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Wednesday, 14 March 2012
Page: 1705

Senator BERNARDI (South Australia) (12:29): It is interesting to follow that rambling and rather disjointed contribution from Senator Bilyk in which she addressed the issues of subsidies on incomes.

Government senators interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Marshall ): Order!

Senator BERNARDI: I heard the bleating and am glad you called them to order, Mr Acting Deputy President, because obviously they do not like a few truths. I would like to point out, in response to what Senator Bilyk said about the income of the wealthy being supplemented by the hardworking hairdresser or plumber, that she made no mention of how union bosses have been supplementing their incomes. There are allegations of credit cards being given to union bosses and kickbacks for contracts, how they have been indulging in personal pastimes at the union members' expense to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. These are allegations that you conveniently ignore, Senator Bilyk. But if you want to know anyone who is taking advantage of the humble working man and woman, it is the union movement. You have been exposed for all of that and yet you still live in blissful ignorance of some of the corrupt and shonky practices that have been taking place in the movement that you are very proud to have been a member of.

It is a further indictment of Senator Bilyk and members of the side opposite, members of the government, that the focus of their support of this bill is somehow attacking Mr Abbott. The problem with Mr Abbott is that he is effective. He is effective in highlighting the spendthrift ways of this government, the folly of its ridiculous policies. He is highlighting how disingenuous and false are the words of the Prime Minister and members of this government. There is no further point that we need to remember than the Prime Minister's assurance, 'There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead.' I have raised that because Senator Bilyk also raised the carbon tax in her contribution.

The Prime Minister said, 'There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead,' and yet that is exactly what the government have introduced with their coalition partners, the Greens. Why do I mention a broken promise? Because this bill is another in a long list of broken promises from this government, betraying the Australian people in the process. Might I remind the Australian people that at the last election there was a cash-for-clunkers scheme. It did not even see the light of day after the election. There was also going to be something called a citizens assembly which Senator Wong and the Prime Minister announced. Of course, they were laughed at at the time, but they steadfastly clung to it until after they had been elected. This is an appalling indictment, and this bill is once again another broken promise. I hark back to what Minister Roxon said when she was Minister for Health and Ageing:

Federal Labor has made it crystal clear that we are committed to retaining all the existing private health insurance rebates.

Clearly that was not true. It is demonstrably not true because this bill is before us today. That is an extraordinary thing for this government to be pursuing under the guise of fairness. What a joke even the title of this bill is: Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives Bill. Firstly, there is nothing 'fairer' about it. This is about undermining the private health insurance system in this country, because the government do not like it and have never liked it. The Labor Party have never liked private health insurance, because it weans people off the teat of government.

The other misnomer in the title of these bills is the 'incentives'. There are no incentives in these bills. It is a complete joke to suggest there are. These bills do the exact opposite of providing an incentive to the Australian people. These changes will force people to drop private health insurance cover or to choose cheaper cover with a number of procedures excluded, because it will simply become unaffordable. It will cause upward pressure on insurance premiums as more people drop out of the system and it will increase the pressure on an already overstretched public hospital system.

I remind the Australian people that not only did Minister Roxon mislead the Australian people when she said Labor were committed to retaining all the existing private health insurance rebates, but the man that Labor loves to loathe, former Prime Minister Mr Kevin Rudd, also said federal Labor was committed to retaining the existing private health insurance rebates. I would suggest to the members opposite that if they knifed, got rid of and brutally politically crucified Mr Rudd on the basis that he was preparing to break a promise in this respect, that would be a reasonable thing. But it seems that Mr Rudd was committed to upholding his promise. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that they so brutally dispatched him and sent him into political purgatory.

I come back to this: the Australian people are simply sick and tired of Labor making promises just before an election and then somehow obfuscating or using some sophistry or expert who has been plucked from one of their chosen political mouthpieces to justify breaking those promises when they get into government. We have talked about some of them: the carbon tax, the cash-for-clunkers scheme, the citizens assembly—and we can go on and on and on. And that is on top of the promises that they kept, which turned out to be abject failures as well, because the information they have provided to the parliament or to the Australian people to justify these promises has turned out to be false, misleading or somehow not researched. We have a $56 billion public money spend in this country on the National Broadband Network that has not even seen the light of day of a cost-benefit analysis. There is no justification from the government other than the fact that their previous broadband plan did not receive enough tenders. It did not receive enough tenders, so Mr Rudd, the then Prime Minister who was brutally knifed for the second time recently, and Minister Conroy cooked up on the back of an envelope on a plane a $56 billion public spend. That is the sort of policy approach that we have from this government.

I could also remind the good people of Australia that this was the government that spent $1 billion giving people pink batts for their homes. That resulted in a number of homes being burnt to the ground and a number of lives lost. We are still waiting for an apology from the minister responsible, or any accountability. That minister still sits quite proudly around the cabinet table. The government is too scared to get rid of him. He must know where a few of the government bodies are buried, so to speak. The government spent $2 billion taking out the pink batts, plus conducting a range of other inquiries and things, because it did not think through its plans. That is exactly the same circumstance with which we are faced here.

