Assistant Minister for Indigenous Australians, media conference - 10 May 2024

Read the transcript of Assistant Minister McCarthy's media conference in Darwin on New medical school at Charles Darwin University and the Federal Government’s gas plan.

Senator the Hon Malarndirri McCarthy
Assistant Minister for Indigenous Health

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DOMINIC UPTON: I just wanted to say that this comes on the back of a really long period of work and development here at the faculty. We've had nursing midwifery for a number of years. We've had allied health growing year in, year out for the past five to eight years, and most recently with physiotherapy. And hopefully, this new development will lead on to more and more successes.

This is based on a period of teamwork – teamwork with our local community; teamwork with people from here, from CDU, who you'll hear from in a moment; teamwork with the local Aboriginal health sector whose commitments and involvement and advocacy we can't underestimate; teamwork with our local representatives and senators and I'll call upon them in a moment. I will have a particular call out to Mr Gosling, Luke, who's been a really great stalwart and supporter of us, as has everybody behind us. And also, the work that we do with NTG with Joel and colleagues, and with NT Health with Marco and colleagues. So it's really a matter of teamwork bringing success as we are today.

So, on those brief notes, I just wanted to call upon the Federal Assistant Minister for Indigenous Health, Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, to speak first. It’s over to you.

MALARNDIRRI MCCARTHY, ASSISTANT MINISTER: Thanks, Dom. Thank you very much, everyone, and great to see you all here. And wonderful to be here with everyone who's attended today, in particular, those who've worked long and hard for a number of years to see this announcement come forward.

On behalf of Federal Health Minister Mark Butler and, of course, the Prime Minister, we are enormously proud at the Commonwealth level to now announce that Charles Darwin University will be invited to open a medical school here with 40 placements for medical trainees in terms of doctors at a cost of $24.6 million. This is on top of the commitment of the Commonwealth Government to the Northern Territory, with the $55 million that we've given to the National Critical Care Trauma Response Centre, knowing the importance that Darwin, in particular, is placed in terms of care. We can go back as far as 1999 with the evacuation of refugees from East Timor after the vote for independence and we saw 2000 East Timorese camping here, and it was the people of the Northern Territory and the people behind me who assisted in the care and treatment of those evacuees. And then, again, with the Bali bombing, we saw again in 2002 how Darwin, Northern Territory, stepped up and cared for those internationally to our north, who were so close to us, much closer than New South Wales and Victoria, that we stood very strong. A small jurisdiction, but we did it. And we proved again through COVID, where we took in the third planeload from Wuhan to care for those and to protect them. We've shown that we've stepped well above and punched well above our weight, and I’m enormously proud of the fact that, from 2026, we will be able to see these doctors graduate from this university in terms of a medical school. And I congratulate everyone, in particular, my colleague, Luke Gosling, for his efforts here and the Northern Territory Government for their support behind seeing this happened. So congratulations, CDU.

LUKE GOSLING, MEMBER FOR SOLOMON: Thanks, Malarndirri, and thanks to Charles Darwin University for putting this morning on. Today is a great day where the Federal Government has been able to announce funding for 40 medical places. What this is about is the Northern Territory's university, Charles Darwin University, having a medical school of its own. Doctors from here, for here. That's what this CDU medical school is all about. We know that if we get young Territorians in through this facility, there's a better chance that they'll stay here because this is where they're from and they want to provide healthcare to their own community. So, it's a wonderful announcement. Not only is the funding to cover those 40 medical places, but it's also for the facilities that we’ll need. We've gone through a process where we've allocated some funding to the university to go through their accreditation process, and when that's clear – and I'm confident they're going to pass with flying colours –then they'll be right to start a medical program here at CDU. It's very exciting. And I want to thank everyone who's done all that hard work, all the advocacy, in particular Di Stephens. Di Stephens is the dean of this school of medicine. She's an absolute treasure of the Northern Territory. Throughout her career, she has served Territorians diligently. And this is the next step, our own medical school, and it's something that the university and, in particular, Di can be very proud of.

