Minister for Health and Aged Care and Assistant Minister for Indigenous Health – press conference in Alice Springs – 20 September 2023

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's and Senator McCarthy's press conference in Alice Springs about the opening of two Medicare Urgent Care Clinics in the Northern Territory, investment in central Australia, and Voice to Parliament.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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MEMBER FOR LINGIARI, MARION SCRYMGOUR: Thank you for coming. It's fantastic to be here with the Federal Health Minister Mark Butler and Assistant Minister for Indigenous Health Senator Malarndirri McCarthy. The Medicare Urgent Care Clinic builds on what we've committed to for Central Australia. It's been great not just for our remote clinics, but also to deliver on the Urgent Care Clinic here in Alice Springs. We're standing in front of the facility, we've talked to some of the staff. Obviously, there are challenges, but we're working with Congress and the many providers to make sure that we can overcome a lot of those challenges. But without further ado, I'll hand over to the Health Minister and he can make the fantastic announcement that we've been waiting for. Thank you. 

MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: Thanks, Marion. It's terrific to be here with Marion and Malarndirri. I really want to thank Congress for hosting us and all of the terrific discussions we have, on an ongoing basis, about the challenges and opportunities of delivering quality healthcare services in Central Australia.  

We went to the last election recognising what we've been told right across this country, which was that it's never been harder to see a doctor than it is right now and never more expensive. That really is a product of 10 years of cuts and neglect to our cherished Medicare system. We had a comprehensive set of policies designed to deal with those challenges, because we know that primary care and general practice are the backbone of our healthcare system and if that starts failing, what ends up happening is that people end up having to go to an emergency department of their hospital, because that's the only option they have to receive healthcare.  

In the May Budget, we tripled the bulk billing incentive - the centrepiece of our $6.1 billion strengthening Medicare package – because for Labor, bulk billing is the beating heart of Medicare. That takes effect over the next several weeks and will be a significant lift in income for practices that choose to bulk bill pensioners, kids and concession card holders. I know that will be a significant benefit to Congress here in Central Australia. We also delivered the biggest indexation boost to Medicare since Paul Keating was Prime Minister more than 30 years ago. Again, as I say, after several years of a freeze to the Medicare rebate that Peter Dutton started.  

A centrepiece of our policy was to deliver Medicare Urgent Care Clinics. I'm delighted to say that today we announce the two Urgent Care Clinics that were promised in the Northern Territory. One, the Palmerston Urgent Care Clinics up south of Darwin, in the Palmerston GP super clinic. Here in Alice, Congress will be delivering the Urgent Care Clinics here at the Northside Clinic. Medicare Urgent Care Clinics are designed essentially to allow people to find the care they need, out in the community, when they need urgent care that can't wait for seven or eight days to get into your usual GP, but doesn't need a fully equipped hospital emergency department.

We know that about half of all presentations to emergency departments right across Australia, including here in Alice are what the clinicians described as non-urgent or semi-urgent presentations. Yes, you need to see someone quickly, but you don't need a fully equipped emergency department that is built for those once-in-a-lifetime, life threatening emergencies. Think about your kid falling off the skateboard and busting their arm, they don't need to go to a fully equipped hospital. They can be adequately cared for out in the community in a clinic like the one we're announcing here at Northside. Importantly, can I say Urgent Care Clinics will be open seven days a week, there'll be available for walk-in patients, you don't need to be registered on their books, they'll be required to take you as a walk-in patient, if you require urgent care. Really importantly, they will be fully bulk billed, they will be completely free of charge. We know from the clinics that are already operating, not only do they deliver quick care for people out in the community when and where they need it. They're already taking much needed pressure off our hospital emergency department. Thank you to Congress for putting in an application to deliver the Medicare Urgent Care Clinic here in Alice Springs. I'm confident it's going to make a real difference to the provision of health care here in Central Australia. But it's also going to take much needed pressure off the hospital emergency department here in Alice. Happy to take questions. 

JOURNALIST: Just on the Urgent Care Clinic. Staffing is and has been for a long time a major issue in Central Australia in finding enough healthcare workers to man these facilities. It sounds like a challenge. Can you explain you know what starting measures are currently in place and what will be in place, when it opens up? 

