August 01, 2022

I rise very proudly to speak on the motion moved by my colleague and friend the member for Dunkley and to thank her for recognising that the Albanese government is delivering on our commitments in health policy at a lightning pace. It's clear from the last government's policies but also the last member's contributions that the one thing that the last government cared less about than Medicare was large regional areas like my home, the Hunter, which has a right to representation and a right to services. The last government seemed to think that you only had the bush and large capital cities but nothing in between, and it showed a blatant disregard for communities like mine.

That's why I was very pleased to right that wrong a couple of weeks ago when I joined with my colleagues on the Central Coast and in the Hunter and we announced our regions were now classified as distribution priority areas to help combat the dire GP shortages across our regions. I'm proud to represent a regional electorate in this place. The truth is that changes made by the Liberals in 2015 reclassifying my home region as not being a priority area for GPs hurt my region most grievously. To classify suburbs in Shortland such as Cardiff and Windale—which is the poorest postcode and the most disadvantaged community in all of New South Wales—as having the same access to medical services as Vaucluse and Mosman was insulting and showed a great misunderstanding of my region. That's why my Labor colleagues and I have been lobbying over the past 2½ years to get this reversed, and that's why I was so pleased that we delivered on one of our election commitments so fast two weeks ago.

I want to recognise the efforts and the lobbying of the Hunter General Practitioners Association, led by Dr Fiona van Leeuwen and Dr Lee Fong. They've been passionate advocates for this reclassification, and they are working to improve all areas of primary health care, because the truth is that we need a multipronged approach to fix the challenges around general practice. The reclassification of our area is essential to that, because what happened in 2015 was a sledgehammer to my local general practices. The sledgehammer, which removed the ability of overseas trained doctors and doctors under Commonwealth bonded scholarships to practise in my area, made a massive negative impact in my electorate.

Bulk-billing is one of the most cherished cornerstones of our Medicare system, and the Liberals' changes to Medicare and the GP classification made it more difficult for people in my community to see a doctor and, if they do see a doctor, to see a doctor who bulk-bills. When I meet regularly with the Hunter GPs Association, I hear of practice after practice that has being forced to change its level of bulk billing because of the last government's neglect and wilful attacks in our region. You just have to see practices that have gone from 80 per cent bulk-billing to 20 per cent bulk-billing overnight. In this particular case, the changes in the distribution priority access area meant that we lost access to so many doctors.

I will give you an example of the practical impact of this, Madam Deputy Speaker. I attended the opening of new premises for the Swansea Medical Centre, with great consulting rooms. Because of the change made by the last government, they had a consulting room completely empty every day of the week. They weren't open on Saturday or Sunday, and their books were closed despite the huge demand, because of the lack of distribution priority area access.

So this change will make a meaningful impact in large regional areas like mine, where a very significant number of Australians live. That's why I've fought for this change and I welcome it. It's part of a broader process of restoring Medicare to what it once was. The truth is that the last government learned from the example of Prime Minister Howard, who lost an election on a platform of abolishing Medicare. Instead they were a bit smarter and they tried to kill Medicare slice by slice, with co-payment charges, distribution area changes and all the other changes that are just making it a bit harder to see a doctor and, if you do see a doctor, to see a doctor who bulk bills.

This is a down payment on restoring universal health care in this country and on making healthcare access based on need rather than credit card and wealth. So I welcome this change. I also welcome our election commitment on the GP after-hours access service. That will make a huge impact in my area. I want to thank the Minister for Health and Aged Care for his vision in this area, and I want to thank him for again putting priority on regional areas such as mine who so clearly deserve it.