Does a government official – especially one who sits on the front bench – have an obligation to tell the truth – and I’m asking about the whole truth –  when making public statements? If they are quoted as saying something which isn’t correct, do they have an obligation to take every step possible to publicly fix the misstatement? Should every pronouncement put out by a government department in said minister’s portfolio be accurate and not misinform by omission or outright untruths?

These are not simply academic questions, as you will soon see.

Misquote or Caught in the Act?

On Thursday this week, the article, GPs and Labor at odds over immunisation, appeared in an online newspaper called the Business Spectator. I am including a pdf of the article rather than a link because the item has been removed from the paper’s website – more about that later.

The issue being discussed was whether or not the government’s decision to scrap the ‘immunisation incentive’ or, as I prefer to think of it, the bribe to doctors for pressuring parents to ensure all children are given every single approved vaccine, was a good or a bad thing.

Extra dosh for doing your job right

Since the late 1990s, doctors in Australia have gotten 3 separate bonus payments from the government to ensure increased compliance with complete vaccination.

Last year, the Federal Government stopped the $18.50 ‘bonus’ paid to doctors every time they vaccinated a child on time. The cutting of this payment led Dr Neil Hearndon from the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners to say that unless they were given this extra payment, doctors would stop vaccinating children. The only proviso Dr Hearndon mentioned was that if doctors were committed in a “professional and ethical way” to the procedure, they would probably keep doing it.[1] One could be excused for feeling surprised at this statement since we are always told that ALL doctors support vaccination. So shouldn’t all doctors feel a professional and ethical commitment to vaccinate with or without extra payments?

Now, the General Practice Immunisation Incentive, which gave a bulk payment to doctors who achieved a 90% or higher rate of vaccination amongst their practice’s children, is also being done away with. That means the only extra bounty being given to medicos for vaccination is the payment for reporting vaccinations to the Australian Childhood Immunisation Register.

Two other ‘incentive’ payments are also being scrapped – one which rewards doctors for screening 70% or more of their eligible female patients for cervical cancer and another to provide early diagnosis and treatment for diabetics.[2]

The Practice Incentives Program (PIP) states as its goal, “…to encourage continuing improvements in general practice through financial incentives to support quality care, and improve access and health outcomes for patients.”

Let’s look at this issue in another way. Paying doctors a ‘bonus’ for doing what they are supposed to be doing anyway is the equivalent of paying a secretary extra for typing up reports or giving a builder extra money for making sure that the house they’ve just built you doesn’t fall down in the first 12 months of occupation.

These are all part and parcel of the job description and doctors, who are already amongst the highest-paid workers in our community, should be doing their job regardless of any extra incentive. It is a scandal that they not only want but need this extra money to ensure they do their jobs properly.

Plibersek misquoted

In the article mentioned above, the following quote appears: “Health Minister Tanya Plibersek said the incentive was no longer needed because from July parents will have to immunise their children in order to receive welfare payments.” (Question: what do ‘welfare payments consist of? The Family Allowance which has never been linked with vaccination compliance? This is a very vague expression which is quite confusing and can be frightening for any family who relies on government payments for their day-to-day living expenses.)

Not only has Minister Plibersek not mentioned the fact that there are both conscientious and medical exemptions available which would mean that those who don’t vaccinate or who vaccinate selectively will still be eligible for all government payments, but the quote specifically states that unless children are vaccinated, their parents will be penalised.

This is simply not true and, after reading this article on Thursday morning, I immediately called Minister Plibersek’s office to try and clear up this error. Surely, the Minister would be grateful to me for informing her about this potentially damaging misquote and she would immediately take steps to have a correction issued so that Australian families would not be misled by this article.

After three phone calls with a very helpful staffer by the name of Jim who knew nothing about any of these issues but assured me that someone would get back to me shortly if I would just write a letter about my concerns which I did (see letter below).

Dear Minister Plibersek,

It is with grave concern that I noted this morning the following quote from yourself in the Business Spectator Newspaper:

“Health Minister Tanya Plibersek said the incentive was no longer needed because from July parents will have to immunise their children in order to receive welfare payments.”

http://www.businessspectator.com.au/bs.nsf/Article/GPs-and-Labor-at-odds-over-immunisation-U5BXZ?OpenDocument&src=hp7

I represent the Australian Vaccination Network, Australia’s national vaccine-safety and informed health-choice lobby group. On behalf of our membership which consists of thousands of Australian families, health practitioners and medical professionals in every State and Territory of Australia, we lobbied hard to help in drafting the Conscientious Objector clause which allows those who choose not to vaccinate or to vaccinate selectively to still receive all government payments regardless of their child’s vaccination status.

