24 September 2017
Topics: Same sex marriage, mental health, energy policy, Turnbull Government’s new anti-drug campaign, welfare policy, private health insurance, health reform agenda, NRL and AFL finals
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
You’re watching Sunday Agenda, where we’ve been looking across the ditch to the New Zealand election result from last night. But there is a lot going on in domestic politics here closer to home, and to discuss it, in a range of theatres, we’re joined now by the Health Minister, Greg Hunt. Thanks so much for your company.
Good morning Peter, and good morning Paul.
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
Can I start by asking you about the same sex marriage debate and this incident involving Tony Abbott? The alleged head-butt, although the gentleman involved seems to have admitted it from the quotes that I’ve seen. Do you think that that’s set the yes campaign back in terms of its momentum? Eric Abetz, for example, has been quite quick to make the point that this is something that is a sign of things to come if same sex marriage passes into law.
Well the first thing is that any violence against any person is completely unacceptable. That’s a breach of the law as a general principle. I’ll let this case proceed through the courts.
The second thing is that the yes and no campaigns have to be conducted in a respectful way. I think Australians are overwhelmingly engaged in that, but you have people at either end who don’t respect the notion of democratic free speech, and free speech only matters when somebody disagrees with you.
That’s what free speech is. It’s the right for somebody to disagree with you. So I think that each case is proceeding along its own lines. I’m actually very upbeat about the democratic process, contrary to many people, but there are those at either end who either don’t respect the notion of free speech, or are very, very extreme in the way they present the others, and respect is the way forward.
And I think that after this is done, we’ll have a result and the country will be better for it.
But, as you’ve indicated Minister, from both sides we’ve seen some pretty unacceptable behaviour in terms of both rhetoric and action. So how concerned are you about it, given that we’re just at an early stage of this election campaign, and there’s got to be a risk that things might actually get worse. What’s your judgement about that, and how worried are you about the tenor of the campaign so far?
Well look, overall I think it has been conducted in a good spirit and in a good approach. Every election, every plebiscite, ever debate – whether it’s in our outside of a formal campaign - has those who will both push the boundaries and therefore attract the news.
So, obviously, the news focuses on the margins and the extremes. But the vast majority of Australians are forming their own opinion. So I am in a different position, as I say, to some; I am optimistic about the process.
I believe in the notion of free choice and I believe in the notion of free speech. These are fundamental liberal values and traditions, and I think that they’re being played out here.
So I actually think there is likely to be a moderation of the extremes because they’ve been called out, and I’ll call them out on both sides.
I have to say, the biggest threat to the yes campaign, in my view, is not the no campaign, but it’s those that take an authoritarian view and don’t respect the right of people to uphold their religious beliefs, to uphold their values, to uphold their views. That’s democracy at its best, when people can express differing views in a respectful environment.
Now, you’re supporting the yes case.
You’re pretty confident that the yes case will get up?
I think the lesson of Brexit and of the US Presidential election is that nobody should ever presume an electoral outcome. And if you do, whether it’s Australian people or others in a democracy, they don’t like being taken for granted.
So I think the message for those campaigning for yes is make this about people’s right to marry, and make this about acceptance.
I know one of your colleagues, Chris Kenny, wrote a magnificent piece, in my view, saying the fundamental question here was actually something more significant than the legal case; it’s the final act in a process of acceptance, and I thought that was the most powerful piece and the most respectful piece I’ve seen written.
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
Can I ask you about, as Health Minister, how you feel about some of the commentary from mental health experts like Patrick McGorry and Ian Hickey, who have said that they have concerns about the mental health of young LGBTI people in the context of having this postal survey. Do they have a point?
Well I have actually met with Pat McGorry and we’ve talked about the fact that this can be a very positive experience, and I know that he subsequently did discuss the fact that this can be a transformative moment in Australian society where the issues of acceptance are, ultimately, resolved. And so I’m pleased that he has made those points publicly.
I know that the head of the AMA, Michael Gannon, and Lucy Brogden, who is the Co-Chair of the Mental Health Commission, have all talked about the fact that Australians can have – and there’s great value in having – an electoral process or a plebiscite process.
