Minister for Health and Aged Care – interview on Sky News Sunday Agenda – 15 October 2023

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's interview with Kieran Gilbert about the Voice referendum results.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: Joining me live from Adelaide is the Health Minister, Mark Butler. Minister, thanks for your time. Are you shocked by this rejection of the referendum in your home state?


MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: No, we're obviously disappointed, Kieran, but we're not entirely shocked about this. I mean, obviously the polling had been demonstrating the scale of the challenge in winning this referendum campaign. And history tells us how hard referendum campaign pains are to win if you don't have bipartisan support. And that support, as your viewers know, was withdrawn about six months ago after the loss of the New South Wales election and then the Aston byelection, all in pretty quick succession at the end of March and the beginning of April. So it's not a shock. It's obviously deeply disappointing to us. But as the Prime Minister and Minister Burney said last night, obviously we accept and we respect the result and we now need to find a new way forward on reconciliation and Closing the Gap.


GILBERT: How did the Yes campaign squander the goodwill and the significant lead that was there at the start of this thing when it was first announced?


BUTLER: Obviously, there will be some analysis of the campaign, that happens in every campaign, whether it's a usual election campaign or referendum campaign. But as I said, history tells us just how difficult it is to win a referendum if you don't have that bipartisan support. And I think that we had a hope of bipartisan support in the early part of our government. Obviously, this came from a process that was not begun by Labor, it was begun by the former government many years ago. And the former Prime Minister Morrison had taken a commitment to the 2019 election to do exactly what Anthony Albanese had done. So there was particularly with the appointment, I think, of Julian Leeser to the Shadow Indigenous Affairs portfolio, some reasonable hope that we would have bipartisanship and really a strong platform to take the nation forward with this referendum. But as I say, a significant change of tack was put in place by Peter Dutton at the end of March and the beginning of April after those two very big election defeats for the Liberal Party, first at a state level in New South Wales and then the Aston byelection. And then I think it became very difficult for us to win a referendum against really all historical precedent.


GILBERT: Yeah, well that's, hard to argue with, but at that point, why did the Prime Minister not shelve it, if he knew it was going to be a train wreck?


BUTLER: I think what we know about our Prime Minister is: he's a man of his word. I mean, he made a very strong commitment to the Australian people, among all of the other election commitments we made last year and have since kept, to put this to the Australian people. This is a process that has gone on now for years. As I said, a process started - with our support - by Malcolm Turnbull and a process that reached its high point, if you like, at the Constitutional Convention at Uluru over six years ago, where the Statement from the Heart was produced by hundreds of Indigenous leaders. Now we think, we've taken the view for some time, that to keep faith with the process that the former government started, it was proper to put that question to the Australian people. Anthony Albanese made that commitment to the people at the last election and he is a man of his word. He keeps those commitments.


GILBERT: There's an irony here, isn't there, that the Voice was pitched as a voice for the powerless and the voiceless, and yet those that voted for it, for want of a better word, were the elites, the teal seats, inner city areas, not the remote areas.


BUTLER: I heard some of the anecdotes from your reporter from the Northern Territory. We're awaiting to see the results from the remote booths in the Northern Territory. But if you look at the big booths that did come in last night, Palm Island, Mornington Island, Lockhart River - those booths where we know the overwhelming bulk of the population, you know, sometimes upwards of 90% are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people - those booths voted overwhelmingly for the Voice. Now of course there was not complete uniformity of opinion in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. There's not about anything in any community, but this idea that there was not overwhelming support for the Voice by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people I think is a furphy. And I think it was put to rest by some of those booth results last night. Now that doesn't change the overall result, a result that we accept, we respect and we now need to find a new way forward. I think the upside of the last few months is I think there's a level of understanding about the scale and the depth of disadvantage experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders that perhaps wasn't there before we had the focus on this referendum campaign, and I don't think there was in any sense last night a vote against reconciliation or a vote against a commitment to close that yawning gap. In my case, as the Health Minister, I say the yawning gap in health outcomes and life expectancy. So now our job as government and frankly, the job of all people in public life, including the Opposition and crossbenchers, is to accept this result and find a new way forward to deal with those yawning gaps.


