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Tuesday, 14 February 2012
Page: 1085

Ms SMYTH (La Trobe) (12:16): I am pleased to speak in an important debate concerning the current health of our community and also the health of generations to come. The community will benefit enormously from the appropriate allocation of Australians' tax dollars, and the fairer private health insurance bills will achieve that by realigning the interests of ordinary Australians and making available money for important health reforms—money that is currently being tied up in private health insurance. In all of the policy initiatives of this government, in absolutely every policy reform that we have put in place since coming to office, we have been concerned to fix the inequities in our society and to provide for future generations. We see that right across the policy spectrum, from the changes we are putting in place through the minerals resource rent tax, which will see an increase in the superannuation available to ordinary Australian workers on their retirement by increasing superannuation contributions from nine to 12 per cent, to starting an important community discussion about and making plans for the national disability insurance scheme and putting in place important reforms such as paid parental leave. Through doing all of these things and so many more we are responding to problems currently in our system and providing for future generations.

This stands in stark contrast to those opposite, who simply oppose reform, who are not interested in dedicating appropriate resources to the needs of future generations. It is another example of a reluctance to see important change and progress. Contributing to the health needs of Australians through important reforms like the contribution of a significant amount—$2.2 billion—to mental health and dedicating funding to regional cancer centres are initiatives that Labor has embarked on and which the opposition has only seen fit to regard as wasteful spending on issues insignificant to the opportunities and lives of Australia people.

The bills before us are about bringing the greatest benefit from our health dollar to the most Australians that we possibly can. They will ensure a fairer distribution of benefits and in particular will ensure that those who are on lower incomes and who need the most assistance will be able to receive the best services from our health dollar. We are doing this because it is absolutely the right thing to do. The bills are estimated to save around $2.4 billion over three years. That is no small saving. From the things we have done so far people will understand that we have a very significant commitment to improving the health of all Australians, tackling things like mental health, ensuring that we put in place preventive health measures and ensuring that we respond to the health needs particularly of an increasingly ageing population.

The reforms being contemplated in these bills are about freeing up money that could be better used for treatments, hospital services and infrastructure—things like regional health, responding better to the needs of a population which is living longer and providing more money for things like children's health, dental health and mental health. These are all of the things that ordinary Australians who approach members of parliament are interested in ensuring for themselves and for their children. These are the things that the money recouped through these bills should be going to. Other programs can also be supported by the estimated $100 billion over approximately 40 years that will be available as a result of the measures in these bills.

Members opposite should bear those very significant figures in mind. They regularly call for additional funding for particular issues in their electorates, and they are certainly not shy about calling for that funding. But, at the same time, they do not ever manage to tell us where they anticipate deriving that funding from. We have regularly heard about their inability to make their figures add up, and we know about their $70 billion black hole. Members opposite often do not tell their electorates what it is that they oppose in health spending. While this government is embarking on endeavours like the reforms in these bills to make better use of the health dollar, those opposite often do not go back to their electorates and tell people what it is that they have actually opposed—that is, what we are trying to do to put in place better measures for Australians' health.

Mr Laming: Superclinics?

Ms SMYTH: I hear the member opposite's remark. I was very pleased to be at the opening of the superclinic in my electorate, in Berwick, one of the fastest growing parts of Melbourne. I know the Liberals opposed the establishment of that superclinic. Members in my electorate and members who have superclinics in their own electorates, or are having them built, should make their local residents aware that these facilities are intended to provide for the training of GPs and other medical professionals. They are intended to provide support, advice, medical assistance and treatment for people in electorates such as mine, who rely very much on these services and who I am sure would like to see an increase in these services. Unfortunately, one of the things that is not often talked about by those opposite when they are talking about the importance of health is that they oppose measures such as this.

This government has absolutely made health one of its key priorities. We came to government after a period of chronic underinvestment in health. We all know very well on this side that, as John Howard's health minister, the Leader of the Opposition slashed health funding. He cut $1 billion from public hospitals. It is important to remember that that is enough to fund over 1,000 hospital beds. He increased out-of-pocket health expenses by 50 per cent through that coalition government's decision making. He froze GP training places, which had the effect of leaving six in 10 Australians in suburbs and towns around our country without enough doctors. On this side we are trying to respond to those imbalances. Since coming to office, we have tried to restore health initiatives in this country following the significant underinvestment during the period of the Howard government.