It is my will, on behalf of our organisation and the thousands of Australian families whose informed choice is not to vaccinate their children, that this issue be cleared up in writing today.

Are there plans to scrap the Conscientious Objector clause, meaning that Australians who have made a legal decision not to vaccinate will now be financially penalised for that choice?

If not, and if the Conscientious Objector clause still applies, you have been misquoted and this needs to be immediately addressed in all Australian media so that the families of Australia will be alerted to the fact that regardless of whether their children are vaccinated according to the Australian schedule, are partially vaccinated or not vaccinated at all, they will not be penalised for making the choice they felt is in their family’s best interest.

In addition, the use of the term “welfare payments” in this interview might lead one to believe that ALL family payments will be at risk for families who don’t vaccinate. If this is the case, then there must have been recent amendments to Federal legislation. If this is true, please advise me of the Act under which these payments have been taken away from Australian families. If it is not true, again, the families of Australian need to be alerted to this error in the quickest and most complete way possible.

This is an open letter which will be sent to all AVN members, professional members and other interested parties in Australia.

I await your prompt reply with great interest.

Kind regards,
Meryl Dorey

 Passing the buck

I was finally switched through to Minister Jenny Macklin’s office. Jim seemed to feel that since Jenny Macklin is the Minister for Families and Community Services, this would be an issue for her to deal with rather than Minister Plibersek who had actually been quoted in the article.

I didn’t think this was right but I went along with it and spoke with one of Minister Macklin’s advisors. Like myself, this woman was confused about why I had been put through to their office. After all, she said, Jenny Macklin hadn’t been quoted – Tanya Plibersek was so it was up to her to clear things up.

When I explained to this advisor that my concern was focused on the fact that this article was claiming that come July, parents of unvaccinated children would not longer be able to access the Family Tax Benefit Supplement Part A which would see them penalised thousands of dollars, the woman told me, “But that’s right. Vaccination is compulsory in Australia.”

This is an advisor. In the office of Jenny Macklin, the Minister for Families and Community Services – the department which oversees Medicare – the department that administers this whole payments process!

I explained to her about the conscientious and medical exemptions and she said she had never heard of them. So what hope does the average Australian parent have, I had to wonder?

Conscientious objection

More then anything however, I was starting to fear that somehow, in some way, the government had managed to rescind the conscientious objector clause in the legislation and vaccination really WAS now becoming compulsory for schoolchildren. It was my number one concern and I wanted to be sure to keep on this issue and not let it drop.

The next morning (Friday, May 11th), after yet another call to Minister Plibersek’s office, my phone call was returned by one of the Minister’s senior policy advisors – a woman known only as Caroline.

She informed me that the quote from Minister Plibersek in the Business Spectator article was not correct and that parents would still be able to register as conscientious objectors and receive all financial benefits whether they vaccinate or not. The only difference is that doctors will not be getting the incentive payments any longer.

I said that this was a very serious issue and that any parent who read the Spectator article would be misinformed and might end up making a decision they didn’t feel comfortable with because of it. I asked if someone from the Minister’s office would be contacting the paper to ask them to issue a correction. She told me that the Minister’s Press Secretary would be informed about this and it would be up to them as to whether they want to do something about it or not.

I expressed concern about this lack of understanding of the seriousness of the misinforming of parents and that Minister Plibersek should be concerned about being misquoted. Caroline responded by asking me if I was verballing the Minister.

“Verballing?” I said, “How is it verballing to read what was printed as a direct quote from her?”

I then informed her that there is a government paper put out on this policy by their department called Strengthening Immunisation for Children[3], and that in the entire two pages of this document, there is no mention of conscientious objection. I said that it is so important that parents be made aware that they do not have to vaccinate and they can still receive their financial entitlements even if they don’t.

In fact, this document not only omits reference to the availability of both the conscientious and medical exemptions, but it clearly says that:

“From 1 July 2012, parents will need to have had their children fully vaccinated during the financial years that each child turns one, two and five years of age to receive the $726 Family Tax Benefit Part A supplement (for each child each year). Immunisation is already a condition for Australian Government child care payments.”

