We are here to listen, says ALP

4 minute read

The Labor Party’s summit made it clear that health policy would be a critical area for the next federal election


Labor Leader Bill Shorten has raised the bar for health policy debate, promising to map out long-term investment in preventive health and primary care in partnership with health and medical experts.

Mr Shorten told 150 senior health professionals at Labor’s Health Summit in Canberra last week, he would use the current term of parliament to plan a future for healthcare beyond the demands of short-term election cycles.

“We want to move beyond the boom and bust in healthcare policy in the recent past, the uncertainty created by deep cuts or sudden swerves in policy or funding,” he said.

“I want all of us to look beyond the next Budget, or the next election, and focus instead on the next generation.”

In his opening address to the summit at Parliament House on Friday, Mr Shorten linked public disenchantment with politics to widespread fear that the society was becoming less equitable and the health system was becoming run down.

“I think there is an almost measurable anxiety. Will we be the first generation of Australians to hand on a lesser standard of living, a lesser quality of life, to the next generation?” he asked.

Mr Shorten said reducing fragmentation of the health system and improving continuity of care were two of the best improvements a government could make.

“Because if the last three and a half years of health policy have taught us at all, it’s that the tired old mindset that views every dollar of health funding as a burden to the budget, or a cost to be cut, is totally unsuited to the challenges facing 21st century Australia.”

He said Labor had called the summit to listen to the experts.

Of course, it’s a lot easier to appease stakeholders in (health) from opposition than it is from government.

“We are here to listen to people on the frontline – to the researchers, the policy makers, to the people who see how the system works.”

AMA President Dr Michael Gannon said Mr Shorten’s address was “a fabulous speech” that showed understanding of the importance of prevention and how the different elements of the health system knitted together.

“Of course, it’s a lot easier to appease stakeholders in (health) from opposition than it is from government,” he told The Medical Republic. 

“But the greatest challenge at the moment in health policy is the ability to find savings across all elements of spending across government.

“In the room today we have got 150 stakeholders who have got fabulous ideas about how to spend more money on health.”

Dr Gannon said one focus of discussion was that Australia spent only a small amount – 2% of health spending – on public health prevention initiatives, which he said were of enormous value.

“A point I made was the enormous secondary prevention value the Australian public gets from the work GPs do every day. GPs are the public health champions in every postcode,” he said.

However, both sides of politics had failed to invest in general practice over the past 30 years, he said.

The summit meeting was well oversubscribed, with more than 400 applications for the 150 places at the table.

Dr Stephen Duckett, Health Program Director of the Grattan Institute, said it was a remarkable concentration of people from all political persuasions and across the sector, from public health to private hospitals and health insurers.

“The reality is, if they (Labor) want to develop good policy, they’ve got to listen to a range of ideas,” he said.

RACGP representatives at the summit stressed the opportunity to achieve better efficient by putting more weight on primary care, rather than tertiary care, and the need for more accurate health workforce data.

“We really don’t have very good data to underpin our workforce planning to avoid shortages and oversupply of nurses and practitioners. That’s something to focus on,” College President Dr Bastian Seidel said.

Dr Ewen McPhee, president of the Rural Doctors Association of Australia, said he was encouraged by the emphasis on longer-term investment and giving policies time to mature.

“Bill Shorten summarised it quite well by acknowledging it wasn’t about the Labor Party; it was about listening to health professionals and listening to people with lived experience of disease, and communities.

“That would be a positive way for them to move,” Dr McPhee said.

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