An interview with Paul Fletcher

Federal member for Bradfield and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Communications.

Paul Fletcher is the Federal Member for Bradfield and Parliamentary Secretary to The Minister for Communications. He holds a BA, LLB and an MBA from Columbia University. Paul is a tireless traveller and frequent user of Twitter. We managed to grab the chance to have a one-on-one interview with Mt Fletcher in his electorate offices in Lindfield.

Thank you for your time Mr Fletcher. You cover the dual roles of member for Bradfield and Parliamentary Secretary to The Minister for Communications. Can we start by briefly explaining what your Secretarial role entails?

The Minister, Malcolm Turnbull has responsibility for the communications portfolio. The way the Federal system works is that another parliamentarian gets assigned to a portfolio to assist the minister and so I was assigned the role of Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Communications when we got in to Government in September last year.

There are a number of specific projects that I am working on. For example we’ve got a policy commitment to spend $100m on improved mobile coverage in regional and rural areas and so I have been travelling around the country in relation to that.

I am also doing a lot of work on online safety. We took a promise to the last election that we would establish something called “The children’s e-safety commissioner”. This is about better-protecting children from the dangers of cyber-bullying and other risks online.

Plus I also generally represent the minister to stakeholders at meetings and presentations.

You are a relentless traveller. Last week alone you have been to Merimbula and Bega, run an interview with the ABC on the Eyre Peninsular as well as attending events in Roseville and the city.

Last week I was in the Eyre Peninsular at a town of about 350 people approximately 1.5 hours from Adelaide by light plane, and then we went up north to a very small place with only about thirty people living there. In both places we were talking about regional communications and of particular interest in both places was communications supporting tourism because both towns have a fair amount of tourist activity.

Then yesterday I was down in Bega and Merimbula talking about mobile communications and communications issues.

One of the things I have been asked to take a lead on is regional and rural communications. This year I have visited 35 of my colleagues’ electorates and held over sixty community meetings on the topic of rural communications, which has been terrific. Regional and rural communications is a very important issue and I have been lucky enough to have worked in communications policy since the mid-nineties. So, I first got involved with some of these issues when I was working for the Howard Government’s Communication Minister, Richard Alston and at that time the big complaint from farmers was when they wanted to get on to the internet it was a dial-up connection and they were getting 1.2 KB/s and to add insult to injury, you had to pay for the call and in many places people did not have untimed local calls.

So, in the twenty years since then, a huge amount has changed.

So the portfolio items I have to work on I enjoy, it’s a very important policy area and it’s an area where I have had a fair amount of experience. Other than working within government, I was director of corporate and regulatory affairs at Optus for eight years.

How do balance this frenetic pace with the detailed needs of the community?

Then nature of politics is that you balance the needs of your local constituency responsibilities with your portfolio responsibilities and that is one of the strengths of our system. Even the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and the most important ministers have electorates to manage and what that means is that on the one hand they are thinking about grand, national policy issues. And on the other hand they are meeting with constituents who are saying to them “I am having difficulty with my tax, or immigration, or social security” and so it does keep you very much connected to the day to day issues that people face.

How well do you feel you work with your state and local colleagues?

There’s a lot of cooperation and working together. My state colleagues include Barry O’Farrell, Jonathan O’Dea, Gladys Berejiklian, and Matt Kean. I even overlap a little bit with the seat of Epping which is Greg Smith. As I do overlap with State colleagues, we’re often at the same events. For example, last week Killara High opened its new building and I was there with Barry O’Farrell and Jonathan O’Dea.

On the weekend there was the unveiling of a new memorial to National Servicemen who died while in service, particularly in Vietnam which was opened at the Memorial Gardens in Turramurra and Barry and Jonathan were there plus the Mayor, Jennifer Anderson.

On Tuesday there was a function at the Roseville Memorial Club where we jointly unveiled a memorial to the Civilian Defence Volunteers from World War II. That memorial was partly funded by Commonwealth money and there was some local council contribution to it as well.

That’s a good example of how I work with State colleagues and local government colleagues.

