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Wednesday, 25 November 1998
Page: 598

Mrs GASH (12:11 PM) —I am delighted to have been given the opportunity to speak on this very important bill, the Private Health Insurance Incentives Bill 1998 , on behalf of the 100,000-plus residents of Gilmore. However, before I proceed, I would just like to raise with the previous speaker, the member for Shortland, a number of questions. I see she is just leaving the chamber, unfortunately.

Is the member for Shortland aware that the proposed government 30 per cent rebate will provide a significant benefit to the people of Shortland where there are more than 38,435 people who hold private health insurance? Perhaps the member for Shortland would like to outline to her constituents why she is voting against this rebate, why she is voting against financial assistance for the 38,435 people who hold private health insurance and the hundreds more who would no doubt do so if they could. I am quite sure that, out of those 38,000 people who hold private health insurance in the seat of Shortland, there are many Australian battlers. How can the member for Shortland explain to her constituents that she has so blatantly and so willingly betrayed their interests by speaking against this bill?

In Gilmore, there are some 35,700 people who are covered by private health insurance. That is 35,000 people who have saved to take out private health insurance and who maintain private health insurance in the face of increasing premiums. I know personally that many of these families, pensioners and self-funded retirees are struggling to meet their payments, knowing full well the importance of having private health insurance. I quote from a letter, totally unsolicited, received by me yesterday from a constituent in Mollymook. It reads:

I am writing to you because I get sick and tired of hearing the opposition saying only the wealthy can afford the private health fund. I am a widower. I've been in a fund ever since it started to operate. I'm in the highest premium. I live on $13,000 a year, pay taxes, eat well and dress well, and have a reasonable social life. I don't drink, smoke or gamble and I am not a whinger. I am 87 years old.

You can read this letter and hope members who keep harping on this and the new tax system which we really need, listen to it.

There are many others in Gilmore who would gladly take up and maintain private health insurance, if only they could afford it, and this rebate provides that affordability.

So perhaps the Labor Party would now like to tell the 35,700 people of Gilmore who maintain private health insurance and the thousands of others who would take it up why they oppose giving them the assistance to do so, why they oppose helping our families cope with the financial pressures of health insurance and why they oppose supporting parents and children in the electorate of Gilmore from receiving the security and peace of mind that they desire through having private health insurance.

As has often been quoted in this House over the past few days, I would like to make it very clear once again to the opposition members on the benches over there—in the words of your former health minister, Graham Richardson—the reason why Labor opposes this measure is purely philosophical and has nothing whatsoever to do with the realities of raising a family and looking after our elderly in a modern society, especially in the electorate of Gilmore. Let us look again at what Graham Richardson actually said:

On Labor's side they simply don't want to acknowledge that private health care matters. There's an ideological bent here that says Medicare is perfect which is ridiculous and therefore can't be changed which is also ridiculous.

I would like your indulgence for a moment, Mr Deputy Speaker. This reminds me of the ridiculous nature of the Labor Party's opposition to other major reforms by this government, including work for the dole, on the basis of ideology and philosophy. Perhaps opposition members would like to come to Gilmore and explain to the 200-plus people who have completed work for the dole and have moved on to full-time or part-time employment or further training why they were so philosophically opposed to those 200 people obtaining the advantage they did through work for the dole. Why were they opposed to their gaining this assistance to find further employment or training?

Like work for the dole, the 30 per cent health insurance rebate for all Australians will be a great success. The electorate of Gilmore has approximately 70 per cent of residents on incomes less than $30,000 and 60 to 65 per cent of people in receipt of some form of social security payments. Gilmore's population and demography is a living example of the fact that this bill will be of immense benefit to people on a whole range of incomes, particularly low income earners who, frankly, need all the assistance they can get at the moment. By the way, it is these same people who voted in favour of the coalition government so that the tax reform that is so necessary for them and their families can take place, giving them extra tax benefits and an ability to take the initiative of having a second job without it all being eaten up by the Australian Taxation Office.

In the past year alone, hundreds of people have written to me regarding private health insurance. These people have been at different times concerned, angry and sometimes even scared of the fact that they will no longer be able to afford private health insurance. Where will this leave them and their families without security and peace of mind? Health is the number one issue facing Australians, and Gilmore is no exception. This rebate is one of the biggest initiatives undertaken in this country to arrest the decline in private health insurance membership. In doing so, it supports both the private and public sectors. The Labor Party once again opposes it.

On top of the hundreds of people who have written to me specifically on the issues of private health insurance premiums, there are literally hundreds more who have signed petitions, responded in surveys or dropped into my office concerning this very issue. They always ask what the government is doing about it. This bill is the reform that most Australians have been asking past and present governments to introduce to assist them. It is this government, with Minister Wooldridge, which has had the courage and concern to introduce the rebate.

Many Gilmore residents have commented in their letters, phone calls or responses that private health insurance should once again be tax deductible. Many of us here will remember the days when it was. This bill effectively now provides that for the majority of those with private health insurance. The bill will allow the government to introduce a 30 per cent tax rebate for private health insurance premium holders from 1 January 1999. The move has been widely supported by the residents of Gilmore, who see through the ridiculous nature of the Labor Party's opposition to this bill. The proposal was widely published in Gilmore in the lead-up to the recent election as it forms a major part of the government's tax reform package. There has not been one negative complaint about this issue to my office since it was announced.

