Topics: Snowy Hydro; energy security; Medicare; mental health;
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
As mentioned off the top of the program, our guest now is the Health Minister, Greg Hunt. He joins us live from Melbourne. Thanks very much for your company.
Good morning Peter, and good morning Paul.
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
Now obviously you’re full bottle on a lot of these issues that Paul Kelly was just editorialising on, your previous portfolio, or your two previous portfolios we could probably say, before moving into the health portfolio.
We will get to health, there’s a lot to talk about in that space, but first can I get your broad sweep on how you see some of the stoushes from the week around energy policy? Particularly vis-à-vis, South Australia?
Sure. Look Australia has a challenge in two things: energy affordability and energy security. What we’ve seen this week is the Prime Minister has moved on both fronts.
In terms of the energy security, the critical thing is the South Australian grid has been deeply insecure.
I remember warning about it in a major speech which was on the front page of the Adelaide Advertiser in August. The South Australian Government denounced that as irresponsible. They said it was all fine, it wasn’t.
So we’ve seen the proposal for the Snowy Hydro storage scheme, effectively the ability to create a national battery, a national storage scheme by using pump hydro. It’s something which has been on the books for decades, but which the Prime Minister is moving on now.
And then the second thing is to address the question of gas shortage. That comes because there’s been, on the one hand, what I believe to be a positive development, the export from Queensland of Australian gas resources, which has grown the Australian and the Queensland economies.
But which was always predicated on more gas becoming available in the southern states. That was stopped by successive state governments.
In particular we’ve seen in Victoria an extraordinary ban on both conventional and unconventional gas exploration. Now, what we are doing, is taking real steps to make more gas available. We do need the support of the states.
So we need to make more gas available, which will help both with supply, and with prices. They’re the big initiatives of the week.
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
Can I ask you, despite some of the criticisms around what Jay Weatherill has done, to play devil’s advocate on that.
The argument coming out of his home state is that at the national level there isn’t enough clear direction, so therefore states, if they want to secure their energy, have to go it alone. What do you say to that?
I think this is absolute policy insanity. Disconnecting, as they’re effectively saying, from the national grid, will drive up prices for South Australians, drive down security.
The best thing for South Australia, is to be part of a national grid. At the moment they’re drawing up to 600 megawatts from Victorian brown coal.
The fact that they have literally blown up a power station, not just figuratively, but literally blown up a power station, created insecurity. And now they want to double down. It is the worst thing they could do.
There’s one positive initiative and I think it’s very important to acknowledge that. And that’s something that myself and Barnaby Joyce and Matt Canavan and Josh Frydenberg have all argued for, and that is a better return for landholders who have gas resources taken from their property.
That’s something that we all advocate, we all support and not only would we want to see the end of the ban in Victoria, but that initiative of better returns for farmers and landholders is something which should be adopted across all states.
On that particular point Minister, are you relying on individual state governments to introduce those schemes? Or will you have the national government introducing some across the board policy to ensure that farmers and land owners can be beneficiaries of those sorts of decisions?
Under the constitution that is strictly something which falls to the states. Under good governance, our job is to advocate and support measures which will encourage the states to open up exploration, open up a safe, sensitive, environmentally acceptable approaches, but to provide support for landholders.
So whilst we think the overall South Australian proposal has been badly conceived, and this idea of disconnecting effectively from the grid is simply policy lunacy, made much worse by Bill Shorten’s proposal for 50 per cent renewables. Imagine the way the prices will skyrocket and the security will plummet.
The one thing that we should be doing is acknowledging and supporting the idea of better returns for landholders and we say that to Victoria, to New South Wales and to Queensland.
So that’s where there is a good idea in an overall poorly conceived proposal. I think it’s very important for us to acknowledge and to encourage.
Well, what do those state governments say to you? You’re saying to these state governments, we’d like you to do these things in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. What do they say?
Well this was something which we’ve been talking about consistently. We’ve now seen one state government adopt it.
And I would encourage the other state governments to say, we reject the disconnection option, the go it alone option of South Australia, it couldn’t be worse for the people of South Australia, but we do take out of it, this idea of a fair return for landholders.