BUTLER: We've found with Urgent Care Clinics around the country – and let's be clear there are workforce challenges right through Australia and, indeed, right through the world right now after three or four years of a once in a century pandemic – obviously, they're more acute out in regional Australia and even more acute here in the Northern Territory. What we have found elsewhere is that people want to work at these Urgent Care Clinics. They are seen as good places to work with interesting, exciting work. So generally, we've found there's not a particular challenge, having people wanting to work at a clinic like this. But we recognise there is overall in the NT, a very substantial workforce challenge that we're confronting. We've been talking to Congress about that. I'm going to talk to them further about it today. Malarndirri and Ged Kearney, the Assistant Minister for Health, were part of a Northern Territory workforce summit a few weeks ago. I've been briefed on that summit. We've got our department working on a plan to respond to that. That's not going to be easy, I want to be clear, but we are absolutely committed as a government to work issue by issue with Congress with AMSANT, with the Northern Territory government and other health care providers here in the Territory, to make sure that we have the workforce we need to provide the services that we’re committed to make available for Territorians. 

JOURNALIST: Earlier this year, your government promised $250 million for Central Australia to address some of those social issues that we're facing. Only $155 million has been allocated. Can you explain what's happened to the rest of that money? And why after 9 to 10 months are we still waiting for that money to be distributed? 

ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR INDIGENOUS HEALTH, SENATOR MALARNDIRRI MCCARTHY: So, $250 million was put into the Budget papers. Our Government immediately rolled out $155 million. Nearly all of the contracts have been signed with those service providers to look at some of the issues, organisations that needed to have CPI increases so they could deal with that. There was always a commitment, and the federal government has always been quite open about this, that the $90 million was put into a fund in which the Aboriginal leadership group would work with the Minister for Indigenous Affairs to look at where that spending of the $90 million would go. So, all up $250 million has been committed, $155 million of that has been rolled out to those communities, and $90 million will certainly be forthcoming over the next 12 months. 

JOURNALIST: Have any of the decisions been made as to where some of the $90 million will be allocated, yet? 

MCCARTHY: Minister Linda Burney has been very clear that she has wanted to work with the Aboriginal leadership group, and to allow the Aboriginal leadership group to have some authority for input into the where that $90 million was going. A lot of discussions have been happening. That has been under the control of Dorrelle Anderson, who's done a fantastic job as the Regional Coordinator to work with, not only the Aboriginal leadership group in Alice Springs, but also to look at the region because we were seeing a lot of the drift from the regions coming into Alice Springs. There's been a lot of work and a lot of discussions for the Aboriginal leadership group about where best to allocate that $90 million. 

JOURNALIST: I wanted to ask you about Voice campaigning. Now we've seen images of people voicing their thoughts on the Voice being used in social media campaigns by Fair Australia. For example, we saw image of Reverend Djiniyini Gondarra, from an ABC story have been taken: his image, his quotes used in posts which he never consented to. What do you think of Fair Australia campaign, particularly on social media, and its use of Indigenous people and their words out of context to bolster their message? 

MCCARTHY: It's wrong, isn't it? If people have not agreed to have their voices used in any campaign, then of course, there are serious concerns around running those particular ads. We have seen this, you know, the No campaign does have form in this area. We saw it with the Lingiari family earlier this year, who were very upset that having been used in the No campaign when they hadn't given permission for that, they hadn't understood that that's what was going on. I would certainly say that any commercials that are showing people who have not agreed to be on there, they need to be removed quickly. 

JOURNALIST: Senator, a question as well on the Voice No campaign. Senator Price recently said that she and her fellow Indigenous politicians already provide a Voice for the people in federal Parliament. Do you think this is accurately reflected by the people who voted for her? 

MCCARTHY: Let's be clear what the Voice is about. The Voice is about the representation of First Nations people across the country and if we are successful on October 14, the Voice will then be enshrined in the Constitution, which means, irrespective of who is in government in Australia, First Nations people will be heard. It doesn't matter if there is one First Nations person in the Parliament now, or 11. What matters here is that this is a body to represent people across regional and the urban areas of Australia, in a Voice, to forever be there, irrespective of who is in Government. I think it's really important that's emphasised here. I know that when I stand in the Parliament, I stand to represent the people of the Northern Territory. I don't just stand there to represent my own family, in the Corowa and the Gulf region. I recognise I'm there as a Member of the Australian Labor Party, and I'm very proud to be that. What we're talking about here is people who can speak for their clans and communities through a Voice to the Parliament that's forever enshrined in the Constitution, if we are successful on October 14. 

JOURNALIST: If I may, can I ask about the recent Housing Bill that has been successful in Parliament recently. What is the importance for the NT in this Bill?  

MCCARTHY: Certainly, I'm very pleased to have seen the Housing Bill pass through the Senate and the Australian Parliament. It was long-awaited. We know here in the Northern Territory, we desperately need housing, not just in our towns across Alice Springs and Darwin and Katherine. But we need it on our homelands and outstations and remote areas. And I'm really looking forward to making sure that we see that increase, especially here in the Northern Territory. 


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