Minister for Health and Aged Care and Minister for Women - press conference - 12 October 2022

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's and Senator Gallagher's press conference on the National Health and Medical Research investigator grants; gender equality in medical research; gender biases in the healthcare system.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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CEO AUSTRALIAN ACADEMY OF SCIENCE, ANNA-MARIA ARABIA: A very warm welcome to you all, here to the shine dome, the home of science and the home of the Australian Academy of Science. It was built to reflect the innovative and inquiring nature of researchers across our country. And you'll hear more about that shortly.  

I'd like to acknowledge the traditional owners and their elders, past, present and emerging. This beautiful iconic building was of course built on Ngunnawal land.  

The Australian Academy of Science comprises of 590 of Australia's most distinguished scientists. It is their collective minds, thoughts and expertise which bring science to the surface of the nation, and some of whom received funding through the National Health and Medical Research Council's funding grants.  

They perform vital research that allows advances in health and medical research for our nation, and they collaborate internationally to advance the national interest. During the pandemic, you would have all seen - all Australians would have seen first-hand the value of that very patient investment in health and medical researchers across our country. It has guided us for many years now and continues to guide us.  

I'm absolutely delighted to be here today with Minister Butler, the Minister of Health and Aged Care Minister Gallagher, the Minister for Women, Minister for the Public Service and Minister for Finance and Member for Canberra, Alicia Payne. I'm also absolutely delighted to have here at the Shine Dome Professor Dianna Magliano from the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute, a place that is very, very close to my heart, having undertaken some medical research there earlier in my career. Welcome to all of the guests here today.  

The Australian Academy of Sciences also an author of a 10-year strategy to achieve gender equity in science. And it's terrific to see the NHMRC and the Australian Government takes such an evidence-based approach as they design their granting programmes going forward. And that's important because we need to attract, retain and progress all genders throughout the research workforce. We know that measurement and evaluation is absolutely critical to inform better decisions and to get better outcomes. So, without further ado, it gives me great pleasure to hand over to Minister Butler, the Minister for Health and Aged Care. 

MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: Thank you so much, Anna-Maria. It's great to be here with two amazing Australian institutions that have served the country so well over many, many decades, the Academy of Science which brings together all of Australia's leading scientists across all fields of endeavour and discovery, and also the NHMRC, which for 86 years now has been funding, fantastic health medical research. It was inaugurated back in 1936 with the intention of helping Australian scientists punch above their weight, and for the entire 86 years, the NHMRC has been able to assist Australian scientists to do exactly that. And we've only seen that most recently through the course of the awful two and a half years we've experienced of the pandemic when Australian scientists have been right at the forefront globally of the pandemic response.  

Today, we've got two really exciting initiatives that I'm so pleased to be able to share with my ministerial colleague Katy Gallagher, the Minister for Finance, Minister for Women and Minister for the Public Service, and also our local backbench colleague Alicia Payne, as well as Professor Magliano and the CEO of the NHMRC Professor Anne Kelso.  

The first announcement today is the 2022 round of Investigator Grants. This is a round of $375 million in grants to more than 200 leading Australian researchers. They are five-year grants which give those leaders the security and the confidence to be able to continue with their important research across all fields of health medical research, and I'm delighted that one of the outstanding recipients of those grants this year, Professor Magliano from the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute is able to join us today - one of Australia's leading diabetes researchers. 

We’ll be releasing all of the details for I think 225 recipients of Investigator Grants over the course of the next couple of hours, and those leaders will go on to produce wonderful Australian health and medical research.  

The second announcement that we're making today though, is an incredibly important and exciting initiative to improve gender equity in the Australian health and medical research sector. For many years, this has been an issue the sector has been grappling with. We've known for a very long time that female researchers predominate at the earlier career levels of health and medical research, whether that's the PhD, Post-Doc and early career levels, you will see in most institutes and universities, a majority of women undertaking that important research. But for years and years now, from the mid-career level onwards, you see the presence of women start to steadily decline to the point where, at the very senior leadership level, women are vastly underrepresented and have been for many years, vastly underrepresented at the senior leadership levels.  