So I think that this can be done in a positive way. There’s a long way to run yet, and the extremes have been called out. And I would call out the extremes on the yes, as I have done, and some of those on the no.
The good thing about this process is intolerance is seen at either end of the spectrum for what it is, and tolerance, respect, simply understanding that others are entitled to their view, is the very best of Australian democracy.
And, in the end, I think Australian democracy will be stronger for this process.
We had a report this week that a number of organisations were arguing that it’s important for the yes case to win in order to avert 3000 potential teenage suicides. What’s your response to that sort of argument? Do you, as Health Minister, agree with that sort of argument, or do you think that this is going too far?
Look, I won’t try to put any figures on it. I think, knowing the material that was released, it was attempts that they were talking about, and it was based off a peer reviewed US journal article. I won’t put a medical figure on it. I think it’s best left to the medical authorities.
My view overall, though, is that Australian society would be a stronger place, it would be a better outcome, but I do this from the perspective of rights and acceptance. I will let the medical professionals present their views, and I know that there are differing views as well.
Within the AMA, there has been quite a controversy. I don’t mean that negatively, but there has been an AMA call for a yes vote, but support for the plebiscite from the President, and there are differing views amongst medical professionals, so I’ll let each of them speak for themselves.
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
Whilst we understand that the Liberal Party has a tradition of allowing free votes by some of its MPs on conscience or whatever the issues might be, it would be damaging, would it not, for the Government for a former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, to cross the floor on the issue of energy?
Look, at the end of the day I am very confident that we will find a way through that works with all of the Liberal Party members.
Our position is very clear, and it’s a continuum right across the four years of Government – to take the pressure off energy prices, to improve reliability and stability because we’ve had threats in the form of the forced closure through State-based policies of the Northern Power Station in South Australia, the Hazelwood Power Station in Victoria, which have affected base load, and then the closing down of exploration for natural gas.
So we’ve responded to those, under Tony Abbott. We abolished the carbon tax and reduced the Renewable Energy Target, and achieved our emissions reductions target.
Under Malcolm Turnbull, we’ve responded to these, frankly, utterly irresponsible and damaging State-Labor policies by taking steps to reduce the wholesale cost of gas. And you can see that Josh Frydenberg and the Prime Minister are actually achieving that.
Now we are working on ensuring that there’s real baseload stability going forwards. So downwards pressure on electricity and gas prices, as opposed to the thing which hasn’t been discussed – Bill Shorten has a target of 45 per cent emissions reductions which is the equivalent of over 200 million tonnes, which is more than the entire size of Australia’s electricity sector.
So, in other words, his target is the equivalent of closing down our entire conventional electricity sector, and what would that mean in terms of prices?
Now, Tony Abbott has become a ferocious critic of the RET – the Renewable Energy Target. He wants it frozen. Now, you were the Minister in the Abbott Government that did this deal. Did you make a mistake, Greg Hunt? Did you get this wrong at the time?
Well we actually brought this down, and I worked very closely with Tony, and we brought the Renewable Energy Target down.
Sometimes it’s been presented as if it was legislated afresh – that’s incorrect. It was legislated at the equivalent of a 27.5 per cent renewable target when you take everything into account. We brought it down to 23.5 per cent.
There was no Labor, there was no Greens partnership, there was no crossbench partnership. Four wanted lower, four wanted higher, and you needed six.
In the end, we forced Labor to come down to the absolute maximum extent possible. Now that target’s going to be built out and achieved, and there is investment certainty that is fundamental. So, that also reaches its end point in 2020 in terms of the new build, and that’s now a stable factor.
What we did was part of a Liberal continuum of bringing down the pressure on electricity prices and improving stability.
So right now – Malcolm Turnbull, Josh Frydenberg, they’re working on the next stage, gas availability and additional baseload stability for our electricity. These come about directly because of the forced driven closures of Hazelwood and Northern Power in Victoria and South Australia through State-based Labor policies, and the closing down of gas exploration, which is just extraordinary in Australia.
And the next big thing then is to say, well, Bill Shorten wants to form an alternative Government. His target is the equivalent of closing down the entire conventional electricity sector. That would devastate electricity prices, electricity stability, manufacturing, small business, and be just an unthinkable impact in terms of reliability and stability.
