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Monday, 9 May 1994
Page: 444

Senator HARRADINE (4.54 p.m.) —I am indebted to the chamber; I do not know whether the chamber will be indebted to me, however. I take the opportunity to thank the minister for providing me on the last occasion that we were discussing this matter with the precedents that were suggested as being appropriate for our consideration in respect of this question. The question that we are currently dealing with is Senator Newman's amendments to government amendment No. 15. Senator Newman's amendments seek to add to the government's amendment the following words:

(1A) If the occupier does not consent to entry under subsection (1), an authorised officer must not enter the premises without a search warrant.

I have looked at the precedents that the minister has given the committee and I have come to the conclusion that the measure that is being proposed by the government under the powers of investigation legislation constitutes function creep. In other words, it provides to functionaries of the HIC greater authority than that contained under the precedents indicated by the minister when we last discussed this matter. I am extremely concerned about that. The minister will recall that I raised the question as to whether any of those provisions of the legislation which she indicated were precedents required the consent of the person or company being investigated prior to entry into the premises without permission.

  The first precedent that I am able to note, which was indicated by the minister, is the New South Wales Medical Practice Act of 1992. I observe that section 118 of that legislation is headed, `Powers of entry only to be exercised with consent or under search warrant.' It states:

Any power conferred by this Part to enter premises must not be exercised except with the consent of the owner or occupier of the premises or under the authority of a search warrant granted as referred to in this Part.

I really do feel that the minister owes some explanation to the committee as to why that particular piece of legislation was suggested as being a precedent for this. After all, the question of whether consent is needed is the particular matter that we are talking about and it is the matter that I raised on the last occasion that the committee was considering this matter.

  I understand the problems. I thank a consultant to the Health Insurance Commission for giving me the benefit of his vast knowledge in this particular area of Medicare fraud, abuse and overservice. I understand what he is saying about this measure and the need for something to be done. After all, the Auditor-General did place a report before this parliament urging greater powers for the Health Insurance Commission to overcome fraud, abuse and overservicing.

  I acknowledge all of those things, but I am still concerned about this question of function creep. It is a balance that has to be given. I would like the minister now to outline to the committee how she sees that that balance should be made. First, could she indicate why she does not see this particular measure as extending the powers that are contained in what she terms precedent legislation? Secondly, if that cannot be done, is it possible to have a provision in the legislation which would clear up what is obviously a problem at this point of time? That problem is not confined to the unlicensed pathology centres. It is a major problem, as I have been told and as has been proven to me by the person to whom I previously referred.

  The problem has probably been brought about by the 1992 legislation, which halved the number of licensed centres within two years—by February 1994. The problem has been indicated to me. I sympathise with the HIC but, if we are going along the track of extending functions and authorities, then there must be a limit to that. I know the minister is going to say there is a sunset clause here whereby the legislation ceases to exist by June 1996. However, there may be another way of dealing with this question, if it is an urgent question, as she says, and it cannot be dealt with in another way.

  I have two questions for the minister: can she show the committee why she is suggesting that this is not really an extraordinary matter, that is, it has precedent in other legislation? Secondly, if that cannot be shown, can she please show the committee that this measure needs to be passed by the Senate to overcome, particularly, the area that has been indicated to me which involves Medicare fraud and abuse?