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Tuesday, 14 February 2012
Page: 1158

Mr JOHN COBB (Calare) (17:33): The relentless attack on ordinary Australians by the Gillard government—and the previous Rudd government—has moved to health care once again this week with another broken promise. Labor's disastrous decision to reintroduce this legislation will have frightening consequences for the provision of health care right across Australia, none more so than in regional Australia, country Australia or the bush.

Our health is the one thing we value above all else. It does not matter how successful you are in life: your family's health and your health is the number one item. In the bush especially we do not have the same access to health care as our city counterparts. We know that and we accept it as fact of life. We know we have to look after ourselves because, should we get sick, there are a lot of hurdles to overcome before we even get to hospital. There are significant distances to travel, which is a physical thing we have to get over and a cost. We have fewer services and specialists to cater for our needs. What is more, by and large our regional hospitals are vastly under resourced, understaffed and underfunded. An example is in the Central West of New South Wales in the electorate of Calare—in fact everywhere in western New South Wales—where there is only one serious health facility west of the Blue Mountains and that is the new Orange Hospital. It has a lot of doctors and a lot of specialists and has to look after the western central region of New South Wales. And heaps of the little hospitals around it have closed in the last decade.

I guess we should not be surprised at the reintroduction, against their promise prior to the 2007 election—

Mr Shorten: Not the 2010 election.

Mr JOHN COBB: It is the same government. The government promised that they would not take this course. There are some things Labor governments hate, this one in particular. They hate private schools. They hate private health.

Mr Shorten: No, they don't!

Mr JOHN COBB: They most certainly do and all their actions show it. They totally ignore that, through private schools and private health, taxpayers are saved an enormous amount, an amount taken on by individuals and organisations—schools, medical facilities, whatever they might be. People in the bush are already at a disadvantage. For our regional communities private health insurance is a godsend. I have already said that there is a lack of hospitals. Many hospitals are understaffed and that is supplemented by the fact that private hospitals take a load off the system. That system may be overloaded in the cities but city services are pretty good compared with what is available in regional Australia and regional New South Wales in particular.

Forty per cent of regional Australians hold private health insurance and over 50 per cent of all Australians overall. In the Calare electorate, it is something over one-third. That is a third of the population that, by and large, do not have to overload the public hospital system any more.

People insure themselves knowing that, should they be diagnosed with a serious health condition, they have the security of a doctor and treatment when they need it and that that is something they have paid for, mostly, over many years.

The availability of specialist services is one of the most serious implications of not having private health insurance. Without doubt, private hospitals help the public system attract a number of specialists in a region and they tend to work together to make it much more viable for a specialist to operate in a country town. The fact that the private health system is there financially helps doctors more, but most of them are very keen and very willing to work in the public system as well.

The two systems need one another, which is what makes it crazy to deliberately decide to downsize that which we all need. As I have said before, regional Australia needs it more, even though fewer of us are in it than are in it in the cities. In Calare, for example, there are four private hospitals. We almost lost one a couple of years ago with the closure of St Vincent's Private Hospital in Bathurst. The closure came as an enormous shock to the region as it would have been without an essential centre and that would have totally overloaded not just Bathurst's system but Orange's major hospital system as well. Fortunately, through a joint venture between Orange Day Surgery Centre and Day Procedures Australia, the hospital was able to continue operating as the Bathurst Private Hospital. There are still ongoing discussions regarding the redevelopment of the health service.

When you say something political when it is obviously so much about politics, you get accused of being cynical, but I am deeply concerned that, should this Labor government continue on its warpath of harming private health insurance, the longevity of Calare's private hospitals, without a shadow of a doubt, will be threatened and we may gradually see the deterioration of our limited private health services until we are left with none.

The one thing that sticks out like a sore thumb in all this is that, while Labor are eager and willing to pull a couple of billion dollars a year out of the private health system and out of contributing to its longevity, they are not putting that money back into the public health system, which will have to immediately deal with the overflow of people who move from private to public health. To me, that does not say anything about caring for people; it says a lot about trying to get yourself out of a black hole by playing with people's medical futures.

