SUBJECTS: $200 million rolled out to support student wellbeing; schools bouncing back after pandemic, strengthening Medicare Taskforce; medication affordability
EMMA McBRIDE: Good morning and welcome to Gorokan Primary School. I'm so pleased to be joined today by Education Minister Jason Clare, who is returning to Gorokan Primary School today, and my colleague and friend, Dr Gordon Reid the Member for Robertson.
We're so pleased that on the Central Coast today, Minister Clare is going to make an important national announcement. We know that through COVID the impact on children and young people has been felt deeply, and we know that as a Government that we have a responsibility to help young people and school communities to be able to bounce back.
So, I'll hand over to Minister Clare to make this really important announcement about student wellbeing across Australia, here in Gorokan today. Thank you, Jason.
JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: Thanks, Em. G'day everybody. It's great to be back at Gorokan Public School, for the first time in a couple of years. And it's great that school's back; a lot of excited students, you can hear them in the background, and a lot of relieved parents as well after the school holidays.
This is the first year in a couple of years that we haven't had the chaos of COVID that's affected schools, a year hopefully without home schooling or schools having to hand out RAT tests and all of the complications that have gone on over the last few years.
But we're still feeling the after‑effects of COVID, you can see that with the attendance rates at schools last year, and if you talk to principals, if you talk to teachers, they'll tell you that they can still see the real impact of COVID on their students today.
One story from not too far away from here, Newcastle, which is a good example of this. A principal in Newcastle told me about how they tried to organise a school excursion in 2020, and it got cancelled when everything got locked down. In ‘21 they organised a school camp again, but we locked down again, and the camp got cancelled. And at the end of 2021 at the Farewell for Year 6 and school captain Sam said he loved his time at primary school, but he wished that he got to go on that school camp with his mates.
Now, all of us who can remember our days at primary school know how important things like excursions and school camps are. The fact that we still remember them today tells you how important they are. And that's why what we're talking about today is so important.
We promised at the election that we would provide $200 million rolled out to every school across the country to invest in things like school camps and excursions, as well as counsellors and psychologists, for principals to invest that money in the things that they think will make a difference for the wellbeing of students. Because if you're feeling better, then you'll perform better at school; if you're feeling better, you'll learn better.
And so, we'll roll this money out this year. The money will roll out to state governments and territory governments over the next few months, and for principals right across the country, now is a good time to start thinking about what you're going to spend that money on.
I got a chance just a minute ago to talk to school captains, and the vice‑captains, and prefects here, and encouraged them to start thinking about what you might spend this money on.
On average, schools will get about 20 grand. For some schools it will be a bit more, for some it will be a bit less; it will depend upon the population of the school and their need. But I want principals, and I want students to start thinking about, what would you spend that money on to help you to bounce back over a rough couple of years.
The Productivity Commission put a report out only a couple of weeks ago that made the point that student wellbeing and mental health is a massive issue, and we've got to do something about it. This is the first step in the right direction, investing in the sort of things that can help make sure the students are feeling better so that they learn better.
Now, two people that know more about this than me, are Gordon and Emma from the work they did before they became Members of Parliament, as emergency doctors and pharmacists, but also, particularly in Emma's case, as the Assistant Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention.
So, before we take questions, if I can just flick to Emma and Gordon to say a few words about how they think this will benefit students and families here on the Central Coast.
GORDON REID: Look, thank you Minister Clare, and thank you Assistant Minister McBride. I can't tell you what a fantastic, and what a wonderful [thing] this announcement really is. It's really supporting the health and it's supporting the wellbeing of students and our young people right here across our great region right across the Central Coast.
As we saw during the COVID‑19 pandemic, excursions being cancelled, school activities being cancelled, significant issues surrounding lockdowns. This funding is a real welcome boost, it's a real welcome boost for bouncing back our kids here on the Central Coast. I just want to stay thank you to Assistant Minister McBride and Minister Clare for making this announcement today here on the Central Coast.
McBRIDE: I'm just so pleased to be here as the local member and as the person responsible in our Government for mental health and suicide prevention, to know what that we're doing today is something that is practical; something that will make a real difference to students and school communities right across Australia.
As Minister Clare has said, it will be about $20,000. And when I was walking through the school earlier today with the principal, Mr Jesmond Zammit and Kelly King who does so much work in their kitchen garden. You know, a yarning circle that was recently put into the school would cost about that amount of money; work that they've done on their school garden would be able to be covered with a contribution of about $20,000. There are so many things that can be done within the school gates and outside of the school gates that will really benefit individual students and strengthen the school community and strengthen communities inside the school gates and outside the school gates.
It's something that matters to me personally as a local MP and as a person responsible for mental health and wellbeing. We know that young people bore the burden of the COVID‑19 pandemic. We know that lockdowns and social isolation had a really big impact on young people and families, particularly in those transitional years, whether it was starting school, going into high school, and we know that this investment that we're making, that our Government is making, will make a real difference to schools and young people this year.
So, I'm so pleased that Jason has chosen the Central Coast, and in particular Gorokan Primary School, to make this announcement today.
JOURNALIST: What does mental health support look like in a school?
