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Monday, 26 November 2012
Page: 13196


Dr SOUTHCOTT (Boothby) (17:53): I rise to speak on the Health and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2012. This bill makes a number of technical amendments to various acts of parliament. I will briefly cover the details of two amendments before moving on to the amendments to the Human Services (Medicare) Act, which I would like to discuss in more detail.

The first amendment I want to discuss is to the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act. The bill makes minor technical amendments to the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act to correct referencing inaccuracies, which were the result of previous amendments. The FSANZ Act was amended in 2010, however, certain section references to the amended provisions were not amended at that time. These amendments are consequential in nature and do not change the intent of the act, and the coalition does not oppose them. It is interesting to note, however, that this is a rewrite two years on; it has taken the government two years to identify this issue.

Then there is the ICNA amendment. The amendment to the Industrial Chemicals (Notification and Assessment) Act makes a minor technical change to correct an inaccurate description of how chemicals are stored by Customs during transhipment. Goods are often stored outside the port or airport, but still in the complete control of Customs—for example, at a Customs bonded warehouse. As the legislation currently reads, the chemicals are required to be stored 'at the port or airport' while waiting for transhipment. The amendment will delete the references to 'at the port or airport' within the bill to more accurately reflect best practice. This will still require the chemical to be under the control of Customs at all times before being transhipped out of Australia.

I want to talk about the use of the word 'Medicare' and there is one amendment on this that I need to cover in detail, the proposed amendments to the Human Services (Medicare) Act 1973. Currently, under section 41C of this act, any person who uses the name 'Medicare' in connection with a business, trade, profession or occupation is guilty of an offence. Subsection 41C(6) of the Human Services (Medicare) Act provides the exception that 'proceedings under this section shall not be instituted without the consent in writing of the Attorney-General'. This means that an organisation can be guilty of an offence by using the Medicare name, but will not be prosecuted unless the Attorney-General consents to doing so.

The bill before this parliament seeks to remove this subsection, and replace it with an exemption to the offence for any activity authorised by the secretary or prescribed delegate. This would allow the secretary to grant an exemption to allow any organisation to use the Medicare name with approval. What the government and the health minister have not been straight or upfront about here is why they are moving this amendment. We need to go back two to three years in time to the moveable feast that was national health reform and the recommendations of the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission. One of the recommendations that came out of that was we needed to have primary healthcare organisations to replace the divisions of general practice. At some point, someone—the member for Griffith or the member for Gellibrand—had a bright idea that instead of calling them primary healthcare organisations they should be called Medicare Locals. These primary healthcare organisations had nothing to do with Medicare, which is a comprehensive national health insurance scheme. But they replaced the divisions of general practice with 61 bodies called Medicare Locals.

We now have the extraordinary situation that one of the very people who came up with this name is now the person who as Attorney-General decides whether to prosecute someone for using the name 'Medicare'. The question I ask is this: would the government be moving this amendment unless the advice was that the use of the word 'Medicare' in the name 'Medicare Locals' was in fact a breach?

The opposition believes that there was no need to rename the divisions of general practice and that, if they did need renaming, the name did not need to include the word 'Medicare'. The current chair of the Australian Medicare Local Alliance, Dr Arn Sprogis has admitted that the Medicare Locals name was 'a shocker'. He is also on record as saying, 'We will live with the name even though it's got nothing to do with Medicare'. If you look at similar organisations in the United Kingdom or New Zealand, they are primary care trusts or primary care organisations. But this bright thought bubble came out of the then Prime Minister and the then health minister. There was no need to include Medicare in the name of the primary healthcare organisations. Those opposite are getting very good at fixing problems of their own creation. They created this mess and are now moving amendments to fix it.

As of July this year, all 61 Medicare Locals are operational, and all 61 may be breaching the Human Services (Medicare) Act by using the term 'Medicare' within their name as required by the government. We have the extraordinary situation of primary healthcare organisations doing what they have been asked when what they have been asked to do is in breach of legislation.

The amendment we are being asked to consider retrospectively legalises the government's mistake. It will also allow future governments to dilute the Medicare brand by allowing its use for other organisations if it so chooses. The simple and prudent fix would have been for the minister to admit the mistake and change the name of these organisations. No-one wants the name 'Medicare Local'. Instead, they have tried to bring this legislation before the parliament to hide their errors.

The coalition believe that the name 'Medicare' should be protected, and not used for political or commercial advantage. Let me be clear. This debate is not about the merits of primary healthcare organisations. The coalition believe that there is a very important place for a coordinating role in primary care. This debate is purely about the use of the protected name 'Medicare'. It is a name, and a brand that should be protected. That is why the coalition will be moving amendments to this bill which omit the provisions relating to the use of the term 'Medicare'.