Today is the day that Mr Shorten must start to explain how he meets these extraordinary thought-bubble targets which would devastate manufacturing and electricity supply, and drive up the cost of electricity in Australia.
Just going back to this RET decision, though, it’s been claimed that Tony Abbott wanted to do much more at the time, that Tony Abbott wanted to take it down further, and he was denied by his colleagues. Is that correct?
No, not at all in the sense that, not denied by colleagues. We started publicly at 27,000 gigawatt hours. I remember Ian McFarlane making those statements publicly at the time. So to explain it to the listeners; 27,000 was where we started. The law was 41,000, unless there was a Senate agreement that couldn’t be brought down.
We brought it down to 33,000 gigawatt hours, which was the maximum amount. So it’s correct that the whole Government sought a figure of 27,000 gigawatt hours, it’s correct that the absolute lowest amount that the Senate would allow – knowing that there was not crossbench agreement, knowing that there was certainly not Greens or Labor agreement – was 33,000.
And that was an extraordinary achievement. Going back, only just a couple of years, none of the pundits thought there could be an agreement. Very few people thought we’d get that agreement and we got that through hard negotiation and pressure.
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
But the suggestion, from what I’ve seen of the remarks from Tony Abbott, is that it was his colleagues – including Malcolm Turnbull – that prevented him being able to bring it down lower. Peta Credlin has talked about this as well. Is that not your understanding?
Well we started with a public position which was agreed of 27,000 gigawatt hours, and that was trying to bring it down from 41 to 27. It ended up at 33.
That saves that Australian economy about $16 billion. And that was the agreed Government position, and it was a pleasure working with Mr Abbott and it’s a pleasure working with Malcolm Turnbull.
Both of them are focused, actually on the same thing – energy security and reliability, and bringing down the pressures that are being driven right now by the very Labor policies that Mr Shorten wants to supercharge, and I think in this discussion that’s what’s been lost.
Now, just on this point Minister, I think we just need to clarify this point, Minister, in terms of our viewers. I think it’s pretty clear from what you’ve said. I think what you’re telling us is that Tony Abbott as Prime Minister was very pleased with the outcome.
Look, he would have liked, and we all wanted to get it lower than that, and I think it’s very important to be fair and respectful on that front. The position that we’ve agreed on was to start at 27,000, and many people thought we would not get to any reduction on the legislated default position of 41,000. And we were able to reduce that by 4 per cent, from 27.5 to 23.5, or 8000 gigawatt hours, or $16 billion of cost to the Australian economy.
And so, that was not as low as we wanted to go. We were very clear on what our starting point was, but it was certainly dramatically more than anybody believed would have been achieved at the time.
And at the time, of course, there was great criticism that there would be any reduction. Now we see that it was the right decision, to come down, and we are achieving our targets, which gets lost sometimes in the debates.
We are achieving our targets without a carbon tax, with the current Renewable Energy Target. But most importantly now, the work that Prime Minister Turnbull, that Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg is doing, is the next wave of ensuring stability and ensuring cost affordability.
Right now, Labor is proposing the equivalent of closing down our entire conventional energy sector with absolutely no costs. Absolutely no costs as to what it would mean for the Australian public. And the fact is, the Shorten electricity policy is a threat to the economic existence of Australians all around the country.
Now, you’re the previous Minister. Tony Abbott made a very powerful statement this week – he drew a line in the sand and basically what he said was that he didn’t want the Government providing any fresh subsidies for new renewable projects. He did want the Government to commit to support for a new coal fired power station. What’s your response to that sort of agenda?
My response to that is not to pre-empt the work of the Prime Minister and the Energy Minister given that I’m no longer the Environment Minister. In fact, I never actually held the energy portfolio.
But I have to say, Josh Frydenberg is doing an incredible job in dealing with the wreckage of what some of the States have done in Victoria, and South Australia, and Queensland.
Against that background, our approach is always to try to take pressure off electricity prices and to improve stability. And that’s the challenge we have in Australia – not because of any lack of resources, not because of any lack of systems connection, but simply because of entirely State Government generated activities that the current, aspiring Prime Minister, Bill Shorten, wants to take, replicate and supercharge at a national level.
