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Wednesday, 22 August 2001
Page: 29970

Dr WOOLDRIDGE (Minister for Health and Aged Care) (2:36 PM) —I move:

That this House censures the Leader of the Opposition:

(1) for the way in which he has mislead the Australian people about health policy in general and access to public hospitals in Western Australia;

(2) for his failure to show any leadership in preventing members of his Caucus from also deliberately misleading the public about his recent experience with the public hospital system in Western Australia; and

(3) for undermining the Australian people's faith in receiving quality care when presenting with serious health problems at accident and emergency departments around the country and undermining the essential work done by health professionals in these accident and emergency departments, who save the lives of thousands of Australians every year.

A censure motion against the Leader of the Opposition is the most serious thing a government can move. This government is moving this motion because the Leader of the Opposition on three separate occasions in less than 24 hours has been caught out telling blatant untruths. In politics from time to time people have been known to gild the lily about political events, but the Leader of the Opposition on this occasion has chosen to bring his family into this situation to score a cheap political point on the government—a political point that turned out to be grossly untrue.

The opposition is trying to engender a system of crisis where no crisis exists, to try and whip up community fear. These are the sorts of tactics that you might call ambulance-chasing or that the member for Werriwa might call scab picking. It is the lowest of the low when you do not have any policy yourself but you intend to engender fear in the public. You only get in trouble when you actually do not tell the truth, as the Leader of the Opposition has on this occasion. He has been caught out not telling the truth on not one occasion but three separate and distinct occasions. When you get in trouble, you can come out and say, `I'm sorry, my family were involved and I got a bit emotional, I got a bit carried away,' and anyone would understand that. But this morning, in attempting to defend himself, he has gone one step further and continued to be untruthful on two further occasions.

First, he reiterated the situation that his daughter was required to go to the private hospital for treatment, whereas at lunchtime today Sir Charles Gairdner said that is clearly and blatantly untrue. On the third occasion he attempted to say, `I brought my family into it, but it's only the first occasion I've ever done it,' and that was shown to be blatantly and demonstrably untrue. Could he bring himself to admit he was wrong in his press conference at about 1 o'clock this afternoon? Not on your life. Watching the Leader of the Opposition attempt to squirm out of the fact that he had said this was the first occasion that he had ever mentioned it, except for the fact that he forgot he did it in front of 150 of his closest friends at Bega a month previously, was really a sight to behold.

I intend to go through these situations in order. The first situation arose yesterday. It was probably an off the cuff comment in caucus. It was using a point to illustrate an argument—something we all do. It was perhaps going one step too far—something that many of us do as well. This was different in that it was a step too far, designed deliberately and calculatingly to scare the Australian public about a situation that exists in our accident and emergency departments. It was a situation designed calculatingly and deliberately to undermine faith in the public hospital system. It was a situation calculatingly and deliberately designed to misrepresent the case in terms of funding, when in fact the responsibility from the Commonwealth's end is a 10 per cent increase in funding and we have reports of a 20 per cent decrease in funding by the Leader of the Opposition's own party in his own state.

I can believe and I will concede that one person could get it wrong. One person often does get it wrong. But we do not have the case here where one person got it wrong. We have at least three examples, and that is just what we have been able to find in under 24 hours—I suspect more examples will come to light. If it had been one person giving a briefing, you could have very reasonably said the person made a mistake, the person embellished it or the person took it too far. I am prepared to concede that Senator West in her non-attributable briefing to caucus— which I understand is the norm—went a step too far. But have a look at Senator West's take-out of what happened yesterday. Senator West talked about the Leader of the Opposition's own harrowing experience. She said that his daughter was denied treatment at a public hospital.

Mr Howard —Denied treatment?

Dr WOOLDRIDGE —Denied treatment. She was turned away, and she had to get back into the car and go from accident and emergency to accident and emergency to accident and emergency. I was immediately suspicious because, as a doctor before I entered politics and someone who completed their basic surgical training, I have had enormous experience in accident and emergency departments and I have actually taken out a good number of appendices myself. I have never, ever heard of a case of someone with known appendicitis being turned away from a hospital. What we then find is that perhaps Senator West went too far, and perhaps it was just one hospital—I concede that completely.

We have a report that is running that is incorrect. Sometimes our friends in the media do not report us as accurately as we might like, and we do occasionally have inaccurate things running in the media. Everyone in this parliament who deals with the media knows that the media is pretty fair in this. You ring up, put your case, say something is inaccurate and you can either correct it or have it corrected for you. In almost all cases you would seek to have an inaccurate statement corrected. That is part of our ministerial code of conduct: when you come to realise that something is incorrect, you are required to correct it at an early opportunity. So did the leader of the opportunity—

Honourable members interjecting—

Dr WOOLDRIDGE —That is called a Freudian slip. The trouble with the Leader of the Opposition was that he could have taken the opportunity to say, `Look, this is not right. I'm sorry, the story is wrong. My daughter did have a bit of a wait. We were distressed by it, naturally, but she didn't have to go from A&E to A&E to A&E, and she wasn't turned away. She in fact got excellent treatment from the people at the Sir Charles Gairdner.'