While there may be few, private hospitals act as an essential hub for regional healthcare delivery. As I said, the over 33 per cent of residents of Calare who have private health insurance are using these services, and it is these families and individuals who can ill afford to lose the benefits they have enjoyed over the past decade, relieving the public system of an awful burden that it would have to bear without any extra funding to deal with it. Those who can no longer afford private health insurance will abandon insurance policies and rely on our already strained public health system. This will mean longer waiting times in our hospitals and reduced access to health services for the already disadvantaged members of the community.

This Gillard Labor government is once again attacking middle Australians, who are already battling with the rising costs of living. When you drive up interest rates by borrowing $100 million a day you are not going to make things much easier for Middle Australia. For the sake of the Calare community and wider regional Australia—not to mention our whole country—this legislation needs to be buried.

All Australians should have access to affordable health care and a real choice in managing their healthcare needs. This is what the coalition supports and will continue to support—providing all Australians with choice through private health insurance. The reason for this rebate was to not overload the public health system. The reason for it was to keep people in the private health scheme, not because it is elitist but because it is necessary. The public system is incredibly expensive. That goes without saying. All medicine is. They are going to overload it because of the money they are going to save and there has not been one word about putting it back into the public system, which will immediately become even more overloaded.

Every dollar of funding provided for the private health insurance rebate saves $2 of costs that are then paid by private health insurers. Those with private health insurance make up a huge 52 per cent of Australia's population—12 million Australians. Of these, 10.3 million have hospital treatment cover. As I said, over one-third of Calare's people will either leave private health insurance altogether or downgrade, seeking cheaper products, which will have second-round effects for public hospitals.

I think the crossbenchers need to think awfully carefully about this policy, given their regional nature. I am not saying it is not going to affect people in the cities. Of course it will. It will overload the public system in the cities as well. But the public system in regional Australia, particularly in New South Wales, is in a worse state than in the cities. Those crossbenchers—who are, by and large, from regional Australia—need to think this through very carefully. They might have defied their electorates before and think they have got away with it, but I can assure them they have not. And they will not get away with this one. With people abandoning or downgrading their health cover, the cost of private health insurance will become so high that it will be beyond the reach of lower income earners. On all of the coalition's and independent analysis calculations, there are no benefits in cutting the private health insurance rebate. It is obvious that they are not going to save money. They are going to have to put more money into the public system when they drive more people into it. So it is obviously not about money. This is about the idea that people should not have private hospitals and should not have private schools. Why? It is in the taxpayers'—

Mr Shorten: Mr Deputy Speaker, on a point of order of relevance: I let the member for Calare off a couple of times when he started to talk about the education system. He, a number of times, has said that the government does not support private schools. It is not right, but it is not even relevant. This is about private health insurance.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr S Georganas ): The minister will resume his seat. I am listening carefully and the member for Calare is within the scope of the debate.

Mr JOHN COBB: Should the government make savings from this venture, they will only be forking them out again, putting them back, because, without doubt, wherever you are in Australia this is going to overload the public hospital system even more. This is a cost-shifting measure by the Labor government. In the 2007 election, shadow health minister Nicola Roxon, now the Attorney-General, declared:

… Federal Labor has made it crystal clear that we are committed to retaining all of the existing Private Health Insurance rebates …

I notice there is quiet over the other side of the table now.

This is yet another broken promise by an incompetent Labor government which is hell-bent on punishing ordinary Australians. They are punishing the ordinary Australians who value their health and are willing to take responsibility for their own health care. But this is not a government that encourages private enterprise or responsibility. These are the people who know—they have a sense of obligation—that if they can afford it they should do it; if they can afford health care they should take on that responsibility, wherever possible, and leave public beds for public patients.

I will vote against this legislation and I certainly hope those on the cross bench do their duty to their constituents and do the same.