Hours before he was introducing amendments to My Health Record in the House of Representatives and with a new Senate inquiry into the national health database calling for submissions, the Federal Minister for Health offered his resignation as part of the ongoing Coalition leadership crisis, only for it to be knocked back.
At a crucial juncture for the $2 billion health infrastructure project, Health Minister Greg Hunt has joined in efforts to oust the Prime Minister, offering to vacate his front bench post. Turnbull rejected the offer from Hunt and nine other Cabinet ministers in the interests of “unity”.
Hunt has faced more than a month of controversy as data privacy and security concerns have continued to surround My Health Record since the opt out period began.
The new My Health Records Amendment (Strengthening Privacy) Bill 2018 prevents access to people’s confidential health information by law enforcement and government departments without a court order and is one of a number of concessions the minister has been forced to make in response to pressure from doctors’ groups, legal experts, domestic violence campaigners, mental health and other charities, technology experts and privacy advocates.
The legislation also commits the government to the "destruction of records after cancellation on request".
The opt out period has been extended to November 15, after which a My Health Record will be created for them by the end of the year. Currently 6 million Australians are signed up to the system.
“I think it’s important to be very clear about this: the My Health Record system has its own dedicated privacy controls which are stronger in some cases than the protections afforded by the Commonwealth Privacy Act on the advice I have,” the minister said.
“Nonetheless this government has listened to the recent concerns and in order to provide additional reassurance is moving quickly to address them through this bill."
Hunt’s offer to decamp from the health ministry follows the Senate’s referral last week of My Health Record to the Senate Community Affairs References Committee for an inquiry into the platform, including the government’s decision to switch to opt out.
The committee has called for submissions, with the terms of reference also listing privacy and cybersecurity concerns, third party access and the government’s administration of the roll-out, including the disastrous public information campaign. The inquiry will also look into the prevalence of ‘informed consent’ among users and compare My Health Record to international systems.
The government last week supported the Greens' push for an inquiry, beating Labor to the punch.
“We are disappointed the Greens did a dodgy deal with the government to truncate the inquiry but Labor’s terms of reference remain intact,” Shadow Health Minister Catherine King said.
“We’re also surprised the government ended up supporting the inquiry referral despite Greg Hunt yesterday dismissing Labor’s proposal as ‘a stunt’.
“This will be a wide-ranging inquiry that will review all the laws, regulations and rules that underpin the My Health Record.”
Meanwhile, Hunt’s tenure in the health portfolio remains uncertain, as chaos threatens to engulf the government after yesterday’s leadership challenge by then Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, which was narrowly defeated by seven votes.
Dutton resigned, returning to the backbench from where he continues to destabilise the leadership and plot a second tilt at the top job.
International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells also resigned, with another five junior ministers offering their resignations.
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