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Monday, 13 February 2012
Page: 819


Mr NEUMANN (Blair) (12:28): I rise to speak on the Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives Bill 2011. It is interesting listening to the member for Forrest quoting all the Liberal Party's mates in the AMA and private health insurance rather than Treasury figures, which show that only 27,000 people will drop out. In fact, the Ipsos syndicated survey, Health care & insurance Australia 2009, released in November 2009, said that even fewer people, approximately 16,000 people, would drop out of private hospital insurance, which is much fewer than estimated by the Treasury. What the member for Forrest was waxing lyrical about was the notion that this would put pressure on the public health system. In fact, the 27,000 people who could drop out of private health insurance would, according to Treasury modelling, result in about 8,500 additional public hospital admissions over two years. That sounds like a lot, but it is not when you consider that there are about 4.7 million admissions each year. So the impact is very small indeed.

We took this particular policy to an election. In fact, we tried to get this legislation through in the last parliament. The bill was introduced into the House of Representatives on 27 May 2009. It passed on 2 June 2009. Then it was introduced again on 19 November 2009 and was passed again on 3 February 2010. So do not come into this place and say that we have not talked about this previously and that somehow we have broken a promise. We took this to the last election. The Australian public knew what we were going to do about this. We are bringing this legislation forward. The fundamental question that should be asked in relation to this is: what sort of health system do we want in this country? Do we want a health system that provides for only the rich or a health system that provides for the many? What sort of equity do we want in our health system?

Families and individuals who pay private health insurance premiums are eligible for the 30 per cent private health insurance rebate that was brought in by the previous coalition government. Anyone who pays hospital or general private health insurance premiums for a complying health insurance policy to a registered health fund can get a 30 per cent reduction on the cost of their private health insurance. That policy, as I said, was brought in by the previous coalition government.

We have always said that that policy was one that effectively favoured the wealthy rather than the poor and workers. The truth is that that health policy is typical of the health policies of those opposite. They took $1 billion out of the health system when the Leader of the Opposition was health minister. The first act of the previous coalition government—and this was not just about health—was to immediately hit pensioners with an 18.5 per cent price hike for drugs listed on the PBS. That was in 1996. That was the first thing that they did when they came to power. And all through the time that they were in power they tried their level best to systematically dismantle the Medicare system.

Medicare exists in this country because the private health insurance industry failed. In fact, in those countries where private health insurance dominates, such as the US, they spend on average about 17.4 per cent of their GDP on health costs. In Australia, we spend about nine per cent. It is about nine per cent in the OECD. And those countries with a more socialised public health system are countries where there is greater equity and fairness. Health costs in Australia and in other nations with a generally more socialised approach are less. In countries without that, the private health insurance companies have more power and run the show. Anyone who does not think that the private health insurance companies do not run the show when they are powerful should look at the United States and how difficult it was for the Obama administration to get through more affordable health care. That was fought tooth and nail by the private health insurance industry.

We are not saying that the health and hospital system in this country should not be a mix of government funding, private health insurance, out-of-pocket expenses and third-party payments. But we are trying to reset the balance, because at the moment we have got a situation in which electors in my electorate of Blair in South-East Queensland, who on average earn about $57,000 a year, are effectively subsidising people in Toorak and Vaucluse and giving them a benefit. The $2.4 billion that we will save as a result of this initiative will over the next three years pay for about 13,000 doctors and 26,000 nurses.

This government has a history of implementing great health reforms. Those opposite think that you should defund health; disinvest in it. That is what the Institute of Health and Welfare Found in October 2007 just before the 2007 election. They confirmed recently that this government has increased the proportion of the budget spent on health. We have increased health expenditure in this country to about 9.4 per cent of Australia's GDP. This government has made a massive investment in health. Over the next so many years we will spend about $19.8 billion extra in health. That will fund things from GP superclinics to more doctors, to more nurses, to more cancer clinics. Those are the consequences of this government's commitment to health care as opposed to the lack of commitment by those opposite.

We are making modest changes here. But we are saving the taxpayers about $100 billion over the next 40 years through this initiative. The cost of the private health insurance rebate has blown out from about $2 billion to about $4.7 billion. It is a very big impost on the Australian taxpayers. We want to get back to surplus. We want to reduce the size of government debt. We want to do that because it is the responsible thing to do. As the Treasurer has said many times, you cannot be a Keynesian in just the good times; you have to be a Keynesian in the good times and the bad times, expanding in bad times and contracting in good times.

