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Monday, 22 April 1985
Page: 1345

Senator ARCHER(10.47) —I wish to raise a matter concerning private hospitals in north-western Tasmania. I need to respond to comments passed in this chamber by the Minister for Community Services (Senator Grimes) in answer to questions so that the facts of the matter or an alternative version of the facts may be made known. I shall go back to June 1984 and will quote briefly from correspondence relating to this matter that indicates that the information from the Minister for Health in Tasmania is somewhat different from that which has been suggested. The difficulty is that the matter started with a simple request from the Minister for Health, Dr Blewett, that matters relating to public hospitals should be put in writing. That was done quite readily. On 3 October, the Tasmanian Minister for Health, Mr Clearly, wrote a letter to Dr Blewett in which he said:

You will recall that you wrote to me on 4th June, 1984, on matters relating to private hospitals and in particular, on matters relating to increases in private hospital bed numbers.

The letter went on to cover other matters that were involved. The last two sentences stated:

I now seek your formal advice and direction as to whether you are prepared to grant approval-in-principle for one or two of the private hospital development proposals in the region.

The Tasmanian Government does agree that there is a clearly expressed public demand for private hospital services in the region and accordingly I seek your urgent advice on this important matter.

That letter was dated 3 October, and it went to the Federal Minister for Health, Dr Blewett. On 13 November 1984, Dr Blewett answered that letter and said:

I refer to your letter of 3 October 1984 concerning two separate proposals to develop private hospital facilities in the North West area of Tasmania.

He later said:

Under the terms of section 23J of the Health Insurance Act 1973 an application for approval-in-principle is required from the proprietor. No applications from the intending proprietors have been received by my Department and I would naturally need to examine these before making decision on either proposal.

Sub-section 23J (1) also requires that the category of a new private hospital be specified in the certificate of approval-in-principle. You have not addressed this issue in your letter, and consequently. I consider that this matter also would require discussion before I could make a decision.

The letter further states:

An assessment of the need for new private hospital beds must necessarily take into account the availability of existing public hospital beds in the region. I will, therefore, need the opportunity to examine relevant data in relation to bed/population ratios for the North-West region.

That is fairly clear. There is no problem there about knowing what it is that Dr Blewett required. He listed the things he required: That the application be made to him; that he would need to examine this before making a decision on either proposal; and that it was his decision. Then he went on to say:

. . . this matter . . . would require discussion before I could make a decision.

That was Dr Blewett. He talked about the assessment of need. There is not one thing there that he asked of Mr Cleary, until the last sentence, which says:

As a related issue, I would also appreciate some clarification of the State Government's plans in relation to the Ulverstone Hospital and the likelihood of a third proposal for a private hospital in that location.

That is the only thing he asked for, so at that point everything was perfectly clear. On 26 November, Mr Cleary again wrote to Dr Blewett. He said in part:

I have now advised both groups interested in private hospital developments to apply direct to you for approval in principle under Section 23J of the Health Insurance Act . . .

Dr Blewett did not ask that Mr Cleary do that, but Mr Cleary did it anyway as a means of getting the matter cleared up. He said in the same letter:

You indicated in your letter that you would need the opportunity to examine the relevant data in relation to the bed/population ratios in the North West region and while I expect your own Department has some fairly up-to-date material on this matter, I would be happy to answer any specific requests for information that you may have.

You also sought clarification of the State Government's plans in relation to the Ulverstone Hospital and the likelihood of a third proposal for a private hospital in that location. On this matter I can assure you that the State Government has no intention to sell the Ulverstone District Hospital for use as a private hospital.

The last paragraph stated:

In any event I would expect that in the very near future that both groups will be supplying you with full detailed applications for approval in principal. I reiterate my previous comments to you that there is an expressed demand for private hospital facilities in the region and an early decision on this matter would be appreciated.