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Jagajaga is warned.

Dr WOOLDRIDGE —The opposition leader deliberately chose yesterday not to do this. He had a new standard for corrections in his press conference at 1 o'clock. He said, `A correction is: if you ring me and ask me if a briefing is true, I'll tell you whether or not it's true.' So we are supposed to know from now on that nothing ever given at the normal weekly non-attributable caucus briefing can be known to be true unless you ring up and ask if it is true. `If you don't ask if it's not true, don't blame me for you printing something that's incorrect.'

Mr Costello —Why didn't we think of that?

Dr WOOLDRIDGE —In the words of the Treasurer, `Why didn't we think of that?' That has never been the standard by which people are judged in this place. The Leader of the Opposition's culpability in this is compounded by the fact that this story was allowed to run incorrect all day. The last call I received was at 11.30 last night, when a friend of mine who had seen it on the late news rang me to say that he was distressed by this and thought it was going to cause me some political problems. It ran the entire day—this terrible story about how the daughter of the Leader of the Opposition was turned away, was denied treatment, had to go from accident and emergency to accident and emergency to accident and emergency.

I said that this was corroborated by three people. The opposition cannot put the case that this was a mistake made in the briefing. The briefing was also given by George Campbell. There were two separate people briefing. We have a tape of this briefing. It is very clear that the same story of distress and neglect by Charles Gairdner Hospital, of a person being turned away, was given by two separate people in the briefing. George Campbell was very interesting because in the briefing he also added, `Can you imagine, it even happened to the Leader of the Opposition,' as if a good socialist would expect to get preferential treatment. Given the past history of Labor ministers on this, that is quite understandable. There is a third person who independently went out and sought to beat this story up. It was the member for Jagajaga. On radio in Sydney, on Graham Richardson's radio show in Sydney—

Mr Costello —Whatever it takes!

Dr WOOLDRIDGE —Yes, whatever it takes. The member for Jagajaga made the specific allegation that this person was turned away from the hospital.

Mr Crean —Not the only one.

Dr WOOLDRIDGE —They were the words that were used. I can understand one person in the caucus mishearing what was said. I would be highly dubious about two people in the caucus mishearing what was said. But we have three people that we have so far found, mishearing, independently, in the caucus—all talking, all running the story, all running the lie that the person was turned away, was unable to get treatment. It is designed calculatingly and deliberately to reduce the public's trust in the public hospital system. That is the first occasion on which the Leader of the Opposition has been caught red-handed being loose with the truth to make a political point.

The second occasion on which this happened was this morning—the second and third occasions in fact—when the Leader of the Opposition attempted to make a point on AM. I will quote from AM. The Leader of the Opposition was talking about why he had brought the matter up. Again, you can understand that in the heat of the moment, trying to illustrate a point, you might say something and think later, `Gee, I wish I hadn't said that.' I have to admit that there has been more than one occasion on which I have done that. But on this occasion the Leader of the Opposition knew he was under fire. I first decided to go on AM after seeing the comments from Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital which had been faxed to me overnight. I rang the executive producer and he said, effectively, `At this late hour we would have to have the opposition on.'

So the Leader of the Opposition had at least 20 minutes warning that this was coming up. He knew that he was going to be under attack. He knew he would have to get his story right. He knew there had been one untruth. But he compounded his first untruth by trying to explain it away with a second blatant untruth. In the end it was the Leader of the Opposition who chose to raise this issue. It would not have been raised without him. The Leader of the Opposition, in attempting to explain why he had chosen to raise this issue, used the following words:

... I'm not in the business here ... this is the first time I've said anything about this publicly ...

To reinforce that, he said it twice: he continued:

... let's get that absolutely clear, this is the first time I've said it.

There is no equivocation there. There is no weasel word. Those in politics sometimes have a great vocabulary of words to qualify something or allow themselves to get out later. There are none of those here. It is black and white: `I have never raised this issue before. Let's get it absolutely clear. I've never raised it before.' What a pity about Merimbula!

The trouble in public life is that people have long memories. I can understand the Leader of the Opposition wanting to raise this on the South Coast. It is very distressing to have a family member who is unwell. I can understand someone being annoyed about it. I can understand someone being annoyed about having to wait. I cannot understand someone, in trying to defend themself, saying, `I've never raised it before' when in black and white they raised it in front of 150 people a month before.