The Gilmore community is in support of this measure. The government has a clear mandate for it to be introduced. The government's 30 per cent rebate will replace the private health insurance incentive scheme, which was introduced by this government earlier in our first term. This was another measure that was opposed by the Labor Party. One keeps asking why it is that the Labor Party is always opposing, criticising or being negative yet has no solutions of its own. Perhaps it needs to be reminded that actions speak louder than words, and it had 13 years to provide that action.

The incentive scheme was a prime reason why many of my constituents of Gilmore retained private health insurance. The Labor Party has scoffed at this incentive scheme many times yet said before the last election that it would retain it. We all know that the Labor Party opposes government initiatives for the sake of it. But that sort of hypocrisy highlights to the residents of Gilmore and people with private health insurance throughout Australia that Labor will say one thing and always do the complete opposite. The incentive scheme helped many Gilmore residents maintain health insurance in the face of increasing premiums. Those premiums, I might add, have been increasing steadily by around 20 per cent since the Labor Party introduced Medicare.

I would like to make it very clear that the bill we are debating today will continue to support the system of Medicare, not dismantle it, as has been claimed so unashamedly by the opposition. It will reduce the strain on our public hospitals by encouraging more people to seek treatment in private facilities. I would also like to commend the Minister for Health and Aged Care and the Prime Minister for successfully negotiating a major new Medicare agreement which will provide more than $3 billion in extra funding for the public hospitals system throughout Australia. This is the most generous agreement ever reached between the Commonwealth and the states. I call on the New South Wales state government to now honour that agreement and provide extra funding to accommodate the health needs of the people of Gilmore, particularly, as has been mentioned, their dental health care.

I reiterate that the bill before us today will provide a 30 per cent rebate for all people who hold private health insurance premiums. It is a rebate that is regardless of their income, their level of cover or their type of membership. What it will mean is that the average family in Gilmore paying premiums of about $2,500 per year will get $750 back from the government. Single Gilmore residents paying premiums of $1,500 per year will receive a rebate of $450 from this government. The rebate is linked to what people pay into their funds and is an incentive for all people to hold private health insurance.

The government gave a commitment on coming into office that it would make private health care more affordable and accessible to all Australians. This bill will deliver on that. It will keep pace with any future increases in individual fund premiums or with any changes to the cost of private health insurance products. More importantly, it will restore the balance in our health system by, as I stated earlier, taking pressure off our public hospitals.

Gilmore residents will be able to choose the payment of this incentive through the method best suited to their needs. For example, many of the elderly residents in Gilmore have welcomed the idea that they will be able to receive a discount up-front on their premium costs through the private health insurance fund. This will also benefit many families who budget from month to month. They will be able to factor this into their costs. Another option is to take the discount as a tax rebate in an individual's family tax return. Others will choose to obtain a direct payment from the Medicare office. Therefore, the flexibility of this system is such that the 35,700 private health insurance holders in Gilmore will be able to access it easily and by a means which best suits them and their family. But beyond Gilmore this measure will benefit six million people throughout this country who hold private health insurance, including the number of people that I mentioned in Shortland, and will be an enormous incentive for others to join.

In Australia we always pride ourselves on being individual, taking initiatives and making our own decisions. We are a nation of people who demand choice and the right to be able to determine for ourselves how we live our lives, what food we eat, what entertainment we enjoy, how we educate our children and how we protect our health; and, above all, we want a fair go for all. In the same way that we decide whether or not we choose to exercise, whether or not hang-gliding is a healthy alternative to walking around the block or whether we watch a game of football instead of playing, we want to choose which hospital system we want to protect and treat us.

Under the Labor government, private health insurance was a luxury of the rich. Those who could afford it did so, but there was no incentive for others to take it up and no extra assistance given to our hospitals to cope with the pressures of those who either could not be bothered or could not afford the choice of private health insurance. Under this measure there is choice for Australians to determine by whom, how and where they want to be treated. This is not about saying one system is better than another. It is about saying: if you want to be treated by Medicare, do so; if you want to be treated under a private health arrangement, do so. We are ensuring that people who want this choice can afford it.

One of the most interesting things I have read recently regarding the introduction of this measure is a survey by one of our nation al health insurance firms which showed that more than two-thirds of Australians supported the introduction of a rebate for private health insurance. As I stated earlier, this was borne out by the evidence supplied in the hundreds of letters and phone calls I have received and meetings I have held with people in Gilmore who, like the lady in the letter I mentioned earlier, say the same thing—that they cannot understand why the Labor Party would wish to oppose it. And, quite frankly, neither can I.

Perhaps the member for Shortland and her colleagues would like to state why they oppose extra funds in the pockets of their constituents, particularly the Aussie battlers. With an average of $8.9 million being rebated to private health insurance holders collectively in electorates throughout Australia, why does the Labor Party oppose the introduction of this scheme? That is $8.9 million extra which families and individuals can instead spend on goods and services in their communities. That is $8.9 million for local people to spend on local businesses to provide employment opportunities in their local areas.

For all their talk about caring about Australian communities and people, the Labor Party have shown in their opposition to this bill that they do not care about improving our health system. They do not care about providing choice for Australians. They do not care about providing employment opportunities in regional and other areas. But, most of all, they do not care about the people of Gilmore.