Prime Minister Julia Gillard, AMA Parliamentary Dinner Speech, 22 August 2012

23 Aug 2012

AUSTRALIAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION ANNUAL DINNER

PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA

22 AUGUST 2011

PRIME MINISTER JULIA GILLARD

***Check Against Delivery

It is a great pleasure to be able to welcome you all here to Canberra tonight, and to be able to speak.

Fifty years since the several Australian branches of the British Medical Association merged and created our own national medical association, it’s a night to celebrate.

For fifty years you’ve been advocates – not just on behalf of your members but in the broader cause of health in Australia.

Five decades as protectors of practitioners’ independence and as promoters of ethical behaviour of the medical profession. 

Five decades of medical research and education through the widely respected Medical Journal of Australia.

Still a world-leading scientific publication, still Australia’s only peer-reviewed general medical journal.

And of course, half a century in your most important role, which is being there to advocate for the medical profession.

It’s quite an achievement that your association, representing your profession, who does from time to time relieve pain for others but give pain to governments, is held in such a respected light.

You’ve given us the occasional headache, and it’s not just this government but governments before. But that’s a testament to the power of your advocacy.

Can I congratulate you too on the launch of your history – More Than Just A Union.  With a title like that I’m looking forward to your application to affiliate with the ACTU. It can’t be that long away! 

I have been working with the AMA for a long time, not for all of those five decades but for around ten years since I became Labor’s Shadow Health Minister.

I have had productive dealings with all your Presidents.

In office we loved contrasting the style of 'Wild Bill’ with the more mild-mannered but very persistent Mukesh. 

And it’s good to be able to be with you and think about some of that past, but also to look to the future together.

And in looking to the future I want to speak to you about two important areas where we are doing and continue to do so much good work, and they are the areas of Indigenous health and in smoking. 

But I can’t let tonight go by, here with an audience of medical professionals, without making some comment on the cuts in Queensland’s public health system, and particularly what’s happening to BreastScreen Queensland.

I was amazed earlier this month to read the news and I have to say that my honest reaction when I read it was, that can’t be right, that’s a misreport and it will be corrected.  Well unfortunately, thinking it was a misreport was wrong, and the news is still shocking.

It shows me, and it should show us, how important national investment in health remains and how vigilant we must be to protect the progress we’ve made, particularly in women’s health.

Women must have the right to health care and women must have the right to choose.

So the Federal Labor Government will be there supporting women’s health.

Whether it’s the independence of the TGA’s decisions in regulating fertility treatments, whether it’s allowing our foreign aid budget to include spending on family planning, whether it’s supporting a woman’s right to choose through Medicare-funded services, that’s my commitment to Australian women as Prime Minister.

And I know the profession will be there with us.

And I know you’re there with us on those issues, you will be there with us on Indigenous health.

Together, we are making progress towards Closing the Gap.

The AMA Indigenous Health Report Cards have been influential in guiding health policies for Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples for more than a decade now.

They have had a significant influence in our efforts to Close the Gap.

Of all the targets in Indigenous advancement, Closing the Gap on life expectancy by 2031 remains the most challenging of all. Of course in this room we know and understand that.

Progress towards the other health, education and employment targets are providing strong foundations to help us lift life expectancy.

And the life expectancy target is the longest term of the six – it is a twenty-five-year target.

We particularly recognise that Closing the Gap in life expectancy in the Northern Territory is enormously difficult.

The challenge is a very large one, but it is a challenge Government does not face alone.

The AMA has been a champion for improving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health.

Your recent AMA Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Audit Report is only your latest important contribution to policy and practice, and I thank you for it.

You’ve played a key role in the national debate and just as important, you’ve played a vital role on the ground, in the communities, with our Indigenous people.

And our public investment is designed to work with you.

Our Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory health initiative is a comprehensive health package to deliver better primary health care, dental and allied health services to more than 65,000 Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.

Funding for alcohol and other drug workers in communities which help develop Alcohol Management plans is part of the approach.

Expanding primary health care services through Aboriginal Controlled Health Organisations, is also a feature of the approach, with around 250 full-time staff delivering medical, nursing and allied health services in around 80 primary health care clinics.

An integrated health program for hearing for Indigenous children, focussing on remote communities, boosting audiology outreach and improving service co-ordination.

Oral health services for Indigenous kids are there too with a new focus on prevention.

