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Monday, 16 June 2003
Page: 16504


Mr MURPHY (5:00 PM) —I welcome the opportunity to speak on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2003-2004 and Appropriation Bill (No. 2) 2003-2004 and I strongly support the second reading amendment moved by the member for Fraser and shadow Treasurer, Mr Bob McMullan. I will focus on the parts of the budget that impact on the hardworking families in my electorate of Lowe. Constituents from all over the electorate have flooded my office with letters, emails and phone calls expressing their outrage with the Howard government's agenda in relation to Medicare and higher education fees. It is outrageous for thousands of families in my electorate as now they will, one, find it very difficult to locate a doctor that bulk-bills; two, face higher costs for essential medicines; three, suffer higher costs to educate their children; four, cop limited access to affordable child-care; and, five, have limited access to nursing home care. These are the basic issues that families worry about every day in my electorate of Lowe. They are entitled to ask what on earth is the government for and where are their taxes going?

For thousands of tax-paying families in my electorate and across Australia their most important priorities remain very straightforward—for they and their children to have good access to a public health system and good access to higher education, be it university or TAFE. These families now feel betrayed because this budget ignores these priorities to serve the ideological obsession the government has with transferring the costs to families, making them pay more for basic health and education. To add insult to injury, taxpayers are supposed to be grateful for a $4 a week tax cut. They understand that it is only a cynical attempt by the government to distract them from the higher costs of health and education they will endure as a result of this year's budget.

My constituents have every reason to be angry with this betrayal and they have every right to feel let down by a government determined to serve its privileged constituency at the expense of middle-income Australian families. Australians know that this government does not believe in Medicare and they know that the government does not believe in a universal health care system. In my electorate of Lowe, 93 per cent of doctors offer bulk-billing. As a result of this, Australians with an income of over $32,000—that is Australians without a health concession card—will no longer be entitled to a bulk-billing doctor. Most families in my electorate will soon be paying four times for their health care. They will pay their GST, they will pay a Medicare levy, many will pay for private health insurance and now the government expects them to pay an up-front fee every time they visit the doctor, which will be $20, $25 or $30. In addition, the burden will be heavier, when you consider that they will also be paying more at the pharmacy for essential medicines because the government is hitting them with a 30 per cent hike in patients' copayments.

Choices concerning the basic health care of any family should never be about their ability to pay. This is not the Australian way. It may be the law of the jungle or the norm in a two-tier American style health system, but this is not what my constituents want and it is not what Australia wants. I need to put to the parliament some of the concerns of my constituents expressed in all the letters, emails and phone calls I have received since the Treasurer's budget speech. The first is a message from a tax agent, Mrs Helen Lyons-Riley from Strathfield, and it is an example of the impact that these changes will have in my electorate of Lowe. Mrs Lyons-Riley says:

We were long time members of a private health fund however we found that three times we attempted to lodge a claim for three different events we were informed we were not covered for the event. Once was due to a monthly payment being late ... we paid $3500 for private hospital treatment for our daughter. The second when our son was diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia and the private hospital treatment wasn't covered ... that cost $4000 in hospital charges and a further $2500 for therapy. The third when my husband had cataract surgery ... that cost $2500. We can no longer afford the premiums required. If our GP starts to charge we will be forced to attend outpatients. Please do not support any change to Medicare other than increased funding.

Another example comes from Mr Adam Gordon, a young father from Liberty Grove, whose message is as follows:

I'm writing this email to voice my discontent with the current government's Health care policy. Our son was born 3 months prematurely in January 2000 and consequently has had a number of respiratory problems derived from colds etc. Hence we have discovered recently that we were no longer able to access our preferred doctor(s) at a surgery in Five Dock, as it is no longer sustainable for them to bulk bill. Therefore we took our son to another surgery that did bulk-bill. However the doctor was not very thorough and seemed to rush the consultancy.

We have also had to take our son to Westmead Hospital where we have had to wait for a number of hours before being able to see a doctor, probably due to over reliance on the hospital system, derived from less surgeries bulk billing. However, the service and care was very good. Could you please voice my complaint as it appears that the current government is attempting to dismantle the Medicare system to a level where nobody will be able to access affordable health care. It is appalling that a basic right like health care for children has to be compromised due to affordability. Yours sincerely, Adam Gordon

The government does not seem to understand that Australians want to keep Medicare and they desperately want a government committed to Medicare. All Australians—especially the thousands of families in my electorate of Lowe, who have grown up visiting doctors that bulk-bill and enjoy a reasonable access to essential medicines—know that Labor has a plan to save Medicare and restore bulk-billing. As you know, Labor will save Medicare with a $1.9 billion package to reverse the collapse in bulk-billing by lifting the patient rebate for bulk-billing for all Australians, no matter where they live or how much they earn. Under Labor doctors in the metropolitan areas, including doctors in my electorate of Lowe, will receive an additional $7,500 each year for bulk-billing 80 per cent, or more, of their patients. This will mean families in my electorate will be saved the $20, $25, or $30 up-front fee that the government wants Australians to pay.

