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Wednesday, 12 October 2016
Page: 1589

Senator WATT (Queensland) (12:36): I also rise to speak on this bill. I do so as a member of the community affairs committee, which conducted a hearing into this legislation in Sydney a week or two ago. As my Labor colleagues have said, and as I want to say at the outset: Labor strongly supports the establishment of a national cancer screening register. As a member of the committee, I was apprised of the benefits of this register, particularly to improve procedures around screening to make sure that we keep people alive longer—that is essentially what this comes down to. Labor also supports the improvements to cancer-screening programs that the new register will support.

But we do have concerns about the government's legislation. This register will hold Australians' most sensitive health data, like the results of cervical and bowel cancer screening, and we need to get such a sensitive matter right. So Labor does have serious concerns about the government's shambolic approach to this important legislation. On the eve of the election, the Turnbull government signed a $220 million contract to outsource this register to Telstra before parliament even saw the legislation. So we had a government that had not put through the legislation that was required to facilitate this register, and yet the very same government were hell-bent on rushing through and signing a contract to get this register up and running—mysteriously, on the eve of the election. You can only assume that they did so in order to have a great little campaign announcement without actually having done their homework in getting the necessary legislation in place.

Now, as we are becoming used to from the Turnbull government, we see another stuff-up. The government have bungled the bills to establish the register in their rush to pass this legislation retrospectively. When Labor and the crossbench first referred the government's bills to a Senate inquiry, the Minister for Health and Aged Care, Sussan Ley, accused Labor of a hysterical tirade. But, in an embarrassing rebuke of the government, their own Information Commissioner made six recommendations to the Senate inquiry to fix the legislation. So their very own commissioner raised concerns about matters in this legislation that were very basic privacy and data restriction matters that the government had not taken into account in drafting the legislation. At the committee hearing, even government senators, on hearing the evidence of the privacy and information commissioner, indicated that there did seem to be some benefits in considering the amendments that the commissioner proposed. Some of the loopholes identified by the commissioner were incredibly alarming. For example, the government's bills as drafted may allow the register operator to collect all Medicare claims information on people who are on the register. I well remember during the federal election that we had a bit of a debate about Medicare. Do you remember that, Senator Polley?

Senator Polley: I do remember that.

Senator WATT: You do remember that—and I think Australians remember that. We continue to hear the horrified claims from the government that Labor perpetrated a lie in saying that Medicare was going to be privatised, and here we have a very good example of the government's determination to outsource and privatise aspects of our health services by giving the contract to run this register to a private, for-profit corporation. Not only that; the way the bill is drafted has left it very unclear. It would appear that the register operator, who will be a private, for-profit corporation—that is the government's desire—will be allowed to collect all Medicare claims information on people who are on the register. I remember the Prime Minister claiming very loudly, 'This is just terrible. We're not privatising Medicare. Nothing to do with Medicare will ever go to the private sector,' and here, in the third sitting week of the new parliament, we have the government putting through legislation which will, apparently, allow private access to Medicare claims information. Under the government's plan, this would allow Telstra to see all health services that a person has received, including in sensitive areas like mental health and sexual health. The more Australians hear about this, the more horrified they will be to think that their personal health information—really something that is just between them and their doctor—will now potentially fall into private hands. That is something that I think most Australians would not want to see.

So, last week, Labor proposed nine amendments to improve the government's legislation, and we have now dragged the government, kicking and screaming, into accepting many of those amendments. We understand the government has accepted some amendments that meet many of our demands—very practical, sensible demands. Remember, this is the same government which said that the Senate inquiry was a hysterical tirade, and it is now admitting that it has to amend its own legislation.

Unfortunately, despite the amendments that have been taken on board by the government, this legislation remains full of holes. In addition to the Labor amendments that the government is accepting, we are going to continue on and move three amendments that it refused to accept. Labor's amendments will ensure that Australians' personal information is collected appropriately and used appropriately and that appropriate penalties are in place to protect all Australians. The first batch of amendments concerns this attempt by the government to privatise Medicare and privatise health services. First, Labor will proceed with its amendment to limit the operation of the register to a not-for-profit organisation or a government agency. I do not have a problem particularly with Telstra—they have done a great job; they are a great corporation; they provide a lot of services to Australians—but the problem is that Telstra have never operated a register like this. We took evidence to that effect in the hearing. In fact, at the hearing it was made very clear to us by a number of witnesses that nowhere in the world has a for-profit corporation operated a cancer-screening register like this. So this would be a world-first privatisation of health services in this way committed to by the Turnbull government—which, of course, is the government that is not going to privatise health services. We remain very concerned about that and the prospect of people's private health information being handed to a for-profit company.

The Senate inquiry revealed that the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and other experts share Labor's concern about outsourcing the register to a for-profit corporation. So this cannot be dismissed as some ideological pursuit by the Labor Party; this is being backed up by some of the most respected voices in the health community around Australia. They share our concern and also believe that this register should be operated by a government or not-for-profit organisation.

The second set of amendments concerns mandatory disclosures. We will move an amendment to ensure that individuals are notified when their most sensitive health data is breached. I am conscious of the time, so I will not say too much more. We will be moving amendments to increase the penalties for unauthorised use or disclosure of information. One of the really great concerns is that the government continues to refuse to say that the government will remain the data custodian. The government says this in its explanatory memorandum to the bill but is not prepared to do so in the bill, which really raises some concerns. In the interests of time, I might wrap up my speech there, but I do want to move an amendment to this bill. I move:

At the end of the motion, add "but the Senate condemns the Government for outsourcing Australians' most sensitive health information to Telstra before the Parliament even saw the necessary legislation".

Debate interrupted.