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
We’re talking to the Health Minister, Greg Hunt, here on Sunday Agenda. So far we’ve been focused in on his previous portfolio. We’re going to take a quick break. When we come back, we’ll move in on some health issues.
[ Commercial break]
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
Welcome back. You’re watching Sunday Agenda. We’re talking to the Health Minister Greg Hunt.
We’ve got to get onto your portfolio now, Minister, if we can. I know that you’ve had an announcement of a campaign about drug awareness ahead of Schoolies and the end of school more generally, I suppose. Take us through some of the details of that campaign.
So we’ve announced the Take Your Life Back campaign today. We have about 200,000 Australians a year who are using ice, which, of course, is crystal methamphetamine.
This is a drug that can be addictive, it can lead to violence, it can lead to physical health and mental health issues. Then there are the party drugs, whether it’s caps, whether it is other forms of ecstasy, these can be catastrophic for young people.
So it’s a tough, hard-hitting campaign, but it has the very, very well-researched message that you can take your life back, and here’s how to do it: by people going to drughelp.gov.au.
And it’s aimed both at young people, but also at parents who sometimes don’t know where to turn, and to whom the young people will sometimes turn. So they’ll talk to their parents more than is realised, and so it’s a real message of threat, but then of hope and how you can get the help you need.
Minister, as you know, your colleagues – Ministers Porter and Tudge – have been promoting a trial which will involve random drug testing of people on welfare – not to remove their welfare benefits, but to try to get treatment for such people.
There’s been virtually a wall-to-wall opposition to these trials from health and medical professionals. I’m wondering what your response is to this? Do you accept the validity of the criticisms made by the health and medical professionals, that is, that these trials are unacceptable because they will damage the individual?
So I strongly support the trials, and I strongly support them because they’ve followed the approach that we’ve taken with the cashless welfare card, where it’s been trialled, there have been back-up services, and what may not be well-known is that we’ll be backing up the preliminary sites, the trial sites here that we’re testing, with this approach with $10 million of support services for those that do have positive drug testing results.
So this is about counselling, it’s about treatment in particular, it compliments exactly what we’re doing with the drughelp.gov.au campaign, the take your life back campaign, so it’s entirely in line.
If there weren’t the help, then I would understand the criticism, and much of the point has been to say there has to be the back-up, there has to be the treatment. And our approach is to say, yes, there will be the treatment, this is critical, and people need to have the support.
And if we can get young Australians or Australians of any age off strong drugs, then the mental health savings, the physical health savings, are huge. And I’m visiting an emergency centre straight after this interview at St Vincent’s Hospital to look at what they face on a daily basis.
I appreciate your point that you support the trial, but it seems to me there’s a bigger issue here, and it’s the attitude being taken by professional health and medical organisations in relation to these issues which concern drugs and related questions.
And the point I’m getting to you as Health Minister is: to what extent you accept the judgement of these health and medical professionals that these trials should not go ahead because they damage people? And the extent to which you feel this is a faulty approach?
Well I’ll set out our approach and let them speak to theirs. Our approach is that these trials have the potential to improve lives and save lives.
And it’s very clear – if you know that somebody has a drug problem that is the best way to help them find a path to treatment, to rehabilitation, recovery, and to restoring their lives.
The very reason we’re launching this campaign today – take your life back – is because with 200,000 ice users, they can face death, physical addiction, health challenges, mental health challenges, and then we can have an extraordinary ripple effect in terms of violence, social disruption, crime, and so many others.
So as a Government, we respect the views of all of those who comment, but at the end of the day we have to make our decision and we’ve made our decision to be tough on drugs.
Well I want to ask you a related question, and it concerns the same issue. It’s reported in the News Limited papers today there’s been a 600 per cent increase in teenagers seeking to change their sex.
And, of course, you need the support of medical professionals in order to do this. So this, again, goes to the outlook and culture of health and medical professionals. Are you concerned about this trend, which clearly comes off the back of the Safe Schools agenda and the sense of gender fluidity? Are you concerned about this trend at all?
I will let people make their own decisions. I think it’s important that our medical professionals give the best guidance, and so they talk through the consequences in terms of the physical, what it means in terms of treatment programs, or transition programs.
