Statements - Northern Australia


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (13:41): Northern Australia, and that part of northern Australia which I represent in Queensland, have had huge advancements and successes in recent years, for many reasons, not the least of which is the Abbott and Turnbull government's White paper on developing northern Australia. As chairman of the implementation oversight committee, we'll shortly be presenting to the Prime Minister our report on the successes and the actions that ministers in the executive government have taken in honouring the commitments made in the white paper. Most senators will have heard about the major commitments and successes of the white paper: the establishment of the $5 billion Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, the Northern Australia Beef Roads Program, other roads—including the massive amount of work happening on the Bruce Highway—great successes in Indigenous involvement, water feasibility studies that will at last open up and capture some of the vast rainfall in the north of Australia, and research facilities like the Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia.

In the north we already lead the world with our wonderful tourist destinations, particularly the magnificent Barrier Reef that continues to draw tourists from all over the world and continues to be a wonderful experience. We have the rainforest. We have our other tourist destinations: the Whitsundays, Far North Queensland, Magnetic Island, the outback of the north, the Mission Beach area. We also lead Australia in sugar exports, beef exports and mineral exports. In the north we have Australia's largest Army base, at Lavarack in Townsville, we have the second-largest east coast Navy base, in Cairns, and we have significant Air Force bases at Garbutt, Darwin and other places in the north.

But today I want to talk about another aspect where North Queensland is really leading Australia and, in places, the world—that is, James Cook University. I've had a long association with James Cook University, although I've never attended. The University College of Townsville was set up when I was in grade 10 at Ayr State High School. I was never clever enough to go to university, nor my parents wealthy enough to send me, but I've had that close association since the university college was first established. The college became the James Cook University of North Queensland on 29 April 1970 by an act of the Queensland parliament. I think it is the only university in Australia that's been officially opened by the reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. In 1987 a campus was established in Cairns, and in 2003 the university opened a campus in Singapore. The university is named after the founder of the east coast, Captain James Cook, who really brought modern Australia to this continent. Of course, we also recognise the Indigenous heritage we have, and the library at James Cook University is named the Eddie Koiki Mabo Library.

James Cook's been famous for its marine research over many decades and also for its cyclone-testing work. Recently, James Cook University was awarded top marks for graduate employment, for the seventh year in a row, by The Good Universities Guide. Figures show that 74.9 per cent of undergraduates from James Cook University find full-time employment within four months of graduating, higher than the national average of 69.5 per cent. Another university prominent in the north, Central Queensland University, with campuses in Rockhampton, Townsville, Cairns and many other places, also received recognition for their graduate employment, particularly in the areas of engineering, teacher education, architecture and building, and received five-star results for graduate employment, median graduate salary and social equity.

I've often spoken about James Cook University, but today I want to concentrate a bit on the medical school. Peter Lindsay, a former member for Herbert, and I had a lot to do with convincing the then Liberal health minister, Dr Michael Wooldridge, to help the university establish a college of medicine at JCU. This happened in 2000. The university's dentistry and veterinary science graduates have the highest employment rates in the country, while JCU's medical graduates have a 100 per cent employment rate. During the break, I had the pleasure of calling on the dean of the College of Medicine and Dentistry, Professor Richard Murray, and had a talk to him about past successes and their aims for the future. There have been advances. Along with Warren Entsch, I helped the university set up the dentistry element of the College of Medicine and Dentistry in Cairns. Recently the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine, which was a major coalition commitment before the 2010 and 2013 elections, has become a reality, advancing James Cook's world recognition in tropical health and medicine.

As I said, the medical program at JCU commenced in the year 2000. It was the first new medical course in Australia for 25 years and the first to be entirely located in a regional or remote area. The inaugural class of 58 students graduated as doctors at the end of 2005. Fast-forward a decade later and there have been 1,288 graduates in medicine, with over 100 of those receiving honours degrees. Among these doctors are 29 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander medical graduates. Interestingly, of the 1,694 current undergraduate students at the college, 1,154 are medical students, 376 dentistry students, 142 pharmacy students and 22 physician's assistants students. There are about 400 academic and professional and technical staff, meaning the ratio of staff to students is about one to four, which is pretty good. I guess that demonstrates why the results are so good. In dentistry, the university received a five-star rating, ranked as No. 1 in Australia for overall graduate employment in the dentistry area. In medicine, it was ranked No. 1 in Australia, according to university rankings by subject. In the pharmacy area, another five-star rating, it was ranked No. 1 in Australia for overall quality educational experience, and No.1 in Australia for overall course satisfaction.

A regular survey of medical graduates showed that interest in working in rural areas increased over the duration of the course, from 64 per cent at entry to 79 per cent when they graduated. These are doctors who intend to work in rural areas. The proportion of students intending to practice medicine outside the Australian capital cities from JCU was some 84 per cent. From other universities around Australia, it was 16 per cent. Similarly, the proportion of graduates who undertook their internships outside a metropolitan centre was, for JCU, 64 per cent; from other universities in Australia, it was 17 per cent. Of graduates planning to work in regional locations with a population of less than 100,000, for JCU, it was 42 per cent; for other universities, it was18 per cent.

I have run out of time in relating the good news from JCU's College of Medicine and Dentistry. There's a lot more that the college and the dean have planned for the school, particularly in addressing areas of shortage for registrar places. But suffice to say that through the university, through the government, there are a lot of doctors coming out of university that are now looking after rural and regional Australia.

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