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Tuesday, 10 September 1996
Page: 3844

Mr KELVIN THOMSON(4.09 p.m.) —The ability of governments to deliver on election promises competently is always a matter of public importance. Prior to the election, the Minister for Health and Family Services (Dr Wooldridge) sang the praises of his policy which he promised would get more Australians back into private health insurance. At the same time, he gave absolute commitments that Medicare would be preserved in its entirety. But, six months later, the health minister's grand plans have turned to dust. The great hope of the Liberal Party wets, the former deputy leader, has bombed out and, in doing so, has caused his own leader collateral damage.

This minister might know how to spend in excess of $200,000 getting himself elected, he might know a bit about push polling, but this afternoon we are going to have a look at his record as Minister for Health and Family Services and as the member for Chisholm. I think the last thing anyone would want to have said about them after their time in this place would be that they let down and sold out their own electorate—the very people who put their trust in them, the very people who put them here.

This minister's six months in office have been absolutely extraordinary. We have had the closure of the Clayton Medicare office; we have had the loss of the dental health program, which serviced, in the last year, over 4,000 Chisholm constituents; we have had a blow-out of the number of people waiting on trolleys at the Monash Medical Centre; and we have had the breaking of promises on health funding made to Box Hill people. You would think this minister had a margin of 20 per cent, not a margin of 2½ per cent.

Firstly, we have the health insurance premium increases. The minister told us all that he would ensure the value of the coalition's private health insurance rebate stayed in the pockets of Australians. Did he not realise that the rebate was simply going to be soaked up by premium increases, that it has amounted to nothing more than a pay-off of private health funds, that it was simply a gift to those private health insurers?

Yesterday, and indeed this afternoon, the minister stressed the modesty of premium increases by private health insurers under the coalition, claiming that there is a 6.1 per cent average increase. It is a bit difficult to tell that to our own constituents. For example, in my electorate Mr and Mrs Hayward of Pascoe Vale, who are members of Australian Unity, have just been advised that their premium will increase by some $36 a month to $444 a year.

Mr Lee —How much?

Mr KELVIN THOMSON —To $444 a year. In percentage terms, that is not 6.1 per cent. That is not even 12 per cent. It is a massive 18 per cent. So the value of the rebate has effectively been wiped out a year before it comes into effect. How is that supposed to act as an incentive for the Hayward family to remain in private health insurance? The unpleasant reality for the minister is that across Australia there are thousands of families like the Haywards who have been hit by very substantial increases and for whom the coalition's rebate has done absolutely nothing to make private health insurance more affordable.

Secondly, we have seen the abolition of the Commonwealth dental health program. One of Labor's great successes in its last term was this program. The value of the program should not be underestimated. In the minister's own electorate of Chisholm, 4,298 concession card holders and pensioners were treated last year. There are almost 30,000 concession card holders in Chisholm for whom that dental health program was a valuable service. We have received as recently as today information from the Victorian dental hospital saying that waiting lists for dental care will blow out from six months to 11 years if this government's budget goes through.

In February, the minister, as a candidate, happily put out fliers assuring pensioners that all of their entitlements would be preserved, that concessional card holders had nothing whatsoever to worry about. Very shortly after the election, he put on his Expenditure Review Committee hat and declared that the program had achieved its goals and could be scrapped. So the 30,000 Chisholm voters were shamefully misled by the health minister as he pedalled the coalition's hollow promises. For them, this decision comes as a cruel blow. When he was asked about the future of the program earlier this year he said:

It's particularly important when people get into a nursing home too, because you might have someone who has put a lot of effort into dental care over the years and once they get into a nursing home there's no alternative.

The minister has discovered the solution to this problem: you simply prevent people from entering nursing homes in the first place by hitting them with a $30,000 entry contribution. Who is going to worry about their teeth when they are slugged with a $30,000 bill?

Thirdly, we have had the closure of Medicare offices. In December last year, the minister made a solemn declaration, `The coalition provides an absolute commitment to keep Medicare in its entirety.' What the minister hid from his electorate was the plan to close Medicare offices—84 of them. The Medicare offices closed include the Clayton office, which provided a vital service to people in his own electorate. Try telling the elderly pensioners in Clayton that they will have to line up in a pharmacy or take a train and bus to Chadstone shopping centre to get a Medicare refund and see if they believe the minister has honoured the coalition's commitment.

Fourthly, you have the issue of hospital funding for the states, another solemn coalition commitment, `We will not cut public hospital funding.' But what do the budget papers reveal? Hospital funding for the states is to be slashed by $800 million—just what Victorian hospitals need, I can tell you! Let me take the minister back to his local paper. On 20 February it stated:

. . . if voters gave him the chance he would address the problems in the states hospitals. . . it was his desire to do something about the pain and suffering he saw in hospitals that led him into politics.

Voters gave him that chance—and how has he repaid them? This week we read of a doubling in the number of patients forced to wait on trolleys for more than 12 hours at St Vincent's and the Royal Melbourne Hospital over the past year. There were 400 patients on trolleys at the Royal Melbourne in June—up 98 per cent on last year. At St Vincent's there were 124 patients waiting on trolleys for more than 12 hours in August and almost 40 were left for more than a day. It is little wonder that the St Vincent's Director of Emergency Care, Dr Andrew Dent, described these delays as inhuman.

What has the minister done since his re-election to make Victorian hospitals better—as he promised he would? He has done absolutely nothing. The Premiers Conference saw his not so good mate the Treasurer (Mr Costello) knock off $1.5 billion in grants to the states, a third of which could have gone into health funding—and the budget was even worse. There was $800 million to be pulled out.

The only conclusion one can draw is that the minister, through his silence, endorses the way Jeff Kennett is destroying the public health system in Victoria. Even when Premier Kennett plans to close the Burwood Hospital in the minister's own electorate, we hear nothing. This is a minister who, sadly, won't stand up to the Premier because he needs his support at pre-selection time, to keep the Treasurer at bay.

So what we conclude is that we have a minister who is asleep at the wheel. As an example of his confusion, let me remind the House of the minister's declaration yesterday that he was on top of absolutely everything to the exact detail. This came immediately after he told the House that anyone who had read the Herald-Sun on 23 July would have seen an advertisement from National Mutual about higher premiums. Unfortunately for the minister, there is no such National Mutual advertisement in the Herald-Sun edition of that day. There was an advertisement some days later, but not on the 23rd. He needs to look at that before he regards himself as someone on top of absolutely everything to the exact detail.

I want to remind the minister of his candour when speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this year. It reported him saying that if the coalition's health policy is a flop his constituents will almost certainly vote him out. Well, the coalition's health policy can be nothing other than a flop because the minister responsible for it is a flop. On budget night he gave the Australian people an assurance that they would receive the benefit of the tax rebate for private health insurance, but like everything else he has promised over the past six months he has failed to deliver.

In particular, he has let down his own constituents in Chisholm with the closure of the Clayton Medicare office, loss of the dental health program which serves over 4,000 Chisholm constituents, a blow-out in the number of people waiting on trolleys at the Monash Medical Centre and the breaking of promises on health funding to Box Hill people. It is a shameful record and one which deserves the censure of the House.