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Wednesday, 13 June 1984
Page: 2912

Senator MASON —My question is addressed to the Minister representing the Minister for Health and follows a question asked earlier in Question Time by Senator Teague in that it concerns the doctors dispute in New South Wales. I ask : Does not the state of the dispute today indicate that the issue is being grossly politicised by both the Labor Government of New South Wales and the Liberal and National Party Opposition to the detriment of the people and indeed the doctors of New South Wales? Will the Federal Government intervene constructively to ensure that some sanity is restored to the situation before current legislation, which would ban specialists from working in hospitals for seven years and which would lead to massive dislocation and huge cost increases in hospitals, is passed and proclaimed?

Senator RYAN —I have been provided with some information from the Minister for Health. I will make it available to the Senate now. I think it will answer some of the issues raised in Question Time earlier today by Senator Teague's question . The Minister for Health advises me that the Commonwealth's overriding interest is to see that patients have access to appropriate hospital services, and to this end we, the Commonwealth, have entered into agreements with each State under which the State governments have undertaken to provide hospital services in accordance with the Medicare program. Dr Blewett reports that he is confident that the New South Wales Government has every intention of upholding that agreement. It is, of course, that State's responsibility to ensure that hospital facilities and resources are available to those who require them. The Commonwealth cannot dictate to the State the manner in which it carries out its responsibility to provide these services and thus it is clearly inappropriate to suggest that the Commonwealth should intervene in the dispute.

Honourable senators should be aware that this Government went to considerable lengths to accommodate the views of the profession over the issue of private practice in public hospitals to the extent of establishing an independent inquiry conducted by Professor Penington. I understand that this spirit of negotiation has been followed in New South Wales where a number of concessions have been made in the course of negotiations between the New South Wales Minister for Health and the Australian Medical Association. It is shown again in the legislation introduced yesterday by the New South Wales Premier which removes the claimed ambiguity in section 42, sub-section 1 (A) of the Public Hospitals Act.

As a result of the Federal Government's action an agreement was reached with the AMA on 5 April 1984 that all industrial action by doctors would cease pending the outcome of Professor Penington's Committee of Inquiry into the Rights of Private Practice in Public Hospitals. The New South Wales Health Minister has also renewed his earlier call for doctors to await the outcome of the Penington inquiry before taking precipitate action. The Commonwealth supports that call to doctors to abide by the agreement. As Dr Blewett told the news conference yesterday, this Government is hopeful that the doctors will look at the various olive branches that are offered in the legislation and seize them because of the efforts that have been made to meet their stated objections. In conclusion, it is quite clear that all appropriate and legitimate efforts to reach consensus on this issue have been undertaken by the Federal Government and the State Government. There is still time for the matter to be resolved properly and in the interests of public hospital patients in New South Wales. That is the wish of the Commonwealth Government. It is to that end that Dr Blewett's efforts are being directed.

Senator MASON —I ask a supplementary question. Is the Minister telling us that in effect the Commonwealth is washing its hands of this matter and that it does not propose or contemplate pursuing even a good offices role in this dispute?

Senator RYAN —I thought that my rather lengthy answer would have avoided the need for a supplementary question. It is not the case that the Commonwealth is washing its hands of this matter. Dr Blewett has been engaged in continual negotiations and is obviously willing to assist the State in further negotiations. But this dispute is clearly a matter for the State Government and the representatives of doctors to resolve. Quite clearly, Dr Blewett is continuing to pursue the Commonwealth's objective which is also the objective of the Government of New South Wales, and that is to resolve the issue and avoid precipitate industrial action by the AMA. If the AMA chooses to ignore all the olive branches that are being offered to it, let that be on the head of the AMA.