LACHLAN KENNEDY, NETWORK TEN PRESENTER: Federal Health Minister Mark Butler joins us now from Canberra. Mark, I should check first up – you still the Health Minister? Albo hasn't secretly sworn himself in ahead of you?
MARK BUTLER, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: No he hasn't. He's a stickler for process as pretty much every other Prime Minister of the country has, except apparently Scott Morrison.
KENNEDY: Well, let's talk about that process. Is there any justification for Scott Morrison's actions here? What we've now learnt?
BUTLER: There's not. This is extraordinary and unprecedented, Lachie. I mean, the most fundamental principle of our Westminster system of government is that ministers who have extraordinary powers over the Australian people, Ministers are accountable to the people through the Parliament. That means if you're going to go and grant yourself the extraordinary powers that a Health Minister, Finance Minister or Resources Minister has, then you have to tell the Parliament about that. You have to tell the Australian people and that's what every other Prime Minister before Scott Morrison and since has done. And it's frankly without explanation that Scott Morrison chose to keep all of this a secret.
KENNEDY: Is that really the problem, the secrecy aspect of it, the fact that obviously the public didn't know, but in the majority of cases, the ministers who he was taking over these roles didn't seem to know as well?
BUTLER: That's right. The original version, presumably given by Scott Morrison, for example, was that Mathias Cormann was in on this, that this was an arrangement cooked up between Morrison, Greg Hunt and Mathias Cormann. But Mathias Cormann has since said that the first he knew about it was when he read the Australian newspaper article a day or two ago. He wasn't even being straight with his own colleagues, let alone the Australian people and the Australian Parliament. As I said, this is just unprecedented.
KENNEDY: What legal advice has the government received? We know the Prime Minister says he was taking some steps to receive advice. Do we know what's been received so far?
BUTLER: The Prime Minister this morning has said he had an initial briefing yesterday. He is having another briefing this morning and will have more to say to the media in due course, potentially later today. He's also said that there may be more ministries that Scott Morrison secretly swore himself into. We just don't know that yet. But more detail about this will all start to emerge, I think, over the course of today.
KENNEDY: Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, he was on the ABC last night. He says he's astonished that the Governor-General signed off on the arrangements here. Does the fact that they were signed off, has that compromised the Governor-General's position, do you think?
BUTLER: Well I don't want to pre-empt what the briefings are from the Prime Minister and Cabinet Department to the Prime Minister. I'll let the Prime Minister talk about that more in due course.
KENNEDY: Okay, that's fair enough. What about Mr Morrison's comment that he doesn't engage in day to day politics? I mean, that was in a text message to Sky News journalist Kieran Gilbert. That seems like a strange thing to say for a sitting MP to say.
BUTLER: Oh, he’s earning a wage on behalf of the people of Cook, his electorate down in the Sutherland Shire Council in the south of Sydney. He's got an obligation to do the work and the most basic piece of that work is being accountable to the people for your decisions as a politician.
KENNEDY: Mark Butler, do have any comment to make about the way this information was released? Obviously, it's come to light now, that I mean, it's held back for a book that's being written by some journalists. You think it should have been released a little earlier?
BUTLER: It should have been released at the time. I mean, that's the point, Lachie. The most fundamental element of ministerial accountability is that the Australian Parliament, the Australian people know who the minister is, know who it is that is exercising enormous power over Australia, over Australian business and the Australian community. This ministerial accountability is not just some academic nicety. It is the heart of our democratic system that we've had really for as long as the Commonwealth Parliament has been around.
KENNEDY: Now on ministerial accountability, you are the Health Minister and the AMA has warned that the bulk billing system in this country is at risk of collapsing. I mean, should we be concerned that bulk billing GPs could potentially become a thing of the past?
BUTLER: Well, I'm deeply concerned about where bulk billing is going. I'm deeply concerned about general practice. II said in the election campaign that it's never been harder to see a doctor than it is right now and never more expensive for those people who are paying a gap fee. For the first time in Medicare's history, the average gap fee for a standard consult with a GP is now more than the Medicare rebate itself. An extraordinary position, but perhaps an unsurprising position because Peter Dutton, when he was the Health Minister ten years ago, put in place a Medicare rebate freeze for six years. Effectively, it was a freeze on the wages of our general practitioners, and we're starting now to see the consequences of that, which is general practice under pressure that it's never been under in the 40 year history of Medicare.
KENNEDY: Have we got the budget capacity to boost that rebate?
BUTLER: We’ve made a very substantial commitment, our $750 million Strengthening Medicare Fund. I’m meeting now on a monthly basis for the rest of the year with doctors and nursing groups and patient groups to work out the best way to invest that money. We're also rolling out 50 urgent care clinics that will give people a bulk billed opportunity to attend and get care for those minor emergencies that at the moment people are taking to hospital emergency departments, which are already heaving with unprecedented pressure. So we've got a range of investments we committed to in the election campaign. But this is not going to be a quick thing to turn around after nine years of neglect and cuts.
KENNEDY: Just on the point about the pressure on our health system, as we reported this morning, Australia is now going to be producing its own COVID vaccines in partnership with Moderna. 100 million doses per year. Does this mean we'll be self sufficient?
BUTLER: Absolutely. 100 million doses per year will more than satisfy any need. I'm confident that we'll have into the future. This is something we've pushed for, for a long time in the early phases of the pandemic, the need to have onshore capability here so that we weren't dependent upon supply from other countries because we saw what that happened. We were the slowest vaccine rollout in the developed world. We were having to buy vaccines not just from overseas companies, but from other countries that had negotiated supply agreements quicker than Australia had. So we had to learn from that lesson and I was delighted to be at the launch of the Moderna facility down in Melbourne yesterday. That will be the first mRNA manufacturing facility in the southern hemisphere. Not only giving us security of supply of vaccines into the future, but great jobs, great opportunity for innovation, research and development, making us a country that makes things again.
KENNEDY: Federal Health Minister Mark Butler, appreciate the chat this morning. Thanks for your time.
BUTLER: Thanks, Lachie.