And you see that in the Investigator Grants as you have in so many other senior leadership grants in the NHMRC system. The Investigator Grants essentially have five levels - two levels for emerging leaders where there's still relative equity between female and male researchers in terms of applications and successful grant outcomes. But in the other three levels, which are for mid and late career researchers, there is a very distinct advantage for male researchers, and one that the NHMRC has been examining now for a considerable period of time. 

The NHMRC, led by the CEO Professor Kelso has been undertaking a lengthy consultation to find a way to provide real gender equity at those leadership levels. As an example of the degree to which the outcomes and applications are skewed, at the early career, emerging leader level of the Investigator Grants, fully 55% of applications are submitted by women, that rate plummets to just 24% this year, for the most senior, level three leadership grant. 

The NHMRC has proposed a range of different options about which they've consulted widely with medical research institutes, universities, and researchers themselves. And as a result of that broad consultation, the research committee of the NHMRC has decided in 2023, that the Investigator Grant pool for the more senior leadership levels, will be divided into two equal pools for women and for men. And what we are confident will happen as a result of that is that women researchers will have confidence that they are able to apply for these grants and have good chances of a positive outcome.  

I want to congratulate Professor Kelso for her leadership of this consultation process. I note, it's got the strong endorsement of research committee of the NHMRC. It’s received the strong endorsement of the Association of Medical Research Institutes as well over the last several weeks, and was very strongly supported in all of the consultations the NHMRC conducted over the course, - particularly of this year. I'm very confident that this will ensure that female researchers in the health medical research sector who are such an important part of their sector, and have been for many years, will have the confidence now that this is a sector genuinely committed to gender equality.  

Thank you very much. I'll hand over now to Minister Gallagher. 

MINISTER FOR WOMEN, SENATOR KATY GALLAGHER: Thanks very much, Mark. And can I also acknowledge Professor Kelso, it's lovely to be with you here today and with Alicia. Alicia, Mark and I have just come from the Bali commemoration service today, which was a very sombre and touching event. But we remember everyone affected by the Bali bombings and on this 20th anniversary today.  

I'm here to really support and thank the NHMRC and Minister Butler for the work that's gone into this. Obviously, as Minister for Women, we want to see a goal of gender equality, right across government and civil society. And I think what we do know, and Mark’s just given you some of the statistics, is that despite having so many fabulous women involved in science and medical research, particularly as they get to more senior levels, something is not working to make sure that they are able to access a fair share of the grant funding.  

And we also know that if we continue on without making some sort of significant intervention, and we've seen this in a whole range of areas, that the pace of getting towards a fair share is just so slow. So, I'd really like to acknowledge the work of Professor Kelso and her colleagues in progressing it to this point, I 100% support it. I think it's a big change, but it's an important change to encourage women into these fields to ensure that they feel that they will get a fair crack at opportunities, and to make sure that we are progressing gender equality across the board.  

Congratulations also to grant recipients today. You know, we are so fortunate to have such a vibrant and exciting scientific community in Australia. And I look forward to hearing how all of this research progresses. But again, as Minister for Women, this is a significant change. I thank Minister Butler, as well, he came and spoke to me about this very early on. And, really, I think this will make a huge difference in the careers of many women, and it'll encourage younger women, girls at school to seriously consider life in science, and that they'll get a fair crack at opportunities there.  

Thank you.

NHMRC CEO, PROFESSOR ANNE KELSO AO: This is a very big day for us at NHMRC. And I'm really delighted that you're all with us. I'm Anne Kelso. I'm CEO of the National Health and Medical Research Council. It's a big day, not only for us at NHMRC, but I think also for many researchers around the country. And we're really delighted to have you Minister Butler and Minister Gallagher and the Honourable Alicia Payne MP here with us for these really two very important announcements today.  

