Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care, speech - 22 April 2024

Read Assistant Minister Kearney's speech at the World Health Summit Regional Forum Opening Ceremony.

The Hon Ged Kearney MP
Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care

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Thank you Jill, for that warm welcome. It is such a pleasure seeing you on this stage. I’d like to credit your work, in your former life as Health Minister in Victoria, for all the frontiers you have pushed to improve the health of so many people.

And thank you Dr Nicholson, and Djirri Djirri  for the beautiful welcome to this country, and for setting the scene about how First Nations knowledge and cultures must inform this global meeting.

I also pay my respects to your people, the traditional custodians of this land, and to your elders past, present and emerging. I extend that respect to all First Nations people taking part in this event.

I also acknowledge the many distinguished leaders in health taking part in this opening ceremony, and this important regional meeting. Including Monash University Vice-Chancellor Sharon Pickering; President of the World Health Summit, Axel Pries; and by video – our Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong. I would also like to acknowledge WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus; Dr Saia Piukala, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific Region; Ministers and senior representatives of Pacific Island nations and our region. Special mention must also go to Christina Mitchell and Sophia Zounges, both of Monash, who are the 2024 International Co-Presidents of the World Health Summit. You’ve done an outstanding job in bringing this meeting to Melbourne - the first World Health Summit regional meeting to be held in this country.

While it’s an incredibly long list of acknowledgements to open my speech, it shows that both people and collaboration is what drives our health systems, our respective nations, and our communities.

Regional Health
There are many challenges across our region that unite our experiences, while each nation also has their own bespoke set of barriers. But the flip side of the challenges, is the set of opportunities that faces each nation too.

From climate change to women’s health. From growing a workforce to fit the needs of a nation, to ballooning costs and economic pressures. The Summit brings together experts and leaders from all sectors of global health to consider the options in science, innovation and policy to address our region’s most critical health challenges. And to collaborate to seize the opportunities as well. I’m conscious that we in Australia have a lot that we can learn as well from the nations and leadership around this room today as well.

When running a health system, there are always competing demands. Duplication and inefficiencies. Difficulty obtaining the right health workforce. Areas where there a public appetite for change, and others where there is not. And in every nation, health inequities as the special needs of some population groups aren’t met. And governments don’t have bottomless pockets, and health care is increasingly expensive.

Australian Policy
All of these challenges are felt by the Australian Government and we are working hard to address them. Access to primary health remains a stubborn issue in Australia and we are currently developing and implementing medium to long term reforms to strengthen this part of our system.

Australia’s Medicare system – founded by a Labor legend, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, was introduced in its first form, in 1975. Just shy of 50 years ago it was forged with the ideals of universal and free healthcare. And these ideals still motivate me, and our Government.

Medicare has cared for generations of people and functioned as a safety net for vulnerable Australians. We know our Medicare system needs reform to strengthen and keep it fit for purpose. We know we need to shape it, in line with a greater focus on preventive health. Good health systems prevent healthcare issues up stream, to save people heartache and keep them healthy and safe, while taking pressure off hospitals and reducing very expensive care.

One of Australia’s great health success stories is cervical cancer. We are on track to be the first country in the world to eliminate cervical cancer, due to our screening and prevention programs. We know cervical cancer is preventable and treatable, but globally it remains one of the most common causes of cancer-related death in women. And through an important partnership across the Pacific region, for which the Australian Government has contributed $12.5 million, Australia is supporting health systems across the region, with co-designed programs that fit the needs of participating nations.  

First Nations Health
We are also deeply committed to ending the greatest inequality in health in our nation, by providing better outcomes for First Nations people. Most targets of the National Closing the Gap Agreement continue to be elusive. We recognise how decades – and centuries – of racist policies have compounded disadvantage, reduced life expectancy, and thrown additional diseases at the feet of First Nations people. It’s not good enough.

As a Government, we are pursuing policies and programs which are led by First Nations organisations and people, to address key factors including heart and kidney disease, diabetes and low birth weight babies.

Climate Change
Another challenge which faces us all is, of course, climate change. Climate change and health are closely entwined. We have climate change jeopardising the health of so many people in a multitude of new and unfolding ways. And also, globally, our health systems are estimated to contribute around 5 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions.

The Australian Government recognises these issues.  We have seen tropical diseases shift further south, as heat patterns change. We have seen food insecurity increase as agriculture changes. And we have seen an increase in the number and fury of bushfires in Australia, which has led to more smoke and more respiratory issues.

Our National Health and Climate Strategy, which I was proud to release late last year in Dubai at COP, identifies action for the next five years as well as the coming decades.It also identifies how we can support our regional neighbours as they respond to climate change.

I’m pleased to inform you that we expect to make an announcement tomorrow regarding an international collaboration that will help to decarbonise our global health systems. We need to work together to embed environmental practices in supply chains.

Watch this space!

As I wrap up, I would like to, once again, emphasise the importance of collaboration at meetings such as this. The partnerships we build across nations – where everyone’s perspective, expertise and cultures are heard and respected – are the basis for regional change and collective improvement. These relationships are the bedrock of global reform and mutual empowerment.

I am a nurse and a unionist. And in the context of this World Health Organisation meeting, I see wisdom in the values of solidity, collectively and unity guiding these discussions and the decisions that come out of it.

By standing together, working together and sharing knowledge, we build a better future, a better community, and a better health system that serves those who need it most.
I’m delighted that Australia is hosting this meeting to focus on regional issues and regional solutions.

Welcome and thank you.

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