I have to mention that the government is also failing the people in my electorate, because the health minister still refuses to grant Concord Repatriation General Hospital a licence to operate a Medicare eligible magnetic resonance imaging service—MRI. The health minister's refusal is based on recommendations from the governments MRI Monitoring and Evaluation Group—MEG—which says that there are sufficient Medicare eligible MRI services in Sydney. I do not accept this and, more importantly, my constituents do not accept this. I do not believe the MEG recommendation process is sufficiently independent or transparent.

As you are probably aware, I have now tabled three petitions on this matter in federal parliament—the third tabled earlier this month. A total of 3,700 local residents are demanding that the federal government match the commitment to the New South Wales government and grant Concord hospital a licence to operate a Medicare eligible MRI service. Concord hospital is currently not a Medicare eligible provider of MRI services. This means that sick, elderly and frail residents of the inner west of Sydney have to travel long distances to Camperdown, Westmead, or the North Shore for an MRI scan.

I have been saying for more than 12 months that I do not believe that this is acceptable to local residents. Not only is Concord hospital crucial to residents in the inner west, it has a proud history serving the veteran community and is a teaching hospital of the University of Sydney. While the government is refusing Concord hospital a Medicare eligible MRI service and failing the patients of the inner west, it expects families to pay more to see a doctor. The consequence of this policy inevitably means more pressure on all public hospitals as Mr Adam Gordon's message explained. I will continue my campaign for an MRI licence for Concord hospital in this House, and I will continue fighting for the patients and the families in my electorate of Lowe and Sydney's inner west.

Another important priority for families in my electorate of Lowe is their children's education. Lowe is recognised as an electorate that has an above-average participation in higher education. It will be no surprise to members that the subject of many of the other angry messages that I have received since the Treasurer's budget speech concerns the government's plans for universities and its policy to abandon fair and affordable access to higher education in favour of mortgage-like student loans which will have a devastating impact and mean an impossible debt on students from middle-income families.

Recently, the Valpiani family from Drummoyne sent me the following email message which reads, inter alia:

Equal, affordable access to education is one of the most important ways of keeping Australia a just and egalitarian society. Coalition education policy seems intent on undermining this and creating a society of haves and have-nots while making increasing numbers of young Australians cynical and demoralised about their futures. I am asking for your support in improving the funding and resources for state schools as well as in fighting the proposed increase to tertiary education charges. Entry to tertiary education should depend on talent, motivation and hard work not on a student's financial situation. Performance in three unit affluence should not be the deciding factor. Yours sincerely, Carlo & Catherine Valpiani.

Each year, 20,000 qualified young Australians—inevitably, many from my electorate—are denied a place at university. The changes outlined by the Howard government give little succour to them. The only certain outcome of the higher education changes announced in Treasurer Costello's budget is that students and their families will be paying more. This will include a 30 per cent rise in university fees through the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, HECS, a $32 increase in HECS debt, and a doubling in the number of places for full-fee-paying students at the expense of talented or hardworking students who will pay up to $125 a week in education loan repayments. The new student loan scheme, with its six per cent interest rate for $50,000 to $100,000 degrees, will guarantee mortgage like debt and force far too many students to reconsider higher education altogether.

The Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, AVCC, the people the education minister said run, live and breathe our universities, have outlined some other key problems in the government's proposed higher education changes. These include inadequate assistance for students from disadvantaged backgrounds—for example, student loans capped at $50,000 and six per cent interest, which favours those most able to repay and which will not cover the cost of many undergraduate courses. The vice-chancellors also identified inadequate government funding for higher education tied to unwanted and unworkable changes to workplace and governance practices.

Labor will fight to make sure that university places are there for students on the basis of marks, not money. Labor will not allow wealthy students to jump the queue and take the university places that rightly belong to the hardest working and the most able young Australians.

There have been other concerns raised, such as the government's failure to adequately support technical and further education funding for thousands of other students in my electorate despite a serious skill shortage across the entire Australian work force. In addition, primary and secondary school fees are a growing concern. Families who choose to send their children to non-government schools are not receiving the support they deserve. At the same time, support for public education in this budget, as Mr and Mrs Valpiani also pointed out, is non-existent.

Unfortunately, there are a number of other failures that anger my constituents because they go to the heart of their families, and their most important issues and choices. The first is the government's failure in this budget to address the spiralling costs and chronic shortage of child-care places. Without adequate access to child-care places, many families cannot maximise their employment opportunities. The Daily Telegraph editorial on Monday, 26 May correctly argued this:

Adequate child care is as indispensable to family life today as the car, the fridge or the washing machine. Yet as the figures of more than 61,000 shortages in NSW alone show, the Federal Government has yet to change its mindset to catch up with this social revolution. It has been largely content to allow market forces determine where child care centres operate, leading to an uneven distribution of care.