Now winning an Investigator Grant can be career changing. These grants, as the Minister has said, provide a salary and a flexible research support package for the Investigator for five years. And that means that people can support a team they can collaborate with whoever they like. They can undertake the really best research the ground-breaking and creative research that we need done in this country.  

So today, another 225, fantastic Australian researchers are receiving these grants, and they're joining 737, who've received them in the previous three years. So we're getting close to the first cohort of 1000 Investigator Grant recipients.  

Now, the second big announcement today, as discussed is our new gender equity initiative. And this is very close to my heart.  

As a researcher myself for many years, one day I had the experience of looking up from the lab bench, and realising that all my female, many of my female peers have disappeared, where had they gone? And then when I joined NHMRC, I was really shocked to see our own funding data. And seeing that continuing disappearance of female researchers, even today, many years after I went through that process.  

How can we afford to lose so many brilliant women from health and medical research? We as a country, they as individuals have invested hugely in their training and their development as researchers. And we need their unique talents and perspectives, if we're going to have them work alongside men to achieve the research goals that we need for healthy Australia.  

Now as Minister Butler has said, over the years, NHMRC has paid a lot of attention to this. And we've done a lot, I think, to address the issue, but it hasn't been enough. That's why this year we consulted extensively and intensively with the research sector on options to address the gender disparities we've seen in the funding outcomes for the Investigator Grant scheme. And we know that those funding outcome disparities are a direct consequence of the attrition of women with seniority as they advance through their careers. 

In our consultation, we received a very strong message from the sector: that NHMRC should do more, it should do it now. And it should take bold action to improve the opportunities within and to advance through the Investigative Grant scheme. We also received very strong support for including non-binary researchers alongside women in our gender equity initiatives so that we’ve also announced today.  

Now this affirmative action that's being announced today will do both of those things, and it will make a difference. And I'm very, very grateful to Ministers Butler and Gallagher for their support as we take this very important step for the sector. Finally, I'd like to thank the Australian Academy of Science and the Chief Executive Anna-Maria Arabia, for hosting this event for us today, because it is very apt. The Academy has done tremendous work over recent years, and particularly under Anna-Maria's leadership to promote gender diversity across Australian science and in its own fellowship and special awards.  

So I think with the Academy's research institutions, governments and funders like NHMRC working together on these issues, we will achieve true gender equity in our research sector. And so now I'm really delighted to invite Professor Dianna Magliano, head of the Diabetes and Population Health unit at the Baker Institute in Melbourne to tell us what her Investigator Grant will do for her research on diabetes.

BAKER HEART & DIABETES INSTITUTE, PROFESSOR DIANNA MAGLIANO OAM: Thank you, Professor Kelso. And thank you Ministers.  

I'm a diabetes researcher, and I work in the area of epidemiology. This means I spend a lot of time looking at data and numbers to understand trends and how we're tracking as a nation and also globally. My programme of work will identify opportunities to reverse the diabetes epidemic through surveillance of diabetes, its complications - which can be devastating - and mortality changes. With the funding that I'll get from this Investigator Grant, I will identify which interventions are most effective in which populations of people with diabetes require extract clinical and public health focus.  

One of the core projects, which will be funded by this grant, which I'm incredibly passionate about, is a new study called: Prediction. This study will follow a group of people with young onset type two diabetes diagnosed between 15 and 39, and it will compare it against a group of people who have type one diabetes. With this study, we will provide a greater understanding of the aggressive nature of young onset type two diabetes and identify intervention points to halt the progression of complications amongst this young group. And these complications can be devastating.  

As a researcher with 25 years working in the medical research industry, I can tell you, it has been a tough path. Inequities for women exist across many leverage points of a career in STEM, ranging from poorer success rates of grants, poorer success rates of promotions, and of course, there's the salary gap. And that is why many of us in universities and medical research institutes are working hard to drive change to address this disparity.  

We need to address the systemic barriers of parental leave, carers leave, unconscious bias and other barriers. For women to achieve equity in senior scientific leadership levels, and to continue to aspire to these levels and to have sufficient visible role models, we need to do more.  

