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18 November 2009

Health Minister Nicola Roxon’s contortions to avoid debate, scrutiny and accountability for her cruel cuts to Medicare rebates for cataract treatments reached new heights tonight.

The Minister refused to comply with a Senate order requiring her to reveal the legal advice she relied upon to claim a Coalition Bill to restore the rebates to their original levels was unconstitutional.

In doing so the Minister broke a commitment made to Parliament that she was “happy” to make the legal opinion public.

The Minister used the so-called legal advice to prevent debate on the Coalition Bill in the House of Representatives on October 29.

At the time she told Parliament: “We are happy to provide that legal advice.”

The Senate took the Minister at her word and ordered that she table the legal advice.

This evening she refused.

Minister Roxon used a weak excuse that the Government couldn’t make its advice public because “it could prejudice the Commonwealth’s position in the event of future legal proceedings”.

That excuse was soon shot down in flames by the respected Clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans.

Mr Evans said: “This claim in relation to the advice concerned, however, is clearly misconceived.”

“There cannot be any legal proceedings which might be prejudiced by disclosure of advice to the government on its interpretation of section 53 (of the Constitution which the Government based its position on).”

Mr Evans pointed to a judgement of the High Court which “rejected the kind of interpretation of the section now being put forward by the government and its legal advisers”.

In a further embarrassment to the Health Minister, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Health Administration Senator Mathias Cormann tabled independent legal advice which also indicated the Minister and the Rudd Government didn’t have a leg to stand on.

The advice from the law firm Blake Dawson concluded: “The Senate’s initiation of the Bill did not contravene section 53 of the Constitution.”

In refusing to honour her commitment to publicly release the government’s legal advice Senator Cormann said Minister Roxon had had her department “scramble together a piece of departmental advice”.

“What has she got to hide?”

“It’s an absolute farce, an absolute mess,” Senator Cormann told the Senate.

Senator Cormann said Government assertions that the Senate could not amend legislation to restore rebates for cataracts also ran counter to advice from the Clerk of the Senate.

Shadow Minister for Health and Ageing Peter Dutton warned the Government that it had a week to reverse its decision to slash rebates for cataract surgery and to alleviate widespread concern in the community about the Rudd Government’s decisions.

“We have given notice that we will disallow these harsh measures which are forcing senior Australians to pay hundreds of dollars more for a life-changing treatment than they did a month ago.”

The Senate will deal with the disallowance motion next Wednesday, if the Government persists in punishing cataract patients.

Media Contact – John Wiseman 0429 983 618


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