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Opposition calls for the Health Minister to resign over the so-called Medicare scan scam.

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PETER CAVE: The opposition is stepping up its calls for health minister, Michael Wooldridge, to resign saying his defence in the so-called Medicare scan scam has been undermined by one of this own officials. A senior department official, Penny Rogers, has erred in her sworn statement to the Auditor-General about just who attended a meeting between the minister and radiologists, as Mark Willacy reports from Canberra.


MARK WILLACY: After surviving a censure motion in parliament yesterday, Michael Wooldridge was probably hoping that would be the end of the so-called scan scam. But a key element of the minister’s defence is now under serious question. Labor’s health spokeswoman, Jenny Macklin.


JENNY MACKLIN: This is now a very serious crisis for this minister. What we find is that one of the departmental officials present at the meeting on 6 May, six days before the budget in 1998, has now had to come forward and say that her statutory declaration was incorrect in one respect, at least one respect that we now know of.


MARK WILLACY: The departmental official was Penny Rogers who was responsible for the 1998 negotiations with radiologists over public funding for Magnetic Resonance Imaging or MRI machines. In her sworn statement Ms Rogers says the meeting on 6 May 1998 was attended by a number of radiologists including Royal North Shore Hospital specialist, David Brazier.


But it’s now clear Dr Brazier wasn’t at the meeting at all. Dr Wooldridge has relied on the statements of his advisers and officials, including Penny Rogers, in his defence against allegations he leaked budget information to the radiologists.  Jenny Macklin says that defence is now in tatters.


JENNY MACKLIN: What I’d like to know is why he didn’t come into the parliament and tell everybody, including the opposition and the public, that in fact this statutory declaration was incorrect.


MARK WILLACY: But this statutory declaration only really refers to who was at the negotiations. Does it really go to the heart of what was said there?


JENNY MACKLIN: It goes right to the heart of what was said there. The reason that this statutory declaration was sought in the first place was to back up Dr Wooldridge’s story of what happened at this meeting on 6 May. That’s when it was presented to the parliament, on 27 September last year, entirely to back up Dr Wooldridge’s story. Now, if this statutory declaration has been found to be incorrect, then of course it calls into question the whole story that Dr Wooldridge has been putting about.


PETER CAVE: The federal health minister, Michael Wooldridge, has just called in. He’s speaking to Mark Willacy.


MARK WILLACY: Dr Wooldridge, why didn’t you go into parliament, as Jenny Macklin suggested, and correct the record?


MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: I must say I think I was told yesterday for the first time about this, but I don’t think it changes anything. The Auditor was aware of this. The Auditor didn’t consider it changed the testimony of Ms Rogers. There are other statutory declarations. And really what did or didn’t happen at a meeting, the important thing is every single person at that meeting said I did not disclose budget information.


MARK WILLACY: But when you get something as fundamental as this wrong, doesn’t it punch a few holes in your defence?


MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: No, because the unanimous view at that meeting, including the radiologists, is that I did not disclose what was in the budget. The Labor Party is a little bit internally illogical. They’re trying to say the radiologists are so credible we have to believe them. Well, if you do that you also have to believe their evidence where every one of them says they didn’t speak to anyone else about the matter. And if that’s true it couldn’t have caused a surge of orders. So if you take them on one piece of evidence you have to take them on all evidence.


MARK WILLACY: They did provide sworn statements to the Auditor-General though that this issue was canvassed, the option was canvassed at the meeting, and three of them say that you actually mentioned it.


MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Yes, and three other people say I didn’t, and one says they can’t remember. And even if it was canvassed everybody says that I did not disclose budget information. I was authorised by cabinet to go into  this negotiation to try and provide MRI scans for the Australian public, and we really wanted to get the waiting list down from five months, which it was under Labor, to one week which it is now.


MARK WILLACY: Given this contradiction between the radiologists though, isn’t it important that your advisers, your officials get their evidence straight?


MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: I can’t comment on Ms Rogers’ evidence. All I know is she made it available to the Auditor and the Auditor was able to take that into account, and the Auditor still found no impropriety against me, no negligence against me, that I hadn’t acted improperly in any way and that we’d provided the public with a terrific new service.


MARK WILLACY: Are you going to ride this out, because obviously Labor is going to keep on you about this?


MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Yes, they’ve been nagging about it for a long time, but really they haven’t landed a punch. The Auditor’s found I’ve done nothing improper, I’ve acted with the highest personal probity, I haven’t been negligent. The negotiation could have gone better but Kim Beazley himself is on the record many times as saying departmental administration is not a matter for a minister to resign over.


MARK WILLACY: Michael Wooldridge, thanks for joining us.


MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Thank you very much.


PETER CAVE: The federal health minister joined us on the phone there.