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Tuesday, 17 June 2003
Page: 16717


Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (6:30 PM) —I would like to comment on the remarks made by the previous speaker, the member for Kingsford-Smith. We are currently permanently losing approximately 48,000 people overseas. So when we look at the immigration intake it has to be borne in mind that we are increasingly losing a significant number of Australians through employment and other purposes overseas.

The member for Kingsford-Smith also commented on the very substantial interest in his electorate on Medicare bulk-billing. Since entering the New South Wales parliament in 1984, I have seen very few issues that have taken off as much as this one has in my electorate. The member for Boothby some time ago ridiculed the interest shown by those in my electorate to Medicare bulk-billing—a very high rate of bulk-billing still occurs there. He thought that we were very altruistic to take an interest in the rest of Australia. The reality is that nationally there is a very significant reduction in the trend of bulk-billing. In the long term this threatens its viability throughout the entire nation.

Demographic changes in my electorate, occasioned by the Olympics and the very strong changes in the residential housing patterns, mean that the nature of the electorate is changing substantially. The socioeconomic reasons that drive the very high level of bulk-billing and competition between doctors might not be present if this government accomplishes a major assault on Medicare.

Our petition on the issue of bulk-billing has only just gone out in the mail in the last week or so, but we have already received 1,000 responses. Very few other issues have been raised as frequently and as strongly by my electorate in my entire political career. People have mentioned the extreme duplicity of the current Prime Minister in this matter. Historically, he said that Medicare's introduction was the collapse of Western civilization, a disaster and a national shame, et cetera. In the nineties he decided to try to make himself a small target—riding on the unpopularity of the Keating government—in saying that essentially he had learned lessons in life and that, on the way to Damascus, he had gained a new perspective on a number of issues. He tried to pretend that there was very little difference between the two parties in the industrial relations area. But he indicated that he would keep Medicare lock, stock and barrel.

In the medical area, the ideological basis of the conservatives in this country seems to be in conflict with practice. They are the people who run around the place, decrying the subsidisation of anything, that competitiveness is the god of life, that greed and avaricious practices are to be encouraged and that any sense of community is to be eroded and destroyed. But, in the health sector, they have a policy of trying to persuade, cajole or penalise—to give encouragement on the other hand—people who take out private health insurance. Historically, it is a product that people do not want, but we have government policy—basically utilised through taxation—which forces people into a process they do not want. They have walked away from it, but we have this total contradiction of conservative philosophy. There is an attempt by the Prime Minister of Australia to install a US style system whereby, if you are not abjectly poverty stricken, you will be forced to pay big dollars to visit doctors' surgeries. Ironically, Hillary Clinton has attempted to move the United States towards a health system patterned on that of Australia. She commented that much was to be learned from the Australian experience.

The reality is that in regard to GDP we spend four per cent less on our health system than the United States does on its health system, and for a much better product. If we compare the private health funds to Medicare, we see a lamentable waste of people's money on advertising, competition, bureaucracy, paperwork et cetera. If we look at a comparison of the percentage of income going into those organisations for those purposes, and the expenditure, it is an alarmingly bad picture for the private health system.

Recently I read Gore Vidal's book The Last Empire. It showed for the United States the determination of the interests that are driving this government. The corporate medical complexes that drive policy in this country are behind the Howard government's attack on the Australian people's health rights. In the collection of essays in The Last Empire, in the chapter on the Starr conspiracy—and that is Kenneth Starr, who was a political hatchet man for the Republicans against the Clintons—this comment is made at page 227:

In order to destroy the health service plan, insurance and pharmaceutical companies, in tandem with lively elements of the American Medical Association, conspired to raise a half billion dollars to create and then air a barrage of TV advertisements to convince the electorate that such a service was communist, not to mention an affront to the Darwinian principle that every American has the right to die unhelped by the state, which collects half his income in life with which to buy, thus far, $5.5 trillion worth of military hardware at stupendous, to this day, cost.