Often, what will happen is that a constituent will raise an issue with me, but it turns-out to be a state of local government matter and so I will refer it on to the appropriate colleague and vice-versa. So, we work closely together and we have a shared interest in doing the best we can for our constituents.

Do you see a clear delineation between the roles of Federal, State and Local politics, or do you feel that you need to work across those boundaries from time to time?

We often work across boundaries. As an example, if you take the delineation of something likes roads; in the main, that is a State responsibility, or a local council responsibility depending on whether it’s a major road or a suburban road, but people will often raise with me “road issues”.

If you take very major projects, they typically have a Federal Government contribution. Locally, North Connex is being funded with $405m of State money and $405m of Federal money as well as private sector money which will be recouped through the tolls charged.

So, it’s not always clear that one level of government has an interest in something, and naturally many citizens are not entirely sure which level of government has a responsibility in something and so we are keen to get them in to the right part of government to raise their issue.

And then the other point is that, from time to time, I will take up an issue with a State minister or with the local council just as an advocate even though it is not a formal Federal Government responsibility. My job is to be an advocate for my constituents and if I can do that, I am happy to help.

As the member for Bradfield, what are the key issues that you are working on? What are the key “issues” within the community?

In terms of my responsibilities to my 100,000 constituents, I divide them in to three areas:

The first area is that you have an on-going to job to help people with their specific engagement with government. This is the case-work, as it were. If someone comes to you and says, for example “I want to get a visa for sister who lives in Lebanon or Korea to come to Australia”. That’s a very typical kind of issue “Can you help me with that?” so I will sit with them and understand the issue, we’ll write-off to the minister, and we’ll pursue it and so on.

The second is working on issues which are specifically local. One of those right now is North Connex and monitoring the process as that project goes through the Environmental Impact Study, working with constituents that have concerns about aspects of the project and also being a champion for the project. My position is that I believe this project will deliver significant community benefits; it will reduce congestion, it will deliver community amenity in places like Thornleigh and Normanhurst which are currently very-much effected by traffic on Pennant Hills Road.

Regarding North Connex, it is important that the Health and Safety aspects are properly considered and considered by appropriately qualified experts. Where there are constituents that have issues with those matters, I assist them with raising them with the State Government, who is the Consent Authority, but I also seek to make the case about the benefits of this project.

Another priority locally is the Centenary of ANZAC. There is a significant amount of funding available for projects to mark the centenary of ANZAC next year. Locally, we have set up a committee with a number of experts, stakeholders, representatives of the RSL and representatives of the local schools. We called for nominations and we assessed those applications and those applications are now sitting with the department of veterans affairs in Canberra. Quite a number of those projects have now been approved.

That has been a big stream of work to make sure that what we are doing locally fits in nationally with this defining event in our history.

The third thing is what I would call the local implications of national issues. There’s a whole raft of those and in some cases it is interesting that Bradfield and its constituents have a distinctive interest in an issue. To take one example, under the previous government there were a number of changes made in relation to private health insurance, frankly to make private health insurance more expensive and reduce some of the tax benefits, and so on. Now, that’s a very big issue in Bradfield because of all the electorates it has one of the highest levels of private health insurance. Similarly, the point can be made about superannuation, or tax or whole range of other issues.

Another very big issue here is education. There are so many schools here. Schools are one of the big “industries” of Bradfield and therefore issues to do with Gonski funding and the proposals of the previous government plus the proposals we took to the last election are all issues of acute interest to both parents and students in Bradfield but also the schools including the independent schools, state schools and catholic schools.

And one other issue that I will call out that attracts a lot of interest here in Bradfield is aged care. We have a lot of aged care facilities here in Bradfield; retirement villages and nursing homes. Retirement villages typically for the “active retired” and then as you get older and start to have health issues, there are the nursing homes. There has been a series of changes to the rules and regulatory framework governing aged care and that is certainly something which is taken up a bit of my time. Quite a few proprietors and managers of retirement villages have come to see me to seek my assistance to make sure their perspective was being considered in the policy process.

