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Tuesday, 7 October 2003
Page: 20639

Ms GILLARD (3:42 PM) —When the Prime Minister tells his favourite, Tony Abbott, the new Minister for Health and Ageing, to do whatever it takes to fix Medicare we all know that he is speaking in code: the Liberal code for destroy. We know that he wants Tony Abbott to fix it good and proper; to fix it up once and for all—

The SPEAKER —Order! The member for Lalor will refer to the minister by his title.

Ms GILLARD —to fix it so that it can never be fixed again. The last order the Prime Minister gave to the current minister for health, Mr Tony Abbott, was to fix Pauline Hanson and One Nation and the order before was to fix the unions—and we all know what happened with that. Interestingly, the fix on the unions does not extend to the AMA, once described by his predecessor as a militant trade union. The fix does not extend to the AMA because on radio recently the new minister for health said:

... what we're dealing with here are professional people, professional people who have traditionally approached these issues with a great sense of commitment, a strong sense of vocation, high ideals, and of course, they're dealing with peoples' lives.

Does this mean that his approach to industrial relations now depends on whether workers have a strong sense of vocation, high ideals and are dealing with people's lives? If so, when the minister replies he might like to try and tell us what his attitude now is to industrial campaigns by nurses, ambulance officers, firefighters, teachers, police and general employees in our hospitals and aged care institutions. This is industrial relations and how you deal with constituencies Liberal style: you make sure that you extend the greatest largesse to the most privileged. So the former union buster now cowers before the AMA and tries on Melbourne radio to get a little bit of spin about where his position is now.

Now, we all know that the Howard government is on a mission to destroy Medicare, and no amount of cheap question time talk, picking up the member for Sydney, the member for Lowe, the member for Scullin and others, is going to cover up that central fact. They are campaigning in their constituencies on the government's plan to destroy Medicare, and that is the truth. It has been the truth since Robert Menzies, the Prime Minister's guru. It proceeded apace under Fraser—and the Prime Minister knew a bit about that government, even if he and Malcolm Fraser are no longer on talking terms. And now the Howard government is about finishing that agenda; it is about destroying Medicare once and for all.

To believe otherwise would require you to believe that the Prime Minister has somehow given up his lifelong ambition to destroy Medicare. To believe anything else is to believe that the Prime Minister is prepared to give up the history of the Liberal Party. To believe that this government supports Medicare would require you to believe that John Howard and the Minister for Health and Ageing, sitting at the table, are about to burn their tickets of membership of the Liberal Party, because they would have to do that to genuinely reposition themselves and pretend that they support a universal health system.

Let us not kid ourselves. In the past week, the Prime Minister and the minister for health have not experienced a conversion on the road to Damascus, and neither of them suddenly decided to become the good Samaritan either. What we have seen in the past week is a new diversion on the road to the destruction of Medicare. Liberal governments from Menzies on have travelled down the same road. It is not the road to Damascus; it is the road to destroying and dismantling the universal health system. Have a look at the history books. It was Labor under Chifley that introduced the first stages of a national health system; it was Menzies who wound it back. It was Labor under Whitlam that introduced Medibank; it was Fraser, with Howard in tow, who destroyed it. It was Labor under Hawke that introduced Medicare; and it is Howard, with Wooldridge, Patterson and now the minister at the table, who is determined to finish the job.

We all know that John Howard throughout his political life has been Medicare's greatest enemy. Time and time again, he has threatened to destroy it, including saying that Medicare raped the poor in this country. He went on to say he was going to pull Medicare right apart and get rid of the bulk-billing system which he said was an absolute rort. Nothing has changed since the 1980s, except the Prime Minister has got a bit cleverer about the tactics; he is trying to get to exactly the same place. The Prime Minister is no doubt proud of the progress he has made so far in destroying Medicare and even prouder of his intentions to finish the job.

I think the Prime Minister had a little lapse in the spin the other week on national television. He has been trying to portray himself as a bit of a champion of Medicare, asking us to forget all of the 1980s, but he led his guard down on national TV when he said:

I thought we had a very good system in the ... early 1970s ...

Let us remember what system he is referring to; he is referring to the system before Medibank. That might be the system that dominated the Prime Minister's cultural reference point of the 1950s, but it was not a very good system. It was a system under which many Australian families faced the choice of getting no treatment at all or paying to go to the doctor—and, let us remember, you even had to pay to be treated in a public hospital then. Is this is the system that the Prime Minister muses about as a very good system?

I am keen to hear the minister at the table tell us whether or not fees in public hospitals are on the agenda, because the Prime Minister is so fond of the health system of the 1970s. If he is going to be true to that statement—that it was `a very good system'—then that must be what is coming next: fees for public hospital admissions. Just like the Prime Minister wants us to forget all of Liberal history from Menzies on, and every statement he made in the 1980s, the minister at the table wants us to believe that the divisive whirling-dervish boxer is now gone and has been replaced by cute and cuddly Tony: Tony with Toffee the dog on the front page of the newspaper; Tony listening to doctors; Tony the softie.

Mr Martin Ferguson —Or is he just a worn-out old thug?

Ms GILLARD —Anyone who wants us to believe that would have us believe that Arnold Schwarzenegger is about to become a Catholic priest. You would have to believe that to believe that this minister has somehow been converted into Tony the softie—Tony the softie with Toffee the dog. The real point of all of this is that all of their intentions are wrapped up in doublespeak.

