December 13, 2021

RICHARD KING, PRESENTER: My next guest, Labor’s Pat Conroy, Federal Member for Shortland along with Dan Repacholi, Labor’s candidate for Hunter chaired a meeting on Saturday at Toronto Diggers discussing the urgent need to save Lake Macquarie’s GP Access After Hours service. It was well attended. Pat’s on the line, good morning Pat. 

PAT CONROY, MEMBER FOR SHORTLAND: Morning Richard, how are you? 

KING: Very well thanks. Yes, it’s something that’s been building. I’m just interested to know, is this happening around the country, the savaging of funding to after hours access GP services? 

CONROY: No, it’s specific to the Hunter and that’s because our GP Access After Hours Access service is unique. There’s nowhere else in the country that has this service, and it grew out of a great group of local GPs about 30 years ago driving this process and creating the service, and that’s one reason the Government is cutting it. It’s because they want to standardise everything. So they are trying to reduce the services in the Hunter to match what happens around the country, and that’s why we are so committed to fighting it.

KING: They have said that the people who are utilising this, the numbers have dropped. Is that – well you’ve used the term lie and liar on a number of occasions with reference to our PM, is that a lie that the numbers utilised in the service have dropped?

CONROY: It is, and I don’t use that word lightly because people are sick of politicians slagging each other off, but they are lying about that. This service helps 70,000 Hunter families every year. The service, the demand for it is growing not falling, and their decision to cut funding means that the equivalent of two of the five clinics will be closed. And that means more people clogging up our emergency departments, more people having to pay to see doctors, and just poorer health outcomes for people in the Hunter.

KING: When this first became a hot issue, I know the Federal Government were pointing the finger at the State Government and saying it was their fault. You firmly believe that it’s the Federal Government’s responsibility?

CONROY: Absolutely. Both levels of government are withdrawing support. So both sides have cut funding this year. Funding has fallen by $500,000 to $4 million a year, and what’s more concerning is that there’s a review on the Federal Health Minister’s desk advocating a further cut of $3 million of the remaining $4 million. So if Minister Hunt accepts that recommendation, this service will end. So this is a problem that the federal level of government can solve by recommitting and restoring that funding.

And this is a great service. Every Hunter family I know has used it or knows someone who has used it. And the silly thing is, besides helping families, for a $4.5 million spend a year, it saves over $20 million a year in increased costs at the emergency department level because as everyone knows, hospitals are much more expensive to run than GP clinics. So this is a stupid decision by the Liberal Government that could potentially end the service.

KING: And again a reminder, Sharon Claydon, the Member for Newcastle has organised a rally for Wednesday week. That’s Wednesday 22nd at 10am outside the Mater Hospital because that clinic is set to close holus-bolus no more on Christmas Eve. A rather bizarre time to close a vital health service on Christmas Eve. It seems bizarre. Look if people would like to make their views felt on this one, what’s the best way to do it Pat?

CONROY: Well it’s to attend the rally that Sharon Claydon has organised. It’s to sign the petition that’s on my Facebook page and my website in fact, and I know it’s on the website of other Labor MPs. And I am just urging people to make it a political issue because in the end, we have to save the service, and I don’t care if it’s the Liberal Government that’s saves it now or a Labor Government that saves it after the election, this service is too important for Hunter families to lose.

And so I am urging everyone to sign the petition that’s on my website and to make it a political issue. Ask every candidate in the upcoming election whether Labor, Liberal, Green, or Independent, what is your party’s policy on the GP Access After Hours service, because it is a great Hunter innovation. Nowhere else in the country has it, and we’ve got to save it.

KING: Seventeen past eight, my guest is Labor’s Federal Member for Shortland, Pat Conroy. You put out a press release yesterday ‘all we want for Christmas is an end to PEP-11’. Well the Minister responsible Keith Pitt is now a Cabinet Minister. I’ll play devil’s advocate here, is this much ado about nothing Pat?

CONROY: Absolutely not Richard. I have never seen an issue arouse such community opposition than PEP-11. People from all walks of life are opposed to drilling for oil and gas as close to five kilometres off our beautiful coastline. This is a proposal to drill for gas that will endanger thousands of jobs that currently exist in fishing – both commercial and recreational – in tourism, in hospitality, and the Minister has the power to stop this project with a stroke of a pen. He’s had the ability to do this for almost a year now and he is refusing to do it. And I am presuming the only reason he is refusing to make a decision is he wants to wait to approve an extension of their drilling licence until after the next Federal election.

KING: Right. Now moving on, another subject that has certainly got a lot of attention over the weekend, our Treasurer Josh Frydenberg revealed, and in fact he was on the front page of The Australian newspaper on Saturday saying – and this will all be revealed in the Budget update on Thursday – that the Government plans to increase Australia’s permanent migration by an extra 120,000 people than previously predicted over the next couple of years, and he said “this will support stronger economic activity, providing a welcome boost to our economic recovery”. But I notice Anthony Albanese has signaled Labor won’t be backing this return of mass immigration ahead of next year’s election. Why do you think that is Pat?

CONROY: Well first off, we should state that Labor supports a good and healthy permanent migration program. It’s very important for this country. But what Josh Frydenberg is doing is lazy economics. Instead of training Australians, he is trying to import people from overseas and that’s just the wrong approach. We’ve got two million Australians who are either out of work or want more hours. Why aren’t we training them to fill the skills shortage instead of bringing in people from overseas? And that’s got to be a critical question. We’ve had something like a decline in apprentice trainings since 2013 of over 100,000 places. Why aren’t we training more Australians rather than just taking the easy option of bringing people in from overseas?

KING: And a lot of publicity about the fact that the NSW Government has been shredding TAFE colleges around the State for a number of years now. Every time -

CONROY: Absolutely.

KING: Sorry, you were saying?

CONROY: No you go Richard.

KING: No, no, I was just saying every time they have a restructure it just seems to be an excuse to cut out courses and cut teaching staff etc. which is obviously adding to the problem of the skills shortage in this country Pat.

CONROY: Oh absolutely Richard, and that’s why the policy Anthony Albanese announced last week that a Federal Labor Government would provide 465,000 free TAFE places in areas of skills shortages is so important. So instead of bringing in more people from overseas – and we support permanent migration – but instead of turbocharging that, we will be training an extra 465,000 Australians to fill those jobs and those fees. There will be zero fees because we know that’s a huge barrier to entry because what’s happened as you said is the State Government has cut TAFE. They’ve cut the budget, they’ve cut the training, and it’s costing more for people to get training through TAFE because of fee increases led by both the State and Federal Governments. So we will be supporting fee-free places so that people, Australians, those two million Australians out of work or needing more hours, have an opportunity to get more skills to fill those skills shortages that exist out there.

KING: Great to talk to you, thanks for your time this morning. Thanks for your contributions and accessibility right throughout the year, and to you and your family, I hope you have a safe and happy Christmas Pat.

CONROY: Thanks Richard. And to you and all of your listeners, have a great and safe Christmas and a happy new year. And here’s to a better 2022.

KING: Oh yes indeed. Alright, thank you.