Minister for Health and Aged Care and Assistant Minister for Indigenous Health – press conference in Darwin – 19 September 2023

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's and Senator Malarndirri McCarthy's press conference in Darwin about a new helicopter and jet for CareFlight.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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MEMBER FOR SOLOMON, LUKE GOSLING: Luke Gosling, the Member for Solomon, it’s great to be here and have Minister Mark Butler and Northern Territory Senator Malarndirri McCarthy here, but also our friends from CareFlight, I’ll introduce Andrew Refshauge in a second. This aeromedical evacuation facility and the capability that it's got to reach all parts of the Territory and the seas beyond saves lives.

Every day, every week, there are Territorians who are being rescued and retrieved. Just today, the crews here are doing some water winch training. It's not evacuating people from our communities. It's not just getting people down to our major hospitals in the south. It's getting patients, Territorians and visitors to a higher level of care, whether it be at Royal Darwin Hospital or beyond. With the extra aircraft, we've now got redundancy. We've now got an ability to rescue more people. We've seen that just recently with the unfortunate crash of the US Marine helicopter – the MV-22 – over on, Tiwi Islands. The additional helicopter has already saved lives by getting patients – in that case, our allies – to a higher level of care. The Territory is the frontier of Australia, it needs an excellent aeromedical evacuation capability. That's what we've got here with CareFlight. We've been really proud to deliver on the commitment that we made to provide more redundancy both in the helicopters and the jets. It's with great pleasure that I hand over to Andrew Refshauge, who's the Chair of this fantastic organisation, CareFlight NT.


CAREFLIGHT CHAIR, ANDREW REFSHAUGE: Welcome to CareFlight and this hangar. We're here to very much thank – well, I’m here to thank – the ministers for their support so that we can get the jet and the new helicopter. Luke has been a tireless advocate for us. I don't think he's ever stopped doing that. Malarndirri has been unbelievably supportive, so thank you very much for that. And Mark, of course, as the Health Minister overseeing all of this has been instrumental in making sure that capacity has been increased.

We retrieve about 4,000 patients a year, which is a large number for this area, and we need the facilities to do it. The AW139, now having two of them means that when maintenance is on, there is another one there. It means that the Territory is covered. And the same with the jet, as well. But can I also pay tribute to the Len Notaras who has been with us, both on our Board at some stages but as a neighbour, as a partner in healthcare with the National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre. He has been a great advocate and a lobbyist for that jet, as well, because it will work with his team in those emergencies that we need immediately to be able to send a team to a crisis area, whether it be in Australia or overseas.

Len, thank you very much and your team. It's been a continuing great effort. I won’t say anymore, apart from again really restating thank you to everybody who lobbied for our part. Thank you to everybody at the other end who listened. And thank you for continuing to support us. It's a great day for CareFlight.


MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: Thank you, Andrew, for hosting us with your terrific CareFlight team here this morning. It’s such a delight to be here with Luke and Malarndirri. As Andrew said, they have been utterly relentless advocates for this additional capability for a service that means so much to Territorians in the Top End.

In Australia, we have one of the best healthcare systems anywhere on the planet through Medicare, but we also have the challenge of living in this vast continent where the tyranny of distance means that people living outside our major cities like Melbourne and Sydney and Brisbane don't always have access to the sort of healthcare that people in the big cities are able to take for granted. Having this evacuation capability and retrieval capability is just so important to close that tyranny of distance.

Now Luke and Malarndirri and Mick Frewen was down in Canberra four years ago making the case for the additional helicopter. You know, patience is obviously a virtue as well as your extraordinary medical capability here in CareFlight. But already as Luke said, this is making real difference. The additional helicopter and the additional jet will also make a difference not just to Territorians in the Top End, but to the AUSMAT team's ability to project capability into our region, as well as provide support to our friends and neighbours in the near part of our region, an area that Luke is just so passionate about, having worked there in a former career.

I'm delighted to be here and to really see the fruits of the commitment that we made in the last election to the purchase of the additional helicopter and the additional jet, with the top up that we had to put in in the October Budget to reflect the increasing costs of this hardware around the world. That's a commitment of almost $20 million. It will go a long way to making a real difference to the lives of thousands of Territorians here in the Top End. We're happy to take questions.


JOURNALIST: Minister, what's your response to calls made for a dedicated care facility in East Arnhem to reach those that need it the most there?


BUTLER: Andrew might have something to say about this, but the CareFlight arrangement is essentially a contract between the Northern Territory Government and this organisation. Obviously, at times the Commonwealth stands ready to provide support where that is needed, as we've done with the purchase of this additional helicopter and the additional jet. I've still got some opportunities to talk to the CareFlight management and to Andrew and that hasn't been raised with me yet, but it is I'm happy to talk to them further about that.


JOURNALIST: What's the Government doing to upgrade remote runways, so that fixed wing aircraft, CareFlight aircraft can land more safely – particularly at night – when the helicopters are otherwise occupied?


BUTLER: This is something that we've talked about as I’ve been here, and having that spread of capability with the helicopter and the two different types of aeroplane, as well, means that in a really challenging environment – particularly during the wet season. CareFlight does have the capability to adapt to the circumstances there. We've talked a bit about runway terrain during the wet season and the sort of different costs of providing the sort of aerial capability we have now with this spread of helicopters and jets, compared to the cost of upgrading runways. This is really only the first time I've had the opportunity to have a talk about that with CareFlight. We're willing to have further discussions. I'm not sure whether Andrew or Luke want to add to that?