Health. I have recently visited the Royal North Shore Hospital with its fantastic new facilities. I understand that the site has been developed privately and then leased back by the State government? Federally, the government pays for the vast majority of services in hospitals. Do you see these new facilities as helping to manage those costs? And does the government have in place a strategy to cope with the ever-increasing cost of health?

In the last 30 years, the cost of health care has jumped from $10bn to $140bn and from 6.3 % of GDP to 9.5% of GDP. Can we sustain that level of cost indefinitely?

The cost of the health care system is a big challenge for the Federal Government and the State Government. The cost of health care is rising for several reasons;

  • People are living longer, which is a good problem to have. Life expectancy, even in the last ten years has gone up appreciably. I think average life expectancy now for a child being born now is well over eighty. It might even be higher than that.
  • Medicine is a very high-tech business with lots of expensive equipment and all kinds of procedures being developed all of the time.

So the cost of the health system is very substantial, for State Governments in particular, it is a very big source of pressure. The Commonwealth funds health in a number of ways. There is a lot of direct Commonwealth funding of health, for example, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, Medicare and whole range of other line-items in the budget. The day to day responsibility for hospitals is a State Government matter. That being said, first of all, a large chunk of the State Government budget comes from the Commonwealth particularly from the GST but also from other specific purpose payments. And secondly there are specific programs under which the Commonwealth funds specific components of the system. To give you an example, the Sydney Adventist Hospital (SAN) at Wahroonga is one of the two major hospitals in the electorate of Bradfield along with Hornsby Ku-ring-gai, plus Royal North Shore also services this area.

To give you one example of the many things which the Commonwealth funds, two years ago the SAN established a new training facility for a combination of medical students, nursing students and allied health professionals and a significant amount of the capital cost for the project came from the Commonwealth Government.

All of these factors are putting pressures on both the Commonwealth and State Governments, So there is a number of things that we are doing; first of all we have said that we want to introduce a co-payment for Medicare and the notion is that, if you are bulk-billed, then as far as it seems to you as a patient the cost of your visit to your local GP is free. In reality it is far from free, it is a very expensive exercise and that money has to be recovered from tax payers across the system. So the notion of a seven dollar co-payment is to send a price signal, in economists’ jargon,  and that healthcare is not free and it is reasonable that you as a patient are asked to contribute a small proportion of the cost of going to see the doctor. Just as you are asked to contribute a small percentage of the cost of drugs under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme; you pay a standard price even if the true price of the drug is fifty dollar, a hundred dollars or more.

So what we’re trying to do is make the cost of Medicare become more sustainable by getting a price signal in there so that people don’t over-consume but anyone who has a genuine need is able to get health care as they need it. It is important to note that there are some safeguards in there for people above a certain age, for people above a certain number of visits to the doctor each year and so on, when there is no further co-payment required. That has all been designed in to the system.

The basic idea is one of the fast-growing components of healthcare expenditure is Medicare whether it be funding the visits to GPs or specialists and what we want to do is change the system so that a small contribution towards the cost of the visit is expected from the great majority of people that go and see a doctor.

If I look at the Royal North Shore and the SAN, by comparison the Hornsby Ku-ring-gai appears to be the orphan child at the moment. Are there plans afoot at a Federal level to do anything there?

Well look, there is a lot of money going in to the physical regeneration of Hornsby Ku-ring-gai Hospital. The redevelopment was promised by the Liberal-National Coalition in the 2011 State election and Matt Kean, then as the State candidate for Hornsby and now as the State member for Hornsby has been a very strong champion of improved funding for Hornsby Hospital. The hospital physical infrastructure was extremely elderly and in very poor shape. I have been on a number of tours in the old building and it really was quite primitive. There is a lot of work being done and Jillian Skinner, as the New South Wales Health Minister has been a strong champion of upgrading Hornsby Hospital. It’s essentially a geographic issue that people for Pymble, Gordon and south would tend to look more towards Royal North Shore Hospital and people north would tend to look towards Hornsby Hospital.

The good thing is, while Royal North Shore has gone through the regeneration, Hornsby in now in the midst of the regeneration process.