Those are the kinds of priorities that those opposite have for health care. Their priorities are around slashing spending and ensuring that GPs are not being trained effectively. So it is really quite surprising today to hear them talking so passionately in this place about our health system because at every turn they have indicated their unwillingness to fund a functional health system. This really does follow in the great tradition of Liberals who even opposed the establishment of Medicare. It is really no surprise today that they are lining up to speak on this bill and to undermine significant public health commitments because they have never really been about universal health care; they have really been about ensuring that they stand up for only the privileged few.

We however have made our priorities in health very clear. We have increased hospital funding by $20 billion since 2008. We have committed to more cancer services, including 22 regional cancer services. We have committed more than $2.2 billion to mental health—the largest ever mental health package in Australia. We have provided funding for preventative health and for primary health care. We have removed the cap on GP training places. We are funding over 1,000 new nurse training places every year. These are some of the headline changes that we have made in health. But there is so much more to do. In this debate, it is important to remember that there is so much more to do and that is why we are trying to get the balance right and ensure that funds which are currently going back to some of the wealthiest people in our society are more appropriately used for the betterment of the health of more Australians—Australians who really rely on public health services and Australians who I am sure would like to get access to some of the new treatments that we know are available and which this bill would allow government spending to be freed up to be used for.

We know that under the bills before the chamber today, a single person has to earn above $129,000 a year and a couple $258,000 a year before they stop getting the private health insurance rebate. To put the fearmongering by those opposite in context, it is important to know that around 20 million Australians will not be affected at all by the change. Most Australians understand that means-testing is about giving the greatest benefit to those in our society who need it most. That is what the government have been about since coming to office. It is what Labor have always been about. I think that most people would rightly be shocked to learn that the way that the private health insurance rebate is structured actually gives the greatest benefit to those who need it least. They would find that somewhat peculiar. They would find it something that government should act on and act to reform. That is certainly what we are doing today.

We have heard quite a lot in this debate and through the previous debate on this issue from those opposite about the prospects of the private health insurance industry seemingly taking pressure off public hospitals. Yet it is interesting that in at least a couple of studies into this issue no meaningful correlation has been found between the private health insurance rebate policy and reduced pressure on public hospitals. Indeed, one of these studies is reflected in the Australian Health Review September 2004. It states:

The presumption that an increase in the number of private hospital patients (associated with the increase in PHI membership) would reduce the 'pressure' on public hospitals and decrease queueing for public hospital services is not necessarily correct.

It is fairly interesting to read and I would encourage those opposite to have a look at it. It goes on to state:

... while the policies to support PHI have been successful in expanding the uptake of PHI, this has been a costly way of channelling resources into the hospital sector and has had little, and possibly a perverse, effect on access to public hospitals.

That is a report from 2004 by Jeff Richardson and Leonie Segal. It seems to indicate that there is in fact no correlation between the PHI rebate policy and reducing pressure on public hospitals. But I am sure that will not stop those opposite from continuing on with that line of argument.

Those opposite have been remarkably quiet about the prospect of repealing the means-testing measures in the bills before us today. They have queued up to speak on this legislation—they have come out in their droves—because ultimately they are about enshrining benefits for those who effectively could afford to pay more tax dollars towards the health budget. They are about standing up for those members of society who are earning the most. But we have not heard much from them about what they would do if they were in a position to repeal this, or whether indeed they would repeal it. It seems as though those opposite are unable to give a clear picture to their own constituency about their position on this bill, a bill that is about reforming our health system for the better and making Australian taxpayers' dollars go far further in relation to health than would be the case under a regime operated by those opposite.

I am very pleased to be able to speak in favour of this legislation today. It is an important reform. It is about making the greatest benefit available to the most people in our society. That is what this government has stood for since coming to office, and we continue to stand for it in all of our reforms.