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Monday, 13 February 2012
Page: 823


Mr BRIGGS ( Mayo ) ( 12:43 ): I rise to speak on the Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives Bill 2011 and associated bill, which are before the parliament for the third time. It really is another example of a government that has failed to be honest with the Australian people about its intentions prior to an election—because, again, it told the electorate something very different to what these bills seek to do prior to the 2007 election, in the clearest of terms. The former Prime Minister and soon to be again Prime Minister, the then Leader of the Opposition, the member for Griffith, wrote to the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Health Insurance Association on 20 November 2007, just prior to that election, and made it very clear, for those seeking clarification on federal Labor's policy regarding private health insurance:

Both my Shadow Minister for Health, Nicola Roxon, and I have made clear on many occasions this year that Federal Labor is committed to retaining the existing private health insurance rebates, including the 30 per cent general rebate and the 35 and 40 per cent rebates for older Australians.

He went on:

Federal Labor will also maintain Lifetime Health Cover and the Medicare Levy Surcharge.

Labor will maintain the existing framework for regulating private health insurance, including the process for approval of premium increases. Zero per cent premium adjustment is not Labor policy.

They made very clear to the Australian electorate before the 2007 election that this policy would be kept in place. In addition, on 26 September 2007, the then shadow minister for health and now Attorney-General put out a media release that said:

Federal Labor rejects the Liberal scare campaign around the Private Health Insurance rebates.

The Liberal Party scare campaign this morning reared its head in South Australia.

On many occasions for many months, Federal Labor has made it crystal clear that we are committed to retaining all of the existing Private Health Insurance rebates …

So their intention prior to the 2007 election was very clear: they would not change this. Yet this is the third time we have seen this bill before the House. It is of the ilk of the there-will-be-no-carbon-tax-under-a-government-I-lead promise and is consistent with the way that the federal Labor Party refuses to take seriously its commitments to the Australian people. Prior to an election Labor says one thing to get elected and then does the very opposite afterwards. We have seen it with issue after issue. Labor refuses to be honest and upfront about how it intends to govern after an election. Instead, it says what it feels that it needs to say to people before an election.

There are very good reasons why this means-testing will have a genuine effect on the private health insurance system and, therefore, on the public health system. We heard the previous speaker make the point that anyone earning over $80,000 is now rich. They could not possibly be someone that the Labor Party would be interested in, because they are rich and can sustain themselves, so there is no need to help with policy for those people. The Labor Party campaigns against the rich—we hear it every day in here. It campaigns against aspiration and it campaigns against people who try to make the most of their own ability. Now it is trying to make it harder for people who earn over $80,000.

We in this place all know that families in Australia who have an income of $160,000 are not rich. Particularly in our big cities, like Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and even in Adelaide, the cost of living for those families is quite high. So things like private health insurance become very real choices for those families. That will be a real outcome of this bill if it is successful, and that is why we oppose it. If you take away this assistance, people will look at the discretionary spending they have—private health insurance fits into that area, particularly for those people who can afford it. They will look at their budgets as things get tougher from the impacts of things such as the carbon tax and, sadly, job losses throughout our country. They will start to look at their budgets and decide whether they should keep things like private health insurance.

Some of us know that the make-up of the insurance pool is very important in setting the price of premiums. If you take away the people who pay substantially for it and do not use it very much, you will impact enormously on the costs. If those people do not have an incentive to continue with their private health insurance it will lead to increasing pressure on the public health system. We often hear from the Labor Party the line that apprentices should not be paying for rich people's private health insurance subsidies. What the Labor Party fails to mention when it says this, or when it uses this example, is that apprentices will find it even harder to get health care if you take away the incentive for people to be in the private health insurance scheme in the first place. We want people who can afford to use the private health system to do so, because it takes pressure off the public health system. We want the apprentices to be able to access those services. They are the people the public health system is there to help. It is a safety net to ensure that people throughout Australia are well cared for.

If you make it harder on a government's budgets—and we know that with an ageing population we have a demographic challenge; we have a structural deficit coming at us—it will get harder and harder for those services to be delivered. So the example that is used, the class warfare example that we hear day in and day out from the Labor Party, actually backfires on the very people Labor claims it represents. It backfires the most on people such as the apprentices. If private health insurance is a discretionary payment, if someone can decide not to have it because they do not need it and so take their money out of the insurance pool, it will impact on the price significantly. It makes it harder for those older people in our society who scrimp and save to pay their private health insurance; it makes it very difficult for those people to continue with it. It puts more pressure on the public health system and it has a major impact on the ability of governments to deliver the universal service that we in Australia are used to and expect for the apprentice who is often cited in this chamber.

When we hear these arguments, we must look beyond the spin of the Labor Party. Putting aside the broken promise, the impact of another broken promise on the trust that people have in this government, people do not trust what the government says. They cannot trust that the government will deliver what it has said before an election that it will. Whether it be on the carbon tax or on this issue, the government cannot be honest with the Australian people about its intentions. We know that it cannot manage a budget. That is why we are in this position and why we are debating this bill again. Having been in the fiscal position of being $20 billion in surplus some five budgets ago, we are now some $300 billion in debt. We have a net debt approaching $140 billion, if the government does not spend any more money in the coming months, under this budget. We know that the Labor Party does not know how to manage its budget properly. We had the hilarious situation just two weeks ago when the Prime Minister delivered a speech about fiscal responsibility, about making the hard decisions, and then announced another uncosted spending promise. The Labor Party cannot make the right decisions to manage our budget, and it impacts on issues like this. This is a cost-saving measure that the government is moving. It will have a genuine impact on people in my electorate because it will increase the cost of private health insurance for people. It will mean fewer people take up private health insurance. We have seen the statistics that have been released. That will have an impact on services, particularly in a state like South Australia and a regional area of South Australia where the state government is defunding hospitals like the Keith hospital, which is losing money. The priorities for the modern Labor Party seem to be sports stadiums and not health services. This decision will make it harder for people in my electorate and harder for people in regional South Australia, who are already coping with fewer health services because of the way this is managed.

We know that every dollar funded by private health insurance saves two dollars of costs in the public system. Private hospitals treat 40 per cent of all patients in Australia. In 2009-10 they treated 3.5 million people who had chosen to have private health insurance, taking that pressure off the public system. They perform the vast bulk of the elective surgery. We hear often about waiting lists for the public elective surgery system, and this funded private health insurance system assists in taking that pressure off. So that is another impact we will see through this bill if it is successful in this parliament. As the Leader of the Opposition said, we will fight this bill because it is an important policy matter to ensure that we have a sustainable funded health system to look after those people who are often quoted by those on the other side.

The impact of this bill is that 2.4 million will be directly affected by these changes and face immediate increases in their premiums—14, 29 and 43 per cent, depending on their income tiers. A 2012 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 taxpayers' money, and of course using taxpayers' money involves choices about what the role of government is. This is an important role because this is about taking pressure off the public system. This will impact enormously on the ability of the private health system to cope with the changes with people's choices about whether they keep cover or not.

It is, as a starter, another breach of trust. A direct letter which could not be any clearer from the member for Griffith, the now Foreign Minister, when he was leader of the Labor Party said they would not do this. Yet this is the third time the Labor Party have sought to breach that promise in this parliament. It is the third time they have sought to bring additional costs on already struggling families in our country, those they describe as rich, those families which we say are the people who are the backbone of our society. They try to put more pressure on those people by this decision, a decision based largely on their class warfare approach to politics and their inability to manage the budget. It is a bad decision; it is a bad bill. It should not be supported. It will impact on our future opportunities and will impact worst of all on those whom these people claim that they represent.