Speaking on the Medical Research Fund Bill

Finally the parliament has before it, after a delay of more than one year, a bill which will establish the Medical Research Future Fund.


The fund was supposed to be operational by 1 July this year, and clearly that will not be the case. The delay in bringing the bill before the parliament is a demonstration of the chaos, confusion and misdirection that has been at the heart of the government's approach to health policy. We know from the evidence produced at budget estimates last year that the genesis of this fund and this bill was a thought bubble designed as a smother for the government's $57 billion worth of cuts to hospital and health funding in the last budget. It has subsequently become a victim of the government's hapless and botched attempts to reform the health system by attacking Medicare and introducing a GP tax, and as a consequence of all this the bill has had a tortuous entry into this place—and it may yet have a tortuous pathway to the Senate. I support the amendment moved by the member for Ballarat. If it is agreed to, it will give this bill and the research facility it proposes to fund a chance of surviving in the manner in which it was intended.

Good policy arises from a good idea but it requires that that good idea be subject to careful scrutiny, weighing up both the costs and the benefits of the proposal and importantly going through a process of consultation and reflection. This bill suffers from the lack of a careful deliberative process. There is a good idea at the heart of this bill—let me be very clear about that. It is an idea supported by all Labor members in this place. Unfortunately, that good idea—the establishment of a perpetual fund for health and medical research—is crippled by two major fatal. The first of those flaws, which has been identified by the member for Ballarat, is that it is taxing and cutting from the sick today to fund treatments for the future. That is the first fatal flaw at the heart of this bill. The second flaw is that the government proposed to establish a medical research fund—they promised to establish a medical research fund—modelled on the principles of the NHMRC. They promised a medical research fund but the bill delivers a ministerial slush fund. It has none of the checks and balances built into the National Health and Medical Research Council, and unless those flaws are dealt with we are going to be delivering not a medical research fund—with all the checks and balances, peer review, scientific assessment, merit-based application and approval for funding—but a ministerial slush fund run by ministerial discretion. I will have more to say about that.

As the member for Wakefield, who is with me in the chamber, knows, Labor has been a big supporter of medical research. Indeed, in our last term of government we delivered over $3.5 billion in health and medical research funding. This included over $700 million to build and upgrade health and medical research facilities right around the country. We also commissioned the McKeon strategic review into health and medical research to set up a 10-year strategic view about what we needed to do to improve the levels of public and private investment in medical and health research. The review made it very clear that a levy like the Abbott government's proposed GP tax is not the ideal or, indeed, the preferred model on which to fund a medical research endowment fund such as is proposed. That is probably why many in the medical and health research community have had such severe misgivings about the government's proposal. They, like Labor, support the establishment of a national endowment fund for medical and health research. But they are deeply concerned about the proposition, as was the McKeon strategic review, to tax the people who are sick today to fund the treatments of the future. What the government has set out to do from the very beginning is to fund medical research on the basis of taxing and withdrawing funds from the people who need it today to fund treatments in the future.

It was George Bernard Shaw who famously said:

A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.

But we stand here today to draw attention to the problems of robbing Peter. I want to put on the record some of the cuts that have been made to support funds going into the health and medical research fund. More than half a billion dollars has been cut from public dental health programs. Billions of dollars has been cut from public hospital funding. Almost $400 million has been cut from preventive health programs. It is absolutely scandalous that $160 million has been cut from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health programs. Hundreds of millions of dollars has been cut from the health flexible funds that are supporting vital drug and alcohol rehabilitation services, important preventive health services and important work undertaken by organisations like the Heart Foundation, the Cancer Council, the Consumer Health Forum, the Public Health Association and countless other organisations.

We have also had cuts to veterans' dental and allied health programs, to the Healthy Kids Check program, to electronic record funding and to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. This includes a proposal that is still before the Senate—members of the government are demanding, as we speak, that the Labor opposition pass it through the Senate—which would see a cost increase of $5 for all general patients and 80c for concessional patients for drugs listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. They are demanding that we pass these bills in the Senate. At the same, they are bragging that they have locked up an agreement with the pharmacies which is going to cost the government less in terms of the PBS bill. So they are paying the pharmaceutical companies less, but charging the Australian consumer more, for goods listed on the PBS.

Wherever you look—from preventive health programs, to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health programs and health and hospital funding to the states—there is evidence of the government robbing Peter to pay Paul and then saying we have got to back them on this. Labor will not support this. We will not support an unconscionable attempt to round up the health and scientific research community, put them in a headlock and say, 'Unless you support these egregious attacks on health and hospital funding in this country, you're not going to get the much-needed medical research that you all desire.' Labor, which stands on its record of over $3 billion worth of investment in medical research, says medical research should be funded to improve Australians' health. The government sees the reverse—that Australia's health budget should be cut to fund medical research.

I want to say something about the second fatal flaw. I describe this fund as having the potential to be a ministerial slush fund. Some might say this is a bit harsh, a bit uncharitable. But let me explain why. When the government announced this with all the fanfare back in May 2014, we were told that the Medical Research Future Fund earnings would be directed to medical research, primarily by boosting funding for the National Health and Medical Research Council.

With all the misgivings I have already laid out about the funding of this fund and the source of those funds, a proposition based on that could enjoy our support because we know the basis on which funds are distributed by the National Health and Medical Research Council. It is at arm's length from government. It is a process which is overseen by the medical and scientific research community. Applications are carefully weighed on their merit through a tortuous process—some would argue too tortuous. There is a rigorous scientific process of assessment for all of the applications that go to the NHMRC. If the government were proposing that this fund would just act as a new source of finance for the NHMRC, we would have misgivings about the way they were funding it. But we would be totally on board with the way they propose to distribute these funds. This would be through a peer reviewed, rigorous, scientific, arms-length process that does not have the government or a minister—and we have seen some pretty ordinary health ministers in this parliament—handing out so-called research funds to pet projects in marginal seats. We have heard all sorts of contributions in this parliament and in previous parliaments which, if characterised in the right way, might be able to be dressed up as a health concern warranting further research. I congratulate the government and the NHMRC for the excellent work they have done in exposing the pseudo science the lies behind the alleged health practice of homeopathy.

Mr Champion: Doesn't that work?

Mr STEPHEN JONES: Member for Wakefield, we know that no science lies behind homeopathy. The NHMRC has looked at this and has said there should be no government support for this alleged health practice. We can just imagine if a well-organised group got behind a member in a particular seat and put a proposition to a minister about the sorts of pressures that could be brought to bear on a minister to fund perhaps research, to gainsay the claims that are being made about homeopathy. Everything from fluoride research to people like the current Treasurer, who quivers every time he drives past Lake George and sees windmills on the horizon. Are these the sorts of projects that the fund is going to fund? Some might say I am using extreme or alarmist examples but I use this as a mechanism to point out the second fatal flaw at the heart of this bill. It is not putting in place an arm's-length process which enables research funds to be distributed on the basis of their scientific merit as approved and assessed by scientific piers. Yes the national interest should always be brought to bear but it should exist at arm's length from government.

The member for Ballarat has moved some important amendments to the bill before the House today. I support them. I know in his contribution the member for Wakefield will be supporting them and indeed all Labor members of the House will be supporting the propositions. We do so saying yes, of course, we support the excellent research being done by our national health and scientific institutions such as the Garvan Institute, which I visited recently, which is doing world-leading research in gene mapping and the therapies and science that can be brought to bear in that area. I have mentioned only one or two. There are numerous world-class research institutes.