Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP urges the government to improve regional and remote healthcare access

29 May 2024

Thank you Mr. Deputy Speaker, and again I thank the member for Calare for raising the issue and the urgent need for the government to immediately address the shortage of doctors in rural and regional Australia. It is now at a crisis, and the need to deliver better health services for all Australians regardless of their postcodes. Too often in this place, members seek to sow division between urban and regional communities, but the reality is all members here and all communities care about all of Australia moving forward, in particular my urban community of Warringah. I decided to get into politics very much because I was concerned about the future our children face, so I will focus a little more on that aspect when I think of rural and regional health and the crisis it faces, in particular because in Warringah we have the Royal Far West, which is one of the only, I believe the only national charity focusing on delivering services to regional and rural children and has been doing so since 1924. As they state, the need it so great, while all parents want the best for their children, not all parents in Australia have the same access to resources to help their children with their health and development needs.

There is a widening gap between the needs of country children and families, and the health services available in rural and remote regions of Australia. The evidence is stark and indisputable. Where you live matters. The rates and consequences of not addressing developmental vulnerabilities increase the further a child lives from a metropolitan centre, and can have impacts that last a lifetime. Some of the growing disadvantage and complexity, some 190,000 children across rural and remote Australia need development support. Children living in very remote areas of Australia are two times as likely as city children to start school developmentally vulnerable. Over 50% of country children, through our child family services have experienced trauma, and that is from Royal Far West and their services. Sadly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are two times as likely as non-Indigenous children to be developmentally vulnerable. Children's mental health: half of all lifetime mental health problems emerge in childhood, by the age of 14. One in five children in regional and remote Australia have a mental disorder. They have very limited access, with long waiting lists and long distances to travel to services, which exacerbate the problem, and 70% of parents and carers in the children and family services within the Royal Far West report mental health concerns. And over 55% of country children through the Royal Far West children and family service require psychiatry. Are they getting access to those services in regional Australia in other ways? The problem is no, and that is something for the government to address.

Ultimately only a few weeks ago we saw the government deliver the Budget, and while I acknowledge there has been progress and further development and a better focus on this issue, budgets are about priorities, and so there is still a lot more work that can be done. We know workforce and access to services is a major problem. We know nurses in very remote areas are a third of that in major cities when it comes to mental health services. Psychologists per 100,000 in outer regions compared to 80 per 100,000 in cities. Over 80% of people in remote and outer remote regions live in child-care deserts compared to 30% in major cities. There is one GP per 1,250 people in remote areas, so it is clear there is a huge difference and a huge distinction, and we need to do so much more.

So one of the things that were so frustrating when I saw the Budget a few weeks ago was, despite much, much advocacy to ministers and the government about the important services Royal Far West is doing in delivering many of these services, yes, through telehealth ways, but they are delivering them to rural and regional and remote children, is that there is no funding, and so many services are now due to finish. One of those particular services that Royal Far West has delivered has been in relation to recovering from natural disasters. We know regional children are much more likely to be exposed to significant floods and bushfires. They have huge levels of stress as a result. This is going to have huge long-term impact on their development, and that is something we should all be focused on, and so for me, it is incredibly important that those children are not left alone. We know that they are impacted to a huge extent, but we don't yet have the focus and the delivery of services they need, so I urge the government to focus on this area.