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Thursday, 11 May 2000
Page: 16330

Mr REITH (Leader of the House) (4:24 PM) —The Minister for Health and Aged Care will not be resigning; in fact, he will continue to be one of the best health ministers Australia has had. I know that is a matter of great disappointment to the members of the opposition. The bottom line of this whole question of MRI is that we have delivered a better service to Australians. About 140,000 Australians have had the benefit of access to this new technology at a greatly reduced price, from about $700 to $50 or $60, so it has become an affordable technology to assist Australians grapple with their health problems. Furthermore, the waiting time for access to this new technology has been cut from about five months to about one week. No wonder the Labor Party are excited about this issue. The last thing they would want to talk about is the benefits of this new program to Australians, delivered by one of the great Australian health ministers in Michael Wooldridge.

We flatly reject all these allegations. As I am duty bound, I have listened carefully to the claims made by the opposition. I do not mind saying that I have gone away and read the Auditor-General's report and attempted to understand the argument put by the opposition and to see the evidence that they have produced or otherwise. If we look very briefly for a summary of the allegations that they make, we need to do no more than turn to the censure motion. The censure motion is in fact very vaguely drafted, which is always a telltale sign. When you do not have any substance to throw, keep the thing as vague and general as you possibly can to give it a bit of cover. There are three dot points to the censure motion. The first is:

the clear evidence—

note the word `clear'—

(both direct and corroborative)—

I think by corroborative they mean to include the evidence of the Leader of the Opposition just standing up and saying, `You are a liar,' which he did within the first eight or nine minutes of his speech today. That is their idea of evidence. The dot point reads:

the clear evidence (both direct and corroborative) provided in the Auditor-General's report that he disclosed a budget proposal at a meeting on 6 May 1998, when he had a duty as a Commonwealth office holder not to do so;

That is the main claim they make to back the censure motion and to back their claim that he should resign. I treat that allegation seriously, but there seems to be no explanation from the opposition for the fact that, when you read the Auditor-General's report, rather than there being evidence to support that claim—

Mr Hardgrave —It is not there. It is the opposite.

Mr REITH —I thank the honourable member for saying that it is not there. The fact of the matter is that there is a clear statement of this issue and it is completely to the opposite. Why should you resign if the evidence is in fact completely contradicted by the very source of evidence which the opposition claims to rely upon? If you go to page 84, paragraph 2.27, it reads:

All College members who attended the meeting of 6 May 1998 agree that the Minister did not reveal Budget measures.

You could not get a clearer statement.

I know what it is like to be in opposition. I was in opposition for 11 years. When the other side are having a great week and you are having a dreadful week and you are trying to draft your speech for tonight's budget reply and you cannot think of anything to say, you are like a drowning man. If there is an Auditor-General's report for you to reach out for, you will try and give yourself a bit of political cover for what otherwise is an absolute disaster. You can imagine everyone sitting in the Leader of the Opposition's office with a computer each and they are all saying, `We will add up all the expenditures. There is the housing, the social security, the education and the employment services. Now we had better roll up the roll-back, so there are all those bits. Make sure the states get all the money, so we will have to find the money for that. Then, on top of that, we're going to have a bigger surplus, so we're not going to spend, we are actually going to save—

Mr Leo McLeay —Mr Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order. The Leader of the House was not in here when the debate started. He may not be aware that this is a censure motion against the minister for health. It is nothing about the GST or the budget.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Nehl)—There is no point of order. Resume your seat. The Leader of the House has the call.

Mr REITH —We could move to a censure motion of the Leader of the Opposition, but I think we should at least allow him to give his vacuous speech first. But thank you for your advice on tactics, Leo. This is a serious point. These guys mount an attack on one of the best ministers in the government who has produced a great policy for the Australian people. They have produced what they say is evidence, and when you look to the document that is supposed to be a source of the evidence it says the absolute opposite.

I have read paragraph 2.27. The answer to the question, `Was there a leak?' is answered in more than just 2.27. I have referred to that paragraph. Also, the Auditor-General found that all participants agreed that the minister did not discuss what measures would be in the budget. Furthermore, if you go to paragraph 2.32, there is an explanation in the Auditor-General's view. Obviously the opposition want us to accept their view of the matter. They were the ones who were calling for an Auditor-General's report. The minister initiated the Auditor-General's report. He could not have been more open and transparent. He sent the matter off to the Auditor-General. He gave evidence himself on oath. He has fronted up. After the question was raised, he made sure that there was no question that the Auditor-General had all the powers necessary to properly investigate the matter—we have not heard any of that argument again from the opposition—and when he does investigate the matter, it may be unfortunate for the opposition, but the Auditor-General formed an opinion, a most unhelpful opinion, for the opposition. The opposition say, `It must have been this, it must have been that.' They have been whingeing and whining about this for 12 months. After interviewing 135 witnesses, the Auditor-General says in paragraph 2.32:

... it is a reasonable judgement that negotiation in consultation with the College and open debate about supply controls probably create an environment where some participants have deduced, or become aware, that the Commonwealth was giving consideration to inclusion of machines on order.