McBRIDE: We know that across schools and across communities that it can be different. That in some schools that they're able to draw on the support of psychologists and school councillors, in others they have less access. This is something that will be a practical measure that will be able to help with early intervention and prevention, to make sure that students in communities like here in Gorokan, or right across Australia, will be able to have that practical support to be able to bounce back.
JOURNALIST: And we're seeing some pretty scary stats in regards to challenges with cost in accessing any kind of mental health support outside of the school ground. What are you doing to address this across the board, not only for our students but for people of all ages?
McBRIDE: Earlier this week on Monday, Minister Butler and I held a Better Access Forum in Canberra. We had stakeholders, 90 stakeholders from across Australia; Professor Pat McGorry, Professor Ian Hickey, chief psychiatrists, people with lived and living experience, to discuss the very real issues that are impacting people.
As a Government it is a top priority of ours to make sure that people can get access and timely care. And we know that the further you live outside of the big city the worse your health outcomes are likely to be. So it's something that is a top priority of our Government.
Minister Butler and myself brought together 80 people from across Australia to discuss and talk about this, and it's part of our broader reforms in primary care, to make sure that people can get access to care, close to home affordably.
JOURNALIST: And so the studies, it's almost 20 per cent of people weren't able to access mental health support due to the cost. What's it like when you hear those statistics?
McBRIDE: It's something that, you know, for us it's something that we really take seriously. I mean it's really hard to hear that one in five people might not be able to afford the care that they need. That's why Labor is the party that established Medicare, that is now strengthening Medicare, and looking at our broader system of primary care, really wants to improve, to make sure that we have equity, so that every Australian, wherever they live; whether they're here in Gorokan, or in Jason's community, can be able to get the access to care they need. A big part of that will be the Strengthening Medicare Taskforce, and Minister Butler will have more to say towards the end of this week. And our Urgent Care Centre commitments as well, which are about timely access to affordable care in communities across Australia.
JOURNALIST: Do you have any updates in regard to those Medicare urgent access clinics?
McBRIDE: Earlier this week, Minister Butler made… was in Western Australia, with Amber‑Jade Sanderson, the Minister for Health and Mental Health, saying that, you know, reaffirming our commitment that before the end of the year that these Urgent Care Centres will be up and running.
Minister Butler was with the Prime Minister in Tasmania last week talking about another part of our primary care system with GPs. So, this is something that is an absolute top priority for our Government.
There will be another discussion, I believe, at National Cabinet later this week where some of the recommendations from the Strengthening Medicare Taskforce will be discussed. That's $750 million over three years to strengthen primary care across Australia. It is an absolute top priority of our Government.
But also, it's not something that you can do just through the provision of healthcare. We need to work with a whole‑of‑Government approach. This is about someone in the school community. It's about the support they have within the classroom, as much as the support that they can have within a medical clinic. So, this for us is a whole‑of‑Government approach to make sure that we look at every avenue, whether it's through boosting funding to schools, whether it's improving housing, whether it's improving cost of living. It's a whole‑of‑Government approach to improve the health and wellbeing of all Australians.
JOURNALIST: And also, there was the cuts to the PBS costs there is still ‑ start saying that around double of the people in previous years are still unable to afford some of their medications and are going without, and pensioners actually saw a rise in cost due to the PBS cuts. Is there going to be any changes to that plan?
McBRIDE: Well, I was very pleased, this was an election commitment that we made that was confirmed in the budget in October, that for the first time in its over 70‑year history, that the cost of PBS prescriptions, general prescriptions were reduced.
I know as a pharmacist, myself, and having worked as a pharmacist within our community, that people were avoiding or delaying filling prescriptions because they couldn't afford them, and this was particularly impacting our families, and so we know that this has been a cost of living measure as well as a health investment that is being really welcomed.
I know that it's something that, you know, something that is a top priority in our Government, and will continue to be a strong focus to make sure that people can access care affordably when they need it, because we know that if someone delays or avoids care, that they're likely to end up in an Emergency Department and putting more strain on our already stretched health system.
I might hand over to Dr Gordon Reid, who also will have some comments and observations to make about this.
REID: Yeah, absolutely. And I think Assistant Minister McBride is right in that these issues can't be siloed. The health and wellbeing of people isn't just about healthcare, it's also about housing, it's about education, it's about these welfare and wellbeing boosts here in our schools.
And just to talk and to touch on the medication affordability, one of the biggest increases to the PBS in its 75‑year history, it's an absolutely fantastic commitment that our Government, the Albanese Labor Government, has followed through with.
I tell the story where people were rationing their medications in the community, where they might have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, taking that medication once every second or every third day. That chronic disease that is easily preventable by those medications then spirals out of control to become an acute myocardial infarction, a heart attack, or a stroke. Diabetics who can't access their medication, it becomes ketoacidotic, they end up in ICU, their blood turns to acid, and all these things are rectified and are improved by our support for the PBS.
JOURNALIST: It was this time last year you were one of our emergency room doctors. Were you seeing presentations of people that, you know, it was avoidable if they were able to get into a GP and that was affordable?
