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Wednesday, 29 August 2001
Page: 30530

Mr NEVILLE (3:16 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Health and Aged Care. Would the minister inform the House of the action being taken by the government to ensure the capacity of rural communities to recruit and retain doctors?

Dr WOOLDRIDGE (Minister for Health and Aged Care) —I thank the honourable member for his question. The Deputy Prime Minister has already outlined in question time the actions the government is taking broadly, in the Stronger Regions statement and in a number of very specific statements. But I would like to inform honourable members of one specific thing we are doing in the area of health relating to the operation of the Trade Practices Act. The Trade Practices Act has caused concern across all general practitioner groups—from the college of GPs, the College of Rural and Remote Medicine, the Rural Doctors Association, through to the AMA.

Different groups have different concerns about the operations, and there would appear to be some genuine concerns. Certainly the issue of rostering in country areas and the issue of practice structure, where one doctor might be incorporated and another doctor not incorporated, would appear to be problems. To be fair to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, they acknowledge this and they have been very supportive of the authorisation process that the government intends to proceed with in looking at these two issues. In spite of that, other concerns have been put up, and it is hard from a position of government to determine the validity of these concerns. They may very well have substance.

So the Prime Minister has announced today that the government will be having an inquiry into the operation of the Trade Practices Act, inasmuch as it affects rural and remote communities attracting and retaining doctors. The three people who will be looking at this are Warwick Wilkinson, who is an assistant commissioner with the ACCC and who, in 1999, looked at the national competition review of pharmacy; Diana Gibbs, an economic consultant working in rural Australia; and Dr John Aloizos, currently chairman of the Australian Pharmacy Advisory Committee and past chairman of the Australian Divisions of General Practice.

The terms of reference ask them to look at the impact of the Trade Practices Act on the competitiveness, structure, sustainability and regulation of medical practitioners in rural Australia; the economic and social impacts of rural medical practitioners and the communities they serve; changes to market structure, competitiveness and sustainability of regulation of medical practice in recent years; public benefits, if any, from the altering of the application of the Trade Practices Act to rural medical practitioners; measures which could be undertaken to facilitate the flow of benefits or mitigate any transitional costs or negative impacts arising from the application of the Trade Practices Act to rural medical practitioners and residents of rural and remote Australia; and measures to create greater awareness of the Trade Practices Act and the medical profession in the community.

This will give a chance for those people who have concerns about the operation of the Trade Practices Act to raise them in an open and public manner. The committee will hold public hearings. We expect to have a report from them within six months, and if that report shows, in its independent and open way, that there are problems over and above those which we have already identified, we are prepared to act on them.