The trouble is, when it comes to this particular legislation, which will affect or impact only a few hundred people in my electorate, those opposite do not quite get it. What they are arguing is unethical and unfair. They know that. If they came to government and reversed it, they would immediately put a huge burden on the taxpayers. The $70 billion black hole would be added to. In the last few days, we have seen the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow minister for health asked repeatedly on radio and TV—and it has not mattered on which program, whether it is Capital Hill, Sky or Meet the Press—and in the print media to say that if they were in power they would reverse this legislation. They have not answered. On the carbon tax and the mining tax they get all bolshie and almost 'go to the mattresses'. It is almost like The Godfather, the way that they go on: it is sealed in blood that they will change it all. Here, they will not commit. They will not commit because it will add to the black hole that they already have. Remember, they are starting $70 billion below us. They know it is unfair but those opposite come in here, giving speech after speech, quoting their mates, quoting surveys and research done on their behalf. It is so typical of the coalition. They are never on the side of the workers; always the wealthy. They are never for the masses or the many; they are always for those with money. And that is exactly the situation here. Why should people in poorer electorates and workers earning, say, $20,000 or $30,000 a year be subsidising millionaires? Why should they? It is wrong to do so. I think it is simply outrageous.

I do not often quote the Australianin speeches in parliament, but I thought Mike Steketee was brilliant in his analysis of this matter on 11 February in the Australian. He talked about this rebate and he described it as 'one of the most unfair government subsidies ever devised'. I agree with what he has to say. He blows open the lie about it. The argument from those opposite—and I have heard it said many times—is that what they did when they brought in the private health insurance rebate was induce people to go back into private health insurance, to raise the number of people who were covered. But Mike Steketee makes the point that that is not the case. He makes the point very well, and I urge anyone who might be listening to this speech to read his article. He talks about the fact that one of the things that induced people to increase their coverage, or take out coverage in the first place:

… was lifetime health cover, under which people older than 30 pay a penalty for every year they delay joining a health fund.

And the second thing, he said:

… was a large, government funded advertising campaign urging people to "run for cover" to ensure they were protected by private insurance.

He is absolutely correct in that regard. And he put it well:

In other words, it was not the now almost $5bn-a-year rebate that produced the rise in membership, but two other initiatives that cost the government hardly any money.

But those opposite, when it comes to this particular issue, really have failed. They have argued with faulty research, they have used faulty argument s—the facts do not bear out what they have to say. The truth is that what we are seeing here is a government that is committed to making sure that there is greater equity in the system.

It is always curious to me that, when it comes to health or economic issues, those opposite always argue that they are the great economic managers of the Australian public purse. We know, and the Treasury figures make it clear, that under this government the average tax-to-GDP ratio is much lower than it was under those opposite. In fact, the Howard government, proportionately, were the biggest-taxing government in the history of the country. And they did that, of course, without spending on infrastructure, schools and public hospitals. They did not invest. The public know this, because they are seeing schools being rebuilt, they are seeing hospitals being rebuilt, they are seeing roads and ports being built—there has been a doubling of funding in my home state on roads, ports and infrastructure.

When he oversaw the health budget the now Leader of the Opposition chose to spend the money that he got on subsidies rather than on hospitals and primary care. And what we are seeing here today is simply the coalition saying no yet again: 'no' to good public policy, 'no' to good economic management, 'no' to low- and middle-income earners—just as they said 'no' to a rise in superannuation from nine to 12 per cent for all Australians. They are really effectively saying no to health reform, just as they said 'no' to GP superclinics, 'no' to Medicare locals, 'no' to GP after-hours hotlines, 'no' to the NBN. But all we see is a 'yes'—for subsidised health insurance for the wealthy.

They claim the high moral ground on financial matters, but on this particular policy I think they stand condemned. They really have failed. There is no justification for their position. They know that very well. I do not understand why people in electorates like Wide Bay, Maranoa and Wright in Queensland, which are not wealthy areas, are represented by Liberal-National Party members who really should know better. We know how important it is to say yes to good public policy, good health policy and good economic management. But they are saying no to good health policy and good economic management. By saying no to a fairer private health insurance system they are effectively giving rebates to the rich. I do not understand why people of Somerset or Ipswich who are in those positions should be doing so.

Is it fair that a family earning $65,000 living in Bundamba, in my electorate, who cannot afford private health insurance, should be paying to subsidise millionaires? I do not get that. In all good conscience, they cannot hold to their position. They cannot hold with integrity, good character and truthfulness to their position. I do not understand why they do. Means-testing the private health insurance rebate is a system that brings fairness and equity. Means-testing is the only conscionable way—the carrot-and-stick approach does work. People earning $83,000 or less, or families earning $166,000 or less, effectively will not be affected.

So I support this legislation. I think it is fair. I think it shows, once again, that the only 'liberal' thing about the Liberal Party is the liberality with which they pay money to the moneyed in this country. I support the legislation.