We know that diversity leads to better research, better health outcomes for all of us. And what's more, I love my job. I love research. And like so many in our sector. I think it's absolutely worth fighting for.

Thank you.

JOURNALIST: As well as plans to address gender equity within the sector. Does the government have any plans to address the gender gap in medical trials? Historically, we know data has been collected from men and generalise to women. And experts have long called for policies to require researchers to undertake sex or gender-based analysis in their research in countries like the US and Canada have those policies and practices in place? How come Australia doesn't?

BUTLER: One of the Assistant Ministers in Health Ged Kearney is leading a discussion right now about other ways in which we might investigate systemic biases, gender biases within the healthcare system. Certainly right at the top of that list, fed back to me and I know to Ged Kearney, as well, has been the application of trials. And that can be trials in relation to the use of devices, which end up largely being suited more for men than for women, or a range of other clinical trials as well. So we're undertaking that discussion, right now, we'll have more to say in due course, about how we intend to deal with that. I don't know whether Professor Kelso would like to say a few words as well.

PROFESSOR KELSO: Thank you, Minister, and thanks for the question. And we agree this is a really important issue and critical that it's addressed nationally and internationally. In our clinical trials and cohort studies scheme for NHMRC grants, we do require consideration of gender, as appropriate of course, in the design of trials. Not all trials will be for diseases that are relevant to both genders. But we do have that as a requirement. But we know we need to do more. And we're having an active discussion with our Women and Health Science Committee on the development of a statement about exactly this issue, to bring it to the attention of our researchers and as a step towards having stronger policies at NHMRC. So thank you for the question.

JOURNALIST: Can I just ask a follow up as well, perhaps to you, Professor Kelso. So is there a clause in this announcement that the research being performed itself has to be gender inclusive, that women need to be a part of the research that is going to be funded by these

PROFESSOR KELSO: It's not part of this announcement or this specific set of measures. And of course, we're funding over an extraordinarily broad range of research. So for some areas of research, gender representation is less important than for others. But it is a consideration for all of our schemes. It's just not part of the announcement today. Thank you.

JOURNALIST: Finance Minister, can I get your reaction to the IMF report overnight? And what a global recession next year would mean for Australia? Should we be bracing for job losses and further stagnant wage growth?

GALLAGHER: Thank you. As the Treasurer has said, he's on his way over to the USA to have some important meetings with the IMF, the World Bank, the G20, and all of those economic leaders. As the Treasurer said yesterday: the global economy is headed for turbulent times. I think the challenge for us here is to make sure that as a government, we're doing what we can. The focus of our Budget will be on addressing some of the challenges we see in the economy here, delivering on our election commitments, making sure we're giving sensible cost-of-living relief, where we can, and making sure we work with fiscal and monetary policy. So in terms of the forecast, and what we expect, I think the Treasurer has made it clear, we're not in the same position. We have some very strong components to our economy, which makes us a little different from what we've seen in the EU, US and UK. But we'll update our forecasts in the Budget that will include our forecasts for wages, our forecast for unemployment, and for GDP growth and things like that.

JOURNALIST: The IMF says there'll definitely be a hit to growth in Australia. So is it inevitable that we will see jobs impacted, wages impacted?

GALLAGHER: We've been pretty upfront with people. We're not immune to what's going on around the world. And, you know, we will be upfront about those changes, I think we have been upfront. I think it's sensible, we're two weeks out or 12 days out from a Budget, the Treasurer is overseas, getting up to date briefings about what the  global economic situation is, and we’ll update those forecasts in the Budget.

JOURNALIST: One of the things the IMF looked at was predicting that Australia would have about 4.8 per cent inflation next year. Are you still confident that we will see a return to more stable inflation the year after that? Is there any suggestion that the peak about 7.75 per cent this year could go higher?