This government document, issued by Minister Plibersek’s department, incorrectly states  that those who don’t vaccinate will not get child care payments or the Family Tax Benefit Part A supplement. To state it clearly, this is an untrue statement on the part of the government.

Caroline replied by saying that it was government policy to strongly encourage vaccination and so, of course they would not put information about conscientious objection into the government paperwork!

I said that this could be construed as deceptive on the part of the government and she replied by claiming that I was verballing her!

Perhaps every time someone says something she disagrees with, they are verballing her?

I then asked her to confirm her name for me and she refused. She said that she was afraid I would verbal her if she gave me her name so all I needed to know is that her name was Caroline and she was a senior policy advisor to the Minister. Perhaps this is the Caroline I was speaking with – Caroline Turnour? In any case, after refusing to give me her name, she stated that she had nothing else to say to me and had answered my questions. She then proceeded to hang up on me.

Misquoted – over and over and over again

So there you have it – the Business Spectator misquoted the Minister who supposedly never said that parents who didn’t vaccinate would lose their right to the Family Tax Benefit Part A Supplement even though that is exactly what the paper on the department’s website says as well.

I called the Spectator on Friday morning after speaking with the elusive Caroline and left a message on their answering machine explaining that I had spoken with a representative of the Minister’s office and she claimed that the Minister had never made the statement quoted in the article. I asked that someone call me back so I could get further details. They never called me back but within an hour, the article had been pulled from the Spectator’s website.

Strangely enough, the same exact quote can be found in the Sydney Morning Herald[4], on Channel 7 News[5], in the Canberra Times[6] and on many other websites and in print publications.

Stranger still, in every single article published since this announcement was made on the 8th of May, whether the Minister was quoted directly or not, it is stated that starting on July 1st, 2012, unless parents vaccinate their children, they will lose out on $2,100 in government payments. Not one article mentions the fact that parents who don’t vaccinate can still get these payments if they register as a conscientious or medical objector to vaccination.

It strains credulity to imagine that all of these errors were as a result of the Minister being ‘misquoted’. Especially when one of her senior policy advisors openly admitted to me that it is government policy to strongly support vaccination and if that means not including information on the rights of parents to object without penalty, well, that is government policy as well.

Letters needed

Today, I will be filing an official complaint with the Federal Ombudsman on this issue and will have more details on this subject – especially on the historical use of this sort of ‘untruth by omission’ on the vaccination issue – in the next few days.

In the meantime, if you haven’t yet had your minimum daily requirement of tilting at windmills and are willing to write to both the Federal Minister for Health and the Shadow Minister about this situation, that would be great.

Be sure to start your letter with the words – It is my will that you… These words will require an answer on the part of the recipients. For more information on how to get heard by the government, read the excellent booklet by Arthur A Chresby, Your Will Be Done[7].

Feel free to take any bits of my letter or any of the information from this blog to include in your email and if you could please send a copy to me as well, I would really appreciate it.

The email addresses are as follows:

Tanya Plibersek, Minister for Health – Minister.Plibersek@health.gov.au

Peter Dutton, Shadow Minister for Health – peter.dutton.mp@aph.gov.au

If you would like to include the following individuals in your email (just add them all to the BCC or CC (BCC preferred) fields), that would be excellent as well:

Jenny Macklin, the Minister for Families and Community Services – jmacklin.mp@aph.gov.au

Kevin Andrews, Shadow Minister for Families, Housing and Human Services – Kevin.Andrews.MP@aph.gov.au

Please be sure to copy me in on your emails too – meryl@avn.org.au


[1] http://www.news.com.au/news/pay-us-to-vaccinate-your-children/story-fna7dq6e-1111117713115

[2] Medicare Practice Incentives Program – http://www.medicareaustralia.gov.au/provider/incentives/pip/index.jsp

[4] http://news.smh.com.au/breaking-news-national/gps-and-labor-at-odds-over-immunisation-20120509-1ycvt.html

[5] http://au.news.yahoo.com/nsw/latest/a/-/article/13645785/gps-and-labor-at-odds-over-immunisation/

[6] http://www.canberratimes.com.au/breaking-news-national/gps-and-labor-at-odds-over-immunisation-20120509-1ycvt.html

[7] http://peopleofthecommonwealth.blogspot.com.au/2010/02/my-will-part-1.html