Urban density. The North Shore is changing with the development of high density housing along the Pacific Highway Corridor. Do you believe that we have the long term infrastructure plans in place to cope with this increasing and diversifying population?

I think that both the State Liberal Government and the Federal Government inherited from our respective predecessors, a problem of a lack of willingness to plan for the growth that we are seeing.

If you start with the national perspective, the population is growing at approximately 1.7% per annum and that’s a very high rate of growth compared to other OECD countries. That is reflective of our success as a nation; a lot of people want to come here so we have a very strong immigration program. We have also had good, healthy birth rates. As that growth continues you need to make sure you have the infrastructure there to support it. We all know that the roads are under more pressure, the rail network is under more pressure and so on. When Bob Carr was Premier of New South Wales, his attitude was to say “Sydney is full. There’s no room for more people”. Well, that was just putting his head in the sand because Sydney is clearly continuing to grow, so we need to plan for that and respond to that.

The growth within the high-density areas of Bradfield is part of trend that is occurring across the metropolitan area as you get single dwelling units replaced with apartments. There was, and there remains strong community frustration about the way that was managed on the Upper North Shore. The previous State Labour Government imposed, in a very draconian way, and in a rather random way as well, planning decisions to build large apartment blocks without local decision makers. That actually took planning power away from Ku-ring-gai council. That caused great frustration. We now have a situation with what is called “the town centres plan” which was passed in to law under the previous government and that applies to Roseville, Lindfield and a series of town centres up the highway and so within those areas larger building are now permitted than was the case before.

So, to come to your question “what do we need to do in relation to this?” what we need to do is make sure we’ve got the infrastructure to support the growing population and I think there are some encouraging trends. Firstly, you’re seeing things like the North West Rail Link and South West Rail Link which is work that the State Government is doing and Gladys Berejiklian in particular has done an outstanding job in those areas. The South West Rail Link is effectively finished, and they are now doing testing. The stations are finished, all the lines are finished which is a remarkable achievement and it came in $300m under budget.

The North West Rail Link is relevant to our area because the two lines come together at Chatswood and this idea of getting better utilisation or capacity out of our existing rail corridors make an enormous amount of sense.

And then North Connex is part of the picture as well because Pennant Hills Road and the Pacific Highway are frequently very, very congested. North Connex is going to make a very big difference because it will take a lot of the trucks off Pennant Hills Road. It will also be an alternative route for heavy traffic going north from the city heading to Central Coats and Newcastle. I think for a lot of people the more attractive prospective, rather than coming up the Pacific Highway to get on to the M1 North at Wahroonga, will be to go up the M2 and then on to the North Connex and straight on to the M1.

Those are large pieces of infrastructure, but it is important that we keep the planning going and one of the priorities at a national level for the Abbot Government has been the support for these major pieces of infrastructure that take a long time to plan and implement and require big chunks of cash to fund them, but they really are very important long term decisions to ensure we maintain our quality of life as the population continues to grow.

Finally, what is your position on the 10/50 Regulations? They are obviously very important and very controversial to people in this area.

Well, I have had a significant amount of constituent correspondence about this issue because one of the things we all love about the Upper North Shore is the trees. We love the natural environment, we love the distinctive tree scape, we love the fact that trees are closely integrated with houses and that the bushland and the houses are very much intermingled. There is not a hard stop between suburbia and the bush and that’s one of the most attractive features about life on the Upper North Shore. At the same time, trees right next to houses in a bushfire situation create risk and so I think we can all understand the rationale behind the regulations.

I have had a number of people asking questions or expressing their suspicions at people using the regulations as a convenient means to remove trees. This is a matter that sits between State Government and Council and they have very important responsibilities, and I don’t intend to interfere, but I would say that this is an issue that has got people really engaged and energised because people care so passionately about our tree scape here.

Mr Fletcher, thank you for your time.

About Mike 314 Articles
As publisher of The Kuringai Examiner, I have an interest in all things on the North Shore, particularly news, sport and food. I'm always on the outlook for something unique and original to bring to my readers.