Here we have the Leader of the Opposition under fire. What does he do? Does he say, `Look, I'm sorry, I made a mistake', and that is it? No, he does not. He chooses to compound his first untruth with a second blatant untruth. How does he seek to justify this at a press conference at lunchtime? I have to say that he is one of the masters of obfuscation. The Leader of the Opposition said, `Well, I didn't say it to the national media.'

So we now have a definition of what is public, just as we now have a definition of what is a correction. A correction is when you ring up and ask us whether the briefing is right or wrong. A definition of public is when you go out and tell the national media. It is somehow public to talk about it in front of your 90 to 100 colleagues in the Labor caucus. That is clearly, by this definition, public, because he said, `That's the first time I've talked about it publicly.' But it is not public to talk about it in front of 150 people at a public meeting at Merimbula or Bega on the South Coast. This is not a debating point. The point is that, under pressure, the Leader of the Opposition chooses to say the first thing that comes into his mind.

Mr Crean —No; that's you.

Dr WOOLDRIDGE —The Leader of the Opposition says something—

Mr SPEAKER —I warn the Deputy Leader of the Opposition!

Dr WOOLDRIDGE —It was not just Douglas Kerr the journalist; it was also Marea Moulton. She is the second person who has independently corroborated what has happened here. She is reported as saying very clearly, referring to Mr Beazley:

“He made an attempt to connect with the community by talking about how his daughter had been, I think it was an attack of appendicitis or something like that I can't quite remember the detail, but she was certainly on a protracted waiting list and that specifically drew his attention to the matter,” she said.

“And he said `don't think Labor is removed from this situation ...

So here he has been travelling around the country, using his daughter's situation to drum up political points against the government, and, when he has to explain why he has chosen to bring his family in, the first thing that comes into his head is to say something untruthful, and that is exactly what he did.

The third occasion on which the Leader of the Opposition has compounded what he said was again on AM when he stated that his daughter had to go—she was required—and have treatment in a private hospital. This is a follow-on of this long and harrowing saga. I am prepared to concede that any child being sick is a harrowing story, but let me again put on the record what Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital said. It is a public hospital in a Labor state. Think about that: a hospital putting out a press release like this in a Labor state. You can imagine that it has pored over the records, because there are records of this admission, and it has been absolutely precise and correct in such a difficult circumstance.

The chief executive officer of the Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital has said that the person involved was correctly diagnosed as having appendicitis and was given appropriate pain relief. Because the theatres were busy there would have been a slight delay. Busy theatres are nothing out of the normal. This was Tuesday morning. Operating theatres in public hospitals operate on a theatre list that starts at 8 a.m.. All the theatres are busy from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m. with elective surgery. Of course the theatres were going to be busy—that is normal. Secondly, with appendicitis there is often a slight wait. In the words of Sir Charles Gairdner, `there would have been a slight delay in her surgery, as is often the case with appendicitis'.

Mr Lee —How long?

Dr WOOLDRIDGE —Slight, and I have said that four times. The press release continues:

On the day in question, an operating theatre was available at St John of God Hospital Subiaco more quickly than at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, but surgery could have safely been performed at SCGH had Ms Beazley preferred that.

So here we have the third occasion in 24 hours when the Leader of the Opposition has chosen to say the first thing that comes into his head, to compound his confusion, to make the fourth or fifth version of events that we have had from him and his office. Members of the press gallery who were receiving calls yesterday trying to get corrections will know that this story was a shifting sand from the time it started at 1.27 p.m. This morning we have the third occasion. It was said that she had to go to the private hospital for treatment, whereas Sir Charles Gairdner is saying very clearly that she could have had it done there safely—after a short delay, which is absolutely normal for appendicitis—if she had chosen to do so.

This is, again, another occasion of a person saying the first thing that take comes into his head, whether it is truthful or not, to try to create a picture. The picture is one of apparent crisis in health care. I am happy to tell you what a crisis in health care is. It is having no rural kids getting into medical school and having rural doctors vanishing from the scene. A crisis in medical school is having health care agreements that are dysfunctional. A crisis in health care is having private health insurance dropping through the floor. A crisis in health care is having measles epidemics in an advanced Western country—as happened in 1993 and 1994. All of those things happened under the previous Labor government. All of those things have either been fixed or are on the way to being fixed. The Leader of the Opposition will not achieve anything by deliberately obfuscating, by attempting to create a crisis where one does not exist, and he certainly will not achieve it by not telling the truth.

Mr SPEAKER —Is the motion seconded?

Mr Anderson —I second motion and reserve my right to speak at a later time.