The fact is that for some time this was a matter of general public discussion. You could hardly be surprised about that. MRIs are new technology and people want to know whether or not the government was going to back it and make it available. Without being involved in it, you hardly have to be Einstein to work out that, when it comes to providing services to regional Australia, there is no government more keen or more interested in ensuring that Australians have access, wherever they live, to the best technology, particularly in the area of health. Whilst we are talking about MRIs, let me, amongst many others, compliment the minister on consistently pursuing this policy through to this year's budget in one of the greatest packages ever delivered for rural health in Australia.

Government members—Hear, hear!

Mr REITH —This was a matter of public discussion well before this matter was brought to a head in the way that it was. The other thing which is important to remember about the minister's conduct is that the minister acted pursuant to the authority of a cabinet decision. This was not a minister acting on a frolic of his own. This was a minister who had raised the matter properly in the processes of government and the cabinet backed him.

The second point to make—and it is very clear if you read the documentation—is that the minister, as sensible ministers generally do, has looked to the expert advice in his department for the way in which to proceed. In fact, the minister attended the meeting on 6 May not at his own initiative but on the advice of the department, as a concluding meeting to a series of negotiations and discussions which had been managed by the department. When a minister acts in accordance with cabinet authority, when he acts in every reasonable way, as is clear from the Auditor-General's report, and when he acts in such a way which clearly provides a benefit, then it is very hard to understand why he ought to be the subject of a censure. Unlike the opposition, who have made these claims but when you look at them you cannot find anything to substantiate them, I make these claims based not on my own knowledge of it but on the knowledge on which the Auditor-General's report is based. For honourable members who would like more information, the Audit Office put out a very useful little brochure to give you a summary of some of the facts and circumstances surrounding this. They refer to the fact that there was an agreement with the profession. In this brochure they say:

The Department's negotiations with the College were successful in achieving this Agreement. ... Nevertheless, the Department believes that, given the underlying trends, the savings to Government have been significant; the Minister has supported the view that this is a substantial achievement.

I am glad they have made that point because we have delivered a service and provided a saving to the taxpayer. That is a pretty good result. There are a lot of ministers who would dip their lid to the minister for achieving that result. It is true—I do not think we can avoid the fact—that there have been difficulties with the process. No-one walks away from that fact. The brochure summarises some of the views of the Auditor-General. It states:

The ANAO concluded that the Department's management of the probity arrangements surrounding the negotiations for the MRI measure was not adequate for the circumstances. ...

Similarly, there were no agreed procedures or arrangements for declarations of any conflict of interest. ... This was primarily the responsibility of the Department.

However, it also went on to say, just to ensure there is balance in this:

It is important to observe that the Department met the formal requirements of the Budget processes and acted with proper authority to progress development of the measure.

. . . .

The Department's processes for developing the proposal to include machines on order before Budget night in the Budget measure, and in providing advice to the Minister on this matter, could have usefully involved greater consideration and attention to all relevant options.

There have been inadequacies identified in the process. The minister has, however, acted within cabinet authority. He has sensibly relied on the department's advice. It is interesting that in this debate no-one in the opposition has actually referred to the benefits to the Australian public.

Mr Laurie Ferguson —That is no justification.

Mr REITH —I hear the interjection, but in the end you have to look at the minister's conduct. The conduct of the minister was directed at achieving an objective, which was to improve health services for Australians and particularly to ensure accessibility of services to regional Australians. He was doing so within the context of a cabinet authority. He relied on departmental advice and he not only achieved an improvement in services but did so, following those negotiations, in a way which was beneficial to the taxpayer.

As I said, there is no walking away from it: there were inadequacies in the process. But the opposition needs to specifically pin that on the minister. When you look at the conduct of the minister, it seems impossible to do so. In fact, as I read the Auditor-General's report, there are basically no criticisms of the minister. There is no suggestion that the minister has acted without propriety. There is no suggestion that the minister has done anything other than act with the highest standards of probity. We would expect that of this minister because he is a person greatly respected on our side of politics, not only because he is an expert in health but also because he is a person of stature who has gained that respect by the quality of the work that he has done as a minister.

What an embarrassment it was for the Leader of the Opposition when the minister, in his concluding remarks, referred to this central and remaining point—a quote from none other than the Leader of the Opposition, who said:

But when a minister is obliged to resign, the minister has to go for a reason. The fact that there have been difficulties with administration in the portfolio, albeit pointed out by the Auditor-General—

you could not get a more exact parallel than that reference there to the Auditor-General—

is not of itself a reason and never has been.

Thank you, Leader of the Opposition. Knowing the speech you are going to give tonight, it is probably the only thing you are going to get right today—and it was a while ago since you got it right. This minister is highly respected. We think he has done a great job for Australia in the area of health. I believe that this censure motion should be the end of this matter. The opposition have been whingeing and whining, making up claims, misleading people and setting out to attack this minister without the evidence. They called for the evidence, the evidence has been produced and there is no evidence to back up all the whingeing, whining claims we have had for 12 months. We reject this censure motion, we support this minister and goodbye to the opposition. (Time expired)

Question put:

That the motion (Mr Beazley's) be agreed to.