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Monday, 21 June 1999
Page: 6922


Mr SIDEBOTTOM (10:49 PM) —Mr Speaker, as you know, I come from a beautiful place in the world—the magnificent electorate of Braddon. It is free of the hustle and bustle of the big city life and has clean, fresh air and a lifestyle the envy of many. It is a healthy place to live—that is, unless you get sick or you are one of those who are on the long queues waiting for surgery. Unfortunately I have to say that aspects of Tasmania's health system at the moment are anything but healthy. Our system desperately needs an injection of funds to arrest what could ultimately be a fatal decline of public health services.

It must be said, and I want to make it perfectly clear, that it is not the fault of the current Tasmanian Labor government or Minister Judy Jackson, who has tackled the issues with courage and vigour. The government was left with a $64 million black hole in the state's health budget by the former Liberal government. Yet, in the dying days of his premiership, Tony Rundle and his former Liberal colleagues said that the health budget was in good shape. Even during the last election campaign before being thrown out of office late last year they maintained the deception.

That reminds me of another prominent Liberal who has also been responsible for some of the anxiety over Tasmania's health problems and more lately the chaos over the GST. The man I speak of went along with a popular view that a GST was not able to be implemented after 1993. It was John Howard and he stated he would never ever raise the possibility. We all know how believable that was. That is why his about-face on the GST probably did not come as any great surprise to Tasmanians, because we in Tasmania have been burnt before by this Prime Minister.

I remember on the eve of the last state election—surprise, surprise—when the Prime Minister offered Tasmania $14.8 million as a sweetener to sign the Medicare agreement. He made the offer—a formal offer in writing, I might add—to, I repeat, the former Liberal Premier Tony Rundle, one must assume in some acknowledgment of the serious health funding shortfall confronting Tasmania. Could the poor state of the health budget have been a secret Tony Rundle was only prepared to share with the Prime Minister? It makes you wonder.

After the election and the Tasmanian Liberal government was voted out, the new Labor leader Jim Bacon and the people of Tasmania rightly expected this commitment to be honoured. But was it? No. John Howard reneged on his promise. That in itself was acknowledged at the last federal election when Labor made a clean sweep of the five House of Representatives seats in Tasmania, and little wonder. As I have said, the health dilemma in Tasmania today is a legacy of the former Liberal government aided and abetted, I must say, by the Howard federal government. The health system in Tasmania was until recently at risk of slipping further into crisis because Commonwealth funding of public hospitals is drying up. It is cold comfort that the problem is not unique to Tasmania; it is happening around Australia.

The Howard government has got it wrong. It should not be pouring millions of dollars into propping up an inefficient private health sector at the expense of a public sector. We are all too well aware of that in Tasmania. That is why we will continue to fight for public hospitals and the Medicare system. It is reprehensible that the Howard government was prepared to write a blank cheque for private health insurers while depriving the public sector of much needed funds. The $1.7 billion private health insurance rebate does not address the fundamental problems in the private health insurance system, nor does it assist in arresting the real dilemma in our health care system.

The biggest problem in our health system is the crisis in our public hospitals. This is where the $1.7 billion it is costing in private health insurance rebates should have been spent. Imagine the difference $1.7 billion would make to the public system. For example, would almost 8,000 Tasmanians still be on waiting lists today for elective surgery if there was sufficient money in the system? Would more than 600 disabled Tasmanians be going without proper health services if there was not such a huge shortfall in the budget? `Some people will have to wait years for surgery,' says the Tasmanian Chairman of the Australian Association of Surgeons, Michael Wertheimer, as recently reported in the Mercury. Now we learn public hospitals may be penalised even further as a result of the government's latest rescue plan for private health insurance. (Time expired)