Wednesday, 24 November 2010
Questions without Notice
Australian Defence Force: Medical Officers
My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Defence, Senator Evans. Is the government aware of the report by the ABC on Friday, 12 November that the Australian Defence Force needs to recruit an additional 200 medical officers because specialists have been leaving the Army and Navy in droves due to what one reservist doctor, Captain Julian Fidge, described as ‘poor treatment’? What is the government doing to address this important issue?
I thank Senator Fielding for the question. I am not aware of the particular ABC report he refers to, so I do not have that context for his question. It is the case that, under successive governments, having high-quality medical personnel inside Defence and supporting defence personnel has been a priority. We have generally done very well in that regard and have attracted quality medical professionals. We have been very well served, as we have also been with the legal profession, through the reserve system in terms of medical professionals. So I think we have had great success in making sure that Australian defence personnel have been supported by first-class medical professionals and medical facilities. That has, in the past, been a strength of the ADF, and we have had many committed people, both permanent and reservists, who have provided those services.
The question from Senator Fielding refers to allegations of poor treatment, but in asking the question the senator did not specify what the poor treatment was in relation to, so I am not sure whether he was talking about poor physical treatment or service conditions. I am not clear what the senator is seeking from me, but I can say that we are very strongly supportive of high professional standards and very grateful for the service that our medical professionals inside the ADF provide to ADF personnel.
My first question had to do with the issue of the shortage of doctors in the defence forces because of poor treatment of some of the doctors. Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Can the government advise the chamber whether our troops are now at greater risk because the ADF has been forced to use less skilled contractors instead of ADF trained medical officers? Is the shortage of medical officers affecting what operations we can participate in overseas?
I think the answer to the sorts of questions posed by Senator Fielding is, effectively, no. It is the case that we have some vacancies, as I understand it, for permanent medical officers, but this has not limited support to current operations or our international commitments. As the senator would appreciate, the priority of the ADF would be—and it would have been a priority of the previous government also—to ensure that those persons are fully supported. I understand there are currently more than 4,000 healthcare providers in Defence. The advice from Defence is that those numbers are sufficient to support the various operations, contingencies and activities, and there are currently 150 new medical personnel under training supported by the ADF. Obviously, like any other employer, Defence has to compete for highly skilled people, and there are currently some vacancies for permanent medical officers.
Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Does the Australian Defence Force have plans to install a soldiers’ advocate to make sure that soldiers have an avenue to raise valid safety concerns without the risk of facing disciplinary action, which apparently happened in the case of the person who raised concerns about the shortage of medical officers?
Certainly this government would absolutely support—and I am sure the previous government would also have supported—the right of any member of the ADF to raise any concerns regarding safety in the workplace or lack of support in that regard. In answer to the suggestion that someone who raised concerns about the number of medical staff would somehow then be discriminated against, I would be very concerned if that happened. I am sure that the Chief of the Defence Force, Angus Houston, would also be concerned, as would the minister. So, if there are particular cases where Senator Fielding thinks a member of the defence forces might have been discriminated against for raising legitimate health and safety concerns and the senator wanted to provide the details, I am sure the minister and the CDF would be very happy to follow those up.