I believe that makes the matter absolutely and totally clear. Canberra was in no doubt at all about the question of whether the Tasmanian Government would or would not sell the Ulverstone Hospital. It was under no doubt at all that the applicants would be making applications for a licence. That was all right up to that point, but then in March of this year we finally had Senator Aulich putting up a nice, low full toss on the leg side for Senator Grimes, who of course gave it the full treatment. He treated it with real gusto and extravagance and with references that simply do not stand up. I read the question:

I ask the Minister representing the Minister for Health whether he has seen reports in the Advocate indicating that he has said that the Federal Government would be prepared to give approval in principle to the establishment of a private hospital in Burnie. Can the Minister say whether he has been quoted accurately by Mr Talbot of Australian Hospital Care Pty Ltd?

I will read only portion of the answer. Amongst other things, Senator Grimes said that the State Government, wishing of course to divest itself of public facilities, would prefer that a private hospital be in Ulverstone, by selling the Ulverstone Hospital to private interests. That is absolutely and totally incorrect, and Senator Grimes knew it was incorrect. He continued:

First I said that the Federal Government would consider giving approval in principle to the establishment of a private hospital on the north-west coast of Tasmania. I said that I did not favour any particular site and I did not suggest that we would favour any particular site.

I also told them that such recommendations would be considered when the State Government made recommendations to the Federal Government on where that hospital should be and by whom it should be operated.

Nothing at all in the correspondence to this point has raised those issues. There was a letter from Mr Cleary in which he asked the Federal Minister whether there was anything else he needed to know. Senator Grimes went on with the gratuitous insults, when he said:

The difficulty is that the State Government-and particularly Mr Cleary, the State Minister for Health who has great difficulty in making up his mind about anything . . .

He went on in this vein. This was totally uncalled for and not in accordance with the correspondence or the facts in any way, shape or form. He continued:

When the State Government makes a recommendation, the Federal Government will consider it . . . The ball is at the feet of the Tasmanian Government at present, not the Federal Government . . .

Clearly, from the correspondence I have read so far, anybody can see that that is not the case. When I heard that question, it was at about that point that I decided I should try to get an idea of where the fault lay. I had been talking to people who were interested in the hospital proposition, so I rang some of them. I rang Mr Cleary's office and asked him for information and copies of the correspondence. On the next day, 28 March, Mr Cleary wrote another letter to Dr Blewett, which states in part:

I note with some concern that my offer of the 26th November to answer any specific request for information has not been taken up. The Tasmanian Government is hopeful then that since its offer to answer specific requests has not been taken up, that the Commonwealth has compiled the information it needs for the decision making process.

Later in the same letter he states:

Should the Commonwealth decide to fulfil the expectations of Northwest Coast residents by giving approval-in-principle to either of the two private hospital development proposals, then the Tasmanian Government is willing to issue a reciprocal private medical establishment licence under the Hospitals Act 1918. The Tasmanian Government will only issue such a licence to the project approved by you as Commonwealth Minister.

Finally, the letter states:

If you intend convening a meeting with officers from my Department I and my officers would appreciate the courtesy of a copy of the complete information the Commonwealth has collected to enable you to judge the merits of the proposal from the viewpoint of size and location of facilities and range of services. I would also appreciate a copy of the criteria under which the Commonwealth will assess the relative merits of the two proposals.

If in fact you have not yet developed a mechanism for handling this matter I must express concern given the intense public interest in the proposals and my earlier request for an early decision.

That was through to 28 March. By that time there was a little movement in the air, and a reply came from Dr Blewett the following day. In its entirety, that letter states:

Thank you for you letter of 26 November 1984-

I remind honourable senators that this letter is dated 29 March-

concerning the proposals to develop private hospitals in the North West of Tasmania. I apologise for the delay in replying.

Mr Talbot, Executive Officer of Australian Hospital Care Pty Ltd, formally requested approval-in-principle for the Burnie project in December and Mr Eastaugh only very recently submitted his request for approval-in-principle to establish a hospital at Ulverstone. I am advised that officer level discussions have been arranged between our Departments to consider the two applications.

I consider it hardly desirable that both proposals be considered together, as it is unlikely that two hospitals could be justified for that area. Which hospital, if any, that receives approval should be based on the assessment made by our Departments.

