Mystery shrouds Hansard change to hide budget’s missing $10 drug price cut

Department Secretary Rob Stefanic leapt to his assistant secretary’s defence, saying there was no reason his staff would pay particular notice to the amendment out of “many hundreds of pages that get transcribed” on Parliamentary sitting days.

“It’s not something that the Hansard staff would discern as any different to other Hansard transcripts that we’ll be looking at,” Mr Stefanic told the hearing.

Department of Parliamentary Services Secretary Rob Stefanic has been grilled over who requested Hansard be amended to remove a ministerial error.

Department of Parliamentary Services Secretary Rob Stefanic has been grilled over who requested Hansard be amended to remove a ministerial error. Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

Asked if he had been briefed on the matter, Mr Stefanic said: “I only became aware of it when I viewed insiders last night.”

In her speech introducing the budget bills tabled in the Senate last week, Senator Hume said the government would “reduce the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme general patient charge by $10, from the current amount of $42.50 to the new amount of $32.50 reporting on 1 May 2022” .

“This means that over 3 million Australians will pay less for their medicines each year, with close to 17 million scripts costing patients less,” the speech, tabled in the Senate with this error, said.

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In a speech to the lower house when introducing the budget bills on Wednesday, Sukkar said “general patients will pay no more than $32.50 of out-of-po charges imposed by manufacturers. This means that over 3 million Australians will pay less for their medicines each year”.

Instead of this dumped reform, the budget had included a much smaller cut to prescription prices, lowering by 12 the number of scripts people need to pay for before the safety net kicks in, expected to save 2.4 million people an average of $80 a year.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg stumbled over questions about the deleted policy on insiders on Sunday morning.

“Well, what Michael [Sukkar] was talking about, actually was the 2.4 million people who will benefit with reduction in the, in getting multiple scripts,” Mr Frydenberg told the ABC’s David Speers, refusing to acknowledge the assistant minister’s error in Parliament.

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham on Monday said he had only learned of the Hansard amendment that morning.

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Labor’s leader in the Senate, Penny Wong, on Monday afternoon tabled a letter to President of the Senate Slade Brockman requesting he investigate whether the Hansard amendment breached Senate rules.

She quoted from Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice that states senators’ corrections to Hansard “must not have the effect of deleting from the record words actually spoken in debate so as to alter the sense of spoken words”.

“There are established standards for the alteration and correction of the Hansard record, as well as for ministers who mislead the Parliament to correct the record,” Senator Wong wrote.

“The attempt by Minister Hume (and Minister Sukkar in the House of Representatives) to make such a correction by altering the Hansard record is not an acceptable way to address such a matter… It is my expectation that you will examine the changes that have been made and take appropriate action.”

Further comment was sought from the government.

Jacqueline Maley cuts through the noise of the federal election campaign with news, views and expert analysis. Sign up to our Australia Votes 2022 newsletter here.

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