REFSHAUGE: The Commonwealth is providing upgrading for the some of the airstrips. Our pilots always take notice of the air strips as they're going in there. If there are any issues, they will raise that. There is a program that we’ve been working with the Commonwealth on to upgrade a number of the airstrips.


JOURNALIST: Question to the Senator. You’ve come from the bush, Senator, what's this going to mean for Aboriginal communities?


ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR INDIGENOUS HEALTH, SENATOR MALARNDIRRI MCCARTHY: I'm actually really excited about the fact that the helicopters arrived. Luke and I have come here quite a number of times, haven’t we Luke, in the last six years. Obviously in the 2019 election, we promised that we would deliver this helicopter. We didn't win that. We came back three years later, saying we're still pursuing this, we're determined to see this support across northern Australia and our remote regions here in the Northern Territory in the north. And to win last year and now be able to deliver is absolutely a wonderful thing to do. It means so much, because we do see, each and every day – too much, actually – of our communities needing to be evacuated in terms of the high-risk health diseases that we have across regional Australian.


JOURNALIST: In terms of the referendum, the No campaign launched yesterday in the NT and Adelaide. Senator Price has accused the Yes campaign of bullying and gaslighting, saying supporters of the No campaign are being singled out for their stance. What's your take on that?


MCCARTHY: I am saying to people across Australia that this must be a respectful debate. I'm not concerned whether you vote Yes or No and have your views. Make sure that you do it in a respectful way. I cannot say that enough. And I still call on Australians to do that, irrespective of your views or whether you don't have a view, just yet. Please have respectful debate. I've certainly heard stories, you know, in terms of people in their workplaces. That's not the Australia I want to see, it's not the Australia that we should be. So please, keep it respectful.


JOURNALIST: You’ve been saying this for quite a while now, Malarndirri. But we had an incident last night where Yes supporters were apparently calling No voters “racist pigs” and the Yes campaign has been subjected to all kinds of abuse. Has this got out of control, this debate?


MCCARTHY: I'll continue to say it. It's a bit like talking to my kids, sometimes, and I have to keep repeating that they have to do the right thing. Sometimes that's what it feels like when you're trying to lead a campaign to do good in this country, which you believe is the right thing to do. I'll continue to keep calling it out and asking and urging Australians to remember that in a democracy, we have a right to have our views, as long as we do it respectfully.


JOURNALIST: The latest polling in The Guardian today has the No side at 51 per cent and the Yes at just 41 per cent. Can this referendum still be won by the Yes side?


MCCARTHY: I have every faith that we can do the best that we can. We know that referendums are so tough in this country. We know that we have to get a double majority. That means that right across the country, we need every single Australian to come out to the ballot box – it starts on Monday through the regional areas across northern Australia – and come out and vote. And yes, I do believe that we can get this across the line.


JOURNALIST: Have you had a chance to talk to your people in regards to comments made by Senator Price at last week's Press Club address, in regards to the saying that there were no lasting impacts from colonisation on First Nations people. How has that been received by your mob?


MCCARTHY: I’ve certainly seen commentary right across Australia with people deeply hurt by those comments. I'm certainly conscious as the Assistant Minister for Indigenous Health, the impact that that does have on people's trauma and background. I do know, personally, that it has had an impact. I would certainly say to Senator Price, we all have to be very careful and conscious of what we say as political leaders in this debate.


JOURNALIST: Senator, just on the report in The Australian this morning of an 11-year-old boy being forcibly removed in a paddy wagon after running away from foster replacement care. Have you heard about this, this situation? And what do you think it says about the foster care system in the NT?


MCCARTHY: I don't know the details of that particular question that you've raised. I certainly think it's concerning that any child is put into a paddy wagon anywhere in the country. That's certainly not what I would want to see. And I’d certainly like to look into what the issues are around that.


JOURNALIST: And just on the stabbing death of the man in Darwin CBD, have you been briefed on the matter that happened on the weekend?


MCCARTHY: I haven't been briefed from the Northern Territory Government in terms of the policing side of that. I do understand from the media reports that there are some investigations. But can I just also reach out to those who are involved, from a very personal level, that is a horrific crime that's taken place. Certainly, likely with all crimes and all deaths, it's something that we don’t want to see.


JOURNALIST: We've spoken to some Traditional Owners that say they're going to vote No at the referendum, primarily because of a concern they have for the local Land Council.


MCCARTHY: I am aware that there has been raised a motion in the Senate in regards to that. That motion was defeated. I will point out that in terms of the land councils in particular in the Northern Territory, that there are thorough audits that take place, with the National Australian Audit Office. They have given every time a pass in terms of what is occurring there. I think it's important that Senators realise that there are actually mechanisms within the parliamentary system now that keep organisations accountable. I will encourage them to look at those mechanisms and those reports and see for themselves the amount of work that is done in scrutinising land councils across the Northern Territory


JOURNALIST: Another report today says that we should consider having a 50:50 split of jurors, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, when Indigenous people are on trial. What do you have to say about that?


MCCARTHY: I did see that. I’d like to actually understand that report, I hadn't had a chance to have a look at it. I’d be more than happy to do that. Thanks everyone.

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