Thank you for advising me of your position in relation to the Ulverstone District Hospital.

That is all very well, but we had that comment from Senator Grimes on 26 March, when clearly Dr Blewett let him down very badly by telling the truth in a letter.

Having accumulated what information I could, I then decided that I would give Senator Grimes the benefit of the doubt and that I should clarify the matter by asking a question myself. On 18 April I asked this question:

I ask a question of the Minister representing the Minister for Health. Recently the Minister answered a question concerning the establishment of a private hospital in north-western Tasmania. He gave the impression that the reason there had been no progress since a letter of 26 November from the Tasmanian Minister for Health was a lack of co-operation and a lack of information requested from the Tasmanian Minister by Dr Blewett. If this is the Minister's view, can he outline what lack of information there has been over that period and indicate whether the information, as suggested, has not been provided?

This produced the following reply:

We have had a lack of information from the Tasmanian Minister for Health. Last Friday I met with a syndicate of people who wished to establish a private hospital in Ulverstone. I previously met with a group who wished to establish a private hospital in Burnie. I told both of those groups, and the Minister for Health has told both of those groups, that before considering whether we will approve the establishment of a private hospital on the north-west coast of Tasmania the information we must have, as we must have from every other State because public and private hospitals are primarily the responsibility of the States, is the view of the Tasmanian Government. We must have the view of the Tasmanian Government first of all on whether it thinks it is appropriate that there be a private hospital on the north-west coast of Tasmania. If so what size that hospital should be and how such a hospital may fit in with the public hospital facilities which are already provided there. I know of no views having been received from the Tasmanian Government or the Minister for Health in Tasmania, certainly until a couple of days ago, despite repeated requests by the Federal Minister for Health that we should have such views.

Any attempt by the Federal Government to interfere with the running of hospitals in Tasmania or any other State would create considerable reaction from the State Government concerned. In every other State, when there has been a request to approve the establishment of a private hospital we have had the views of the State government on the site, the size and whether the hospital should be there at all. This is the first occasion that Dr Blewett or anyone else can remember when a State government has simply refused to give a view. I believe the reason is not hard to see. All of us who know the north-west coast of Tasmania-Senator Devlin, Senator Aulich and even Senator Tate-know what happens there. The State Government is very reluctant to give its views on anything for fear of offending the people of Burnie, Devonport, Ulverstone, Smithton or anywhere else. However, it happens to be the responsibility of the State Government and the State Minister to give a view and to give us some information, and we will continue to request it. To expect the Federal Government to make decisions on such an issue when the responsibility for the State hospital system, public and private, is primarily that of the State Government is nonsense.

It may be nonsense, but it is not as big a nonsense as that answer which raises a whole lot of issues which, as the correspondence clearly shows, have never been raised between Dr Blewett and the Tasmanian Government or the Tasmanian Minister for Health. Senator Grimes's grandiose comments in his reply, such as 'despite repeated requests by the Federal Minister for Health that we should have such views', the correspondence clearly demonstrates that those views were never, at any stage, sought. He says that this is the first occasion that Dr Blewett or anyone else can remember when a State government has simply refused to give a view. Of course it has not given a view, it was never asked for it.

It is an extraordinary business to have such a statement before us. I do not understand what Senator Grimes intends to gain by trying to grandstand in this manner, but it is my opinion that it has been a deliberate attempt on his part to mislead the Senate on the negotiations that have been transpiring between the Tasmanian Minister for Health or the Tasmanian Government and this Government. It may be only grandstanding to him, it may be sensationalism, it may be just extravagance on his part to suit his own ego, but the position is that it has resulted in his making statements which have led to a situation that could discredit a man who is an extremely fine Minister of the Crown and who has done absolutely everything he has been asked to do. I am sure that when the matter is raised in the House of Representatives, Dr Blewett will have no option other than to report the facts as I have and to demonstrate that Senator Grimes has taken this extraordinary attitude for reasons best known only to himself.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Senate adjourned at 11.05 p.m.