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Tuesday, 17 March 1987
Page: 888

Mr LANGMORE —My question is to the Minister for Territories and relates to the dispute between doctors working in Canberra's public hospitals and the Government about the doctors' contracts. What is the origin of the conflict? What offer has the Government made to settle the dispute? What are the reasons for that offer? What arrangements has the Government made to cope with the doctors' strike until the dispute is settled?

Mr SCHOLES —The doctors in the Australian Capital Territory have undertaken Medicare work on the basis of contracts which are currently expiring and which provide a fee for service payment for treatment of Medicare patients. Under those contracts the agreement was that 70 per cent of the standard fee fixed for payment under the Medicare schedule would be paid in respect of cases dealt with by doctors in the Australian Capital Territory. Over a number of years the medical profession in the Australian Capital Territory has consistently rejected the principle of sessional payments and basically there is a very small salaried medical staff in the Australian Capital Territory. Negotiations on new contracts have taken place over a considerable time. They have not been finalised; there are still a number of matters outstanding on which agreement was not reached prior to the contracts expiring last night. The medical groups have sought, first, the recognition of the Australian Medical Association schedule of payments, which is a schedule fixed by the doctors themselves, and, secondly, a change in the basic principle under which doctors are paid in the Australian Capital Territory to allow for sessional payments. They have made claims for the Macken decision which was handed down in New South Wales and which the Federal Government does not accept as a reasonable determination. Had it applied to the Federal area, we certainly would have contested it.

The Government has made an offer in respect of new contracts which represent a payment of 85 per cent of the schedule fee. This is an increase from 70 per cent of the schedule fee under the old contract to the medical profession in the Australian Capital Territory. This represents an increase on the previous contracts of some 21 per cent. That is a very generous offer in view of the conditions being applied to other wage, salary and income earners in the Australian community. The medical profession in the Australian Capital Territory has insisted that this is not a sufficient rise and has asked for the Macken principles to be applied. If these principles were applied it would represent an increase in excess of 100 per cent in some cases in the fees paid under the previous contracts. At present the doctors have indicated that they will continue to deal with patients who are seriously ill and I understand that that is the current situation. They do not accept the 85 per cent offer. The Government is not in a position where it can responsibly make a more generous offer, taking account of the present situation in the economy and the constraints which are being asked from all other sections of the community. Certainly it is not up to the Government, nor is it an acceptable proposition, to grant increases of the magnitude of 100 per cent. It is also not a principle that we could accept that a group of persons should be in a situation in which they have the right to fix whatever fees they so desire and extract from the public purse payment for those fees. I notice some lawyers around the place and their opinions may differ, but the facts are that we believe in a system whereby the fees are fixed by a proper method of arbitration.

In this instance the doctors are complaining that the schedule fee is too low. They have some responsibility for that. This is a national matter, not a matter just for the Australian Capital Territory. Some time ago the AMA withdrew from the process of negotiating the schedule fee. If the schedule fee is not what the doctors think it should be, they should go back to the negotiating table and negotiate at a national level. Doctors' incomes have been rising at a rate at least equal to that of the incomes of the remainder of the community and probably, I would think, at a higher rate.

Opposition members interjecting--

Mr SCHOLES —The Opposition may be in a position to pay anything to anyone who asks for it. It certainly never takes that line in respect of wage and salary earners, although I never hear it complaining about executive salaries either. The situation at the moment is that an offer has been made; it is a very generous offer by the Government in the current circumstances. I expect that the medical profession will honour its responsibilities and continue to treat the sick.