Health and Community Services Complaints (Miscellaneous) Amendment Bill

Second Reading

I just want to make a small contribution in relation the bill. I commend the work that has been done in the preparation of this bill, particularly the committee of inquiry, to deal with this question of those who purport to practise. As the Minister for Consumer and Business Services, I have to consider regulation of a lot of professions, and this is one of them. Medical and health practice is a serious profession that has serious consequences if it is not administered safely.

I would also just like to place on the record the significance of the establishment of a Health and Community Services Complaints Commissioner in South Australia. Historically, complaints in relation to health matters, particularly if there is some complaint about the service or lack thereof in a hospital or a health facility, or about the conduct of a certain practitioner, have been dealt with by the Ombudsman's office. The Ombudsman, of course, has a public integrity and investigative role in relation to public sector services and personnel. Health services are largely provided for the general public via public hospitals. As we also know, in the health space the federal government pay for doctors and drugs and we pay as a state for the cost of hospitals and the proper administration of them.

I note in today's paper a summary of the KordaMentha report and the decision of this government to install a new and refreshed—in fact, completely new—governance structure for the central Adelaide hospitals, which operates for the provision of services largely in the metropolitan area and northern region. That captures health services, which cost the people of South Australia about $2 billion a year and which we need to make sure are functioning not only financially responsibly but also at a high standard of service.

Having the Health and Community Services Complaints Commissioner, who is the person who took over the role from the Ombudsman in relation to this area, was an important initiative. It was established early in the life of the previous government, and I think, if I recall correctly, it was under the minister who was from the north-eastern suburbs.

 Yes, the Hon. Lea Stevens came into the parliament and sponsored this new form of legislation. The objective was to ensure that the investigative role in relation to health services in South Australia be expanded to outside the public sector. The previous government wished to sponsor the capacity for the public to complain and have their legitimate complaints investigated. Hopefully, recommendations would be made from that to ensure that any behaviour that was substandard was dealt with and that, secondly, if there were illegal conduct, it would be referred to the relevant agencies.

They were very clear in saying to the parliament, 'We need to broaden the capacity for the public to complain outside the public sector facilities, but including private hospitals and private clinics, to ensure that there is a comprehensive way that people can make a complaint and, in addition to that, it should actually expand beyond the public sector health services to community services.'

These are often provided not by independent businesses but by non-government agencies—NGOs, we commonly call them—which are usually run by a business arm of a church or charitable institution but have now developed significant business roles and undertake work in the social welfare area, either on behalf of government or on behalf of the community in their parish or other area of interest and support.

It was a very substantial change and a significant broadening of the area of responsibility of a complaints procedure that would have a capacity to record, investigate, remedy, recommend and the like. I was only newly in the parliament with the Hon. Dean Brown, who is a former premier and former minister in previous governments, including also the Tonkin government actually, but we will not go back over history for the moment; otherwise, we might be here for a bit longer. I notice his government is coming up to celebrating 25 years and having some recognition of that shortly.

At the time, the Hon. Dean Brown took the view that perhaps there should be consideration of there being a dedicated structure within the Ombudsman's office to do this, rather than setting up an independent office and structure and the like. That was the then opposition's position. Notwithstanding that, obviously the government of the day, ultimately with the blessing of this parliament, had the passage of the act, and that Health and Community Services Complaints Act 2004 was passed and a new agency was set up.

We have a comprehensive report provided by the commissioner each year. I am just glancing at present at the annual report for 2017-18, submitted by Dr Grant Davies, who I think is the current Health and Community Services Complaints Commissioner. There have been several in the time of its operation, and I place on the record my appreciation for the work they have done. It is not easy work.

When under the responsibility of the Ombudsman, this area usually took up a large amount of the report. The continuing responsibilities in relation to complaints by prisoners in the Department for Correctional Services, complaints in the welfare area, and complaints about the Housing Trust and community welfare agencies of various forms, attract a large amount of attention of the Ombudsman's office, and it continues to undertake some considerable work.

These agencies only work if, firstly, the general public feel free, comfortable and unrestricted in their opportunity to lodge a complaint. For that to happen, they also have to have some confidence in the agency to ensure that their complaint will be considered and dealt with. That is not to say that some frivolous applications are not made to these types of agencies, because of course that does happen, but hopefully they are treated respectfully in the declining of further investigation. However, at least someone has an assessment of that.

Sometimes the remedy being sought by the complainant is a far cry from whatever the commissioner can do in terms of making a recommendation to the government for them to fix up or to go to the parliament to provide some legislative or regulatory remedy. Sometimes circumstances occur where people are injured or even die whilst in a health service, and there is really nothing that could have been done.

Probably one of the most concerning matters that has come to my attention in the time that I have been a member of parliament is in relation to the suicide of a medical specialist. The complaint that went to the commissioner about that was whether in fact that particular medical specialist had had sufficient support in the hospital in which he was working prior to his untimely death. It is fair to say that ultimately the resolution, or lack thereof, of an investigation into that matter raised concerns for me and a member of the family at the time as to how these processes are sometimes inadequate and are not able to solve all the problems that occur in this area.

Nevertheless, the annual report identifies a level of accountability as to the work that is being done, the money that is being spent on them doing it, the effectiveness of it and the like. The second thing that maintains a level of confidence in the public in this type of entity is that there will be recommendations published and, if those recommendations are designed to assist in ensuring that people are not hurt or fail to be adequately provided for in a health or community service in the future, that those recommendations will be acted on.

In that regard, I cannot express how concerned I have been in my time in this parliament about so many reports being presented to parliament with extensive recommendations and people in government have not taken up those recommendations. Sometimes they say it is too expensive, sometimes they say it will not work and sometimes they say they already have a certain process to protect people in this area. All too often, people have worked very hard, whether they are commissioners or whether they are coroners, on the types of reports that we receive, and many of those recommendations have gone unresolved.

I can think of two other areas where we have had royal commissions that have made recommendations in respect of children, in particular child sexual abuse.

Just in case the lead speaker, or anyone in the parliament, for that matter, who is listening to this, has closed their ears or is not keeping up with the thread of my presentation, what I am saying is that, whatever happens when the Health and Community Services Complaints Commissioner provides an annual report to the parliament—or indeed comes to us as a parliament independent of the annual report, and says, 'This is what I recommend. This is what I have identified as a serious deficiency in relation to a particular service that's being offered.'—governments do need to listen to it.

I was illustrating the unfortunate litany of reports of recommendations that have been presented, even under this new procedure, which were not taken up by the former government. On the other hand, dealing with royal commissions as an example, we feel very concerned about these matters. So, as a new government, the Minister for Child Protection, the Minister for Human Services and myself as Attorney-General have been very conscientious, with the support and assistance of our departments, in ensuring that the recommendations of the national Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse are read, listened to and acted on. We are very diligent, and will continue to be, in ensuring that that is offered.

I will not use the last six minutes to read to you what I think is important in this annual report, but I urge members, when these annual reports are tabled, to flick up your iPads and have a look online at what these important people do in reporting to us and give their recommendations some thought. Certainly, if any members have an issue from it or examples of it in their own electorates, I do not care what side of the parliament they sit on, I would urge them to talk to members of the government to ensure that those issues are followed up and that we have some real and concrete outcomes to ensure that we do not set up these inquiries and then have their resolutions ignored.

With that, I commend the bill to the house and thank the Minister for Energy for just about everything, acting for health, and for bringing this through the parliament.