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Wednesday, 13 May 1970

Mr Les Johnson (HUGHES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I move:

That the following new clause be inserted in the Bill: 6a. Section 9 of the Principal Act is amended by adding al the end thereof the following subsection: - "(3.) The Minister shall not disseminate infor mation under the last preceding sub-section in a form that is designed to influence public opinion on a matter as to which the publicly declared policies of political parties represented in the Parliament differ unless those other political parties are given equal facilities at public expense to disseminate their views on that matter.".'

The Committee has less than 2 hours, as I understand it, to debate 18 clauses of the Bill and I add my protest. This is why it is necessary for me to be brief in respect of this matter. Nevertheless, the amendment is a simple one and I believe that it ought to command the support of the Government. Section 9 (2.) of the Act states:

The Minister may disseminate information relating to health or the prevention of disease.

We of the Opposition have no equivocation in saying that provision is justifiable. There is some evidence that the provision has been utilised to good advantage in the past. What we are concerned about is the prospect of propagating at public expense information which is not of a neutral nature from a public standpoint. We uphold the need to disseminate information as it is regarded necessary for the purpose of understanding this very complex Bill. There is no question that it will be necessary to advise general practitioners and specialists, for example, about the discrim:natory fees that will operate. It is also essential that the patients be informed in respect of their benefits. But a very unhappy trend has been developing in recent years and we would not like to see it applied to the National Health Bill.

I may say as an aside that some honourable members here will recall what was probably a precedent, the occasion when the Government circulated material at public expense through the schools of this country in regard to a matter which was even more controversial than the National Health Bill, namely, our intervention into the Vietnam war. It has already happened on one occasion and we do not want to see it happen again. That material went to schools, universities and sim'lar institutions throughout the country. Many hundreds of thousands of documents were distributed putting the Government's point of view - sheer political propaganda - at public expense. We took a dim view of that and we would similarly take a dim view of any extension of that princ'ple or denial of the important principle to which I have referred. After all, compounding this unfortunate trend were the incidents of last week.

The CHAIRMAN - Order! I do not think that the honourable member should refer to that matter.

Mr Les Johnson (HUGHES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I am not going to talk at length about this and I appreciate what you say, Mr Chairman, but perhaps I may finish the sentence. Last week was an occasion when there was a tendency to suppress-

The CHAIRMAN - Order! I advise the honourable member that it might be wise not even to finish his sentence.

Mr Les Johnson (HUGHES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The Minister in a statement on health benefits on 4th March, under the heading 'Dissemination of Information concerning Medical Fees and Benefits', said:

In the immediate future, a booklet describing the new arrangements, together with a list of the common fees for the more frequently rendered medical services, will be widely distributed.

If this is all that is proposed it is very apparent that we are not likely to have any objection to it. I cannot at this point of time anticipate what opposition the Government could have to the amendment that has been proposed. If the Minister's intention is only as he has stated there could be no reason why he would be not prepared to support the amendment. If on the other hand there is some sinister intent, if it is the intention of the Government to utilise the provision which operates in a very general form now, it is clear that the Government would want to oppose us on this matter. We are calling for an embargo on influencing public opinion on a matter as to which the publicly declared policies of the parties differ.

There has been a great deal of speculation about the material which will be circulated by the Government. We have read in the Press that millions of copies are being printed somewhere in some secret printery. It is top secret. Nobody knows - even members of the Government are unaware - of the terms of this material. We are told ths/ the printers have been standing by ready to churn out this material. When we put this with the guillotining that is going on and the suggestions that are being made around the lobbies that this printed material of the Government in connection with the National Health Bill might be brought out in such a way as to be used to the Government's advantage at election time, there is good reason why the amendment that we have proposed should bo enthusiastically supported and carried.

We would hate to think that the Government is to use this technique to disseminate and propagate information in regard to basic philosophical matters concerning national health. After all, there are very great differences of opinion about these matters. A short time ago as I left the Library I glanced at a publication giving the result of a public opinion poll as to whether it would bc better to have voluntary insurance or a health scheme based on taxation. There was a strong difference of opinion in the community on that matter. The results showed that those polled were substantially in favour of the proposals advanced by the Labor Party during the last election.

It would be very undesirable if matter of that kind were to be the subject of printed material circulated at government expense. Similarly, I do not think the Government should use printed material to justify the exclusion of certain provisions from this legislation. The Country Party would not want to exclude reference to the regionalised hospital services of this country and the need to overhaul them. I would not want the Government to seek to justify its exclusion under the National Health Act of such services as dental and optical services. Whenever wc have had a referendum in this country the procedure has been that the Government has not been at an advantage in putting its view to the voters at public expense. The long established precedent is that every political party is entitled to put its view at public expense at the time of referendums. But here the Government has embarked on the process of putting its view exclusively at public expense. If the Government does not accept the amendment the only conclusion to be drawn is that it intends to use this provision in the legislation for miserable partisan political advantage. In my view it is bad enough to have a Dr Forbes running the national health scheme of this country without also having a Dr Goebbels. Our amendment, which gives all political parties, including the Country Party, equal opportunities to advance their points of view, should be warmly embraced bv every honourable member who likes to think that he is a democrat. I commend the amendment to the Committee.

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