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Thursday, 9 February 2012
Page: 569

Mr ROBERT (Fadden) (11:29): I rise for the third time to speak on this bill and to condemn it in the strongest possible language. This is a bill that is seeking to means test, ostensibly to put out of reach of many families, the rebate relating to private health insurance.

The reason I condemn this bill absolutely is that it is a complete and utter breach of promise and breach of faith. Prior to the 2007 election, when the current government came to power, the then shadow health minister, now Attorney-General, Minister Roxon, on 26 September 2007 said:

Federal Labor has made it crystal clear that we are committed to retaining all the existing Private Health Insurance rebates ...

In fact, I think there were four times—three by Minister Roxon, once by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd—where the federal Labor made it abundantly clear, a promise: 'Federal Labor has made it crystal clear' were the words the minister used—'crystal clear', written in blood, so to speak: they were committed to retaining all the existing private health insurance rebates. And here we are, for the third time in four years, because this government, in an absolute and utter, complete—but not unprecedented—breach of faith and complete break of a promise, has now decided that 'crystal clear' actually means 'muddy and opaque'.

It is no wonder that they are breaking another promise to the Australian people. It was a mere six days before an election when the Prime Minister, to win the election, said that 'there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead'. Treasurer Swan, at a subsequent interview, made it perfectly clear that this 'overblown rhetoric of the Liberal Party' that somehow Labor would introduce a carbon tax was completely false, and a few weeks later, in a move of utter duplicity, that was rolled back.

So it is not unprecedented that such a promise would be broken. But how can the federal health minister walk into this chamber, the House of Representatives of the nation, where 150 men and women gather from all four corners of our land, after she has made a comment that 'Federal Labor has made it crystal clear that we are committed to retaining all the existing Private Health Insurance rebates'. What she meant to say was, 'We are going to make it crystal clear we have absolutely and utterly no commitment to our promises; we will not retain any of the key elements and articles of faith that we say. When they say 'all the existing' they mean 'partial', 'some' or perhaps even 'none', and 'We have absolutely no concern for the private health insurance of ordinary Australians'.

These cuts underline the completely and utterly botched attempts at health reform. We all remember Prime Minister Rudd putting out that wonderful colour brochure before the 2007 election, with a picture of the Prime Minister saying, 'The buck stops with me on health! I'll fix health. If this is not fixed within 18 months I'll go for a referendum on taking over full control of health'. Another broken promise from the government. Where is the referendum? Where is the 'I'll fix health'? Has the buck left the building? Who is taking responsibility?

This was followed up, of course, with the great commitment on sorting out health, taking 30 per cent of the GST from the states, putting in three new bureaucracies—where has all that gone? This government's attempt at health reform has been botched, has been bungled and has been duplicitous from the very beginning. This government never had any intention of fulfilling any of their promises in health. I have listened to the debate this morning and all I have heard are Labor members of parliament rattle off a whole range of ancillary decisions that have been made in health, somehow to pretend that they are committed to having a sound vision and a long-term plan for where they are going when, in reality, this is simply the politics of division, of some farcical class warfare that we have to take away the private health insurance rebate and nationalise and socialise health in terms of one size fits all.

But be under no doubt: these changes, apart from being duplicitous in the extreme, will force people to drop private health insurance cover or to choose cheaper cover. They will put enormous upwards pressure on insurance premiums and will force more people into overstretched public hospital systems, systems like those in the Gold Coast Hospital, from where I come, where 46 per cent of people who go into Emergency hit access block, right now—that is a statement of fact. That means they will spend eight hours waiting, or on a trolley, before going into a hospital bed. And it is this system, broken by Labor state administrations, that this government wants to force more Australians onto. And for what sound reason, may I ask? Because somehow, those people who have taken out private health insurance are, what, wealthy beyond measure? Are they not deserving of any assistance in any way, shape or form? You want to force decent, hardworking Australians who take out private health insurance, in many ways because they have little faith in the current administrations Labor have presided over and pushed them onto a hospital system at a state level that is struggling. It is a blatant cost-shifting measure from the Commonwealth to the states' public systems.

This measure will not just be felt by those on supposedly higher incomes. It will not just be felt by those who incur an up-to 43 per cent increase in their premiums. It will be felt by everyone who will incur those cost increases. It will be felt by all Australians with private health insurance, who face higher premiums into the future.

