NSW Nationals Senator Fiona Nash says she's looking forward to tackling the issues of her new portfolio as Federal Parliament resumes this week.
Promoted to Assistant Health Minister in the Abbott government, Senator Nash will have prime responsibility for regional and regional health, and the delivery of "on the ground" indigenous health services.
Senator Nash, who was elected to the Senate in 2004 and 2010, will assist Health Minister Peter Dutton.
"Being the assistant health minister is an enormous responsibility and I hope to be able to say, at the end of my time, I've left things in better shape than I found them in," she told Fairfax Agricultural Media.
"I hope to make some real improvements, to improve health outcomes and services for people living in rural and regional areas."
Mental health focus
A key priority will be improving the delivery of mental health services and care into regional areas; especially for younger people and those struggling to cope with isolation or recovering from natural disasters, like floods and droughts.
"The tyranny of distance is a constant theme raised with me when I'm discussing these types of health issues in rural and regional areas and difficulties in getting proper services," she said.
Senator Nash will also be responsible for policy on food, alcohol, illicit drugs and tobacco, and the Therapeutic Goods Administration and the Office of Chemical Safety.
She will oversee other agencies including Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ); Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR); Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency; National Blood Authority; and the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) which assesses chemical risks to people and the environment.
Senator Nash admits her health background isn't strong but she was active on the periphery in the last term of government, in areas concerning rural health.
Looking for solutions
She was involved in a senate committee inquiry into barriers to the provision of regional health services, which made several key recommendations.
One recommendation was changing the government's classification system that provides incentive payments to attract and retain doctors in rural locations.
Senator Nash said the current system's lines-on-maps approach provided the same incentives to attract doctors to work in towns such as Gundagai, with populations of 2000 people, as it does for nearby towns like Wagga Wagga with 60,000 people.
Senator Nash is also focused on improving incentives to attract medical students into regional areas, to grow the number of professionals graduating to eventually work in the regions.
She said short-term incentives were available to attract medical professionals into regional locations but better long-term thinking was needed.
"We'll look right across the portfolio to see what's working and what's not, and how we can do things better and improve outcomes," she said.
"Of course anything we do to make improvements will be within the constraints of the economic environment we find ourselves in, in the new government, where things are very tough."
Senator Nash has spent the first few weeks of her new role absorbing information from departmental briefings and meetings with stakeholders, as well as assembling staff.
At last count, she had more than 300 requests for meetings from stakeholders.
Less vocal, more local
Senator Nash - who runs a mixed grain and sheep farm with her husband David near Young - said she'd remain active and involved in rural and regional issues despite not being as vocal.
As an assistant minister, she can't retain her committee roles or speak out publicly on non-portfolio issues like the $3.4 billion sale of GrainCorp to US multinational Archer Daniels Midland.
"There are other ways to make a contribution to any debate, other than through the media," she said.
"If there are issues I feel strongly about concerning rural and regional communities, people can be absolutely assured I'll still be taking up the fight on their behalf, even if they don't necessarily see it on front page of the newspaper."
Senator Nash said her views on the GrainCorp sale to ADM were "very clearly known".
"I believe the sale is contrary to the national interest and I'm continuing to have discussions with my colleagues in that regard," she said.
GM an issue for Nash to consider
THE use of genetically modified (GM) crops and other products and foods in Australia will come under the jurisdiction of Senator Nash's government agencies, including the OGTR and FSANZ.
"If the science stacks up and there are no health implications then absolutely we need to be looking at GMs for the future benefits they can provide; especially in a world where we're looking at global population of 9 billion people by 2050," she said.
"There will be much greater demand in decades to come to feed not only ourselves but developing nations and were going to have a real responsibility as an agricultural provider, to do that.
"But at the same time, I know there are lots of concerns out there about GM which means we're going to have to be very careful, and cautious, and very methodical in how we go about assessing the efficacy and appropriate use of GMs.
"It's not open slather; we're doing methodical controlled work in research around the use of GMs."