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Thursday, 15 March 2012
Page: 1911

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandDeputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (16:38): The legislation that the Senate is considering to abolish the private health insurance rebate is but the latest instalment in the Australian Labor Party's assault on the Australian middle class. For as long as I have been a senator, I have listened wearily to Labor politicians like Senator Kim Carr over there claim that the Labor Party's purpose is to look after struggling disadvantaged people and I have heard Labor politicians mock my side of politics and say we look after the interests of the well-to-do. But, if you look at this piece of legislation, nothing could be further from the truth because we in the coalition stand with ordinary Australians, everyday Australian families, middle-class Australians, working-class Australians, Australian working families who want to be able to have affordable private health insurance, and the Labor Party stands resolutely against the interests of those people.

Senator Cormann quoted some figures, and forgive me for repeating some of the observations that he made but they cannot be said often enough. The fact is that Australians want private health insurance: 53 per cent of Australians, 12 million people, have private health insurance. They are not the wealthy. I am sure most wealthy people have private health insurance, but the proportion of the private health insurance holders in Australia who could be regarded as wealthy or well-to-do is miniscule. The vast majority of Australians who have private health insurance are middle-class people, working people, working families who do not want to be reliant on the state, who do not want to be reliant on a state system, who want to look after themselves, who want to look after their children and who are prepared to make the extra sacrifices, work the extra few hours a week of overtime, to make that possible. They are aspirational Australians, not the well-to-do, not the toffs that you, Mr Acting Deputy President Cameron, occasionally mock, but everyday people. This is an attack on them. It is an attack on their wellbeing, it is an attack on their standard of living, and it is unconscionable.

Not only do 53 per cent of Australians currently have private health insurance but 46 per cent of Australians, almost as many, have hospital treatment cover and, of the people who hold private health insurance, 5.6 million—almost half of them—have annual household incomes of less than $50,000. When almost half of the people who make the sacrifice to pay for private health insurance are earning less than $50,000, what clown—what socialist dreamer—could possibly say private health insurance is the preserve of the wealthy? The whole point of having a private health insurance rebate is to make it affordable to as many people as possible down the income scale. That is why almost half of the people who hold private health insurance earn less than $50,000 a year. It is because coalition governments in years gone by have made it affordable for them.

This Labor government, which was elected in 2007 on the claim that it represented the interests of Australian working families, will make it harder for those poorer Australians—those less well off Australians—to be able to afford private health insurance. So much for the pieties and the crocodile tears of the Australian Labor Party about the interests of less well off Australians. Not only do 5.6 million of the 12 million Australians who hold private health insurance have incomes of less than $50,000 but 3.4 million of them—between a quarter and a third—have an annual household income of less than $35,000. I am sure we all know people—members of our families, people in our neighbourhood, people we know through the workplace—who struggle to keep private health insurance going because they do not want to be dependent on a state system. What an insult to those people, particularly coming from a party that falsely claims to represent the less well-to-do. What an insult to those people to say: 'We will make it less affordable for you. We will force you to be dependent on the state system when you would wish to look after yourself by paying that extra little bit of money for private health insurance.' What an insult to the poor, Senator Kim Carr. What an insult to the strugglers. What an insult to working families of Australia. And yet you sit there complacently, pleased with yourself, thinking that somehow, in some perverse way, this will advance social justice. It does not advance social justice, Senator Carr, to make life harder for poorer people, and that is what this will do. It will make life harder for poorer people. What a disgrace.

Not only is this measure profoundly inequitable—the reverse of social justice—it is also, as Senator Cormann pointed out, bad policy. What it will do is not merely make private health insurance less affordable to poorer people by driving up the cost of premiums; it will force more people into the public system and drive up the cost burdens on the public system. How foolish can that be at a time when there are enormous cost burdens on the health and hospital systems of Australia? And those burdens are escalating with every passing year. We have a measure which will make self-sufficiency harder by making it more difficult for people to insure themselves and, therefore, drive them into the public system, therefore increasing the costs of the public system. So whatever budget savings it might be imagined would be clawed back by this meretricious, dishonest and foolish policy are going to be but a fraction of the additional cost burdens imposed upon the public system and imposed upon public hospitals. What a foolish piece of public policy that is. It is a lose-lose proposition. You make less-well-to-do and poorer people poorer still, you make them dependants upon the state when they wish to be self-sufficient and you impose greater cost burdens on the state system so the state system into which these people have been thrown against their own wishes can less easily cope with that additional burden. So the overall quality of health care in Australia deteriorates. What an extraordinarily inept piece of public policy.

Not only does this measure suffer from the vice of being unjust because it punishes the least well-off people in our country; not only does it suffer from the vice of being foolish public policy because the outcome that will result is the opposite of the objective the policy seeks to serve, which is making the health system more efficient; it is, of course—and this is such a familiar refrain from the Rudd and the Gillard governments—built on a lie. Let us remember who it was who said: 'There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead,' and then introduced the world's greatest carbon tax and congratulated herself on doing do, celebrating her blatant deception of the Australian people by high-fiving her ministers on the floor of the House of Representatives, in one of the most shameful episodes in the history of Australian democracy.