So my view and our view, I know it’s shared by Barnaby Joyce and Matt Canavan and the Prime Minister and Josh Frydenberg as well as the Cabinet, getting a better return for landholders will deal with a lot of the closed door arguments that some of the states have made and what you’ve seen happen in some of the rural communities.
How has America succeeded in ensuring that gas supplies are strong and abundant? They have made sure there’s a fair return for landholders. And that’s the single thing that we take out of South Australia.
More broadly, our job has been to say to the gas companies, we need you to ensure that there are supplies.
But in order to get those supplies, of course you need to have the consent of landholders, and nothing will go further on that front than providing incentives.
In the same way, we also need to have stability for the national grid. And the big initiative, the powerful long-term vision which has come out of this is, the expansion of the Snowy Mountain scheme to ensure that it’s not just electricity generation, but that it’s effectively the capacity for national storage on a grand scale, done in a way which is environmentally acceptable and which makes use of what is a national energy capacity within the Snowy Mountain scheme.
Okay, let’s focus on Victoria. You’re a Victorian. The Turnbull Government has savaged the Victorian Labor Government for its moratoriums in relation to gas exploration and development. How does the politics of this play out in Victoria and how realistic is it, do you think, that you’ll get a change of policy from the Andrew’s Government?
Well I think that they should change. I know that there are many within the Ministry who are uncomfortable.
I don’t think it’s fair for me to name them, but they have expressed their discomfort with the policy. And that’s because what you see is clearly the closure of the Hazelwood Power Station, but then the denial of as resources.
So when you put the two together, a closure which was driven by a tripling of tax on that power station by the Victorian Government, which was the clear intention. We’re about to have that closure come to fruition. Add to that, the denial of gas resources.
Victoria has been a state which has profited from, lived from the abundance of gas and oil which have come from Bass Strait.
So 50 years ago we were able to safely implement a more difficult offshore project. 50 years later, what they’re saying is whilst we’ve relied on Bass Strait, we can’t operate safely onshore. But we do want Queensland’s gas, which is coming from onshore. It’s policy lunacy, given support by Bill Shorten.
We need Bill Shorten to step up and grow up and finally take a responsible policy position, which is onshore gas, appropriately sourced, is good for the country. Natural gas is a clean fuel which reduces emissions and provides stability.
And a 50 per cent renewable energy target is simply a dangerous fantasy that will drive up electricity prices, energy prices and will lead to energy insecurity. So I think it’s time for him to acknowledge, he’s got no path, no way, and come on board.
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
Just on the Snowy Hydro scheme, Minister. Why is the Commonwealth investing so substantially in that infrastructure project when the Snowy Hydro scheme is almost 90 per cent state owned between the two governments of Victoria and New South Wales?
Well everybody asked for Commonwealth leadership, so we’re providing it. It’s a signature project for the Prime Minister. He has thought it through, we’ve worked on it.
And this is the single best way to provide back-up stability, to provide storage for the national grid, where there is renewable energy which can be intermittent. So the combination of solar and wind, whilst positive in many respects, is clearly intermittent.
This has literally been denied by Victoria and South Australia, but with real consequences. So we need to do it to protect the grid. Everybody asked for national leadership. I hope that they’ll come on board and also join us in this investment.
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
So if the Commonwealth is going to go down that path, which is clearly its intent, will it also fund the all important interconnection to South Australia, Given their issues?
Well I think it’s up to South Australia to indicate whether they want to be part of a national grid. This week we’ve seen them go the opposite way, to effectively pull the plug on their linkages with other states.
And that is a frightening development. We are saying that it is a frightening development. There should be more, not less connection between the states.
That’s something that I have long advocated. It’s something that the Prime Minister has advocated. The best way to provide stability is one, to have back-up and two, to have interconnection between the states. South Australia, at the moment, is going the opposite way.
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
You’d have to assume though sure but with the Snowy Hydro investment, if there’s a commitment to fund the interconnection to South Australia, surely it’s just a no-brainer that you’d be able to convince them to come on board?
Well you would think that they would be supportive. As of this week, there’s this notion of pulling the blanket over the head, with the support of Bill Shorten, pretending that we can effectively disconnect and ring-fence a state.
And the people who have created the problem in South Australia, which we warned about, which they denied and which they’ve now exacerbated, are literally making the problem worse.