It might be convenient for the government to play the class warfare card by saying that people earning over a certain amount of money are being subsidised by those who earn lesser amounts of money. I guess it depends on your mindset: either you can look for nasty class warfare issues or you can look at what is really happening in our country today. A person earning $50,000, for example, effectively pays very little tax whereas, I am advised, someone who earns $150,000 pays somewhere in the region of 16 times that amount of tax. Whether that person is wealthy or not does not matter: they are making a contribution to society. We have to recognise that private health insurance also plays a meaningful part in our health system functioning effectively and efficiently. People who take responsibility for their health needs by taking out private health insurance reduce the need for the public hospital system to provide services for them, they reduce the waiting lists for some services that are noncritical but which are very important to the people who need them and they also keep the general cost of health insurance premiums down, which is very important. More importantly, they allow individual Australians to exercise choice.

The simple fact that the government may, in one way, shape or form, be making it more affordable for people to undertake private health insurance is a net good. It is encouraging people to do the right thing by making it affordable. Of course, affordability is something that this government really does not seem to care about. It does not seem to care about how families are already struggling in many instances to balance the budget. It does not seem to care about the fact that utility costs in this country are already rising at a rapid rate and are set to rise even further as the Australian people are afflicted with the world's biggest carbon tax—a tax which we were promised would never see the light of day under a government led by Julia Gillard.

These things naturally concern us on this side of the chamber because we are committed. The central cause of the Liberal Party is to foster personal responsibility, to see stronger families and to enable people to make decisions that will empower them and get government out of their lives. Senator Bilyk, in her contribution, put paid to the lie that Labor cares about families and about people. If it really did care, it would not be putting this additional penalty on those who want to take responsibility for their own health insurance at a time when they are already struggling with rising bills for utilities, food, rent, mortgages, rates and taxes. Quite frankly, the government has a role to play in all of these things not only because of its borrowing and the inflation that goes with it but also because of its imposition of new taxes. This is a characteristic that the government has continued to pursue for the last four years.

This government has increased taxes on all sorts of spurious grounds. It has done so under the guise of health measures which were once again proved to be false. It has done so under the guise of needing to spend more money in the community. It is still rolling out stimulus spending with respect to the GFC, a crisis which apparently stopped a couple of years ago in 2008. It is still rolling out the spending, notwithstanding the inflationary pressures and the other challenges, particularly the budgetary challenges, of this government. The product of all this spending and waste and the injection of borrowed money into the economy is putting up prices, fuelling inflation and making things more expensive for Australian people. That is why a budget measure to reduce the affordability of health insurance, as proposed by this bill, is very poor. The coalition believes all Australians should have access to affordable health care and real choice in managing their healthcare needs.

As a result of the introduction under the previous coalition government of the private health insurance rebates, the Medicare levy surcharge and Lifetime Health Cover, private health insurance coverage increased significantly from 34 per cent in 1996 to over 44 per cent by 2007. You would have to be particularly bloody-minded and stubborn not to recognise that as a net benefit for this country. It makes health care more affordable and more accessible for every single Australian, not just those with private health insurance.

In that respect, 52.9 per cent of Australians have private health insurance—that is 12 million of us—and 10.3 million have hospital treatment cover. Every single dollar of funding provided for the private health insurance rebate saves $2 of costs that are then paid by private health insurers. That is from the Econtech Pty Ltd and Harper Associates and Hagan report of 2004. A 2012 Ipsos survey found that 64 per cent of the population believe that the $4.5 billion a year the government spent on the rebate was a good use of taxpayer money. These are not only the people who can afford the private health insurance as a result of the rebate but also those people who rely on the public hospital system and who benefit from greater accessibility and shorter waiting times.

Private hospitals treat 40 per cent of all patients in Australia. Imagine if those private hospitals were no longer accessible or affordable because private health insurance had disappeared, as much of the Labor Party wants. That 40 per cent of Australians would then need to use the public hospital system, which is already under increasing stress and pressure. In 2009-10, private hospitals treated roughly 3.5 million patients, and these people may then be forced into the public hospital system. Imagine the bottlenecks then. What would we see? We would see the hospitals like the Keith and District Hospital, which the South Australian Labor government refuses to give $300,000 a year to in order to keep it open. Imagine the pressure on the public hospital system when a state government cannot even afford to keep an integral part of regional health and hospitalisation open for a measly $300,000.

We have to acknowledge that private hospitals play a very important role. They perform the majority of elective surgery in Australia—64 per cent—because they are efficient, effective and accessible. As for the direct impact of this bill, I know we will have competing numbers and figures, but let me say for the benefit of the Australian people that, if you are going to rely on some figures put forward in this debate, you have to ask yourself how you can in good conscience rely—

Debate interrupted.