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Tuesday, 14 February 2012
Page: 1212

Mr ROBB (Goldstein) (21:25): I rise tonight to speak on the Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives Bill 2011 and related bills. These bills are clearly a reflection of the creeping class warfare nonsense that we are increasingly hearing from this government. We are starting to hear it from the Prime Minister, the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Bill Shorten, and others who are sowing the seeds of division in this community. This is another classic example of a means by which they are seeking political advantage.

We are harking back decades. The BLF influence in the CFMEU is starting to manifest itself in a grubby and ugly fashion. It is true, this is a problem. The culture is changing. Why would they play the politics of envy? Why would the Prime Minister, and other senior ministers, come in here day after day and, in a grubby and irresponsible way, start to build resentment against people who are making money, who are employing others and who are already carrying much of the cost of taxation within this community? This is a further sign of the collapse of this government's moral fibre. In a rush for a cash grab by what is one of the most profligate governments in our history—in fact, it is the most profligate government in our history—we are seeing that they are prepared to pit Australian against Australian, and to do it in a most disingenuous way. Even the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, Senator Wong, responded last week:

We don’t think as a government it is fair for low-income Australians to be subsidising the health insurance of millionaires.

This goes straight onto the theme of building resentment—the politics of envy—in an attempt to pit Australian against Australian by totally misrepresenting the impact of this bill. They are prepared not only to take away this highly effective measure just to acquire moneys to meet the four record deficits of this government, and try to pay some contribution to that, but also to misrepresent the effect of this.

Of course, it will be low-income people who will pay for much of this measure that we are debating here tonight. Low-income people will form part of the smaller pool of those who are insured, and as a consequence we will see that they will be paying higher and higher premiums. Low-income people who cannot afford insurance will now find themselves lining up for longer and longer, with increases of months and months in the availability of healthcare services, as people flock to the public health system and away from the private health system. This government is so far out of touch with everyday Australians it is breathtaking. They are prepared to offend, to pit Australian against Australian, to pitch the politics of envy and to get down in the gutter in this way simply for their political advantage. These bills have been rejected by the parliament twice, but this government just does not get it. It has no respect for the view of the parliament. It is just another broken promise, after Labor solemnly vowed not to attack the 30 per cent rebate. But after what we saw on 7.30 tonight, it is little wonder. We are getting used to a government whose word cannot be trusted. No wonder there is a crisis of confidence, and this bill will add to that crisis of confidence, which is starting to permeate every household and business in the country. This government has lost direction. This is another classic example of this government's failure on so many fronts. This government is willing to do things that are not rational or sensible on any basis so that it can exploit the politics of envy and resentment, which is what it is doing with this debate.

This attack on private health crystallises the clear philosophical difference between the coalition and Labor. It is the difference between backing personal choice and personal responsibility and more of the insulting nanny state, government-knows-best approach that is so typical of Labor.

There are many millions of people on very low incomes who make enormous sacrifices to take out private health insurance. They are very proud of the fact that they are taking personal responsibility for some of their health care, and they also feel they have some control. If in the next decade or two they find themselves with a medical problem, they feel that taking out private health insurance is a sensible thing for them to do. It gives them some control. They are not reliant on whether or not there is an understaffed public hospital emergency ward that can meet their needs. They do not have the fear that when they come to need vital services those services will not be there, or they will be there 12 hours later after they have sat in an emergency waiting room for some overworked doctor to make an assessment and do something with them. It gives them peace of mind. It gives them a sense of personal responsibility. It gives them control over one very important element of their lives: their health, and how it can be managed.

The government is oblivious to the sentiments and sense of self-worth of so many people who make huge sacrifices, who have not really got the money but are prepared to do it. It is at the heart of the philosophical difference. We have seen it writ large in so many things with this government.

These changes will force everyday Australians to drop private health or go onto cheaper policies with more exclusions. There is no doubt about it. Already people are becoming anxious about the impact it is going to have. My electorate of Goldstein has amongst the highest number of people in private health insurance in the country—74.5 per cent of voters in my electorate are in private health, with more than 106,000 covered, including more than 24,000 families. This will push up premiums for those remaining in private cover, including retirees and families with children battling to make ends meet.

