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Friday, 15 June 1984
Page: 3217

Senator MARTIN(10.20) —Much as it pains me to disappoint Senator Rae, his was not the final contribution; it was the penultimate one. I will, as always, be brief. If ever I felt like offering abject apologies to honourable senators, it is tonight; but that would only extend the proceedings, so I will get on with the business. I could not let the last day of this session pass without acknowledging to certain officials in the Department of Health that there are some things one cannot do without achieving some public notoriety. On 27 March this year I asked Senator Grimes, as the Minister representing the Minister for Health, a series of questions relating to the Health Insurance Commission. I asked three questions. The third of those questions was:

How many of the non-private health fund employees were recruited on a temporary contract basis and how many on a permanent basis?

The daily Hansard contained a misprint. Instead of printing 'non-private' it printed 'now private'. On 29 March, Senator Grimes gave the Health Department's first, and so far only, attempt to answer that question. Because of this misprint, the question was obviously nonsense; so the Department re-worded it and inserted, instead of 'now private', the words 'former private'. That might have been an understandable mistake for the Department to make if it was not for the fact that on the evening of 27 March, the day that I first asked the question, I spoke in the adjournment debate. In that adjournment debate I referred to and repeated the wording of the question I had asked. On that occasion it was printed correctly. Also in that adjournment speech I referred to a letter that I had received from the Minister for Health (Dr Blewett) relating to Health Insurance Commission employment policies.

I believe it would not be an unreasonable assumption to think that the Department of Health might have taken some notice of this speech-not be moved by it, but at least notice it-and noticed that it repeated the question that I had asked earlier that day and that there was a different word in the question that I had read in the evening from the question I had asked in the morning as printed in Hansard. One might think the Department would have checked. If the Department had read my adjournment speech it would certainly have got the sense of the question. The point of all this is that the Minister had given an undertaking-it is in his letter that I had incorporated in Hansard on 27 March 1984-as follows:

the Health Insurance Commission will be giving preference in employment to former health funds staff;

Further he said:

The Government is taking special steps to deal with the period, between October 1983 to March 1984, when the Medicare system is gearing up and needing staff, and, at the same time, the private health funds will still be running at full capacity. Any employees taken on by the Health Insurance Commission during that period who are not former private health fund employees will be on contract. The basis of the contract will allow for former private health fund employees to take over these jobs in the Commission once Medicare assumes the bulk of current health insurance business.

All of this has been a matter of some notoriety in Queensland and a political issue. Very clearly my reasons for asking the questions which I asked and which, as I said, were repeated in the adjournment debate of 27 March are connected to that undertaking of the Minister and claims that they had not been met, at least in Queensland, by the Health Insurance Commission. I was anxious to know whether the Minister had given that instruction and, if he had, why had not the Health Insurance Commission followed it. If it had followed it at all, to what extent had it followed it?

On 13 March, Senator Grimes, as I said, read into the record an answer to the question changed in wording that I had earlier asked. I saw Senator Grimes after he gave that answer and pointed out to him that there was a mistake in the wording of the question. He gave me an assurance that he would refer it back to the Minister for Health and get me a correct answer. That night-the night of 30 March-I again spoke on the adjournment simply to place on the record the wording of the question as it should have been, and what had been my subsequent request to Senator Grimes.

On 31 May, two months later, during consideration in the Committee of the Whole of the Estimates in Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 1983-84, I again asked the questions of Senator Grimes, because I still had not received an answer. Senator Grimes indicated that he believed that I would have received an answer because he had passed on my request and he had assumed that it had been answered. He said:

I have been blissfully wandering along thinking that the honourable senator had been given an answer. I apologise that she has not. We will get the answer very quickly.

That was 31 May.

Senator Kilgariff —Which year?

Senator MARTIN —Nineteen eighty-four; it is not that bad. Today the Senate adjourns for the winter recess. I still have not had a word of answer. Last week a member of my staff contacted Senator Grimes's office and pointed out to him that I had not yet received an answer. There have been some conversations this week between me and members of Senator Grimes's staff on the subject. Yesterday I received, with a slip worded 'With the Compliments of the Minister for Social Security', two Hansard extracts. On checking, I found that when Senator Grimes's office had requested from the Department the answer to the question this was the Department's response. What I received was a photocopy of my original question to the Minister on 27 March and a photocopy of his inadvertently incorrect answer of 30 March. That did not seem to me like noteworthy progress, and I started to get a little short tempered.

I have discussed the matter with the Minister. I have indicated my extreme annoyance on the subject. But I put this on the record: It is incredible to me that a Commonwealth department could be either so utterly incompetent in understanding the request that has now been directed to it specifically and has been correctly spelled out several times now in the Hansard or, alternatively, so cavalier in its attitude to questions asked of it by members of parliament that it is prepared to ignore them, apparently ad infinitum. I want to know: What instructions did the Minister give to the Health Insurance Commission in relation to the employment of former private health fund employees? Were they the instructions that he stated to me in his letter of August 1983? If so, why have they not been followed, because at least to some extent they have not been followed in Queensland? To what extent have they been followed? Is Queensland the only such state? That is not the precise question that I asked on 27 March, but it is the clear implication of the question, particularly in light of the question I raised on the adjournment. I am sure the Health Insurance Commission is very well aware of the question it is being asked. I would like to know why it has not seen fit to answer it.