REID: Yeah, people were presenting to our Emergency Departments for, and still present to our Emergency Departments for a variety of reasons. The medication issues that I was just talking about, people fleeing family and domestic violence, people who are at risk of homelessness, or who are in fact homeless, and that is absolutely angled at the vulnerable population, so women over the age of 50, our veteran community, our Indigenous people, those people were presenting to Emergency, and also those that couldn't get in to see a GP, or couldn't get in to see a GP in a timely fashion, almost having to schedule to be sick, and that's what Assistant Minister McBride was just discussing with our Medicare Strengthening Taskforce, whose report will be handed down later, and Minister Butler will have more to say on that shortly. And also, the Strengthening Medicare Fund, nearly a billion dollars to make sure that we not only strengthen Medicare, but make sure it's able to be sustainable in the future.
JOURNALIST: Beautiful. And we are seeing, of course, those wait times in Emergency Departments. I understand it's obviously the State Government's jurisdiction, but is there anything coming from the Federal Government to help reduce those wait times? Also we're seeing ambulance ramping across the state. We have the second highest wait time for ambulances in the country. What movement is on its way there?
REID: Yeah, absolutely. And again, it's the fact that you can't silo these issues. People are presenting to our Emergency Departments for not just medical issues anymore. It's medication, it's housing, it's GP access, it's domestic violence, it's all of these issues, and we can't just silo and focus only on one of them. We have to make sure that across the board we're supporting and providing for people across Australia, but particularly here on the Central Coast, to try and alleviate some pressure on our hospital Emergency Departments.
JOURNALIST: And also seeing people struggling to get into dentists as well. I understand that's part of the primary health network. What's being done in that space?
REID: Yeah, look, absolutely. So dental care has been an issue here on the Central Coast in terms of access, and we know that good dental health can lead to good physical health. We know that there's a connection between dental care and the heart, dental care and the immune system. All of these issues, all of these concerns with regards to dental care, people do come into my office to talk about. They do send us emails and phone calls, and you know, we continue to make representations to the relevant Minister.
But what I would say is that healthcare in general, Medicare, will only be strengthened under a Labor Albanese Government, and we will continue to do that into the future.
JOURNALIST: We saw some reclassifications with GPs.
JOURNALIST: I was going to say earlier this year, but that would have been last year now.
REID: Yes, yep.
JOURNALIST: Has that made an impact? What kind of impact are you hearing about?
REID: Yeah. So just for your listeners and your viewers, it was a change to the distribution priority area classification, it's the old workforce shortage areas. And what it basically does is, it increases the available pool of doctors that are able to come to the region during their training, or who need to come to the region because they need to work in an area of need or national priority.
That change was made early in our term of Government. I stood proudly with Assistant Minister McBride and Minister Pat Conroy, the Member for Shortland, at a GP clinic in east Gosford when we made that announcement, and look, it was fantastic that we could make changes to our system early on in our term of government in order to improve Medicare and improve access to healthcare. So that's ongoing at the moment, and we will be reviewing that as we go.
JOURNALIST: Beautiful. Jason. How is this funding being rolled out; do schools need to apply with specific details of what they'll use it for, or is it an automatic kind of ‑‑
CLARE: So, the funding will be rolled out to state governments and territory governments, to the different Departments of Education around the country, and then the state Department of Education here in New South Wales will distribute it to schools. And as I said, different amounts for different schools based on the size of the school. But principals and the leadership team of the school will have the discretion to be able to decide what they want to invest it in.
JOURNALIST: Yeah, beautiful. You've got kids at school as well. How much of an impact did COVID and lockdowns have on them and their friends that you saw over the past few years?
CLARE: Look, I've got a little guy who's six, and sick; he's at home today because he's crook. But when the lockdowns happened, he was still in early education and care, and so he kept going, but a lot of his mates didn't, and so his readiness for school was pretty good. But for a lot of his mates, he didn't get that extra time in early education and care ‑ or they didn't ‑ when they were four, that got them ready for school.
If you talk to principals and teachers, they'll tell you that the social skills of a lot of children were affected by lockdowns. I had a principal tell me in Victoria last year they had five‑year‑olds turn up to kindergarten still in nappies. And if you talk to the people who run unis, they'll tell you that the social maturity of people who went into uni last year was a little bit different to the years before.
So just being able to play, to interact, to be in the same room and the same place with people affects your mental health as well as your readiness to learn, and so when just a minute ago we had the kids kicking the ball around here, it seems like fun, but it's really great for your mental health as well.
So, all of this is really important. When I got this job, I met with Emma, and I asked her, "How do we roll this out?" And I said to you, I said, "Look, I understand what a psychologist does and what a counsellor does, but does a school camp make a difference?" And she said, "Oh, you bet." Because when you get to go away with your mates and you have a bit of fun and you interact, all of that builds those social skills that were lost a bit when you only ever saw your mates on Zoom.
JOURNALIST: We need to get future [Central Coast] Mariners somehow, right?
CLARE: Exactly right.
JOURNALIST: That's all the questions I have.
JASON CLARE: All right. Brilliant. Thanks very much for coming along. Really appreciate it.