And I respectfully say to Mr Shorten and Mr Weatherill, there is a national grid for a reason. It provides back-up, it provides stability, and to break that up is the single worst step we could do for small business owners and households.
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
Okay, but has the Commonwealth offered South Australia to fund the interconnection in the wake of the Snowy Hydro announcement?
Look, I’ll leave that one for Josh Frydenberg. That’s not something I’ve been part of. I’ve obviously moved to a new role. But I do know that we raised, during the election campaign, the issue of the role of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Clean Energy Innovation Fund in interconnectors.
And we did that specifically within the Tasmanian context. But we also raised it more broadly …
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
You’d know though. You would though. Minister, you’d know if the offer had been made, surely? So presumably it hasn’t yet?
Well I’m actually not aware of any approaches from South Australia, but that’s not to say they haven’t made any. I simply haven’t been involved in those discussions.
If we can move to your health portfolio. I put it to you Minister, that there is great public confusion about the Government’s attitude towards Medicare, given the election campaign last year, given the debate about the Medicare rebate and the political damage done to the Government on that front.
So I’d like to ask you, what is the essential view of the Government towards Medicare? Is it to strengthen Medicare, or is it to continue to make savings from Medicare?
So there are two fundamental principles here. One is a rock solid commitment to Medicare. I just want to repeat that. An absolute personal, policy and government and cabinet rock solid commitment to Medicare.
The second is to strengthen Medicare. And we do that as part of a long-term National Health Plan.
Four pillars. Strengthening Medicare is the first pillar, strengthening hospitals is the second. For the first time, raising mental health and preventive health to being a pillar of the long-term National Health Plan. And strengthening medical research, which is such a golden Australian competency.
Now how do we do that? My first call was to the head of the AMA, Michael Gannon. We’ve worked incredibly well over the last few weeks, since coming into the portfolio.
And my second was to the head of the Royal Australian College of GPs, Bastian Seidel. I’ve also worked extremely well and been very heartened by the way they’ve approached us.
We are looking at an accommodation where we work with them on long-term support for Medicare and for the doctors. In return for ways of making our system more sustainable.
And ultimately that’s about improving patient access to doctors. So Medicare funding goes up every year from 22 to 23 to 24 and them $25 billion. And interestingly, we’ve also had the highest half-yearly bulk billing figures on record in recent weeks.
So more people are accessing doctors, and more people are accessing doctors without having to pay for it. And we’re now working on that long-term plan very cooperatively with the doctors.
Well given that you talk about a long-term plan, given the priority you’ve put on working with the doctors and given the doctor’s position, I think it’s fairly safe to assume therefore that the policy issue of the Medicare rebate will be in the mix over the next few months?
Look, what the Prime Minister has said is that we will work constructively with the medical profession. And I’ve got to say, that constructively approach has actually become exceptionally positive.
And the way we’re doing that is laying out the approaches which can help strengthen and stabilise Medicare so as we can reinvest funding into the sector, in return for cooperation from the medical profession.
But they’ve been great. And so I am very confident, very confident, that we will reach an outcome which is positive for the medical profession, and positive for the sustainability of Medicare. And most significantly, improves patient outcomes.
The big thing for Australia, is being able to ensure that those services which currently occur in hospitals, but which could be avoided by early intervention or preventive health, do occur.
Mental health is a huge part of that and this week the Prime Minister and I met with a round table of leaders such as Lucy Brogden and Jackie Crowe, Patrick McGorry and Ian Hickie in the mental health space.
And that’s part of preventive health. That’s part of keeping people out of hospital. If we can do that, it helps the profession, it reduces costs for the states and it means that we can reinvest at the federal level.
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
We’re talking to Greg Hunt, the Federal Health Minister. Paul Kelly’s cracked open the door to discussions on health issues. We’ll continue that when we come back
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
Welcome back, you’re watching Sunday Agenda. A reminder Ben Wyatt, the new WA Treasurer, will be our guest later this hour, but at the moment we are speaking to Greg Hunt, the Federal Health Minister, live from Melbourne.
Thanks for your enduring company. Let me ask you about some more issues around that health issue that Paul Kelly started to move into.