Not content with the political destruction of the Clintons' health plan, corporate America decide to destroy their reputations. Nothing personal in this by the way, but how else can the ownership of the country send a warning to other feckless politicians that the country and its people exist only to make money for corporations now so internationalised that they cannot be made to pay tax on much, if any, of their profits. Starr is now the most visible agent of corporate America, wielding a new weapon under the sun—endless legal harassment of the twice elected president so that he cannot exercise his office ...

That is what essentially happened in the United States when the Clintons had the audacity to try and move towards a system of health access for the majority of people. As I say, we have in this country a Prime Minister who wants to bring in that system here. People will be forced to not go to doctors because they cannot afford it. One of my former aldermen talked of her father having to give medical care to people in their suburb because he had a bit of St John Ambulance background. People could not go to doctors—they could not afford it—so they went to him. That is the reality around the corner in regard to this government's practices.

As we know, women use doctors 50 per cent more than males do. They will be the ones hit. People in the child-bearing and child raising age groups will be essentially hit. There is no guarantee. Just because the levels are still 90 per cent in my electorate, just because the member for Parramatta goes to a practice where they have bulk-billing, there is no long-term guarantee that this can be preserved once the conservatives push through the doors.

Another matter of interest is the question of increased debts to students in tertiary institutions in this country. The current minister is trying to drive a very shrewd ideological line. You the poor metalworkers, you the unfortunate people slaving in the factories and offices, you the people who increasingly work part time because of this government's industrial relations practices, you the people who are in insecure work situations and increasingly fear for your future—you are funding all of these wealthy people who will become lawyers and doctors afterwards, and that is somehow fair. At the same time, the minister ignores the reality of how he was educated and how most of the current ministry were educated in the tertiary system in this country.

It is not really about a situation where half the former schoolmates of the minister for employment and industrial relations at Riverview became wealthy after they completed degrees. They would be able to afford it anyway. The reality is that these policies will ensure that people in Western Sydney whose parents did not go to university, who are on low incomes, will not take that giant, dangerous step to go to tertiary studies. First, they will not be able to afford to repay the loans. They live in families that are very insecure in the workplace. They do not want to take that big gamble if they are going to be faced with these debts. That is what this policy is all about.

At the same time, the government are further undermining a series of regional universities; they are slaughtering them on the altars as they direct their educational policies towards the historically renowned universities of this country. Because of the government's attack on public activity in a vast part of our society, universities are increasingly dependent on corporate dollars. Basically, university research is being undermined by the need to please corporations who are paying for chairs, fostering research, and getting the kinds of answers that they want out of academia. That is the kind of situation we face. Teachers, professors and lecturers are finding their employment under threat because they are not passing enough foreign students and the universities increasingly need the money that they bring in.

Our friend and colleague the member for Parramatta is out there whinging about the postwar generation expecting free education and free health. Quite frankly, I totally repudiate the attitude that there should not be a public role in the provision of these matters. It is not the member for Parramatta, it is not his family, it is not his father who need this assistance from the state; it is the people he represents in his electorate. These are the people who, because this government is undermining trade unions, changing awards and changing labour market practices, are finding their employment situations increasingly tenuous. They are the people who need this kind of assistance.

For all the glorious economic figures and all the ways in which the economy has been operating efficiently, long-term unemployment in this country has increased. Apprenticeships are down. Most of the people who go into intensive employment assistance programs are parked there for a period of time, then they go through the wringer a second time, and most of them do not eventually get employment. Those are the statistics that have come out. That is the failure of the government.

This budget is of course premised on the war in Iraq and the expenditure of money there. The same government that sat on its backside and failed to act in East Timor seems a bit more efficient in Iraq. They assured the Americans that all was well and said that people would not be slaughtered. The same government goes around trying to run shotgun protection for the Burmese government in little schemes like `We'll train the junta's lawyers in human rights'. The same government now has discussions with the Chinese about human rights behind closed doors instead of out in public. Here they were in Iraq, worried about human rights—for once in their lives—which they ignored when, with the United States, they were allies of the Iraqi regime in previous decades. That is one of the reasons why the government cannot afford to put money into education and health.

In conclusion, I congratulate the Leader of the Opposition for articulating a very clear position in regard to environment, the Murray, university rights in this country and a proper medical health system.