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Tuesday, 1 June 2010
Page: 4790

Ms HALL (5:44 PM) —Firstly, before turning to the substance of the Tax Laws Amendment (Medicare Levy and Medicare Levy Surcharge) Bill 2010, I would like to link in to what the member for Hindmarsh was saying about the collocated Medicare office that has just been announced for his electorate. I would like to put on the record that we have a collocated Medicare and Centrelink office in the Shortland electorate. It replaced the Belmont Medicare office, which the Howard government closed holus-bolus in 1997. The Belmont Medicare office had been one of the best patronised Medicare offices in the area, but there was one problem with it, and that was that it was located in a Labor-held electorate.

In the 1998 and subsequent elections Labor promised to reopen the Belmont Medicare office. I made representations to the previous government about the need for it, especially for elderly residents. While public transport was good going north, it still took elderly residents quite a while to travel to Charlestown, where the Medicare office was. Alternatively, they could travel to Lake Haven on the Central Coast, but it was quite difficult for residents to travel in that direction if they did not have a car. It took Labor getting into government to deliver that vital service, that Medicare office, that the people of Shortland electorate—people living in the Belmont, Swansea, Ballantyne, Redhead and surrounding areas—had longed for. That Medicare office was snatched away from them by the Howard government. Mr Deputy Speaker Georganas, when the Medicare and Centrelink office is operating in your electorate, you will find that your constituents benefit from it. The residents are finding the Medicare office at Belmont very useful. It is all about delivering services to people in the area that they live, recognising that older people need to have the services close to them and making government services user-friendly. It is about delivering to people, not about people delivering to government.

Before I go to the substance of my contribution to this debate, there is another issue that I am very disappointed to have to raise. I have to make an apology to you, Mr Deputy Speaker Georganas. An arrangement was made between the government and the opposition for you to speak before the member for O’Connor because you needed to be in the chair. Unfortunately, the member for O’Connor did not honour that agreement. In his contribution to this debate, the member for O’Connor was quite scathing of the Rudd government’s honouring of commitments. Well, the member for O’Connor could not even honour a simple commitment made between the government and the opposition to allow the member for Hindmarsh to speak before him so he could make his contribution to the debate. This place operates on the goodwill of all parties. On many occasions, we allow members of the opposition to come on to the speakers’ list when they had not been on it. We are mindful of the fact that members of the opposition also undertake chair duty, and we need to be flexible in that. On many occasions, two government members will speak or we will let two opposition members speak, just so this House can function. Unfortunately, on this occasion the member for O’Connor did not honour the commitment. When I pointed out to him that you needed to be in the chair, Mr Deputy Speaker Georganas, his comment was it was your problem. Well, I do not see it as your problem; I see it as a problem for the House. I was extremely disappointed by the member for O’Connor’s actions. I thank you and I thank the member for Braddon for filling in for you and sitting in the chair to allow you to make your very valuable contribution to this important debate.

The Tax Laws Amendment (Medicare Levy and Medicare Levy Surcharge) Bill 2010 is consistent with what has happened in previous years. It proposes to increase the Medicare levy low-income thresholds for singles and families and to increase the Medicare levy surcharge low-income threshold in line with movements in the consumer price index. The Medicare levy low-income threshold for pensioners below aged pension age will also be increased to ensure that individuals in this cohort will not incur a Medicare levy liability when they do not have an income tax liability. The increase will apply to the 2009-10 income year and later income years. Similar legislation to this has been through the House on many occasions. In fact, there has been a threshold adjustment for every year since 1996-97. There was not an income adjustment in 1998-99 because there was a negative movement in the CPI.

I believe this legislation will be non-controversial. I look to the opposition to support this legislation, because it is legislation that helps Medicare function in the way it is intended to. Medicare has been looked upon as being the greatest reform in the history of the Australian health system. It provides universal health care to all Australians and it ensures that, if somebody is sick, they will be able to see a doctor; and, if somebody needs hospital treatment, they will be able to enter a hospital. That is vitally important to all Australians.

I have to say that there has been a new reform that I think will come up to the mark as far as being one of the most important health reforms in Australia’s history—that is, the national health and hospital reform that was agreed to at COAG on 20 April. This replaces eight separate health systems with a single national health and hospital network, combining all public hospitals, all GP services and related services. It dedicates one-third of the GST revenue currently paid to the states and territories so that the Commonwealth can take majority financial control of the entire network and invest this revenue directly in health and hospitals. It puts small local hospital networks in charge and makes sure that the networks meet national standards and publish accurate performance reports. Medicare was a landmark reform. The national hospital network will be landmark legislation when it passes through this parliament.

