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Parliamentary committees: reports on superannuation, media ownership and drug labelling

JENNY HUTCHISON: It's been a very busy week here at Parliament House in Canberra. We'll give you the flavour of that, with news on committee reports, debate on controversial legislation, and some of the action of Question Time. And, as promised, we'll talk about pairs.

First, let's look at parliamentary committees. There were public hearings with, for example, the Ambassador of Colombia appearing before a Senate inquiry on Australia's relations with Latin America. And, amongst those giving evidence to the Joint Select Committee on the Family Law Act were representatives of the National Committee on Violence against Women and The Brethren. And the Senate Select Committee on Superannuation held its 14th public hearing. On Wednesday the chairman of that committee, Tasmanian Nick Sherry, give the Senate a summary of its progress so far.

NICK SHERRY: Senators will recall that in June last year the Senate Select Committee on Superannuation was established with the responsibility of reporting on 17 terms of reference by the last sitting day in May 1992. The procedural resolution which accompanied the Committee's terms of reference stated that it should have leave to report, from time to time, its proceedings and the evidence taken and such interim recommendations it may deem fit. This speech, therefore, is inter alia, an interim report of the inquiry by the Senate Select Committee on Superannuation.

The Committee has endeavoured to use all possible mechanisms and opportunities to ensure that its work is publicly debated on superannuation in Australia, and to this end last December the Committee tabled a background discussion paper entitled `Super Systems Survey' - a survey of superannuation which subsequently proved to be a much sought-after document with over 600 copies being distributed on request to individuals and organisations interested in superannuation.

Since that time the Committee has embarked on an ambitious and fairly arduous round of public hearings, so far totalling 14 days, during which more than 100 witnesses have been examined and almost 1,800 pages of publicly-available Hansard have been produced. The Committee has adopted a policy whereby nearly all of the submissions have been published on receipt. This public stance has also been followed in having almost all hearings held in open session. This policy has already paid generous dividends in that we have been able to observe significant changes in attitudes in position, both in the public service and industry, about the shape of superannuation in the `90s and beyond.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Senator Nick Sherry, on the work of the Senate Select Committee on Superannuation.

Friday marked the beginning of the latest round of Estimates Committee hearings; and several reports from parliamentary committees were tabled this week. Most publicised was that from the House of Representatives Select Committee on the Print Media. Cleverly titled `News and Fair Facts', the report was described by committee chair, Michael Lee, as a short, sharp, exhaustive and sometimes exhausting inquiry, which produced a unanimous Labor majority report but two dissents from Opposition members. The Committee rejected the need for charters of editorial independence, as championed by journalists. But Government and Opposition representatives disagreed on whether the current limit of 20 per cent foreign ownership should be retained and on whether there should be a tightening of the cross-ownership rules with an expanded role for the Trade Practices Commission.

On Thursday Michael Lee, as chairman, tabled another report - from the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, on the development and use of genetically modified organisms. This committee recommends that legal force be given to the present voluntary guidelines for biotechnology research, in which Australia is a world pioneer of, for example, a pest resistant strain of cotton and an organic counter to plant disease.

A report of more immediate relevance to most Australians is that titled `Prescribed Health' from the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Community Affairs. It's the first of a proposed three reports on the distribution and consumption of medicines and, not surprisingly, it's engendered a lot of interest. The chairman of this committee is the Member for Scullin, Harry Jenkins.

HARRY JENKINS: Medicinal drugs are something that people, throughout their life they are going to come to contact at some stage, probably. It's something that everybody knows a little about. They'll have anecdotal evidence about how good or bad the system is, so plenty of people want to talk to you about it, and plenty of people have ideas about what they think is wrong. The difficulty for us is to actually get concrete evidence about what's wrong.

We have a series of recommendations that go to, for instance, placing the generic name of a drug more prominently than the brand name, because there are, you know, different brand names of the same drug. Sometimes that leads to confusion by the end user. In most institutions people are given their drugs under the generic name. They then come out of the institution, go to either their general practitioner or their specialist, and most prescribing there is done by the brand name, and that can lead to confusion, especially when people are going to a series of medical professionals.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Another thing that always annoys me is when you get something dispensed by the chemist and the chemist puts a label on top of the packaging, and so you can't tell what the manufacturer is trying to tell you.

HARRY JENKINS: The manufacturers have a code that indicates that, where possible, the manufacturer should give enough space for the label to be put on. All we've done in this report is agreed with that recommendation, and asked that the manufacturers, in fact, look at ways they can achieve that. Then, of course, there is the pharmacist. Now, pharmacists will tell you that they try to not obscure important information on the manufacturer's label by putting the label in an appropriate spot. And, again, what we've said is well, that's a very good idea and that they should make sure that they do that. And we've then gone on to say that even in the instructions - and this will apply to a bit of education for both the medical profession and pharmacy as a profession - that the instructions should be in plain English, something that the end user - the consumer, the patient, whatever we like to call the person that has to take the drugs - that they can understand.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Presumably this would include clearly stressing whether tablets are taken with or without food, whether you can take them if you have a drink, or whether you can drive your car?

HARRY JENKINS: Certainly. They are important factors that people should know about. Sometimes, when they're handed the prescription in the doctor's surgery, given the shock of finding out that they have something and not really being with it, they sometimes don't understand. The pharmacists, from time to time, don't get the chance to clearly again repeat the instructions, so the written instruction is also still important. But each of those stages is important. So what we've been interested in exploring in this inquiry is in relation to drug treatment, how best people can get the information.

One of the traps that the Committee from time to time falls into when they're speaking to people is that we concentrate, because we are doing an inquiry on prescription drugs, of just talking about drug treatment ourselves. But it's also important to think of non-drug alternatives and to ensure that that somewhere in the process, is thought about, explained to the consumer, discussed between the professionals involved. But a number of books have come onto the market where, in a private way, authors and professionals are putting together information on drugs. I think that it's clear that as the market operates that there's an interest in those sort of books, and what we've said as one of our recommendations in this report is that through the process that goes on for marketing and listing on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, at that point in time that Government agencies should approve what we've called Approved Consumer Information. So this would be something that's put together, that explains the drug in proper plain English terms that the consumer can understand, that gives them all the information that they can make either choices about what they wish to do or to be able to take the drugs in the most efficient way without any fear of consequences because they're doing the wrong thing.