The public response in my electorate to this proposal has been white hot, and so it should be. The anger is palpable, with the rhetoric of the likes of Senator Wong, the Prime Minister, the Treasurer, the Minister for Health and the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations spreading the evil of the politics of envy and resentment to people who might have a bit more money. These are people who are working overtime and whose partners are working so that they can have things like private health insurance. These are the people who are concerned that they will be affected. It is coming from families who have mortgages, car loans and kids at school and are earning a combined $160,000—if you listen to the government, of course they are the filthy rich! Two teachers earning $75,000 each are the filthy rich in this country! It is coming from singles who are earning $80,000 to $93,000. These people are not the rich. These are everyday Australians. It is coming from couples on low incomes, including pensioners and self-funded retirees, who see themselves paying higher premiums because of a smaller pool of insured people or people taking out cover with fewer features than they currently have. It is coming from people who have no private health cover and see themselves as being disadvantaged because of overstacked public hospitals as people move away from private hospitals.

I would like to share with you part of an email from a constituent of mine who has clearly had enough of this government's attacks on working families—the forgotten families. It reads:

Dear Andrew,

We are very rarely moved to contact our local representatives, but the news that the government appears to now have the numbers to pass legislation to means test the private health insurance rebate has sufficiently infuriated us to do so. If and when this motley collection of spendthrift amateurs and union criminals enacts the legislation, through the complicity of the intellectually vacant hillbilly Independents, our family of five will be forced to find something in the region of a further $1,600 annually.

The alternative is to lower our insurance cover to a level where we and our children are not adequately protected in case of illness or injury, or to pay extra income tax. Some choice. As usual, under this atrocious government those who work the hardest and the longest end up penalised instead of rewarded. We trust that the next election restores some sanity, responsibility and decency to government, and we seek a commitment from the coalition that once in government it will abolish any means test on the private health insurance rebate.

If you are single and earning more than $124,000, the rebate is gone. If you are a couple earning $160,000 the rebate is slashed. Those forced out of private health will be hit with a higher Medicare levy, rising from one per cent to 1.25 per cent or to 1.5 per cent depending on the tier. All this government knows is taxing, borrowing and spending. This is another example. This is a cash grab simply to meet the borrowing and spending habits that this government has got into. There will be 2.4 million people directly affected by these changes and face immediate increases in premiums of 14 per cent, 29 per cent and 43 per cent in the respective income tiers.

Deloitte analysis of the changes shows that, in the first year, 175,000 people would be expected to withdraw from private hospital cover and a further 583,000 to downgrade. Over five years, it is expected that 1.6 million people will drop cover and 4.3 million will downgrade. Typically, this government will not disclose the numbers of people expected to downgrade, but, as premiums increase significantly for those in the income tiers, logically many will seek cheaper alternatives.

Most perversely, these changes will add new pressure to our stretched public health system. The private health system plays a critical role in easing pressure on overcrowded public hospitals. Private hospitals treat 40 per cent of all patients in Australia. In 2009-10, private hospitals treated 3.5 million patients. Private hospitals perform the majority of elective surgery in Australia, 64 per cent. Twelve million Australians, or nearly 53 per cent, have private health insurance. There are 10.3 million people, or 46 per cent, who have hospital treatment cover. Under the Howard government, we saw support for private health go from 34 per cent to 44 per cent. Sixty-four per cent of the population believe the rebates represent a good use of taxpayers' money.

The changes will present an enormous compliance burden on industry and on individuals completing their tax returns. Deloitte predict that private health insurance premiums will rise by 10 per cent above what they would otherwise be. There will be $3.8 billion in additional recurrent costs for the public hospital system. Where is the money for that? The government has no idea—just shove that off to the states. This is a government that has lost all control of finances. You can never trust Labor with money. This legislation is an abomination.

The change will also have an impact on access to allied health services, with 2.8 million people with general treatment cover expected to withdraw and 5.7 million to downgrade over five years. This legislation is the price that everyday Australians are paying for this government's profligacy, its record levels of debt, deficit and waste. It makes a mockery of the government's claims to be concerned about cost of living. It is doing this and then it is going to add a carbon tax on top, which will increase the costs for pensioners heating and cooling their houses and increase the costs for families of their power bills and everything else. At the same time, the government is potentially increasing the cost of private health cover for an average family by anything up to $1,600 a year. Imagine how these families are going to feel when that increased $800 bill comes half-yearly. What is the compensation for the carbon tax? It pales into insignificance and only meets the costs of some people. I urge Australians who are adversely affected by these changes to mobilise, to bombard the Minister for the Health and the Prime Minister and tell them that they are not going to accept this sort of change. (Time expired)