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Wednesday, 28 March 1984
Page: 831


Senator WATSON —Madam Acting Deputy President, I seek leave to make a personal explanation.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Coleman) —Does the honourable senator claim to have been misrepresented?


Senator WATSON —On behalf of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts, I do.

Leave granted.


Senator WATSON —I speak in my capacity as a member of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and in the absence of the Chairman, Senator George Georges, who unfortunately had a fall and has been admitted to hospital. I use this opportunity of the broadcast of these proceedings to wish him a speedy recovery. On Tuesday in the Senate committee rooms a media conference was held and a statement released on a report entitled 'Medifraud: A professionally induced cancer' by an outside group known as the Rupert Public Interest Movement. The Public Accounts Committee was misrepresented in the media release and in the report. The Rupert Movement documents allege that the Public Accounts Committee, in its medical fraud inquiry, neglected to address in its progress report the issue of the quality of senior management in the Department of Health; secondly, that it was inactive during 1983; and, thirdly, that it failed to protect key witnesses. Madam Acting Deputy President, I have a document, which I do not propose to read, refuting each of these points in detail and I seek leave to table the relevant documents.

Leave granted.


Senator WATSON —I propose briefly to take each of these allegations in turn. It is not true to say that the Committee's progress report neglected to address the quality of senior management in the Department of Health. In fact, departmental management relating to medical fraud and overservicing is a major issue of chapter 5 of the report. Two of the Committee's recommendations, numbers 5 and 6 , are particularly relevant. Recommendation No. 5 states:

The Committee recommends that the senior management structure and personnel of the Department be comprehensively reviewed . . .

Recommendation 6 states:

The Committee recommends that the lines of responsibility within the Department of Health be redefined and its management philosophy altered . . .independent management expertise be provided to the Department to assist (these tasks).

It is not true to say that the Committee was inactive in its inquiry during 1983 . In the tabled document I have listed the major events of the inquiries during 1983. They include a private meeting with the Minister for Health (Dr Blewett) and the Director-General of Health; public hearings with representatives of the Australian Medical Association; a private meeting with the Special Minister of State and the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police; in camera meetings with the Chairman of the Australian Law Reform Commission, the Commonwealth Crown Solicitor and the Secretary to the Attorney-General's Department; nationwide advertisements and correspondence seeking submissions; and the tabling of the Department of Finance minute of the progress report. I could continue listing events of the medical fraud inquiry during 1983, but the details will be in the tabled documents. Honourable senators will be aware, of course, that the Public Accounts Committee was concerned with other matters as well as the medical fraud inquiry during 1983. In that year it presented 19 separate reports, and its current references total 22. The details will be in the tabled documents.

The final allegation of the report concerning failure to protect witnesses is one that the Committee and I regard with the greatest concern. Let me assure honourable senators, on behalf of the Public Accounts Committee, that the matter of the protection of witnesses is of critical importance and concern to the Committee. The Committee has always shown its concern in the past and will continue to do so in the future. In the course of the medical fraud inquiry, after a number of officers of the Department of Health advised that they wished to present submissions or to give evidence as individuals, the Committee sought a legal opinion on the status of individuals and their evidence before the Committee and the protection afforded to them by the Public Accounts Committee Act. The opinion of the Committee's legal adviser, the Hon. Mr Justice C. B. Toose, QC, CBE, was incorporated in the transcript of evidence of the first public meeting of the medical fraud and overservicing inquiry on 1 July 1982. A copy of this opinion, which includes reference to those provisions of the Public Accounts Committee Act 1951 relating to the privilege and protection of witnesses, is included in the documents that I have tabled.

As a further example of the Committee's concern in this area, at a private meeting in May last year on the medical fraud inquiry, the Committee pursued with the Director-General of Health the career prospects and current placement of one of the witnesses referred to in the Rupert document. The Committee was assured by the Director-General that the officer's prospects had not been affected. The Committee's questions at the meeting with the Director-General did not follow an approach from the witness concerned. Neither of the witnesses referred to in the Rupert document has approached the Committee for assistance.

I wish to inform the Senate that having seen the Rupert report, the PAC has written to the Director-General of Health seeking a full response to all matters contained in the report. The Committee has also advised the Director-General that some matters will be pursued at a public hearing with the Department next Monday. I inform the Senate that the matters in respect of witnesses will be once more followed up.