Unlike the Howard government, Labor is committed to making child care more affordable and more available, to help families under increased financial pressure—a burden the government is contributing to.

The government is also ignoring the thousands of families in my electorate who agonise over the future of their ageing parents or grandparents. My electorate is an established one and has a high proportion of people over 65 years of age. It is scandalous that the budget does not offer one new residential care place despite a chronic and growing shortage of decent nursing home facilities and aged care places across Australia. I have 35 nursing homes in my electorate. The budget offers no new funding or initiatives to assist aged care facilities to remain viable. Instead, in a climate of uncertainty, too many families are left to agonise over the future care of their elderly parents or grandparents. This is reprehensible. Clearly the Howard government is not interested in the care of our most vulnerable senior citizens, the frail and the elderly.

Unfortunately, this budget fails both my electorate and Australia generally in many areas. In the time available, I will do my best to further outline some of my concerns.

The budget fails to address any of the major environmental issues facing Australia. Unfortunately, sticking your head in the sand and hoping these problems will go away is no substitute for policy and planning. Labor will save the Murray River; Labor will protect the Great Barrier Reef from mining; Labor will stop large-scale land clearing; and Labor will ratify the Kyoto protocol.

I take this opportunity to again highlight the government's serial broken promises to my constituents in Lowe regarding aircraft noise and the sale of Sydney airport—and I will be saying more in the House shortly. The government promised noise-affected residents that Sydney airport would not be sold before aircraft noise problems were resolved. That is a joke for my constituents—and it is a really bad joke.

The government has had six years to honour its promises to the long-suffering noise-affected constituents in my electorate and people living to the north of Sydney airport, and what has it done? It has abandoned those people and the problem is only getting worse now that the government has sold Sydney airport. The terrible impact of aircraft noise over my electorate and the inner west still persists, and I will not let the government off the hook on this serious issue. In short, we were promised, under the Long Term Operating Plan, that we would get 17 per cent movements to the north, and it has consistently been averaging 50 per cent to 60 per cent above that—and that is a fact.

The budget also fails retirees in my electorate because it does not address the complexity of superannuation and does not protect from corporate greed the retirement incomes of my constituents. The government has further failed to address the difficulties many small business people have in complying with their de facto tax collector GST burden. The government continues to hire more tax officials rather than take steps to ease the business activity statement compliance burden on small business.

The government has also failed to address some of the outrageous holes and outright fraud in our taxation system—for example, the well-publicised dishonesty of many solicitors and barristers, who are supposed to be respected officers of the court, using family law and serial bankruptcy to avoid paying their fair share of tax. The government continues to turn a blind eye to this outrageous scandal. It is now rapidly approaching 2½ years since this very serious issue came to light, and not one amendment to any statute has occurred in the federal parliament.

Finally, the recent outrageous and unprecedented attack on the ABC launched by Senator Alston comes at a time when the government's most important priority is, in my view, the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2002. If passed, this legislation will give Mr Kerry Packer and Mr Rupert Murdoch the right to own, operate and control television stations, radio stations and newspapers in the same market. They will be allowed to own, operate and control the most popular sources of news and information in any given city in Australia.

This will mean less diversity of opinion in the Australian media and will do fundamental damage to the public interest and the future of our democracy. This is very serious. News Ltd own two-thirds of the metropolitan dailies, three-quarters of the Sunday newspapers, 50 per cent of the suburban newspapers, one-quarter of the regional newspapers plus a 25 per cent monopoly interest in pay-TV with Mr Murdoch—Telstra has the other 50 per cent. And the government proposes to give them more. This is a very serious threat to the public interest.

As for the alleged ABC bias, Senator Alston's claims are absurd. Even if anyone were silly enough to believe him, I believe the ABC, viewed through Senator Alston's glasses, could not effectively balance a conservative agenda and bias of Australia's commercial media even if a Marx or Lenin ran it. The government wants to appease the commercial media moguls and simultaneously censor our public broadcaster. This is nothing but a shameful `I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine' arrangement—`You give me more media ownership and I'll give you more support.'

In concluding, I support the second reading amendment moved by the shadow Treasurer because the government's proposed changes to health and education will have a terrible impact on thousands of families in my electorate of Lowe. Our public universities must be available to Australian students based on merit, not wealth. Further, health care in Australia should never be about someone's ability to pay. That is why Labor built Medicare. Only Labor believes in Medicare and only Labor will save Australia's world renowned health system from the government's shameful attack. We will defend Medicare because people want access to bulk-billing. We do not want a situation where people have to pay more for medical care. (Time expired)