What does it take for a regional politician to overcome vested interest and deliver a win for the bush?
Hard slog, heated words, even battles with your own side of politics.
That’s according to Calare MP Andrew Gee, who was the driving force in Canberra behind the Budget’s big regional health announcement – the $95 million Murray Darling Medical School (MDMS).
“At times we felt surrounded by enemies. It has been a really hard struggle. But it shows people power and persistence can sometimes win,” Mr Gee said.
“I’m absolutely stoked. Walking on moonbeams.
“It was a very Machiavellian process, with twists to the plot and numerous setbacks… but at the end of the day this was politics at its best delivering a lasting difference to country communities.”
The new school will for the first time enable doctors to complete their full training program, from start to finish, at regional university campuses in NSW and Victoria.
It’s an attempt to address the lack of regional health professionals across the country. The MDMS is modelled on Townsville's James Cook University’s medical school, which has achieved a retention rate of 50 per cent of students staying to work in regional communities.
The first intake of around 37 students is slated for 2021. Regional Health Minister Bridget McKenzie said the annual intake will grow to 140 students over time.
Opposition to the school came thick and fast over the past year, as metropolitan Universities and their friends campaigned against new competition. At issue was government funding.
Commonwealth-supported medical placements have flowed to a clutch of city universities, which place students for a year-long stint at a their regional clinics. This approach has achieved a regional doctor retention rate of about 12pc.
But now the MDMS will receive Commonwealth funding, eating into the funded placements at metropolitan universities.
“The medical establishment was absolutely, fiercely opposed to us. They closed ranks and tried to kill it,” Mr Gee said.
Last year Sydney University took out full page advertisements in local newspapers in Mr Gee’s Calare electorate to criticise the MDMS.
“It wasn’t just the big urban unis, it was the Australian Medical Association, the Medical Students Association, even country organisations like the Rural Doctors Association - who were behaving more like city doctors,” Mr Gee said.
“We also had a number of heated meetings in the Liberal and Nationals party room.
“There was some significant opposition in Government ranks which was quite fierce, and disappointing.”
Mr Gee said regional communities were a big part of his campaign.
“They see country health outcomes are worse on just about every measure, even dying younger,” he said.
“There has been an outpouring of goodwill at the announcement, including parents saying they’re delighted their kids can study medicine in the country.”
Ms McKenzie said the $95m in the 2018 Budget was dedicated to teaching in 2019, under the Stronger Rural Health Strategy, with funds for Curtin University medical training and LaTrobe University nursing and allied health training.
“We are transforming medical training in the regions by flipping the current training model and establishing a continuum for our local people to undertake the majority of their medical training in the regions,” Ms McKenzie said.
Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals Leader Michael McCormack said it takes time to secure funds for new initiatives like the MDMS.
“This has taken many years of hard work and negotiation, but I know country people will be the better for it,” Mr McCormack said.
“Research shows us when a person is trained in the country they are more likely to stay in the country, and that’s exactly what we are trying to unlock through this network.
“We have a targeted strategy over the next decade to attract 3,000 more doctors and 3,000 more nurses into country communities to give country people the access to health services they deserve.”
Charles Sturt University and Western Sydney University were advocates for the MDMS and welcomed the Australian Government’s Budget announcement to establish a medical school network across the Murray Darling Basin.
Partnering with Western Sydney, CSU is set to receive 30 medical Commonwealth supported placements.
CSU vice-chancellor Professor Andrew Vann said the MDMS “will allow students in rural and regional Australia to train in the bush and develop the skills, knowledge and networks that will allow them to take up rural medical practice”.
When its up and running the MDMS network will be spread across bush campuses of University of NSW, Sydney University, Charles Sturt and Western Sydney University, Monash, Melbourne/La Trobe and Curtin University with campuses in Wagga Wagga, Dubbo, Orange, Bendigo, Mildura, Bendigo, Shepparton and Wodonga.