The Rudd government has delivered on health for the Australian people. Labor has always delivered in the area of health for the Australian people, be it Medicare or the hospital network reform. I have to say that this is in stark contrast to the years of the Howard government, when the now Leader of the Opposition was the then health minister. He used to stand up in this place with rolled gold, rock-solid, ironclad guarantees that Medicare would be looked after on his watch—and he failed. He failed to look after public hospitals. He ripped $1 billion out of public hospitals. His response to the Rudd government’s budget this year is to rip another $1 billion out of hospitals. He is the $2 billion man, constantly ripping money out of health. He used to stand up in this place and say that he and the Howard government were the best friends Medicare ever had. Bulk-billing reached record low levels when he was the health minister, and the cost of healthcare became more and more expensive. The real win for the Australian people was when the Rudd government won and he was no longer health minister. Just as he is lazy and does not like economics, I remember him saying he did not like health, he was not interested in health, he found health rather boring, he had been health minister for too long and he wanted to do something different. That was obvious, and his contempt for health is obvious now, with his plan to rip another $1 billion out of health.

The Leader of the Opposition is a real risk to health. He is a real risk to the Australian people. And he is a risk that, quite frankly, the Australian people cannot afford. Contrast that to the Rudd government’s performance in the area of health, where you have a $64 billion agreement for health and hospital funding over a five-year period; $600 million in an elective surgery waiting list reduction plan—and that was for 36 superclinics. But in this year’s budget there was funding for an additional 23 superclinics. I know members on this side of the House are all competing to get funding for those superclinics. There has been $872 million in investment in preventative health; $1.6 billion to close the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians; $134 million in investment for the rural and remote workforce; $3.2 billion for 35 health infrastructure projects; $300 million in low real interest rate loans for residential aged care facilities; $293 million for 23 transitional care facilities—and this was agreed to all before the budget.

In the budget there was more money for health. It is phenomenal that one government can commit so much to health when the previous government ripped so much out of health. What it does is show that the Rudd government has a real commitment to the Australian people, the Rudd government recognises how important health is, the Rudd government recognises how important Medicare is and the Rudd government recognises how important it is to invest in hospitals and health services and in the training of doctors. The Rudd government also realised how important it was to respond to The blame game report that was conducted by the previous parliament and brought down in November 2006—a report, I might add, that the Howard government could not even respond to. The now Leader of the Opposition was the health minister at the time, and he did not even sit down, read the recommendations and come back with an answer to the recommendations that were included in that report. That is very different to the approach of the Rudd government, which has made health a priority. In this year’s budget the government is investing $7.3 billion over five years. There will be $470 million invested to improve after-hours access to GPs and primary care services, and that will be supported locally by Medicare.

In the Hunter we have after-hours GP access that operates out of the local hospital. It is a wonderful service. It is a service that has looked after the people of the Hunter for a very long period of time and will continue to flourish. There are also some after-hours GP practices that provide care for people in the Lake Macquarie part of the Shortland electorate. But on the Central Coast these initiatives will really be welcome because they do not have the same level of after-hours care that is available in the Lake Macquarie part of the Shortland electorate. I welcome it with open arms.

As I said, there is $355 million in the budget for 23 new GP superclinics. I might add that that is one of the areas that the opposition intends to rip money out of. The opposition does not have a grasp of on-the-ground services needed for people living in our communities. I know that the member for Paterson was delighted to see the GP superclinic open in his electorate recently, so they are welcome.

There will be $523 million invested in training support for nurses. That will be very welcome. That includes nurses working in general practice. I know that the doctor’s surgery that I attend has two practice nurses. They are very valuable members of the team operating out of that practice, and I know that the extra money will be welcomed, not only by the GP practice that I attend but by all GP practices in my electorate and, I am sure, throughout Australia.

There will be $467 million to modernise our health and hospital system, through electronic records. This is something that has been pursued for a long time. When in government the Leader of the Opposition was very supportive of electronic health records. Now that he is in opposition he is planning to ‘discontinue’—I think that is the word—the plan to introduce electronic health records. Having electronic health records is really good health practice; it is a way of ensuring standardisation across the health system. Once again, it is something that the Leader of the Opposition will discontinue and rip out of the health system.

I might stop going through all the wonderful initiatives that have been put in place by the Rudd government. They are initiatives that really take health care to a new level and will be great for the Australian people. They have been welcomed in the Shortland electorate.

I conclude by saying that I am extremely disappointed by the performance of the opposition. I have been extremely disappointed by the Leader of the Opposition, particularly when he was health minister. He was the minister who actually gave the terms of reference to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health and Ageing to undertake the inquiry into health funding. It issued The blame game report, which identified chronic problems within our health system and chronic workforce shortages and made some very strong recommendations on how to address the problems that existed in the health system. The report was ignored by the Leader of the Opposition when he was in government.

The Rudd government did not ignore the report. We read it. The minister and the Prime Minister took on board the recommendations that were included in this report and went about reforming our health system—reforms that compare with the major reform of Medicare. I commend this bill to the House. I hope that the opposition will support it. It is a very important bill for those people who depend on it, and it must pass through the House by 30 June.