UPTON: I think just before I allow Di to talk, just to say that she has been a real gem and a real pusher and driver. And with the- I keep saying about the teamwork that we all worked together on this, Di sort of led that team with people in the room, but also with colleagues from Menzies. So it's really about trying to develop the educational expertise that we have in the faculty with the research expertise that Menzies have and really done that work. And Di has done a brilliant job about putting everything together and pushing it forward.

STEPHENS: So this is a very exciting day for the Northern Territory, and it makes me very proud to be a Territorian. I've been here since 1998 and worked with some amazing people in both the medical profession, but across the health professions, across the health services and in the community. And this medical school is about us setting ourselves up for the future. The future of the Northern Territory is very bright, and we deserve a first-class health system, and we can provide that by growing our own – growing our own doctors, growing our own health professionals across the Northern Territory, and having opportunities for our children to study here in the Northern Territory and work here in the Northern Territory. I have no doubt we will fill this school with local students with passion for the NT, and they will be excellent doctors in high demand, not only in Australia but all over the world, because that's the calibre of the teachers that will be teaching them. All of my colleagues at Menzies School of Health Research, who are world leaders in their areas of research, the amount of work that we do in terms of trying to close the gap and improve our health outcomes for First Nations people, all of that will go into teaching our students to be NT doctors, the best doctors in Australia. Thank you.

UPTON: I'd like to call upon now Professor Reuben Bolt, who's our acting Vice-Chancellor while Professor Bowman's away.

REUBEN BOLT: Thank you, Dominic. I'd like to begin by acknowledging country, we’re on the lands of the Larrakia people. So I acknowledge Larrakia elders, past, present and emerging and, of course, I acknowledge that I wake up every day feeling privileged to live and work on Larrakia country. I'd also like to acknowledge our distinguished guests, our ministers, our senators, our senior public servants, obviously, our CDU staff, and our CDU students, future students.

And also, I'd like to say what a great day it is today. I've been in the role for three hours, as the acting Vice-Chancellor, and already, I'm here at this event to launch one of the most significant media events in the history of Charles Darwin University. So I'm very pleased to be here. Professor Bowman couldn't be here. He had some leave that he'd already taken. So he's actually on holiday. He's taking a rest. I think he's on a plane somewhere over the Pacific somewhere. He's on his way to Canada. And so I know he would have loved to have been here. I'm very sure that Professor Bowman is thinking of us today.

The other thing I'd like to say is I'd like to acknowledge Professor Bowman's leadership. From the day he got here in 2021, soon after, he started talking about a medical school. And every time he spoke about it, he always spoke about the medical school when it happens. Not if it happens, but when it happens. And today, that has come to fruition. So I just want to acknowledge that.

We know the issues here in the Territory. We know the issues for Indigenous people all across this country. We know the low statistics around the morbidity and the mortality rates. We know the issues around unemployment, we know the issues around high incarceration rates. Whether there’s high levels of cardiovascular disease or diabetes or whatever it is, we know Indigenous people aren’t doing too well. So I think this is a real game changer for the Northern Territory. For us to be able to develop a program that’s going to be based on the needs of the Territory, a curriculum that will work for the Territory, I think is a huge step forward. And we’re very thankful for our supporters, we’re very thankful for their- the Government for coming to the party on this. We know that it will take a while to develop this pipeline, but we know that we’re on a trajectory now where we can at least say we’re going to make a difference, because that’s what we do at Charles Darwin University. Our vision is to be the most connected university, by being courageous and making a difference in the Northern Territory, Australia and beyond. Thank you.

UPTON: Okay, so, thank you. I think that sort of wraps up the end of the formal speeches. Obviously, there are people that you can talk to and have discussions with. I think what I'd say, just to close, is the fact that this is an announcement about the new medical school, which is have been really supported well by the Federal Government, as everybody has said. This is a teaser that I think there's more to come. I think NT Health have indicated that they're going to be really, really supportive about developing that even further and even earlier and quicker and sooner. So hopefully we can all work together and we'll see each other soon with that news. Thank you.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

JOURNALIST: Do you mind if we speak to the students?

UPTON: Oh, no, no, no.

JOURNALIST: Yeah. Cool. Sweet. Do you just want to come up close to the microphone, and if you just direct all your answers down in the middle please.

