Assistant Minister Kearney – interview on ABC Afternoon Briefing – 6 June 2023

Read the transcript of Assistant Minister Kearney's interview with Greg Jennett about the Australian National Audit Office report on the Community Health and Hospitals Program and COVID-19 and flu numbers.

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

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GREG JENNETT: Time now for our political panel and Assistant Health Minister, Ged Kearney, is in Melbourne and Shadow Health Minister, Anne Ruston, is in Adelaide, welcome to you two. With those titles and responsibilities, I promise we will get to health related questions, quite a few is my hope today but we can't go past interest rate decisions. Ged, to you, this isn't exactly going to plan, is it? No one would have thought that after so many successive moves by the RBA and then the budget only last month, we would still be ratcheting up this month. It is going to be sticking around, inflation, for significantly longer than anticipated, isn't it?

ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE GED KEARNEY: Well, as the Treasurer says it is around longer than we hoped but we certainly hope it is not around much longer than this. You know a lot of the commentary says that hopefully it has peaked and will start to come down. But he also said of course, I saw your excellent interview before Greg with the Treasurer, that all the measures that we implemented in the budget are certainly measures that are about helping people with the cost of living. Because we know that any interest rate rise certainly has an impact on household budgets and that is something that we are very concerned about, and in a month or so a lot of our cost-of-living measures will be introduced, they will start, most important for my family is the cheaper childcare which we're sure will improve productivity as well as helping households with their budget. Cheaper medicines, keeping a lid on the energy costs – there’s a lot of measures in the budget that we are sure will help as a cost-of-living that households are being affected with right now. Of course, there was the minimum wage rise announced by the Fair Work Commission, which I am sure will go a long way to helping those households that have to do exist on the minimum wage and that is a lot of people.

JENNETT: Anne, does anything about today's decision cause you to reflect on decisions that the Coalition is making about budget measures? Is there anything in it that you might been inclined to support but now aren’t because you think you might cause inflation to persist rather than be softened?

SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE ANNE RUSTON: Clearly the decision today by the RBA is a clear reflection of the RBA thinks that the Budget that was brought down by the Labor Party was inflationary. It’s concerning to hear Ged say that she hopes inflation is going to go down. She hopes that will not see any further interest rate rises. Well, hope is not a strategy. They are in government and they need to be doing something about inflation, because at the end of the day inflation is the thief in the night, it is what drags down people's standards of living, it is what drags down people's real wages, and I think the Government has to be honest with itself. Its Budget was inflationary. They should have pulled some fiscal levers, but they didn’t and they left all the heavy lifting when it comes to inflation to the Reserve Bank with their monetary policy, and clearly it is not enough.

JENNETT: Sure that’s a contention Anne Ruston, but by that same token, Phil Lowe himself described, did he not Anne, the Budget as broadly neutral, certainly not adding to inflation was his testimony last week?

RUSTON: He can say what he likes, the fact is that they lifted interest rates today, which clearly means that they believe that some more monetary policy intervention is needed in the market to try and dampen the runaway inflation that we have seen coming out of Canberra. Obviously, Australians who have got mortgages, that will see today another $100 stuck on top of their mortgage over and above the many hundred dollars that are already on top of it. We have seen energy bills go through the roof, you go to the supermarket and at the checkout you are paying so much more. It is plainly inflationary. Inflation is running away in Australia at the moment, and we don’t seem to be seeing anything that is containing it coming from this government.

JENNETT: And, Ged, last one on this before we move on to health-related spending, but as you said, there are inbuilt measures in the budget to soften the cost of living pain, but, at the same token, that could actually exacerbate the problem couldn't it, depending on that the time of its delivery? Energy is one example, isn’t it Ged?

KEARNEY: I am much more inclined to trust the Governor of the RBA's commentary on inflation, all due respects Anne, than yours. And when the Governor of the RBA says our budgetary measures are actually helping with inflation, one hates to wonder what would happen at the previous government were in, because they voted against just about every single non-inflationary cost-of-living measure that we put into the Budget. Lord knows what would happen if Anne and her colleagues were running the country right now. I am absolutely confident that the RBA Governor knows what he is talking about when he says that our budgetary measures are actually helping with inflation. So we’re very confident that cost-of-living measures coming in very soon, it will be a very welcome relief to households and that it is the sensible way to go.

JENNETT: Well, we’ll measure that off in monthly increments from here. Why don't we move to the National Audit Office and, Ged, I'll start with you. They’ve shone a light on the $2 billion Community Health and Hospitals Program. Now this was put on the table by the Morrison government ahead of what I might describe as its surprising re-election in 2019. It’s highly critical of some of the rules and procedures here, Ged Kearney, but not a whole lot of money went out the door. It’s somewhat academic in that sense isn't it?

KEARNEY: You can look at it that way, I guess, but the Australian people are certainly used to associating the Morrison government with waste and rorts and things like colour-coded spreadsheets. But this report really takes the cake, Greg. It just goes to show that the recklessness of the Morrison government, it talks about them breaking rules, breaking laws, not even caring about value for taxpayers money. The Health Department found out about some of these through press releases, and actually when they were announced by the media, so not even the department was given the ability to have an oversight of these measures. The fact that a lot of the money was not spent was just – I think we are lucky, I don't think that in any way exonerates the nature of what has occurred here. This is a really damning report and it just goes to show and really confirm in everybody’s mind just how wasteful and ill-managed the previous government was when it came to things like this – really building their own slush funds for their own means.

