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Tuesday, 28 February 1984
Page: 18

Senator JONES —My question is directed to the Minister representing the Minister for Health. Is it a fact that almost all diagnostic specialists in Queensland public hospitals have been employed by the State Government for more than 20 years under contracts almost identical to those proposed for the public health hospitals in other States by the present Federal Minister for Health? Is it not also a fact that, because this system has been proven to work well in Queensland hospitals for more than two decades, it is unlikely that any active support will be forthcoming from doctors in that State for the inexcusable strike now being threatened for Thursday by the mercenary minority of doctors in New South Wales?

Senator GRIMES —Yes, I agree with the gist of Senator Jones's question, but I think it is worthwhile pointing out that he is not quite accurate. In fact the contracts under which the doctors he referred to in Queensland hospitals work are much harsher, and certainly much more restrictive, than the contracts proposed by the present Federal Minister for Health under section 17 of the Health Insurance Act. The Commonwealth Government's initial proposals were that salaried specialists would be able to earn an additional 25 per cent above a senior specialist's salary from private work in a public hospital. That is, they can earn another $12,500 a year on top of the $50,000 a year which is the average per annum salary of senior specialists in hospitals. Visiting specialists and radiologists in hospitals would have been able to earn $62,500 a year without any restrictions. They could then leave 25 per cent of their earnings-between $62,000 and $87,500-in a trust fund and 40 per cent of their earnings above $87,500 in a hospital fund.

Queensland salaried specialists have no private practice rights at all and have not had them for two decades. Queensland hospital specialists would be very attracted to the sorts of contracts that Dr Blewett and the Federal Government are offering under section 17 of the Health Insurance Act. In these circumstances Queensland private practitioners must be very different from their avaricious friends in New South Wales in particular who are indulging in the obscene activity of going on strike when they have an income of more than $90, 000 plus whatever they can earn from private practice. Senator MacGibbon, I notice, has not been going in to bat over the last 20 years for the apparently poverty stricken state of diagnostic specialists in Queensland hospitals.

Senator MacGibbon —The Government scheme gives less to all medical practitioners in Queensland than is paid in other States.

Senator GRIMES —The Queensland practice has been in place for 20 years. Queensland specialists have been getting less than specialists in other States for 20 years. They have been on much harsher contracts than the contracts suggested by Dr Blewett. Queensland specialists would love to be under the same contracts as those suggested by Dr Blewett. But the Government, and Dr Blewett in particular, has not demanded the imposition of conditions on those even higher earning diagnostic specialists. We have offered to defer the income restraints. Many people would not consider that they were much of a restraint. We have offered to defer these restraints until the whole issue has been examined-particularly the matter of private practice in public hospitals-by a joint Government and Australian Medical Association committee under Professor Pennington, who is the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Melbourne.

Other more contentious issues, such as the matter of appeals, rights and the preparation of a national list of facility charges for the use of public hospital services and other equipment, have also been referred to the inquiry. This Government's only requirement for doctors who have been trained at public expense and who practise in public hospitals using facilities which are paid for by the taxpayer is that they stick to the schedule fee. That is the only restraint that is on them at the moment. These are the people who are, in fact, going on strike. The schedule fee is drawn up by a committee which is agreed to by the national body, the Australian Medical Association.

I repeat: It is an absolute obscenity that these medical practitioners should be going on strike in this way when they work in taxpayer-funded facilities and when they have been trained with the taxpayers' money. It is an absolute obscenity that they should go on strike because the Federal Government says: ' Charge what is a fair thing'. These same people-I am quick to point out that I believe that the majority of doctors in the community do not approve of these doctors going on strike-would be the first to complain about unionists in another area who earn much less going on strike.

In fact, as one of my colleagues has said, they make Norm Gallagher look socially responsible. I put it to honourable senators that what Dr Blewett and the Federal Government are doing is, in fact, being perfectly reasonable with these people. The fact that Mr Bjelke-Petersen and Mr Austin in the Queensland Government have come out in support of surgeons in New South Wales who are going to indulge in a strike of this type when, for the two decades that they have been in Government, Queensland's own doctors have been working under much harsher and stricter contracts which imposed much greater restraints on diagnostic specialists in Queensland hospitals is the absolute epitome of hypocrisy.

This Government will not back down under these circumstances. We will not back down under political or economic blackmail such as this. We believe that those who use publicly funded facilities and who are trained with taxpayers' money have some sort of social responsibility in this country. If they will not demonstrate that social responsibility, we will have to impose such a responsibility on them.