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Tuesday, 7 October 2003
Page: 20619

Mr CREAN (Leader of the Opposition) (2:11 PM) —My question is to the Prime Minister. Does the Prime Minister recall saying, when asked on 25 September by Ray Martin whether there was a crisis in medical indemnity:

No, I think crisis is the wrong word.

Prime Minister, are you aware that just two weeks later your new minister for health, when asked about medical indemnity, described it as an immediate crisis? Does the Prime Minister agree that the system now is in immediate crisis?

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) —I will go back over the transcript of A Current Affair.

Mr HOWARD —I will, because you are a serial offender. The Leader of the Opposition is a serial offender when it comes to misquoting people. Let me say this: the new health minister, I think, has got off to a remarkable start. The new health minister has engaged the medical profession. The new health minister has, quite properly, provided a circuit-breaker to the medical profession in relation to the issue of medical indemnity, and I am greatly indebted to the Leader of the Opposition for asking me about medical indemnity. It enables me to remind the House that this government has already committed some $700 million of taxpayers' money over a period of 10 years in order to address the issue of medical indemnity. The House ought to remember that the reason there is a problem with medical indemnity insurance in Australia at the present time is that the negligence laws of this country have been allowed to develop to a situation where claims are getting out of hand and premiums are rising. As even the Leader of the Opposition must know, the Commonwealth parliament has no power over the negligence laws of Australia—none whatsoever. The doctors are being asked to meet the IBNR levy for two reasons: the negligence laws got out of control due to the failure of the states to bring them up to date—not the failure of any Commonwealth government, be it Labor or Liberal—and of course there was the mismanagement of UMP.

But that is the past. The present—and the future—is more relevant to this parliament. By the 18-month moratorium for any levies over and above $1,000 a year, what the minister has done is to remove the levy as a current reason for any doctor to withdraw his or her services. If doctors claim they have a reason to withdraw their services now, it cannot be because of the levy alone. The reason I say that is that by providing that circuit-breaker, by providing that moratorium, the minister, and therefore the government, has removed the levy as a reason.

I say to the doctors who are considering withdrawing their services: we have made a contribution—a fair, responsive contribution—to resolving this difficult issue, and we ask them to make a contribution by suspending any plans to withdraw their services. That will not help their cause in the eyes of the Australian community. It will not help the public hospital systems of the states of Australia—over which we have no control, although we provide more money to fund the public hospitals than the states do.

I say to the doctors of Australia: we are prepared to meet you halfway, we are prepared to sit down and talk about things, but understand that by providing the moratorium we have removed the levy as a justification for you to withdraw your services. I think that is a fair offer by the federal government. I think it is an offer the Australian people see as fair. I ask the doctors to come halfway and continue their discussions with the minister—who, as I say, has got off to an excellent start in his new portfolio—and together we can resolve this issue in the interests of all of the Australian people.