JOURNALIST: We'll probably get questions from you guys as well, if that's okay. Can we just grab your first and last name and how- what year you're in your studies?

THEVINI ABEYWARDANA: Sure. My name is Thevini Abeywardana, and I'm doing second year in biomedical science in Charles Darwin University. 

JOURNALIST: Perfect Thank you. Do you just want to give us a rundown of why you chose to study medicine out here in the Territory?

ABEYWARDANA: Yeah. So the reason why I want to study medicine is mainly because of my family. Growing up and being able to- I've been going to the hospital every now and then after school. And so every- ever since I was really little, I've been, like, introduced to the medical field really early on. And the reason why I want to study here is because I'm close with my family, and being able to learn medicine here and then give back to my community. 

JOURNALIST: Yeah, that's great. And so you would like to stay in the Territory once you've finished your studies?

ABEYWARDANA: Yes, of course. Yeah, I do.

JOURNALIST: Why do you want to continue- what makes it so important to be able to continue to work in the Territory after you finished your studies? 

ABEYWARDANA: The reason why I want to work in the Territory is because I'll be able to learn medicine, and then go to regional and remote communities and help out the communities there. As well- and going on placements there as well, and all while being close to my family as well. 

JOURNALIST: How excited are you that you'll be able to study medicine here in the Northern Territory, rather than having to fly interstate to study?

ABEYWARDANA: I'm very excited being able to stay here, and it gives a lot of students the opportunity to stay close to family and friends, and being in an environment that they already know and are comfortable in. 

JOURNALIST: Do you speak to many people your age and around the university who have ambitions to do medicine and to study here in the Territory?

ABEYWARDANA: Yes, I have, and they told me every day how much they miss staying here, and how often they have to come back and forth as well, going back to Darwin and going back to the University. And yes, I think it's an amazing opportunity for students to be able to study medicine in their hometown. Awesome. 

JOURNALIST: Thank you. 

JOURNALIST: Obviously, medicine is such a broad field. Is there anything you want to be? Like, what do you want to specialise in at this stage? Do you have any idea?

ABEYWARDANA: I don't have a specific speciality that I want to do yet, but I do- I am interested in sexual health and dermatology as well. They're very different, but very excited to dig a bit deeper into those specialities. 

JOURNALIST: Thank you. That was great. 

ABEYWARDANA: Thank you. 

JOURNALIST: Just on the specifics, Di, will there be preference given to kids from the Territory when it comes to getting placements?

STEPHENS: So, the cohort that we want at the CDU Medical Program is all about what our purpose is, and that's about training locals locally. And so our sub quotas are going to be, first priority, Northern Territory First Nation students. Second priority will be Northern Territory residents. And then if there are any places left, we'll take First Nations people from the rest of the country, because we are going to be the medical school of choice for studying medicine for First Nations people. We are going to make sure that we are the best. And then if there are any places left after we've filled all those quotas, um, we will take remote and rural students from the rest of Australia. Because what we're looking for is students that want to be in remote and regional Australia, that want to learn about medicine and its challenges in the areas that we live and work, and then will want to stay. And so it's not about medical tourism from the big city. It's about our local people who want to live and work in regional Australia, being able to study here and stay here. 

JOURNALIST: Oh, okay. How important is it that the students that come here to this medical school do tackle some of those challenges that we heard about a couple of minutes ago, that are such huge issues here in the Northern Territory in particular. 

STEPHENS: So it's critically important that we train our medical students to be able to be comfortable, skilled and knowledgeable about the diseases that impact on the Northern Territory community. And that is all about remote and regional Australia, remote and regional NT, and our First Nations communities and their health and well-being. So whilst it's 30 per cent of our population of First Nations people, our health system is- they are overrepresented because of the health outcomes that are poorer than the rest of Australia. And so it's really important that our students know how to be culturally competent, how to manage First Nations people really well, how to communicate, understanding culture so that they can, um, help to improve that- those outcomes. And wouldn't it be fantastic if we had the majority of our students, First Nation students, because they'll be able to make an even bigger difference by going back out into the community. So that's where we're aiming for. We're aiming to improve health outcomes in the Territory.