GILBERT: And so one of the areas I would imagine you have to look at in terms of finding that way forward to close the enormous gap on life expectancy and other health measures is to bolster some of those indigenous groups that are already there. I think of the NACCHO, as it's called, the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation. Because through the campaign with the Yes campaign saying the status quo is all a disaster, nothing works. Groups like NACCHO would have been undermined in terms of the work they do day in, day out with. No, don't you have to bolster these groups now?


BUTLER: I'll be talking with them very, very soon about how we do move forward. They do terrific work. The community controlled sector is one of the great success stories we have in our country. But what they do is they deal with the awful consequences of that yawning gap in health outcomes and life expectancy. So, for example, right now I'm working very closely with NACCHO on rolling out additional renal dialysis capability across the country, including in more remote communities, working with them on ways to deal with the extraordinary levels of rheumatic heart disease in remote Aboriginal communities, a disease that we don't see in our major cities, because it was largely eradicated in developed economies 50 or 60 years ago. Now we can continue to increase investments in dealing with these health issues or we can find ways to deal with them at the source. And that's really the argument I was making through this campaign. Rheumatic heart disease is essentially a disease of grinding poverty, poor housing, poor environmental conditions. Now, yes we can find ways to roll out additional treatments, or we can go upstream and try and deal with the condition at its source. And I think that's what our job is now, and that's what my job as Health Minister is to do, is to find ways of listening to Aboriginal communities about how we can deal with these conditions before they emerge, rather than continuing to rely upon the community controlled health sector to deal with conditions that frankly don't exist in our major cities.


GILBERT: Yeah. And I guess to boost their morale after a period of where this campaign has basically said the status quo is not working. I think the other thing I would I'm sure you would agree is the need to take it out of - take this area away from politics, that it has to be something where the two major parties are united. Is the Prime Minister - have you got any ideas on how he might achieve that?


BUTLER: As he said last night, this is something we all need to absorb and decide on new ways forward. And he made that invitation to everyone to work with the government. We want to work with others to find ways to Close the Gap and to continue to walk down the path of Reconciliation. This is obviously a hard result for many who have been campaigning for this referendum campaign to absorb. And it's going to take some time for people to absorb the disappointment and the pain and the hurt of the result last night. But, you know, we all do need to reaffirm our commitment to work together to Close the Gap. I think there is really strong foundation for bipartisanship on these health programmes As I said, there was no division in the country about the need to Close the Gap or the importance of Reconciliation. There was certainly a difference of view about the proposal that was put before the Australian people, but we need to find a way to come together and to find new ways to close this appalling gap in health outcomes. And I'm certainly open to discussion with anyone about new ways of doing that and by no means to your earlier questions, Kieran, by no means do I have anything other than the utmost respect for the work that community controlled health organisations do. NACCHO and its leadership was a very strong supporter of the referendum campaign because they know they're often working really at the end point of a whole lot of these health conditions without finding new ways to deal with them at their source: deal with housing, to deal with environmental conditions in some of these communities and to get to a position where those communities enjoy the eradication of diseases that were eradicated for our city communities 50 or 60 years ago.


GILBERT: One last one before you go. Will voters differentiate between the referendum and their judgement on the government?


BUTLER: I think they will, based on history. Abviously, you know, our job is to continue to deal with this extraordinary global cost of living crisis sweeping the world and the impact on Australian households, which we know is significant. Right through this campaign, we've been continuing to roll out measures to do that. You know, we've been opening Urgent Care Clinics that are bulk billed clinics to make it easier to see a doctor. There were significant increases in payments for single parents and others only a couple of weeks ago as well. So we'll continue on with that program. But I don't think people, based on history, I don't think there's any basis for people to draw too close a connection between a referendum campaign and the broader fortunes of the government. The first campaign I worked on, when I was a very, very young man Kieran was back in 1988, where Bob Hawke suffered a very substantial loss. A whole range of sort of Bill of Rights type questions went down 70 to 30. We went on to govern for eight more years and John Howard, who was Opposition leader who led the Opposition to that referendum campaign, didn't last in his position until the next election. Now, I don't think you draw anything from that either. I think what you do draw from history is that the Australian people very clearly distinguish between the work of a government governing and an idea that is put before them as a referendum proposition.


GILBERT: Health Minister Mark Butler, appreciate your time.


BUTLER: Thanks, Kieran.

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