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Monday, 18 June 2001
Page: 24490


Senator PATTERSON (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs) (5:11 PM) —I move:

That these bills be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speeches incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speeches read as follows—

HEALTH LEGISLATION AMENDMENT BILL (No. 2) 2001

This bill contains amendments relating to four areas in the health portfolio: the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the recognition of specialist medical practitioners, payment of Medicare benefits where cheques made out to general practitioners are not presented within a defined period of time and the 30 per cent rebate on private health insurance scheme.

Two changes have been sought to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare Act 1997. The first concerns members of the board, who are currently appointed on the recommendation of a limited group of bodies specified in the act. It is proposed that the bodies that can make those recommendations instead be prescribed by regulation and that appointments not be limited to such nominations. This will ensure a greater flexibility in the appointments, though it will not change either the number of board members or the knowledge and expertise for which the members are appointed.

In 1992 the institute's responsibilities were broadened to include welfare related functions. The second amendment to the institute's act is an essentially technical one to remove an inability to release identifiable welfare related information for statistical purposes. The release will be under the same strict conditions that currently apply to release of health related information.

The second area being amended by this bill relates to the recognition of specialist medical practitioners. The amendments are primarily designed to simplify the process for recognising medical practitioners as specialists, though the criteria for recognition will be unchanged. The changes will result in administrative efficiencies.

Thirdly, this bill will also amend the Health Insurance Act 1973 to allow the Health Insurance Commission to pay Medicare benefits directly to general practitioners where `pay doctor via claimant' cheques made out to general practitioners are not presented within 90 days of issue. Under the act, Medicare benefits are payable only to the person who incurs medical expenses, that is, the patient. Where a patient has not paid the medical expenses, the patient can request that a cheque for the amount of the Medicare benefit be drawn by the Health Insurance Commission in favour of the medical practitioner who rendered the professional services. These are referred to as `pay doctor via claimant' cheques. As it is the patient who receives the service, the act requires that the cheque be sent to the patient. The patient is then expected to forward the `pay doctor via claimant' cheque and any patient contribution to the practitioner. The great majority of patients do present the `pay doctor via claimant' cheques to their doctors in a timely manner. However, some cheques are received very late and some are never presented, leaving doctors with unnecessarily long delays or ultimately bad debts for medical services already provided in good faith. This amendment will allow for payment of the amount of benefits to be made directly to a general practitioner where the cheque has not been presented within 90 days from the date of issue.

The fourth set of amendments relates to the coalition's very successful 30 per cent rebate on private health insurance scheme. Under current arrangements, where funds require reimbursement for claims made late or low, the payment is via an act of grace. This cumbersome procedure will be revised to allow the Health Insurance Commission to make those payments. Other minor amendments include clarification of the premium reduction calculation for the rebate and removal of redundant items from legislation.

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MIGRATION LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (APPLIC-ATION OF CRIMINAL CODE) BILL 2001

This bill amends legislation in the immigration and multicultural affairs portfolio to harmonise existing criminal offence provisions with chapter 2 of the Criminal Code.

It is one of a series of government bills designed to apply the Criminal Code on a portfolio-by-portfolio basis.

Chapter 2 of the Criminal Code, contained in the Criminal Code act 1995, establishes the general principles of criminal responsibility. It provides a standard approach to the formulation of commonwealth criminal offences.

The Criminal Code will apply to offences against a law of the commonwealth on 15 December 2001.

Many offence provisions in migration legislation pre-date the Criminal Code and there is a possibility that the application of the code will change their meaning and operation.

The purpose of the bill is to make all the necessary amendments to offence provisions to ensure compliance and consistency with the general principles of the Criminal Code.

However, the offence provisions, as amended by the bill, will not change in operation or meaning.

The bill harmonises offence provisions in migration legislation in several ways.

First, the bill makes it clear that the Criminal Code applies to all offences against migration law.

Second, the bill replaces references to certain general offence provisions in the Crimes Act 1914 with references to the corresponding provisions of the Criminal Code.

Third, the bill clarifies the physical and fault elements of offences. This will improve the efficient and fair prosecution of offences.

I anticipate that this measure alone will save many hundreds of hours of court time otherwise spent in complicated, and sometimes inconsistent, interpretation of offence provisions.

Fourth, the bill amends migration legislation to remove unnecessary duplication of the general offence provisions in the Criminal Code.

For example, it removes the ancillary offence of attempt and the defence of lawful authority. Reliance is instead placed on the relevant provisions of the Criminal Code.

Finally, the bill amends certain offence provisions to expressly provide that they are offences of strict or absolute liability.

