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Monday, 18 November 2002
Page: 6597


Senator KNOWLES (3:21 PM) —We heard today, during question time and during Senator Evans's contribution, that the rate of bulk-billing is virtually disappearing before our very eyes. That is the claim that the Labor Party, including Mr Smith, the Labor opposition spokesperson on health, is wanting to make. I want to make a few points crystal clear in the debate on the take note motion before us: over seven out of 10 of all general practitioner services continue to be delivered at no cost to patients; close to eight out of every 10 general practitioner services to patients aged 65 and over continue to be provided at no cost. This is what the Labor Party is complaining about! I cannot understand that. Mind you, I cannot understand anything the Labor Party is doing at the moment. Here we are with seven out of 10 general practitioner services being delivered at no cost to the general public and eight out of 10 services for people aged 65 and over being at no cost and the Labor Party is complaining! That is absolutely mind boggling.

The Labor Party then complains about the number of Medicare services. It complains that not enough money is being provided for Medicare services, while at the same time the number of services provided under Medicare has increased from 195 million to over 220 million. The fact of the matter is that since 1996, when the Labor government, after 13 years in office, left health in this country in a most disastrous state, spending on Medicare has increased by almost $2 billion—from $6 billion to almost $8 billion. Unfortunately, as a consequence of the Commonwealth putting in that money, we have seen the states—the Labor states—taking their money out. That is not sustainable. The Labor states cannot continue to say to the Commonwealth, `Give us more money for health,' with the full knowledge that they are then in turn going to take money out. It just cannot go on that way. Equally, the Labor Party cannot go on simply saying that less is being spent on Medicare and that too few services are being offered in bulk-billing. Seven out of 10 for the general public and eight out of 10 for people 65 and over—what were the figures when Labor were in government? Were they 10 out of 10? No, they were not. Were they nine out of 10? No, they were not.

I think there is another important aspect to be put into this picture as well—that is, the government does not and cannot dictate to doctors how much the doctors can charge. In an ideal world, according to the Labor Party, they would want the government to be able to dictate to doctors how much doctors can charge—but they cannot. If the Labor Party were really serious about this, they would have done something when they were in government. They did not. They created a maldistribution of doctors never seen before in this country, and it has taken this government to repair the damage that they have done, through a $560 million injection into a rural health strategy and an $80 million program to encourage more doctors into outer metropolitan areas. The number of general practitioners practising in rural and remote areas increased from some 5,700 in 1997-98 to 6,363 in 2000-01. The problem when Labor were in government was that, if people were living in remote parts of Australia, those people simply could not get to see doctors or specialists. We have made that system so much better that people now have access to medical facilities and specialist services in their home towns. We have the fly-in doctor system. The Rural Health Strategy has made life a lot better for people in country areas. The Labor Party also neglected the training and education of more doctors and, as Senator Patterson said at question time, you cannot have more doctors overnight. (Time expired)