GALLAGHER: Look again, we are in this tricky sort of two-week window before a Budget. Those figures will be updated in the Budget. I think our expectation is, we're in a high inflation environment, we are expecting that to ease over the next couple of years. We've been upfront about that. Part of our challenge in putting the Budget together is dealing with that inflation, rising interest rates and some of the other constraints we've got on the economy. I have not been given any information that would dramatically change some of the information that was provided in the July statement by the Treasurer. But all of those figures will be updated in the Budget.

JOURNALIST: If what the IMF suggests occurs, which is one in four countries around the world, they end up in recession. What impacts would that have on Australia? What supply chains or other aspects of the economy here would be beholden to that situation?

GALLAGHER: I think you can see in the last couple of years we exist in a global economy. So where there are supply or demand constraints Australia is affected. That's why it's important the Treasurer is over there today, and the next few days getting those up to date briefing so that he can feed into some of the final decisions we're taking in the Budget. Where we can meaningfully make a difference, I think, is making sure that the decisions we take in the Budget, don't cause any additional pressures that they work in line with the work that the Reserve Bank is doing. That where we can we're dealing with some of those local challenges around supplies and skill constraints, and we’re not adding to the inflation problem, but we're providing cost of living relief in a sensible and responsible way. These are things that we've been talking about for the last couple of months. Obviously, we're refining it as the economic situation continues to evolve. Finally, one of the things the Treasurer has been saying is our Budget will be based on decisions that are informed by the economic circumstances of the times.

JOURNALIST: Minister, can you confirm that Labor's policy to increase fines for dodgy businesses will only raise $63 million in revenue over four years and not $537 million?

GALLAGHER: That was information, as I understand it, was provided to the parliament in late September in the explanatory memorandum attached to that bill. I don't think there's any great surprise that when you’ve got costings done by two different organisations that you get some variation, that you will get some variation. And as we get further information, as we refine that through the Budget process, you will see that in other areas. You'll have some where there's an increase somewhere, and some where there's a decrease. That's a result of having different costings done by different organisations. I don't think that's a huge surprise. But of course, it will be all updated in the Budget in the usual way at the usual time.

JOURNALIST: How big of a blow is a half a billion-dollar black hole in the Budget costings, though, when the Government's struggling to raise enough revenue to pay for social programmes?

GALLAGHER: It's not a black hole. What we are doing is implementing our policies and refining that based on costings from the Treasury and Finance department. That's what's happening here. So I just completely reject that. I reject the Shadow Treasurer trying to have a crack. Remember, I don't remember hearing him carry on when they got their JobKeeper costings wrong by $60 billion. This is a set of circumstances that you'll see in an incoming government, we've got our election commitments, we're getting them costed. They're reflected in the Budget paper, and you will see some ons and offs, there's no doubt about it, and you'll see all of that in the next couple of weeks when we released the Budget.

JOURNALIST: One of the aspects of the Budget monitoring report, released today was suggesting that over the forwards the bottom line will be about $45 billion better off. You've said when the Final Budget Outcome was handed down a couple of weeks ago that the $50 billion in savings was not really a saving, but those expenses would have to come out of future Budgets. This analysis seems to suggest there will be some ongoing savings due to higher receipts and those lower payments. What is your take on that analysis? Is it the case that there will be lower deficits that are roughly in line with what we saw out of the Final Outcome in the last financial year?

GALLAGHER: On that, in relation to that uplift that we got at the Final Budget Outcome, about half of that was to do with revenue receipts, half of it was to do a significant portion with lower payments, largely lower unemployment payments, because of the higher employment rate, and some movement of funds, which essentially shifts it from one year to another. So, it wasn't $50 billion in uplift of revenue. We'll update our revenue forecasts. People have been watching the commodity prices that there will be some benefit in terms of receipts.