You were making the point that the sector, the doctors in particular the AMA, have been very constructive and they’re very happy with the way things are going. That can only mean one thing, can’t it Minister, the unfreezing, earlier than otherwise anticipated, of the Medicare rebate?
Look our approach here is to work on a long-term national plan. You can understand that I’m not going to pre-empt the components of that, but I’ve approached them in good faith and I’ve been received in good faith.
I really want to say to Michael Gannon, to Bastian Seidel, to the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine, thank you for way in which they have engaged in very positive conversations.
The same with the pharmacy industry and the diagnostic and pathology sectors and the medicine sectors. So we’ve had a very good reception as a government over the last two months within the sectors.
And I think what matters to them is they know that we need to achieve two things, better patient outcomes and sustainability. And sustainability means actually the ability to reinvest into the system.
A classic example is changes that have been made under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, have stabilised the costs, but have allowed us as a Government to bring about $4.9 billion of new medicines into the system.
Something such as Kalydeco, that’s a cystic fibrosis drug that for the first time has been made available for beautiful little kids between two and six years of age, who would otherwise have had to have paid up to $300,000 a year.
Their lives are being transformed. So when we talk about reinvestment, and we talk about making a system more efficient, that’s actually the ability to deliver human outcomes which transform lives and that’s what matters.
Minister a straight political question. You lived through last year’s federal election campaign. How much damage was done politically, by Bill Shorten exploiting the freezing of the Medicare rebate?
In terms of running on that issue and building it into privatisation of Medicare and to what extent has that trauma really penetrated the political sole of the Liberal Party?
Look I think it has emphasised to the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and myself, that it is very important that we listen to the Australian public.
They believe in Medicare, but we do too. And my first task has been to give absolute confidence in not just our commitment to Medicare, but the deep, strong belief in universal access to doctors, in a rock-solid commitment to Medicare and universal access to citizens and to hospital care.
That’s what Australians want. When you boil it down, can they go to the doctor, can they get their medicines, and when they need to, can they go to the hospital?
That trust, I believe, has been strengthened over recent months. And an interesting thing, they made a grand scare, as everybody knows, about privatisation.
Only two weeks ago, we released the request for information for modernising the Medicare payment system.
It’ll be government-owned and government-run. That was the whole basis of their election campaign. They couldn’t even be bothered raising it now. So it was a fraud then, it’s evaporated now.
And I think one of the reasons is because there’s deep understanding within the medical profession of our commitment to supporting them and a renewed understanding within the public or our absolute commitment core, fundamental, unbreakable commitment, to universal access and to Medicare.
Now if the decision is taken to unfreeze the Medicare rebate, does that mean that you have to find the savings involved for that extra cost from your own portfolio?
Well I think the Finance Minister, Mathias Cormann, has already said, and I think he said it on this program a couple of weeks ago that as a Government, we need to be able to cover all of our costs.
And so that’s what we do. Part of being a Liberal Government is helping us live within our national means, not adding to the debt burden which will only ever be paid by our children and our grandchildren. So as a government, across all of our budget, we have to meet our costs.
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
Minister, can you find those savings though, to be able to theoretically meet the cost of unfreezing the Medicare rebate, or is the quantum too low?
No I’m certain that, not just within my portfolio but across the portfolios, we’ll be able to bring down a budget which meets our commitment to strengthening Medicare, and at the same time, achieves the overarching national task of ensuring that we live within our means.
It’s very important for Australia that we are reducing pressures on cost of living, reducing pressures on borrowing, and reducing pressure on future generations.
That allows a genuinely sustainable system. And on the progress that I’ve seen so far, both at the budgetary level, and the progress within the health portfolio, I think we’re able to do both things.
Now every time you speak as Health Minister, you say, as you’ve just said to us this morning, that you’ve got a long-term plan.
You’ve got a long-term plan for the health system, there are four points to the plan, Medicare’s at the heart of this.
Can we therefore assume Minister, in a general sense, that one of the themes of the May Budget will be embodying and putting together this sense of a new national health plan for the country? The sort of thing you’ve been talking about.
I won’t pre-empt the Treasurer’s Budget as such. What I will say as the person charged with responsibility for health, is that I do have, and we do have a long-term health plan, and a commitment to Medicare, but that it goes more deeply than that.