Senator Sinodinos: Shame!

Senator BRANDIS: Thank you, Senator Sinodinos. That was the current Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. Who was it who deceived Mr Andrew Wilkie over poker machine reform and the undertakings that she made to him about poker machine reform the moment she felt she did not need his vote on the floor of the House of Representatives because she had bought the vote of Mr Peter Slipper? The current Prime Minister, Ms Julia Gillard.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Cameron ): I think you should withdraw that. You are reflecting on a member of the other house. You should not do that.

Senator BRANDIS: I withdraw. Let me rephrase that: had by means about which we can only speculate secured the vote of Mr Peter Slipper. It was the current Prime Minister. And Mr Andrew Wilkie said that he realised that he had been deceived.

This Prime Minister, who lied to the public about the carbon tax, who deceived Mr Andrew Wilkie about poker machine reform, is at it again, because this measure is a flagrant violation of the most emphatic and unambiguous commitments given to the electorate. Senator Cormann read some of those commitments onto the record. Let me read them myself. This is what Ms Gillard wrote to the Australian newspaper in the last term of the coalition government. Referring to a letter by the then health minister, Mr Tony Abbott, which claimed that a Labor government had a secret plan to scrap the private health insurance rebate, she said:

The truth is that I never had a plan to scrap the private health insurance rebate … For all Australians who want to have private health insurance, the private health insurance rebate would have remained under a Labor government. I gave an iron-clad guarantee of that during the election. … when I make ironclad commitment I intend on keeping it.

That is what this Prime Minister's word is worth. She attacked Mr Abbott, then the health minister, for suggesting that she planned to do the very thing that she is now doing and, with mock outrage, she claimed that she was being misrepresented. We now know the truth.

This is what the then health minister, Ms Roxon, said in more recent times. On 24 February 2009, in the Age newspaper, she said: 'The government is firmly committed to retaining the existing private health insurance rebates.' In a media release issued by her office on 26 September 2007—just before the election of 2007, when the Labor Party came to power—she said:

On many occasions for many months, Federal Labor has made it crystal clear that we are committed to retaining all of the existing Private Health Insurance rebates …

During the 2007 election campaign, when interviewed on Meet the Press, Ms Roxon was asked by journalist Steve Lewis whether she committed to retaining, on behalf of the Labor Party, the private health insurance rebate. She said:

Yes, I can. We've committed to it. We've committed to the 30 per cent, we've committed to the 35% and 40% for older Australians. It's similar to the safety net. We know that many people rely heavily on the assistance that is now provided and would not be able to have private health insurance if that rebate wasn't paid. And lifetime health cover and others that go with it, we are committed to those. We understand that Australia now has a mixed health system, both private and public, and we need them both to be strong in order for our community to be able to get the services.

This is what the then leader of the Labor Party, Mr Kevin Rudd, said a week before the 2007 election:

Both my Shadow Minister for Health, Nicola Roxon, and I have made clear on many occasions this year that Federal Labor is committed to retaining the existing private health insurance rebates—

There are no weasel words here. There is no room for ambiguity or confusion. It was, as Ms Roxon said, 'crystal clear'. It was, as Ms Gillard said, 'iron-clad'. It was, as Mr Rudd said, a 'clear' commitment that the Labor Party would leave the private health insurance rebate alone.

And what are we doing this afternoon? We are debating legislation that was introduced by a government that is now presided over by Ms Julia Gillard, and in which Ms Nicola Roxon continues to sit at the cabinet table, to do the very thing they gave a crystal clear, ironclad commitment never to do. It does not get much more shameless than that. It is no wonder that, as measured by empirical data, opinion polls, anecdotal evidence or whatever, so few people respect this Prime Minister. The reason is that the Australian people know she has not only misled them but also serially misleads them. They know that misleading the people is part of the political practice, part of the modus operandi, part of the playbook of this Labor government. It is disgusting, it is dishonest and it is deceitful, but it is the way this government does business.

We in the Liberal Party will oppose this legislation tooth and nail because it is dishonest, because it is bad policy and because it is socially regressive. Why should the least well-off people in this country lose one of the benefits for which they are prepared to work those extra hours and which means so much to them, to their sense of wellbeing and to the security of their families? Why should this government be allowed to reverse a policy commitment that it gave in evident good faith, in unambiguous words and with its hand on its heart, only for the people to discover that they have been deceived? Why should Australians settle for an inferior healthcare system? Why should Australians settle for overburdened public hospitals? Why should less well-to-do Australians be put in a situation where they can no longer afford their private health insurance cover—cover that they want and that they sacrifice for—because the government lied to them? Why should they put up with that? They should not put up with that. I am sorry to say that this is—like the carbon tax and so many other things—the most recent episode of shameless, callous, cold-eyed, cold-blooded duplicity and falsehood which has been the modus operandi of this Labor government. (Time expired)