But I think the challenge for Jim and I, frankly, is that you may get these kind of one-off revenue uplifts due to global circumstances, but it's the ongoing pressure on the Budget that remains the big challenge. That will not address those key medium-term impacts of defence, NDIS, hospitals, aged care and servicing of debt, which remain high. Managing the debt, servicing the debt is going to remain a considerable challenge with billions of dollars in extra interest payments. We would welcome, I think everyone would welcome receipts holding up. Any improvement to the Budget is welcomed, frankly, because we've got to deal with some of these pressures and dealing with the debt burden, which is increasing all the time.

JOURNALIST: Question for the Health Minister about the end of mandatory isolation for people to get COVID. There are people within the community people with a disability, for instance, who are very anxious about what this next phase in the pandemic looks like for them. There are some who feel as though the Federal Government and state and territories have abandoned them. What is your message to those vulnerable and high-risk groups? And can you list any specific measures that the federal government is going to do to support high-risk cohorts generally as we move into the next phase?

BUTLER: The unanimous decision of National Cabinet last week focused on the principal priority, the number one priority, of all government spending is to protect those who are particularly vulnerable to severe disease, hospitalisation, or even worse.  

That is why all governments agreed to retain in place effectively pandemic leave arrangements for workers in those vulnerable settings. Workers in aged care settings, both residential and home care, in disability settings, both residential and home care, Aboriginal health services, and of course, hospitals, because we want to make sure that those settings where the most vulnerable Australians are situated, are not exposed to additional risk of contracting COVID.  

In addition to that, a couple of weeks ago, I announced some extensions to a range of measures that were intended to terminate at the end of September in light of the timelines in place by the former government. Those measures continue and indeed, in many cases, expand supports for those vulnerable settings. And continue the provision, for example, of rapid antigen testing to disability residential services, to aged care residential services, and such like. So, although there have been changes for the general community unanimously agreed by the National Cabinet, all governments have agreed - not least ours - all governments agreed that it must remain a focus to ensure the protection of the most vulnerable.

JOURNALIST: Do you do appreciate the anxiety that people in those communities are feeling?

BUTLER: We're very conscious of that anxiety, which is why at every possible opportunity, we want to assure them that we are keeping particular arrangements in place to protect the most vulnerable.

JOURNALIST: The long running issue of the ACT's historic housing debt. You've spoken about this in the past, do you still support the waving of that debt? If so, what are you doing to get your government to waive it? And when do you hope it is waived?

GALLAGHER: The Commonwealth has state housing debts in the order of about $1.6 billion. I think we have to acknowledge that it's not an ACT-specific issue. You know, the previous government did some, basically some deals, with Tasmania to get the Medevac legislation through to waive the Tasmanian debt.

I think the work we're doing in housing is across states and territories. We’re not in a position to waive the ACT's housing debt. I've had a look at it as Finance Minister, there's $1.6 billion worth of money owed across the board in relation to the Commonwealth-state housing debts. And what I would say is we are absolutely leaning in on housing, through all of the policies we took to the election, the work the Treasurer is doing in the investment space with super funds, the work that Julie Collins is doing in getting up the Housing Australia Future Fund and negotiating the Homelessness and Housing Agreement. These are all things where the Commonwealth vacated the space for the last decade, and we are back at the table and talking to people. But I don't think it's as easy as people would like to say – well just wave the ACT’s housing debt. It's not that easy.

JOURNALIST: Is that not in a position now or not in their position over the course of the term?

GALLAGHER: We'll continue to engage with the ACT government, I've had meetings with the Chief Minister about it. I know this is an issue that they would like to see resolved, we want to be a government that works with states and territories. But I’m not Finance Minister for the ACT - as much as at times I would like to be – I'm Finance Minister of the country, and I don’t think it’s right to waive debts for the price of a vote on the Senate floor, which is how it's happened in the past.  

We've got grownups in charge. The Government wants to engage with states and territories. We want to do more in housing, we want to make a difference, particularly in the social end, where there's so much need. I think that's the right approach, but we'll continue talking with states and territories along these lines.  To be fair, it’s not just the ACT that's asked to have them waived either, so it's a bigger picture - as much as people would like to make it about one jurisdiction. 

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