We believe everyone should have access to affordable healthcare. We believe everyone should have access to choice in healthcare. We are strongly support providing all Australians with that choice through affordable private health insurance if they wish to take it out. As a result of the introduction of the private health insurance rebate under the previous coalition government, the Medicare levy surcharge and lifetime health cover, private health insurance coverage increased from 34 per cent in 1996 to 44 per cent in 2007—a 33 per cent increase, a staggering increase in Australians who elected for choice. Every dollar of funding provided for the private health insurance rebate saves $2 of costs that are then paid by private health insurers—so says Econtech Pty Ltd, Harper Associates and Hagan. Private hospitals right now treat 40 per cent of all patients in Australia—40 per cent. In 2009-10 private hospitals treated 3.5 million patients. Private hospitals performed the majority of elective surgery in Australia—64 per cent—and 10.2 million people, or about 45 per cent, have private health insurance. It is interesting when you look at how private health insurance works. In preparation for this debate, I had discussions with the CEO of the Sisters of Charity hospital in Brisbane and the CEO of the UnitingCare hospital system. It is interesting that, for every seven clinicians—doctors or nurses—they have, there are three nonclinicians, administrative staff. And then we have Queensland Health, for 18 years presided over by the Labor government. Queensland Health has 64,000 employees. Why? Because in the enterprise bargain with the union the first line says, 'You cannot reduce below 64,000.' The union is not interested in reform or productivity; it is interested in union jobs. For every three clinicians, there are seven nonclinicians.

So private hospitals and private health are doing the bulk of elective surgery and treating 40 per cent of all patients. In the private hospitals that I have spoken to in Queensland, there are seven clinicians for three nonclinicians. In the public system, there are three clinicians for every seven nonclinicians. It does not take a rocket scientist to work out what the problem is in our public health system presided over by Labor administrations. The waste is beyond measure. And this government wants to force more and more people into that untenable, poorly managed system.

The impact will be significant. Two and half million people will be directly impacted by these changes and will face immediate increases in premiums of 14 per cent, 29 per cent and 43 per cent in the respective income tiers. So 2.4 million people will be impacted. It is not as if the cost-of-living increases are not already striking Australian families. Electricity prices, since this government came to power, have increased by 51 per cent, gas prices by over 20 per cent, food prices by over 20 per cent and rents by the same types of quantums. Wherever this government has gone, so too has the cost of living. Now this government wants to do it to 2.4 million Australians and put enormous pressure on the existing public hospital system because, in its class struggle view, these Australians are wealthy and do not deserve assistance from the Commonwealth.

The government owned insurer, Medibank Private—the government's own insurer—has predicted that 37,000 of its members alone will drop their cover and 92½ thousand will downgrade. This is considerably more than the 27,000 the minister has claimed, so I am not too sure where the minister is getting her advice from—perhaps from her press secretary; we know how well Labor press secretaries are doing of late! Deloitte analysis of the changes showed that in the first year 175,000 people are expected to withdraw from private hospital cover and a further 583,000 to downgrade. Over five years, it is expected that 1.6 million will drop cover and 4.3 million will downgrade. The government has not disclosed the numbers of people expected to downgrade but, as premiums increase significantly for those in the income tiers, it is reasonable to expect they will seek cheaper products, which will have a whole range of second-round effects on public hospitals.

Deloitte continues to predict that private health insurance premiums will rise 10 per cent above what they would otherwise be, in the initial phases. There will be $3.8 billion in additional recurrent costs for the public sector. Where will the public sector get that from? Look at Queensland, my home state. The Labor government have been there for over 18 years. The credit rating of the government has been downgraded. Why? Because their public debt on their balance sheet is now $40 billion, with a further $43 billion on the balance sheets of the government owned entities. In the last 18 years the Labor government have gone from a zero debt position to $87 billion in net debt at a state government level, a level of debt that is almost unable to be paid back when you look at the structure of the government's fiscal position. Indeed, Defence, including Veterans' Affairs, spends as much money in terms of budget allocation as the government in Queensland do—to give you an idea of where they are going.

Then again, we should not wonder at that, considering the fiscal position four years ago of the Commonwealth. Public net debt was zero, with $60 billion in the Future Fund and $40 billion either in the bank or in the surplus. Now, in a staggering turnaround, we are at $133-odd billion in net debt—a staggering turnaround in public finances.

These changes will have a huge impact across the nation. But, more importantly, the changes are symptomatic of the Labor government's view of where things are going. This is just one more in the tragic litany of broken promises. I remind all Australians of what this government said prior to the 2007 election, what it said publicly, what it put in writing in its media releases and what the Prime Minister to be and the health minister to be said. They could not have been clearer, just as the Prime Minister could not have been clearer when she said, 'There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead,' and three weeks later she broke that promise. Prior to that election, the Prime Minister to be and the Minister for Health and Ageing to be said, 'Federal Labor have made it crystal clear that we are committed to retaining all the existing private health insurance rebates.' They had no intention of keeping that promise. They had no intention of keeping it at all—

Mr Mitchell interjecting

Mr ROBERT: and every government member on that side of the House who sits there like the lobotomised member for McEwen and argues against it simply agrees with the government on that on that point—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr S Georganas ): Order! The—

Mr ROBERT: I withdraw, Mr Deputy Speaker. The government knew it then; it knows it now. At some stage the duplicity has to stop. At some stage this government has to actually start keeping its word. Wouldn't that be a novel approach for the government to have. The coalition will vote against this en masse and will strenuously reject it here and in the Senate.

Debate adjourned.