JOURNALIST: Obviously- so there's the 24 million that's being given to establish. And then it also says that you guys will be invited to apply for ongoing allocation of 40 places a year. Is there a concern that that funding won't continue?

STEPHENS: No, not at all. So that's a process that we will go through. That is a non-competitive grant process where we'll be offered 40 Commonwealth places, given that we've met all the criteria in terms of getting our accreditation, which we are absolutely confident we will get in October this year. And then those places will be ongoing for the future. And that's only the start. 

JOURNALIST: How much would you like to expand it to? 

STEPHENS: So, we're looking at, um, a need in the Northern Territory of around 120 students over the next five years, and so we're already well behind the eight ball. So we will aim for our program to grow, to meet the needs of the Northern Territory. And that's what it's about. And that's what we'll be aiming to do: To fill that medical pipeline workforce deficit that we already have that we so desperately need to fill. And that's why we're talking with our partners in the Northern Territory Government to see if maybe we can start before 2026, because we'll be ready to go in 2025. And that's our aspiration at this point in time. 

JOURNALIST: So you're talking maybe the start of next year?

STEPHENS: Maybe. We have to have those conversations and see what the Northern Territory Government can do.

JOURNALIST: What do you need? What would you need to get that up and running?

STEPHENS: The funding for that first cohort of students to go through five years of the program. 

JOURNALIST: What would that be, do you think? 

STEPHENS: Probably around $6 to $7 million over five years. 

JOURNALIST: What sort of staffing would you need as well?

STEPHENS: So, we have a staffing plan that we're already starting to populate. And so the staffing will work out to, probably, around 20 to 30 staff members, a mixture of academic staff and professional staff, in order to run the program over the five years.

JOURNALIST: What about students going through Royal Darwin Hospital or other NT Health institutions? Is that a core part of this and can that be brought up earlier as well?

MCCARTHY: Right. Absolutely. So, there’s students in their third, fourth and fifth years of the program. So, the first two years of the program they’re on campus and learn all the skills and knowledge and science basis of medicine. And then they do- it is like an apprenticeship model and medical students go into the clinical workplace and learn their craft from the experts in the field. And so the students will be placed at clinical locations across the Northern Territory, so they'll be in the Northern Territory hospitals, they'll be in the Northern Territory Government primary care clinics, they'll be in the Aboriginal Controlled sector, and they'll be in general practice. And so they will learn the breadth of medicine across the Northern Territory. 

And they will not just stay in Darwin. They will go out into remote and regional NT. And we're working- we already have partnerships in place to facilitate that and we're working through how that might work and how we can support an overworked workforce to help train the next generation. Because that's the only way we're going to get out of this deficit, is to train the next lot. 

JOURNALIST: How many doctors could the NT do with right now? Do you know - are you aware of what the shortage is? 

MCCARTHY: I don't know the quantum but what I can say is that we are desperate for medical workforce across the board. So, it's in the hospitals, it's in the Aboriginal Controlled community sector and it's in general practice. And any person in the community can tell you how hard it is to get in to see a doctor and what the waiting lists are. And we're seeing, you know, our hospital system is under stress. 

And so, there is a medical workforce deficit across the country and it is amplified and much worse in the Northern Territory. So, we're unable to get- those doctors that would normally have come to the Northern Territory are taking up jobs in their own states. And so that's part of the reason why we have to train our own and be self-sufficient so that we can continue to grow here in the NT. 


JOURNALIST: Can I just ask Joel a quick one? I'm not sure if the others are interested but there is a budget next week.

JOEL BOWDEN: About medicine? I'm here on behalf of Selena Uibo, the Health Minister, yes. 

Currently, and I'm here on behalf of Eva Lawler and Selena Uibo, I think this is a wonderful announcement, nearly $25 million from the Federal Government. Our relationship with the Feds gets stronger and I look forward to next week's budget when we hear Anthony Albanese's team and Jim Chalmers hand down a huge budget that will benefit the Territory. This budget that the Treasurer and Chief Minister will hand down will have lots for the Northern Territory. 