The sustainability of the hospital system, which I have to say is world class, but can be the best in the world, is fundamental.
And then you add medical research, where the big historic trend in direction is towards personalised medicine, or the ability to decode the genome, to provide analysis and then treatment for people in a way which has never been done before to this extent.
And then the fundamental task of mental health. We bring those four things together, and that’s a comprehensive plan.
The Prime Minister and I met with mental health leaders this week. And it’s all about outreach services. So as young people, but people across the ages have access to mental health services.
And also acknowledging I don’t think as much as we talk about it, it’s understood that 4 million Australians a year, which effectively means almost every family and certainly every room where you have a collection of people, has those with mental health challenges.
Four million Australians a year have either chronic, which means permanent or semi-permanent mental health challenges, or episodic.
So a major anxiety, depression or other event during the course of a year. So that topic, I have to say, is the single biggest one since coming to the portfolio, where people in my electorate will stop, talk to me, ask me about it, and ask for ways through.
Now we know that bulk billing rates are fundamental to Medicare and we know that Labor from time to time has attacked the Government on bulk billing rates. Give us the story here in terms of the percentages, Minister.
Sure, so bulk billing rates for GPs are up 3.5 per cent since we came to government. So bulk billing rates under the Turnbull Government are 3.5 per cent higher than they were under Bill Shorten’s Government. Then the second thing is, in the last half-yearly figures that are just out, we’ve gone from 84.7 per cent, to 85.4 per cent.
So in other words, Medicare funding is up and bulk billing rates are at their highest ever on a half-yearly basis. What does it mean? More funding, more investment in Medicare and more people being able to go to the doctor without having to put their hand in their pocket.
That’s the truth. Funding is up and bulk billing is up. The commitment to Medicare is actually translating to real benefits for people across the country.
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
Minister, just before we let you go. I just wanted to get your reaction to some comments from your colleague Peter Dutton, over the weekend.
Now he expressed annoyance, frustration, anger, I would even say, at the CEO letter to the Prime Minister on same sex marriage.
You can agree or disagree with that, what did you make though of his characterisation of an attack on Alan Joyce, the openly gay CEO of Qantas, when he said he should get back to his knitting?
Look I think the point here is very simple and that is, we want everyone to be able to have a say on same sex marriage.
My position is well known that I support it. But I also support a plebiscite because that’s a chance for everyone to have a say.
I disagree with those who want to deny the Australian population a say.
I respect their views, I respect their right to their views, but it’s a slight perversity that some would say, only the elite can participate in a debate, and we can’t trust the mainstream we can’t trust the population. I do trust the population and I do support a plebiscite for precisely that reason.
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
I understand that side of the issue and I don’t want to get into a debate about where that takes us in terms of how many plebiscites we do or don’t have or why this issue is or isn’t different. What though, specifically, is your response to Peter Dutton’s comment to Alan Joyce, via a microphone, that he should get back to his knitting? Let me be blunt, did you see that as a homophobic slur?
No I didn’t. And what I do see it as is Peter making the same point that I’m making. And that is that this should be a debate, not just for the elite, but for every Australian to have their say.
It’s a big social change. Now it’s one I happen to support. But in a situation like that, it’s a positive for the Australian democracy that every Australian can have a say.
And the only person standing between every Australian having a say and I suspect the measure being passed by the population, is Bill Shorten.
And if he really wants progress on this issue, respect the election mandate and let the Australian people have their say. I trust them, for some reason he doesn’t.
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
Peter Dutton also said that he’d like business to stay out of political affairs. Would you echo that beyond the same sex marriage to, for example, political donations?
Look, my view is very simple. We’ve got an open, thriving democracy. People have a right to say, but it’s a perversity when that is taken to the point where the view of the elite is only we can have a say and the population can’t.
So people can participate in the democratic system in many ways and my approach is that the consistent view is that everybody, everybody should be able to participate.
Whether it’s through supporting a party or supporting a view. Let’s not constrain it to just an elite few.
PETER VAN ONSELEN:
Health Minister, Greg Hunt, we appreciate you finding the time to join us this Sunday morning. Thanks very much for your company.
Thanks very much, Peter. Thanks Paul.