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Wednesday, 31 August 1994
Page: 705

Senator CHRIS EVANS (4.30 p.m.) —It is with quite some trepidation that I rise as a member of the Left grouping within the government. It seems that I have the blame for and shoulder the whole responsibility for our health policy. Senator Patterson will be interested in my comments because I do not actually intend to reflect the stereotype she tried to apply to me.

  Before I start, I would like to respond to something Senator Patterson said yesterday—that was the first time I had heard of it—and that was that Senator Herron had gone to Rwanda voluntarily to use his medical skills in aiding that country's refugees. I would like to put on the record how pleased I was to hear that he has done that and how proud I am of his doing so. I think it says a great deal about the man. I do not know him very well, but I think it is to his great credit.

   Having said that, I think it really is with some gall that the Liberals have attempted to lecture the government on health policy. I was incredulous when I saw the topic for discussion today: the opposition alleges that the government has failed to understand health funding in Australia and has failed to devise the correct policy response. I cannot remember how many health responses the coalition has had in the last 10 or so years nor how many health spokespersons it has had. Some of them, I understand, are selling Amway these days; others have retired to the Senate. Quite frankly, if we want to talk about successful health policy, the Liberal Party is the last group of people in Australian society to lecture anybody. Its members are bound up in their own ideological position and in representing vested interests.

  The Labor Party is pragmatic in its policy responses to health issues. Sure, we have a philosophical commitment to universal health care through Medicare, but we are attempting to change the system by responding to practical difficulties. We have been able to do that while maintaining strong public support for our health policies, and we have had international recognition of our health system as being one of the best in the world. For the Liberal Party to continually come in here and talk up crises is really a reflection on its own inability to get rid of its ideological baggage and get down and deal—

Senator Patterson —Richo was wrong, was he?

Senator CHRIS EVANS —No, Senator Richardson was not wrong; I hope to get time to come to that. What I would like to do today is, firstly, welcome the changes announced today by Dr Carmen Lawrence, the Minister for Human Services and Health. I think they are a very sensible, pragmatic response to some of the difficulties that exist within the health system.

  I have only had a short time to read the document outlining those changes. I think the initiative proposing a single bill for a hospital stay will be welcomed by every Australian. I, like all other senators, have had a lot of people in my electorate office complaining about the large number of bills they receive after hospital treatment, often long after they have been discharged from hospital. I think the cost consent process is a good thing as well because it will allow people to have a better idea of what the costs of their operation will be, enabling them to plan. Removing regulations that restrict efficiency and competition within the private insurance industry is a long overdue reform. I believe that we have to get a better performance out of our private insurance system.

  We are committed to a mix of public and private health in this country. As a member of the Left, I am committed to it—

Senator Patterson —You will never convince me of that.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —That is interesting. But this approach is about maintaining that mix, addressing some of the problems that exist, but strengthening the system that has served Australia well for more than 10 years and which the Australian people have, on four or five occasions, endorsed. As a former party official, I can inform honourable senators opposite that their policies on health have done them a great deal of harm at the last four or five elections. Until they get rid of their ideological baggage, it will continue to hurt them.

  One of the problems within the health system that Dr Lawrence has tried to address is the declining membership of private health insurance funds. I think the reforms she has announced today will go some way towards reducing that decline in membership.

Senator Kemp —Richo tried to address the health problems and you dumped on him.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Richo is right. Richo did try to address the problems. I did not dump on him at all. I supported him—and I support Carmen Lawrence because this is a continuation of the same policy approach. We have chosen to try to bring some competition to the private health insurance system to free it up so that it starts to deliver the sorts of products that people want. We do not support tax concessions or subsidising private insurance by fringe benefit tax exemptions or other like approaches but we are trying to provide a competitive market.

  The Liberal Party is opposed to the competition we are trying to introduce today. Senators opposite will be surprised to know that I, like many senators on this side, while maintaining a commitment to Medicare, seriously looked at the question of taking out private insurance for myself.

Senator Patterson —Oh no!

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Yes. I have a young family and an ageing body, and I thought I had better have a look at the prospect of private insurance. But I did not take it out because it did not meet my needs; what was offered was not suitable. It was not going to meet my needs and the costs were too high. I made the same decision that thousands of other Australians are making. They are saying, `It's too expensive and it doesn't meet my needs.' That is the market at work, and the Liberal Party it appears does not like seeing the market at work.

  We say that we support the mix and, because of that, we are keen to make some changes which allow private insurance to develop to make sure it meets the demands of the market, that it offers Australian people what they want. I know that the AMA has some concerns. I heard the speech of Senator Woods; it was very much reflective of the AMA's research paper which I received the other day. They are concerned about rules of fair play, et cetera, and I think that is fair enough. I think the announcements made by Dr Lawrence today meet those concerns. But the concerns that Senator Woods and the AMA express seem to be for private hospitals and not for patients. This policy is about improving the deal for patients.

  In conclusion, as I say, it is ludicrous and with the utmost gall that the Liberals seek to lecture the Labor Party about health policies. Unless they get rid of their ideological baggage, they will continue to be a policy free zone with no ability to convince members of the Australian public that they have a health policy which is of any good to them.

Senator Panizza —Mr Acting Deputy President, I raise a point of order. I would like to put on record that the selling of Amway by a Liberal and former member of the House of Representatives is not necessarily a reflection on his ability or on any policies he might have had. I would like Senator Chris Evans to take note of that.

Senator Chris Evans —Mr Acting Deputy President, on the point of order: I am not sure what procedure we are operating under here, but I would like to point out that all I did was suggest that that is what a former health spokesperson is now doing for a living. I would add that, as one of his key operatives in Western Australia, a senior official of the Labor Party is also involved.