Support for around 450 health professional placements in remote areas each year through the Remote Area Health Corps is also working.

And support for Mobile Outreach Service Plus, for four new communities, providing mental health services in the Northern Territory over the next two years and we’re also proud to support three new Indigenous Health Research Centres.

It’s a lot of work in a lot of areas, but one where we know progress is being made. 

It’s critical that we talk about this progress, and that when we come together in gatherings like this we reflect on it.

It’s critical that we speak out strongly on this progress to the Australian community, because the greatest threat to the progress of Indigenous Australians is the false notion that we can’t make a difference, that nothing ever works.

You’ve seen things that work; I’ve seen things that work, and we should share them.

We can make a difference, we know we can, and we are making a difference with more to do.

In Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory the Indigenous mortality rate declined by 36 per cent from 1991 to 2010 – and there was a significant narrowing of the gap in mortality rates with non-Indigenous Australians. 

Four years into a twenty-five-year project, health outcomes, employment outcomes, education outcomes are improving.

They need to, and they need to keep improving and to improve more quickly.

It’s a big challenge to Government, a big challenge to you, but I take great confidence from your resolve to keep at it and keep making a difference where it is needed most.

Closing the Gap is a generational project.

It’s a journey of countless short steps – not a journey where there are single days of brilliant victory.

But in the fight for better health in our country, there are some of those shining days, and as Tanya said, last Wednesday was one of them.

The High Court rejected the legal challenge by big tobacco to our plain packaging laws.

We won.

We won a victory for every Australian who has lost someone to a smoking related illness.

And we won a victory for every parent who worries about their child picking up this deadly and addictive habit.

Big tobacco threw everything at stopping this – and they failed.

They took out advertisements in national newspapers threatening that taxpayers would foot the bill for their legal action against plain packaging laws.

They lost.

So badly, that they had costs awarded against them.

Philip Morris Tobacco even took legal action against me, personally, trying to obtain copies of privileged legal advice about the policy at the Administrative Appeal Tribunal.

They lost that too.

And the news bulletins and front pages around the world have told the story.

You know better than anyone what a determined opponent big tobacco has been.

Even as late as the end of the 1980s, when they stopped saying smoking was harmless, they notoriously said that it was only as harmful as cooking potatoes on a stove top.

But the message here and around the world is now clear:

You can beat big tobacco.

You can’t do it alone.

You can’t do it without courage.

You can’t do it without seeing the task through.

But with leadership, with evidence, with persistence, you can get it done.

As a friend of mine said to me, “I wasn’t really sure if plain packaging would actually be effective in cutting smoking until I saw how hard the tobacco companies fought against them”.

Our fight against the death and disease smoking causes doesn’t end there.

We have increased the tobacco excise.

We have invested around $100 million in support for Indigenous communities to reduce smoking rates.

Millions of dollars have been invested in anti-smoking social marketing campaigns.

We are restricting internet advertising of tobacco products in our nation and reducing the duty free allowance for tobacco products that we bring home.

Together we are building the world’s toughest regime on smoking.

It’s obvious, when we talk about these issues, that we’re all on the same page and I thank you for your support along the way.

It’s also obvious that we don’t always agree, that’s a given in a democracy.

But your expertise and advocacy is invaluable and there are so many areas where our goals and methods are shared.

Not just tobacco.

You are a staunch defender of our public hospitals.

Your support for the National Disability Insurance Scheme is greatly appreciated.

My Government has put a lot of effort and funding into medical training.  We have provided a record number of training places, and you’ve supported us as we’ve done it.

Your pressure on the States to provide more intern places and ease bottlenecks in the system in the years to come is important.

You are making a great contribution in the public health area.

Your voice is heard across the board – obesity, alcohol and drug abuse, immunisation, the health of asylum seekers, climate change and health, anti-bullying messages, food labelling, the social determinants of health, mental health.

Just this week your statement on health and the criminal justice system is a good example of how far and wide you go in the public policy debate.

Your call for a National Strategy for Health and Climate Change and recognition of the threat climate change poses to the health of Australians is another.

That’s a broad body of work. And it touches and helps many of the more disadvantaged and vulnerable in the community.

A lot has changed in the AMA in the last fifty years, and a lot’s changed in our nation too.

But what hasn’t changed is the importance of your service and your voice.

So welcome again to Canberra, and I hope you have a very enjoyable evening.

Thank you very much.

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