If an offence is not expressly stated to be one of strict or absolute liability, then the prosecution will be required to prove fault in relation to the physical elements of the offence.

The amendments in the bill are necessary to ensure that the strict or absolute liability nature of certain offence provisions is not lost after the application of the Criminal Code.

Without these amendments, the offences would become more difficult for the prosecution to prove and almost unenforceable.

I would like to emphasise that the bill does not create any new strict or absolute liability offences.

Overall, the bill will bring greater consistency and clarity to commonwealth criminal law.

It is one step in a process that will give Australians greater certainty, protection and confidence under the criminal law.

It is important that the amendments in the bill are made prior to 15 December 2001 in order to ensure that there is a seamless transition.

I look forward to the bill receiving the support of the opposition.

I commend the bill to the chamber.

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MIGRATION LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (ELECT-RONIC TRANSACTIONS AND MET-HODS OF NOTIFI-CATION) BILL 2001

The main purpose of this bill is to bring the Migration Act and the Australian Citizenship Act into line with the Electronic Transactions Act.

The bill establishes a legal framework that is sufficiently robust for the immigration and multicultural affairs portfolio to pursue, with integrity, the government's commitment to provide services on-line.

The electronic transactions act gives effect to the validity of electronic communications.

That act will apply to all commonwealth legislation from 1 July 2001.

Australia, and the world, is rapidly being transformed by technological advancements and innovations.

These advances have already been recognised, and are being used, within the immigration and multicultural affairs portfolio.

In 1996, for example, the introduction of the electronic travel authority visa, also known as the “ETA”, substantially facilitated travel to Australia of overseas tourists.

The ETA is the most advanced and streamlined travel authorisation system in the world.

It enables visitors to obtain authority to enter Australia at the same time they book their travel arrangements.

The ETA is issued within seconds by computer links between my department, travel agents, airlines and specialist service providers around the world.

This has greatly benefited the tourism industry and Australia in general.

This bill will enable my department to further avail itself of developments in information technology and business processing, in several ways.

First, the bill facilitates electronic communications by removing existing impediments in the current legislation that may prevent the use of electronic transactions.

Second, the bill establishes a framework to allow for the use of computer programs to make decisions in the migration and citizenship context.

The approach taken is similar to that under the Social Security (Administration) Act.

Electronic lodgement of applications and computer-based decision making will provide new opportunities for clients who have previously been restricted by office hours.

Where services are available on-line, clients will be able to lodge electronic applications 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

This will provide greater convenience for clients in submitting applications.

Visa and citizenship services will only be provided electronically after all security and integrity risks are satisfied.

For example, systems will be carefully designed to guard against fraud.

As such, computer-based decision making will have a limited field of operation.

In the migration context, a computer program will only make decisions on certain visa applications where the grounds for grant are objective and where the criteria lend themselves to automated assessment.

A decision to cancel a visa will not be made by a computer program. Computer-based processing is not suitable in these circumstances because these decisions require an assessment of discretionary factors.

Nonetheless, the legislative framework is sufficiently flexible to allow for technological advances which may occur in the future.

The challenge, however, is to have legislative strategies that allow for the use of these advances while providing adequate safeguards for both the integrity of government processes and achieving equity for clients.

To this end, safeguard measures have been incorporated into the bill.

Should a computer program not function correctly because of a computer-related error, the minister may substitute a more favourable decision for one made by the computer program.

This will ensure that adverse decisions can be corrected without inconveniencing the applicant.

I would like to emphasise that existing merits review rights of applicants will not be affected by these amendments. All review decisions will continue to be made by a tribunal member.

Third, the bill provides the ways in which the minister, the Migration Review Tribunal and the Refugee Review Tribunal may give documents to persons.

The amendments also determine the time when the document is taken to have been received and allow for the transmission of documents electronically, to comply with the requirements of the electronic transactions act.

These amendments essentially consolidate into the migration act, existing provisions found in either the Migration Act or the Migration Regulations.

They clarify when notification of a decision occurs and on what date.

This is critical for review mechanisms, as an application for review must be made within a specified period, or the case is out of time.

Finally, the bill corrects some minor technical errors and misdescribed amendments in the Migration Act.

In summary, this bill facilitates electronic communications, embraces a new approach to decision making and consolidates legislative provisions for the giving and receiving of documents.

It is an important bill, and one which will ensure that my portfolio can give effect to the government's commitment to enable expanded use of electronic communications, while maintaining the integrity of Australia's immigration controls.

I commend the bill to the chamber.

Debate (on motion by Senator Denman) adjourned.

Ordered that the bills be listed on the Notice Paper as separate orders of the day.