cabinet has met here in Adelaide. And we wanted to come to South Australia as a group to acknowledge the devastating impact that fires have had, not the least of which is the loss of life on Kangaroo Island, and the impact that it has had on Cudlee Creek, on Woodside, and other communities in the Adelaide Hills. And it is a reminder that this has indeed been a national emergency. Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, and earlier on, of course, Central Queensland and the Sunshine Coast have all been impacted. Which is why we have called for a national response to this devastation. The fact is that we will need to be vigilant over coming weeks and months as well. For South Australia and Victoria, the current period of time is normally not when the bushfire season hits its peak. It is not expected to rain in any significant way in South Australia for a considerable period of time.
But we also need to pay attention to what is the human impact, the economic impact, the ecological impact, and the health impacts, right now. And to start putting in place measures that make a difference to peoples’ lives. And today we have given consideration to that. I do note that after the Victorian bushfires, there was a considerable approach coordinated nationally with the Victorian Government when we were in office. And we had a range of themes to it. People. Reconstruction. Economy. Environment. Yesterday we called for a national ecological audit. We called for a meeting of the environment ministers to ensure that there was a coordinated approach. And we called for, as well, the Cooperative Research Centre into bushfires to be funded beyond the first of July next year, when the funding is due to run out.
This morning here in Adelaide, we have focussed on health with a submission from Chris Bowen, our Shadow Health Minister, with a range of recommendations which have been adopted by our Shadow Ministry, that will be put forward in a constructive way to the Government. Throughout this period, Labor has been determined to not engage in personality politics but to engage in constructive suggestions. Many of which, of course, have been taken up. The national approach to the bushfire crisis. The compensation for volunteer firefighters. The increase in our aerial firefighting capacity. The increased use of the Australian Defence Force. And many other measures have been put forward by Labor constructively and later adopted by the Government. That is a good thing. Today’s recommendations are put forward in that spirit of cooperation, constructive dialogue, and trying to make a practical difference to peoples’ lives. And I would ask Chris Bowen to outline those proposals to you.
CHRIS BOWEN, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Thanks very much, Anthony. As Anthony has said, the health implications in this crisis are very real. They will have long-term implications, not just the immediate and the obvious. And while much of the effort in dealing with this will fall to the states, this is a national crisis which needs a national response. And this is an issue which will go on for a long time and states will need federal leadership and federal support to deal with. Many of the places that are being heavily impacted by bushfires are places that are already suffering the shortage of medical professional, GPs, specialists, in particular. Areas that are already facing challenges when it comes to public health, which are going to be made much worse by this crisis. And so today, as Anthony said, we are calling on the Government, constructively, to engage in a number of practical measures, which we’re putting forward as the ways the Federal Government could provide leadership for areas that have been heavily impacted by bushfires, both in physical health and mental health.
Just briefly running through those. GPs are the frontline for the healthcare response, general practitioners. In many instances there is already a shortage. In many instances there’s pressure on bulk-billing. So, we’re calling on the Government to consider increased incentives for bulk-billing, increased support for GP practices in heavily impacted bushfire areas. Also, in a measure that was supported by the Labor Party, not too long ago the Federal Government provided Medicare rebates for Telehealth in drought-affected areas for GPs and medical professionals who provide consultations through video conferencing and telephone conferencing with their patients and be appropriately paid for it through Medicare. That should be extended to bushfire-affected areas as well. And urgently. If you’ve got a long drive to your GP, you’re less likely to take the journey if you’ve got so many other things to deal with when you’re dealing with the aftermath of bushfires. But if there’s a Telehealth option, and the doctors are appropriately paid for that through Medicare, the Government’s done it for drought-affected areas. They should do it for bushfire-affected areas, as well.
If I could also just deal with the issue of specialists. In many areas, there’s a shortage of specialists, respiratory specialists. And these specialists are going to have a lot of demand over coming, not just weeks, but months and years as we deal with the impacts of this bushfire crisis. Many which we don’t fully know. And the research hasn’t fully understood the impacts of the respiratory pressure on Australians. So, the Federal Government really needs to be working with the states cooperatively to ensure access to specialists, including respiratory specialist in many of these areas. Also, we want to deal with mental health. We know from experience of Black Saturday, that a quarter of the survivors of Black Saturday were reporting mental ill-health four years after the bushfires. We need a proper response to this. Again, constructively, we’re putting forward some ideas. Some of the states are doing good things. And I pay appropriate tribute to that. Both the New South Wales and Victorian, and the other state governments have responded with the resources they have at their disposal. But there’s more that needs to be done. As you know, under Medicare if you’re referred by a GP you can get 10 visits to a psychologist or a counsellor a year. That needs to be expanded in bushfire affected areas. The cap needs to be removed or lifted, to provide more support to see a psychologist or a counsellor for the foreseeable future in a bushfire-affected area. Ten is not enough if you’re going through post-traumatic stress or dealing with the long-term implications of having lost your home, or having feared losing your home, or being in a community which is threatened. So again, constructively we say to the Government, just as you lifted the cap for people who are suffering eating disorders, please lift the cap in areas that have been affected by bushfires.
