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Wednesday, 12 February 2014
Page: 174

Mr GRAY (Brand) (11:01): I congratulate the minister opposite on his portfolio and his elevation to the status of health minister. I wish him well. This is the first opportunity I have had to do that since the election and the first time since the election that I have been in the chamber making remarks on a piece of legislation.

Last week marked the 30th anniversary of Medicare. The nature of Medicare in the context of global healthcare systems is quite unique. It is unique in that it embraces a healthcare system which is a cocktail of both private and public. It is unique in that it is strongly supported by our community and has, over the 30 years since its introduction, been supported on the basis of a bipartisan approach in this parliament. From the election of the Howard government in 1996, where it was made very clear by Howard that there would be no attempt to remove or reduce Medicare, we have seen the system of health insurance through Medicare and through private health insurance only get stronger and provide for the people of Australia the best possible healthcare insurance systems. It is something of which we should be proud. We should stand back and take note of how our public systems and our private systems work effectively to the benefit of all Australians. It works seamlessly with our public hospital systems; it works seamlessly at the local practitioner level.

The Labor Party believes and always has believed that private health insurance plays not simply an important role but an extremely important role in the provision of healthcare support, certainty and peace of mind for members of our community. Personally, as a husband and as a father, I have always carried an optimum level of private health insurance. That is an attitude that was drilled into me by my father and by my mother. It is something that continues to cover my children and something that I will continue to do. I think it both prudent and good value for money. I also think Medicare is a system that is outstanding public administration. It is outstanding public policy and it in turn delivers an outstanding benefit to all Australians at a relatively small and highly efficient cost. It is a system of which we need to be proud.

We in the Labor Party believe in complementing our healthcare system of Medicare with private health insurance. We believe that the government has a responsibility to ensure that the health insurance industry remains sustainable, that insurance premiums are affordable and that the providers provide policies that are good value. The former Labor government supported the sustainability of the health insurance rebate by introducing the means-testing of the rebate and then by capping the rebate through the enactment of the Private Health Insurance Legislation Amendment Bill 2013. It is a further amendment to that reform that we are here to address today.

Despite the coalition's claim that Labor's reform would discourage uptake of private health insurance, there has in fact been a substantial growth in membership in recent years and, as a consequence, an increase in rebate expenditure. The most recent data available from the Private Health Insurance Administration Council tells us that 47 per cent of Australians have hospital cover and that 55 per cent have general cover. This means that private health insurance uptake at the end of the term of the former Labor government was the highest rate of insurance that we have ever seen in our country. That is a good thing.

As a local member of parliament I was subject, during the previous two terms of the former Labor government, to continued lobbying from the private health insurance industry. We received box upon box of forms generated by the industry to provide me as a member of parliament with views of my constituents. When I checked those forms with the electoral roll—when my office rang the people whose names had been recorded on those forms as a form of petition—we found that an alarmingly high proportion of the names on those forms did not match the informed views of the people who had filled in the forms. On too many occasions we found absolutely no knowledge at all that a person's name had been used on those forms.

I made the point privately with health insurers in Western Australia that I did not take their campaign seriously for that reason. I made the point that, although it appeared that box upon box of such petitions had been delivered—and on many occasions there were photographs in the local paper and in the West Australian of many of these boxes—they simply did not match a reality.

Here is the conundrum that I face: I strongly believe in the integrity of our private health insurance system. I strongly believe that the effective partnership that we have between public and private that works in the interests of all Australians and works in the interests of our healthcare system has to be taken seriously by all the players in it.

I was genuinely surprised when I looked at those forms, which had been provided by a private health insurer in Western Australia as an indicator to me of the sentiment of electors in my electorate of Brand that there was no way that a serious and objective view of those forms, cards and names could be taken by me as a member of parliament. It was in effect an abuse of people who did not know that their names and addresses were being used in such a way by a private health insurer—enough said about that; not enough said about the need to respond appropriately to this legislation.

Labor ensured that more money was made available to invest in our public healthcare system, which rightly remains not just a Labor priority but a priority, I believe, for all parliamentarians: money well spent supporting the health care of all Australians. Labor's health spokesperson, Catherine King, has already explained that the coalition's current amendment does not change the amount of money the government will save on the private health insurance rebate, nor does it alter the objective of Labor's intended measure; it just changes the way private health insurers make the calculations to apply.

We accept that these new amendments will streamline calculations and we support their implementation; however, the intent of Labor's proposed implementation model was to create greater competition and transparency for consumers. It remains incumbent upon the government to demonstrate how this bill will increase competition and transparency. We in this parliament know and understand both the allocative power of a market and that markets cannot work without proper information and transparency, and that is why an efficiently operating market and the transparency measures to which I referred are critically important.

In 1984 when former Prime Minister Bob Hawke reintroduced universal health care after the Whitlam government's Medibank scheme was repealed in large part by the subsequent Fraser government, there was a moment of great pride in our parliament. The work that Neal Blewett and the highly professional staff in the Commonwealth Public Service did to create Medicare in 1984 was simply second to none. It was a symbol of the egalitarian nature of our nation. It was a symbol of the public administration's capability to deliver a universal healthcare system that was fair, effective and addressed the needs of the by then many millions of uninsured Australians—a story very familiar to those who have watched North American politics in recent years.

Uninsured families were exposed to crippling costs and a healthcare future that was simply not the future that we aspire to in this place for our nation. Medicare put in place not simply a safety net but the best possible framework for supporting the population in its primary healthcare needs and making that system work effectively between GPs and our hospital system.

Medicare only became stronger and better. The Health Insurance Commission's capability of delivering health insurance through Medicare marks itself as a global leader in public administration. It marks the capability of our Australian Public Service and it marks some of the greatest aspirations of our parliament and of successive governments to ensure effective spending of taxpayer dollars, of ensuring that a dollar spent on health care through Medicare is spent in the most effective way for our families.

Last week I attended my local Medicare office in Rockingham to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Medicare. We cut a cake. The clients and the staff in the Medicare office shared in the enjoyment and the entire office engaged in that. We discovered that two of the current employees in the Rockingham Medicare office had been working for Medicare for 30 years, for all of its life.

They reported proudly that Medicare was not just a good employer and that their work in the Rockingham office was not simply something that they enjoyed; it was something in which they took great pride, because they could see an organic link between good work as a public servant in that office and the direct impact on the health care of the community in which they lived and in which their children grew up.

In that office there were two young children, each too young even to go to school, attending at Medicare on one occasion with mum and on another occasion with mum and dad. How wonderful it was to note that both mum and dad, in both cases, were themselves younger than Medicare itself. It shows the virtuous circle that has been created in healthcare delivery by a strong public system through Medicare and a strong private system through private health insurance. It shows the need that we all have to ensure this system continues. It shows the requirement on our government and on our parliament to ensure that at the most basic level our health insurance remains affordable and that Medicare remains the best possible delivery system that we have in this nation for a universal healthcare system, and it shows that we in this place need to be constantly vigilant to ensure that the way in which these systems work is as good as it can possibly be and lives up to the highest expectations and aspirations not just of government but also of those Australians who need the best healthcare system.

We all need the best healthcare system from time to time, and we in this place have a responsibility to make sure that our healthcare system is as good as it can be. I took great pride in being with my Medicare workers last week and I take great pride in Medicare. I make this statement: I will continue to support a healthcare system that supports Australians—and so should this parliament.