Is it any surprise that the minister at the table is an expert in spin? He is a former commentator, a former journalist. As a former journalist, he can write 800 words on anything you want him to write about. He is the sort of bloke who can write 800 words on why paper should be made from marijuana—and in fact he has. He is the sort of bloke who can write 800 words on a Harry Potter book review—and in fact he has. He is good on spin but not on honesty. Saying it, writing it and believing it are different things. Let us not forget that the minister at the table is the minister who created an organisation called Australians for Honest Politics and then did not manage to tell the truth about it. He is good at spin, not so good at honesty.

In true doublespeak style, the government's strategy for Medicare and its unfair reforms has been called A Fairer Medicare. Now the minister is going to change it, and I am waiting breathlessly for what I bet is going to be called Even Fairer Medicare. When are you going to give that to us, Tony—Even Fairer Medicare? We are all waiting to hear about it. In designing Even Fairer Medicare, he thought he had better go and meet a GP—some time, as minister for health, he had better meet a GP. Does he walk down the street and see his local GP? Does he go out to the western suburbs of Sydney or Melbourne to see a GP? Does he go to a rural town to see a GP—if he can find one? No, he goes and visits a celebrity GP in the leafy suburb of Hawthorn.

And I understand the consultation was not so much about the state of the health system, or the minister's health, but about the next phase of his strategy. Hold on for yet another tax-funded public advertising campaign with a bit of spin in it—except this time, instead of Dr Wright, it is going to be Dr Feelgood, telling us how we should be feeling good about the government's Medicare reforms. But if Prime Minister Howard and the minister at the table get their way with Medicare, then no-one is going to be feeling good about it.

Can I go to the misrepresentations that the minister engaged in during question time today, particularly his misrepresentations of Neal Blewett. You might not understand Medicare, but we do, Minister, and what Medicare stands for is two promises. The first promise is that you will be able to access a bulk-billing GP—not that every GP will bulk-bill, not that there will not be choice, but that you will get reasonable access to a bulk-billing GP. That is what Neal Blewett believed in—and, if you are in any doubt, give him a ring this afternoon, because that is what he will tell you. And that promise of Medicare worked under Labor, when bulk-billing rates were around 80 per cent. It is that promise of Medicare that your government has corroded and now wants to destroy. The second promise of Medicare, of course, is that you will be able to get free treatment in public hospitals—and we already know what the Prime Minister thinks about that.

Medicare has been corroded, bulk-billing rates are plummeting and this government's plan is to structure a scheme where, for forever and a day, the only people who will be bulk-billed will be concession card holders. That is the truth, and the members for Lowe and Sydney and others make claims about what people are going to have to pay under the government's system because it follows logically that, if bulk-billing is going down, it is only concession card holders who are going to be bulk-billed. What does the minister think happens next? What happens next is that everybody else gets asked to pay. How hard is it to understand that? Everybody else gets asked to pay, and that is what members on this side have been campaigning about. That is not misrepresentation, Minister; that is the truth.

In the remaining minutes, I would like to turn to the medical indemnity crisis. With Medicare we have seen wilful neglect, followed by deliberate destruction. What we are seeing with the medical indemnity crisis falls into the first category of wilful neglect. You do not have to listen to me to believe that; you can listen to the words of the former Liberal minister for health, Michael Wooldridge. We on this side of the House remember him. There was the MRI scan scam and the $5 million to the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners for a new Canberra building immediately before the election, with the public never told that the money came out of asthma and rural health funding. After the election, he turned up there as a consultant. Then, when he got sacked in a scandal, he sued and got $300,000. This is the minister we are talking about. As recently as April he was proudly claiming in a public seminar that he did not do anything about the medical indemnity crisis. He said:

As minister I was accused of doing far too little on medical indemnity. That is completely unfair; I did absolutely nothing whatsoever.

The man had been misrepresented. He let this crisis build and build, and we are seeing today exactly the results of letting a crisis build: 200 doctors are expected to walk off the job this week. You cannot wash your hands of it, Minister, because it is where the record of the neglect of the Howard government has got us. You might have had Senator Patterson and Senator Coonan out trying to sell a failed package, but your task now is to keep those 200 doctors working. I am challenging you to take the first step today by publishing the calculations on which the IBNR levy is based. The doctors reckon the maths is dodgy, and the Treasurer might even think the maths is dodgy, given the answer he gave in question time today. If the maths is dodgy, then the levy is too high. If that is the problem, you could whack those calculations on the table today. We could all look at them, and we could work out a fairer arrangement. If you do not do that, people are entitled to say, `What are you hiding? A levy or a tax that is too high? Is that what this government is hiding?'

We know that in the run-up to the next election the fundamental divide in values about health will become starker and starker. There is nothing this minister can do. There is no political fix, no sweetening, no tinker and no plan to get you through the next election which will fix that problem for you. You might be a political fixer, but you cannot fix the fact that the values which the Prime Minister and you stand for in health, historically and always, are for a two-tiered system: one system where people pay and a concessional, residual system for everybody else.

I know that, whilst he is trying to be new cuddly Tony with Toffee the dog, what is coming now in this reply is an absolute spray about the private health insurance rebate, because the minister has already reverted to type in question time today. What he is going to do now is the next bit of the political fix he has been put in for, which is the scaremongering campaign. Before you start the scaremongering campaign, Tony—because we are not expecting you to talk about health policy—remember that the most important point from Labor is that we are entitled to review a public policy measure for effectiveness and efficiency. We are entitled to do that. If you were a responsible minister, you would be doing that too. But nothing Labor will do will increase the financial pressure on families, and nothing we will do will affect the capacity of families to take out private health insurance. On with the scaremongering campaign! (Time expired)