Also, we need a particular focus on children and young people who might not be showing any impacts at the moment but have taken in a huge crisis in their short lives. And we need a particular focus on the return to school in a few weeks’ time. When those communities come together. 600 schools have had to close at some point due to bushfires. And that was before the worst of it, which hit during school holidays. And it’s appropriate and necessary that schools have the support, when schools go back, to have trauma counsellors, to have psychologists available. And that is beyond the resources of any particular state government. We need leadership from the federal level working with state governments to achieve that. And that would be something which would have our full support. And we make that suggestion to the Federal Government. It would be appropriate for the Federal Health Minister to convene a meeting urgently with state health ministers to work these issues through.
One final point. We’ve seen heroes ride across the country. Bush firefighters are the first responders, giving of their time, and in too many instances giving of their lives, including two of my own constituents who gave their lives. Two of my own constituents and community members who gave their lives in December. And we had the funeral for one of them just a couple of days ago. We can’t just expect those people to return to work without support. We need mental health support for our first responders. Now, the Government received a senate inquiry in February on the mental health of first responders. The Federal Government has not responded to that inquiry, which we reported last February of last year. That report needs to be responded to urgently now. Again, many of the recommendations are the responsibility the state governments, but it’s a federal report, which needs federal leadership. And we can’t just expect the bush firefighters and the other first responders to receive our thanks and our honour. They’re going to need our support as well. And again, as Anthony said, we’ve led by making constructive suggestions about the remuneration.
Today we’re making constructive suggestions about their mental health going forward, as well. This is a comprehensive, none of these particular matters are silver bullets that will solve everything, but they are our suggestions as to what the Federal Government can be doing today to provide leadership. We know that this crisis has some way to go. But its ramifications will be with us for years when it comes to the health of so many Australians. And the Federal Government needs to be showing leadership.
ALBANESE: Thanks very much, Chris. And thank you for the work that you’ve done in putting together today’s submission. We had a range of submissions, which we will be forwarding to the Government in a comprehensive way, just as we did when we wrote to them in November. We wanted today, however, to concentrate on health and in particular, on the mental health implications of this crisis. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: Leader, have you got a ballpark figure as to what this plan would cost taxpayers if it was rolled out in full?
ALBANESE: Well, the truth is that what we know is that if you don’t address health issues, the costs are inevitably more. We know that’s the case. We know that’s the case with physical health, but we also know it’s the case with mental health. I also note the Government’s statement, which is that their priority is responding to the impact, the human impact of these fires. What we are doing is putting forward these proposals. We don’t have Treasury and Finance at our disposal. The Commonwealth Government has that. We’ve put forward these ideas constructively. We believe they’re positive, and they should be taken up.
JOURNALIST: Yesterday Greg Hunt said that he was working on a mental health package as well. Is this an attempt for you to take credit for something that was already in the pipeline?
ALBANESE: This is an attempt by us to put forward constructive proposals. We’ve done that. I must say that in terms of when the Government has changed its position, they’ve tended to say that they’ve had things in the pipeline for a period of time. What we have done here is put forward these proposals in a positive way. We have been constructive. We will continue to be so.
JOURNALIST: You mentioned when you were briefing your colleagues before that you didn’t want to say policy dictated by the Craig Kellys of this world. Do you think this disaster is enough to change the direction of those elements within the Government?
ALBANESE: Well, that is up to them. I see no evidence, unfortunately, that someone like Craig Kelly is prepared to change his views or to listen to what the scientists are telling us. I haven’t seen that up to this point. I hope it does.
JOURNALIST: Leader, you mentioned Kangaroo Island both to your fellow Shadow Cabinet Ministers and also again just then. Obviously, the Prime Minister was there yesterday. And some footage has emerged of him not necessarily being across the detail of the two deaths that happened over there. Are you aware of that footage and what do you make of it?
ALBANESE: Well, look, I have avoided during this process being involved in personal disagreements with the Prime Minister. Because I do not think that’s what people want. I think people will see that footage and make of it what they will. It is not up to me to comment. I certainly am very conscious of the deaths that occurred, the father and son, on KI. I was here on Saturday, of course, up in the Adelaide Hills, meeting with people when that news came through.
JOURNALIST: Just to turn your mind to more international matters. We are awaiting the outcome of the National Security Committee. How should the Australian Government be responding to this escalation from Iran?
ALBANESE: Well, we had a meeting here early today of the National Security Committee of Labor, our Shadow Committee. We had consideration to what was before us, including the discussion that I had with Scott Morrison yesterday morning. That was before, of course, a lot of information was gained. But I do note that overnight there has been a, I wouldn’t say a moderate, but certainly there’s been no further escalation of conflict. And that is a good thing. We have urged all parties to not escalate what would potentially be a disastrous conflict any further. And we call upon all parties to do the same. And we’re very conscious, as is the Government, about ensuring that Australians who are in the region are kept safe. It is good that has occurred up to this point.
JOURNALIST: Is it time for Australians to be withdrawn from Iraq?
ALBANESE: Look, we have not had a briefing from after the NSC meeting. One of the things that we should not do is to make comments without proper advice. I was in a discussion with Angus Campbell yesterday afternoon that was about the bushfire crisis. I await a proper and comprehensive briefing before I will comment any further.
JOURNALIST: Should Australia follow the US in imposing further economic sanctions on Iran?
ALBANESE: I will await a further briefing. These things should not be done on the run. This is potentially a very serious matter. Indeed, I have said though, that there shouldn’t be a further escalation by any party. And I maintain that view. I’m not going to comment any further. I am not going to comment any further without an appropriate briefing. That’s the responsible thing to do. I lead a responsible Opposition in the Australian Labor Party. Thank you