It’s up to the medical professionals to provide their advice. Again, one thing that I committed to when I came in was not to usurp their judgement; we have to make ours, but…
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
But in making yours, though, Minister, I think part of Paul’s point is that do you have a concern that there may be a level of activism creeping into decision making and advice from healthcare professionals?
Look, the first thing is that I’d want to check the original data behind that report. I haven’t seen the original data so, understandably, I’d like to review that myself. I haven’t seen any signs that medical professionals are engaged in that sort of advocacy one way or another.
Well I guess the point I’d make to you is it just seems to me that the critical question here is whether these things are just seen as 100 per cent health issues, or whether they’re seen with a very significant cultural and social component which influences these decisions. Have you got any view on that?
My view here is that health issues are for the health professionals. The policy issues are for the Government. On the policy issues here there is no advocacy or engagement in any way, shape, or form. So, again, I would want to check the original source data on that very, very carefully.
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
Minister, health was a big issue at the last election, particularly obviously around Medicare and the accusations that the Prime Minister and others made about Labor’s scare campaign and just how disingenuous it was. It was up in neon lights at the election.
You got home, but the argument certainly is that their campaign did some damage to the Government, and the size of its majority, perhaps even. Health hasn’t really been in the headlines since the election. Is that a sign that you’re doing your job?
Look, I’ll let others judge that. But what I’ve endeavoured to do is threefold.
Firstly, on coming in to look at the root cause of many of the challenges on the public health side, and what happened is that a few years ago Labor stripped out the funding for new drug listings.
That had infected many parts of the health area, because you have incredible new drugs such as Opdivo for lung cancer that come on with a billion dollar price tag, that’s the Government doing what it should be doing. But previous drugs had come on, and that had led to pressures such as co-payments and Medicare freezes.
We’ve been able to strike and agreement with the medicine sector. Real, deep, fundamental health reform for $1.8 billion less in Government payments in return for re-investment, which means that we’ve then been able to strike agreements with the doctors, the pharmacists, the medicine makers, and that’s put the public health space in a very good position. Always more work to be done.
Now I’m working on the two big things on the private health side of ensuring the availability and affordability of private health through taking out the pressures.
And we’re very close to a potential agreement with the source of the biggest impact on new private health pressures, which is the device makers, the prostheses makers. They’ve been tremendous.
So we’re looking at a large private health affordability package coming down before the end of the year, and focusing on mental health and the availability of mental health services.
So they’re the big, fundamental reforms, and we’ve already had one. And now we’re engaged in those latter two.
To what extent do we face a crisis in private health insurance? We’ve had a number of reports about this in recent times. How serious, I mean, you’ve just referred to this, but how serious is this threat?
So I think it is an important challenge. After the issue of the long-term stripping out of funding for the new medicines, the next big challenge to our health system is the pressure on private health insurance.
Because if private health drops – and it could without reform – then you have a pressure on the private hospitals and their affordability and viability, and then you have a pressure on the public hospitals.
So it is central, central reform. And we’ve seen a levelling off of private health real numbers and some decline there, and a decrease in the overall percentage.
So taking the pressure off premiums. We’ve had the lowest rise in ten years as my first decision, but I think we can go lower and be better on that. That gives us the chance to really stabilise the system long-term.
And so it is deep, fundamental reform through an agreement with the private sector, the device makers, through activity as a whole package with the private health insurance sector, and that leads to the stability of our private hospitals, and that leads to reduced pressure on public hospital waiting lists.
How much is this going to cost Government? What sort of financial commitment are you looking at here from the Government?
Well actually, if we reduce the pressure on the cost of devices or medical implants, that reduces the overall outlays from Government. What they get is long-term stability, and what the private health sector gets is long-term stability. So at this point, we’re not looking at any cost to Government.
What’s the timing of this package?
We’re looking to achieve the private health insurance reform package before the end of this calendar year, so in the latter part of 2017. Real progress, as I say. The device makers have argued their case hard, but they have been very, very constructive partners to work with, and that’s a mixture of Australian firms and international firms.
Equally, the private health insurers have argued their case hard, but I think we are extremely close to genuine agreements that will reduce the pressure on both devices, but overall on the viability of private health insurance.