That one answer your question, Cameron? Because I'm not aware of any contingencies in there for this health contingency for the doctors. But this is a game changer You know, too often Territorians have gone away to study or work or play - some of us went away and played. But this is an opportunity for Territorians to stay here. My next door neighbour is studying medicine in the Northern Territory. I hope your next door neighbour is studying medicine and your next door neighbour and your next door neighbour. Everyone is here and can stay here in the Territory and contribute to the community. 

We know we have a health deficit; we've got an infrastructure deficit. Look around, we're trying to address it and this is another step forward for the Northern Territory. 

JOURNALIST: Given how big the deficit is, shouldn't there be more money in the budget than next week to start this program early? 

BOWDEN: We are always looking for more money and, as you know, the Federal Government funds, predominantly, the Northern Territory. And I've just had a phone call from Catherine King yesterday alerting me to some really good funding that's going to be announced next Tuesday. We work on an 80/20 ratio so the Government of- Commonwealth Government puts in 80 per cent of the road funding and we put in 20 per cent. We're working really closely with the government. Thank you, Malarndirri. Thank you, Luke. Thank you, Jim Chalmers and Anthony Albanese. This is a great day. 

JOURNALIST: It seems like $6 or $7 million doesn't seem like a huge amount of money in the scheme of things. Given you've been here and you've seen what's going on, will you go back and raise this with the Treasurer and the Chief Minister?

BOWDEN: Absolutely I will. Absolutely. And I'd like to engage with Di more heavily in this space. As I said, I'm here on behalf of Selena Uibo, the Health Minister. So, I will give Selena a call when we leave here. In fact, Anne's over there scribbling down notes right now saying, Joel, ring Selena. So, from here, I'll be on the phone because I'm a great advocate for the Territory, Matt - you know that. 

JOURNALIST: Minister McCarthy, I might ask, you know, is there a possibility of $7 million in next week's Federal budget.

MCCARTHY: I think I would just like to say, and last question, but I'd certainly like to say that I'm looking forward to our budget.

BOWDEN: Hear, hear.

MCCARTHY: …coming down on Tuesday. And I acknowledge, you know, what Di has said as well around the workspace in terms of having staff across, not only the Northern Territory but right across the country. We've rolled out urgent care clinics, 58 across the country. I'm in the process of rolling out 500 traineeship positions in the First Nation space. We have over 220 already of the 500. And certainly we're looking at other factors like the possibility of what we can do in the tax base to encourage people to come through. But this area with the medical school here in Darwin is also about the pipeline going forward. So, keep an eye on the budget next week. 

JOURNALIST: There's been some criticism of the Federal Government's gas plan by members of Labour's own backbench. Do you share those concerns? 

MCCARTHY: There have certainly been questions around the future of gas. Certainly in the Parliament I certainly know that, as we all do, there was a Senate inquiry here. I was part of a Senate inquiry into the Beetaloo in Opposition and know that the Senate inquiry that occurred recently is still ongoing and that has to have a report. We've made it clear, as a government, that we are wanting to move towards renewables and my focus is on renewables. So, I do believe we have that opportunity with SunCable and others to really pursue that and I will certainly be doing that over the next number of years that- when we get into, hopefully, government again.

JOURNALIST: Your colleague, Luke Gosling, has said this morning he supported the gas. Linda Burney was reluctant to make that confirmation. Just in a word, yes or no? Do you support gas? 

MCCARTHY: Look, we have to have gas. You know, it's quite simple. We don't have the case in terms of any other form of energy at the moment. We're seeing the phasing out in terms of coal. We know we have to have gas and electricity and we'd have an outcry if we didn't have that, so clearly that's a sensible thing to do. But we also have to look to the future.

I mean, you've seen the flooding across the Northern Territory. We know it's getting hotter here, you don't need to be working for the Bureau of Met to realise that it is getting terribly hot in the North. And we have to be responsible, I think, as legislators as to what we're doing and to ensure that there is accountability and transparency in the way people are working in our industries going forward.

JOURNALIST: But do you share the desire?

MCCARTHY: Yeah, well, I've said that. I’ve said that we currently need gas, clearly. I mean, but we are moving towards renewables and that is towards 2030. We’re in 2024, we still have a number of years to get there and I will be determined to make sure we do.

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