JENNETT: Well Anne Ruston, it falls to you in your current role to defend if you choose to some of those processes. But it was typical, wasn't it, of the attitude taken in the run up to 2019, when there was an expectation you could throw anything around in campaign mode because there wasn’t a high level of anticipation that the Government would be returned. Does it have some context to consider here electorally?

RUSTON: The first thing I would say is I noted that Ged made comment about being made money about the money being wasteful. I would like to ask you and your listeners whether you think spending $100 million on the Sydney Comprehensive Children's Cancer Centre is wasteful? Spending $70 million on the Peter McCallum Cancer Immunotherapy Centre in Melbourne is wasteful? Investing in mental health programs, investing in drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs across the country. I would contest that there were very many programs that were funded by this particular initiative that have provided an enormous help on the ground for people who are struggling, and have provided amazing results for people who are suffering from cancer. Just yesterday I was at the Murdoch Institute in Melbourne seeing the amazing work they do. These are the kinds of outcomes you get when you invest in comprehensive medical research hubs which is what we did.

JENNETT: Sure, but means and justifying ends – are they justified, Anne Ruston, by short-cutting procedure, which seems to be what the ANAO is saying, not what I’m saying, but what the ANAO found?

RUSTON: We'll look at the project and judgement on the merit of the project, but of course, welcome any ongoing improvements, and we certainly welcome the fact that the department has acknowledged there could be improvements in processes, and that is absolutely great, and we should all be striving for continuous improvement around transparency and processes. But I would absolutely dispute the fact that these programs are wasteful. I think they are fantastic programs. I think that the outcomes they deliver for so many Australians is just absolutely immeasurable. I would say that, great, we need to put in the best possible processes and we absolutely acknowledge that. But look at the programs themselves and judge them on the merit of the outcome.

KEARNEY: Which is exactly what the ANAO did, Greg. The ANAO, again, Anne, she is putting a judgement above that of the ANAO who has released this really damning report, Greg. You can’t go past it. It is full of words that, and I was quoting them, I was not making those words up when it said that it was 'ethically unsound'. They use words like laws and rules blatantly broken. I don’t think there is any justification or any way you can defend that. And we know now that money was given, for example, to an alcohol and drug facility that has since been closed down under allegations of sexual abuse. The usual methods of giving the department time to check and it to make sure the money was going to the right places just did not happen, and you cannot defend that in any way at all.

RUSTON: Can I just say just one thing to follow on from that. The thing we also have to remember is the current government is using this exact program to deliver programs out to the community. Only yesterday the member for Gilmore, weirdly enough, made quite a large announcement under these programs. So I’d just be very careful about making accusations about this when you are still using the exact same program to deliver grants, really important health grants on the ground to communities...

KEARNEY: Oh but we’re using the program with the right checks, Anne.

JENNETT: I imagine there is a defence there Ged would make around processes that might be updated. But let's not dwell on it, because I did want to move on to COVID and the coupling of COVID and flu season. I don’t know about both of your orbits, but certainly around me, it seems like I discover new people each and every day who are going down with COVID for the first, second or third time. Why? So, Ged Kearney, is this a failure to take up boosters in some cases? Should this be more actively encouraged by your government?

KEARNEY: Well, I know that Anne always loves to use different statistics around this, but the fact is that the last waves of Omicron are much more infectious, so the numbers are greater. We do know that rates, for example, of people dying with COVID are actually much lower, and this is due of course to the fact that we have vaccines and that people have been getting their vaccines.

There is always a lot more work to do to make sure that the uptake of vaccines is taken up, and I'll take the opportunity on your program to encourage everybody to get their booster if they haven’t had it in the last six months, because that really is our best defence. And yes Omicron is still very much amongst us, and it’s still important to stay home if you're unwell, to take all the measures you need to to make sure you don’t pass it on, like you would with any infectious disease. If you do have the flu or anything like that, the same measure applies. But certainly with Omicron that we know is very infectious.

JENNETT: Certainly, we know Australia has moved on so far and so quickly, Anne Ruston, but do you look to any sort of public policy response in light of numbers, well, let’s face it, numbers we can barely understand these days, because so few are publicly reported. Is there a policy response required?

RUSTON: I think we learned a lot during COVID around best practice when it comes to making sure that we protect not only ourselves and our families, but the wider community from what is a particularly infectious disease. And we’re seeing COVID, we're seeing flu, we’re seeing RSV. But the message to Australians, particularly those that are vulnerable – make sure you put in place those protections that we know work, whether it be making sure that you're contacting people, making sure you're using hand sanitiser, use a mask if you feel vulnerable, make sure you’ve got your protections up to speed. We learnt a lot, but we shouldn’t slack off just because we’re not recording every case of COVID going forward or every case of flu or RSV. I think there is still an imperative for us to learn the lessons and keep them in place, because it not just keeps ourselves safe but others as well.

JENNETT: That seems reasonable just because you had visibility of these things, are they reliable estimates that are crunched by advisers on what the actual numbers could be at large at present as opposed to the official reported ones?

KEARNEY: That is a good question for the Minister for Health but I will say that we do know that people are reporting a lot less, so it’s hard to garner the exact amount of knowledge about who has it and the case numbers. But again I would reiterate what Anne said – we really want everyone to take care out there, not only for themselves but for the whole community.

JENNETT: Yeah there is a fair bit of it around, I can attest to that, around me and even around Afternoon Briefing. Thank you for focusing a little bit on health and health-related material. Always good when it is relevant to your portfolios. Ged Kearney, Anne Ruston, great to have both of you back on the program, thanks again for joining us.

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