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
Minister, like so many other policy areas in this country, isn’t there a fundamental problem with the allocation of responsibilities between the Commonwealth and the States?
Now, we were going to have a look at a Federation White Paper. That got junked. There’s no sort of word of it coming back. But particularly in a theatre like health, we’re you’ve got State Governments with responsibility for emergency centres, for example, and the Commonwealth with responsibility for GPs through Medicare.
That is, if you like, a difficult situation in terms of where patients are supposed to go, and the incentives for State and Federal Governments in terms of the allocation of that.
Well I think that actually leads to the third wave of reform, which is for the second half of 2018 through to 2019, and that is a new hospital reform agreement with the States. And that’s where we align all of the incentives.
And the way we do that is to ensure that we’re focusing on rewards for doctors and nurses and pharmacists for better patients outcomes. Effectively, keeping people out of hospital through avoided admissions. It means if you don’t have to go into hospital because you’re healthier, that’s good for the patient, and it’s lower cost for the system, and shared rewards for the State hospital system for contributing to that.
So if you think of it as the agreements with the medicine makers, the pharmacists and the doctors, now the work on private health insurance, and then the work on hospital incentives for better outcomes within the hospitals and within the primary carers. That would be a very, very successful two-and-a-half year process.
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
Is it likely, though, to come to fruition? I mean the time frame that you’ve talked about, late 2018 early 2019. I mean, we’re starting to get ourselves well and truly into the election phase of the three year cycle. Can the Government really push through with those sort of health agreements at a time like that?
Well with eight State and Territory jurisdictions and, obviously, the Commonwealth nine jurisdictions, there are always elections at some point. And so you just keep working.
And we talked before about the Renewable Energy Target changes or the abolition of the carbon tax – they were always going to be impossible but they were achieved.
We were told we’d never be able to strike agreements with the doctors, and certainly with the medicine makers, to achieve lower, real payments by the Commonwealth in return for new drugs. That was achieved.
I think we’ll achieve the same with private health, and I am very confident that by ensuring that there are benefits to the States and benefits to our GPs and specialists by incentivising avoided hospital admissions, we’ll also have fundamental change and reform, which, at the end of the day, leads to a more sustainable health system but ultimately better health outcomes for patients.
And on top of all of this, just a sheer, relentless focus on mental health and what is a great national challenge.
I want to take you back at the end of this interview to where we began with the energy debate, because this is the great challenge facing Malcolm Turnbull over the next couple of months.
And we’ve had some independent commentators make the point that while the Government has three clear objectives here – affordability, reliability, and emissions reduction – in actual fact there is a contradiction. There’s a policy contradiction here, that is, in order to achieve one, you’re undermining the other.
How does the Government tackle this issue, and isn’t it the reality that, at the end of the day, if anything has got to surrender it will be emissions reductions?
Well look, I respectfully reject the analysis because for a very simple reason – we’re on track to achieve our targets. We’re well ahead. We’re over 200 million tonnes ahead of our target.
We started 750 million tonnes behind. We were told we’d never achieve it. In fact, we’re 200 million tonnes ahead.
So the answer is very, very clear. Now, we can and must focus on the two big things of energy security and affordability. They are the fundamental tasks and the priority of the Prime Minister, the Energy Minister, and the Cabinet as a whole. That’s where we’re focused.
The Labor Party, on the other hand, is completely focused on a phantom emissions reduction target that is the equivalent of closing down the entire conventional electricity sector, and that would decimate industry in Australia, small business, and drive up costs for families.
So there is a very clear choice for Australians – reliability and affordability on the one hand, or a massive price spike under Bill Shorten on the other.
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
One final question if I can, Greg Hunt. You’re also the Sports Minister. Who’s your tip in both the NRL and AFL grand finals?
NRL, I’m tipping and backing Storm. And, as a lifelong Richmond supporter who had the privilege of being at the game last night with my young eight-year-old son, I’m hoping and praying for a Richmond victory and tipping a five point Richmond last-minute goal for victory.
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
I think we all know that Richmond’s likely to choke in the big one, but we appreciate your time, Minister Hunt. Thanks very much for your company today.
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
That’s the Health Minister, as well as the Sports Minister, Greg Hunt.