Federal Election 2013

Australia needs smart investment in medical research, not cuts

Hon. Tanya Plibersek, Federal Minister for Health and Medical Research

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to realise that health and medical research is critical to reducing incidence of disease and suffering, as well as being a major contributor to the strength of our economy.

The question is: How do we keep Australian researchers punching above their weight?

The short answer is we not only need to continue increasing investment in the sector, we also need to be smart about where our precious health and research dollars are going.

To that end we commissioned the Strategic Review of Health and Medical Research, chaired by Simon McKeon. The review’s central theme of embedding health and medical research into all aspects of the health system is one I am particularly keen to advance. I raised this with the state health ministers at our meeting recently.

In the face of increasing international competition, it is only through strategic investment that we will continue to make world-first discoveries such as the Gardasil vaccine, which is now given to both Australian girls and boys to protect against the spread of the HPV virus, and the cochlear implant, bringing the miracle of sound to millions of hearing-impaired children around the world.

Actions speak louder than words, and this Government has continued to make record investments in health and medical research through the implementation of the Clinical Trials Action Group recommendations funding of the National Health and Medical Research Council.

Since October 2012 alone, we have committed funding of nearly $802 million for 1,309 grants for ground-breaking health and medical research across Australia. These investments will ensure that Australia researchers continue to be at the cutting edge of health and medical research in their fields.

NHMRC funding continues to increase over the next four years to a record $814 million in 2016/17 despite the tight fiscal environment.

This figure is almost 25% higher than the annual investment in the NHMRC that Labor inherited from the Howard Government in 2007.

Given the Coalition’s track record, I am concerned that Tony Abbott has only committed to maintaining NHMRC funding at current levels, should he win government on September 14.

Such flat-lining would cost the health and medical research community $88 million between now and 2016-17. That is because if you don’t increase spending every year you actually go backwards as funding fails to keep up with health inflation and growing expenses.

An $88 million cut in funding to health and medical research is something the future health and wellbeing of Australians can ill afford. Rather than punching above your weight, you may instead feel like you’d been kicked in the guts.


Funding H&MR is a priority

Hon. Peter Dutton, Federal Shadow Minister for Health and Ageing

The Coalition recognises that funding for medical research is the best long-term investment a government can make for the health of the Australian people. Consistent, long-term funding of medical research lifts national productivity, improves quality of life and life expectancy and takes pressure off the hospital system. That is why a future Coalition government is committed to protecting Australia’s medical research funding.

As a former Health Minister with an outstanding record on medical research funding support, Tony Abbott remains strongly committed to Australia’s research sector. Despite a tough Budget position, the Leader of the Opposition announced in November 2012 that if elected, the Coalition will quarantine health and medical research from any further reductions in funding.

The previous Coalition Government made funding of health and medical research and building the infrastructure capacity to support it, a priority. It recognised, as the Coalition still does, that health and medical research infrastructure is essential to Australia’s ability to deliver high quality health care now and into the future.

The last Coalition Government increased funding for the National Health and Medical Research Council five-fold from $131 million in 1995-96 to $715 million in 2010-11 after our funding commitments had been implemented. As Health Minister, Mr Abbott announced an additional $905 million for Australian health and research in 2006 and in 2007 provided $485 million in grants to medical research facilities.

Investments in health and medical research make good health and economic sense. It has been estimated that every dollar invested in medical research returns five dollars in economic benefits to Australia. The recent release of the McKeon Review into medical research was welcomed by the Coalition and we will continue to be guided by the 21 strategic recommendations it brought down, particularly as they relate to streamlining processes and cutting red tape.

Breakthroughs in health and medical research may come at any time, but they do not come cheaply and may take years to develop. While the Coalition is committed to returning the Budget to surplus, we also recognise that funding of medical research needs to be consistent and ongoing to ensure Australia does not undermine its capabilities in this field.

Consistent with this, a Coalition Government will provide $35 million to help find a cure for type 1 diabetes. Over 122,000 Australians have type 1 diabetes including 20,000 children. More than 800,000 Australians suffer from both forms of diabetes. Excluding the costs of complications, diabetes costs the Australian health system $1.6 billion annually.

Australia is a world leader in this important area of medical research and the Coalition’s commitment will ensure this continues.

The Coalition’s approach to medical research is in stark contrast to the Gillard Labor Government. In April 2011 rumours circulated that the Gillard government was proposing to slash $400 million from the National Health Medical Research Council’s budget over three years. Rumours of the impending cuts were confirmed privately at the time by at least three Cabinet Ministers to key leaders in the medical research community. It triggered a storm of protest with 7,000 medical researchers and staff participating in public demonstrations around the country.

This attempted cut is one of many Labor should be embarrassed about in the health sector. In the past year they have announced a $1.6 billion cut to public hospital funding, nearly $4 billion from private health insurance and $1 billion from dental health. At the same time, the Government has created 12 new health bureaucracies.

The Coalition is committed to excellence in health and medical research. Sustained investment is essential if we are to retain our scientific talent, generate Australian health discoveries and fully reap the benefits of health and medical research in Australia. Accordingly, the Coalition has committed to provide funding certainty for this important sector if elected to Government.


McKeon Review deserves serious consideration

Hon. Adam Bandt, Greens Deputy Leader & Spokesperson on Science and Research.

The Greens believe science and innovation, particularly health and medical research are critical to our prosperity and our economy. That is why we have worked hard for increased science and research funding and campaigned strongly against cuts to health and medical research.

Here in my electorate of Melbourne, which hosts so much biomedical research, I have worked closely with health and medical researchers to protect NHMRC and ARC funding from the Budget knife. The Discoveries need Dollars campaign put the issue on the national agenda and had a big impact in Canberra. It has been important in subsequent Budget decisions.

Earlier this year I successfully moved a motion in the House of Representatives calling on the government to quarantine health and medical research funding from budget cuts and I have worked hard to use the weight of the Greens in Parliament to ensure funding remains secure.

However, despite this successes government funding to research and development continues to decline and along with Labor’s cuts to universities these are challenging times for the sector.

The Greens believe the recommendations in the McKeon Review all deserve serious consideration. We will go to the forthcoming election with a considered plan to put in place the Reviews key recommendations into action such as:

  • support of Integrated Research centres, sites of excellence in health and medical research;
  • establishment of a Transitional Bio Tech fund to help translate discoveries to widely available cures.

We have also urged the government to take seriously the recommendation to provide an additional $1.5bn per annum for research in the health system.

Overall we would like to see the government to set a target of 3% of GDP for research and development in Australia, bringing us in line with the top research countries in the OECD.


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