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Thursday, 14 March 2013
Page: 1800


Senator RYAN (Victoria) (18:22): I had to check my phone to see what the date was. It is still 17 days until the Melbourne Comedy Festival starts. That is pretty much the sort of performance we will see at the Melbourne Comedy Festival—if only it were not such a tragic comedy. I had the privilege of chairing the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee inquiry into the implementation of National Health Reform Agreement. Let us go back and address the facts of what happened.

In the profoundly misleading and untrue ads that every taxpayer in Australia is paying for in the Herald Sun and the Sunday Age on a weekly basis the government's own officials admitted that they ripped $107 million out of the Victorian health system for the years 2011-12 and 2012-13. I want to highlight the absurdity of what this involves. In December last year the Commonwealth sought $36 million from the Victorian health system for health care that was delivered between 1 July 2011 and 30 June 2012. I do not know if letters went out to patients who had been in the health system in Victoria for hip replacements asking them to come back so they could take their new hip out. Health care is not like returning a video recorder. You cannot get a refund for health care.

Why was this the case? Because the ABS undertook a massive revision of the population numbers. As the ABS outlined, this was not a small intercensal error, which is when they recast population numbers over the last few years; this was three times larger than the largest intercensal error on record. They are backdating population figures for 20 years. When you compare the basis that they assume that they gave funding to Victorian hospitals for with the basis that they now want to fund Victorian hospitals for you see that they are assuming that in the last 12 months Victoria's population grew by only 11,000 people. That is farcical. In Casey or the city of Wyndham that many people move in in six months. To say that Victoria's population grew by only 11,000 people in 12 months is nothing short of ridiculous.

Here we have the key element of this. This was a political decision. It was a decision in order to reach the mythical surplus, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that this Treasurer can never quite catch, and to come up with some sort of accounting trick. The people who were going to pay for that were Victorian patients. What is worse is that they were seeking to make patients on waiting lists today pay for mistakes the Commonwealth made two years ago. They are reducing funding today for health care delivered 18 months earlier. How is that fair or reasonable? The underlying logic of that is that the waiting lists were not long enough in July 2011, in January 2012 and in July last year so they are going to lengthen them now in order to try to achieve a surplus.

The Secretary to the Department of Health and Ageing claiming that the Commonwealth had no option but to implement these cuts—no capacity whatsoever; it all had to be followed to the letter of the agreement—leads me to two conclusions. If the ABS changed its population numbers by even more—let us say it was five times greater than the previous greatest error; it was only three times greater than the previous greatest error in the history of the census—the logic of this government is that no matter what that number is it will not apply the common-sense test; it will simply strip that amount of money from Victorian patients. I suppose a lack of common sense is not a new accusation about this government.

Victorian patients know that that is not true. Under questioning, the secretary to the department, Ms Jane Halton, claimed that this was the letter of the law and the government could not avoid implementing these cuts, seeking refunds for treatment provided a year and a half earlier. Why on earth then the night before the hearing did the Minister for Health decide to throw a bit of money back in? If it was legal the night before the hearing to return this money to Victorian hospitals then it was legal to do it in December and not implement the cuts in the first place. You are caught by your own words, just like you were caught by your own words on the National Health Funding Pool.

What used to happen when funding payments were made direct to treasuries was you might lose a bit on health funding but gain a bit on education funding and you might lose a bit on disability services funding but gain a bit on aged-care funding. That meant the states had flexibility to actually mix and match. But, no. According to the former Prime Minister and the current Prime Minister—maybe the current Prime Minister and the former Prime Minister, we are never quite sure which way around when we see people madly SMSing in this place during question time—the wisdom comes out of Canberra. The four towers of people in Woden—none of whom treat a single patient—have all the wisdom of our public health system, not the states who own the hospitals and not Catholic Health Australia that runs some hospitals. The wisdom comes from Woden. The great fallacy and conceit of this Labor government is that Canberra knows best.

What we have under the National Health Funding Pool is transparency. It is what Kevin Rudd wanted for so long. It is what the current Prime Minister, Ms Gillard, wanted for so long. It is the National Health Funding Pool that caught this government's hands in the till. This Health Funding Pool shows that they pulled out the money, so they cannot claim that they were state funding cuts.

You know the Labor Party are desperate when they resort to a quote from the ANF. Under sustained questioning the ANF would not criticise the Labor Party—surprise, surprise to everyone who works in the health system! Well, knock me down with a feather. We know the ANF just runs the Labor Party line. We do not know which of them are going to end up in parliament. We will probably find some of them in the Senate after the next election. They would not criticise the Labor Party, yet every other stakeholder who came before us said that you cannot seek refunds for health treatment delivered 18 months ago, which is what they were doing.

You have the flexibility to implement changes to ABS population statistics in a different way, which they proved themselves the night before when the minister for health made the desperate announcement that $107 million was going to be tipped back in. Then of course we saw the asterisk. There is always a footnote with this government; there is always a catch; there is always the fine print. The fine print is that they are going to punish Victorians in another way. The fine print is that, despite the fact that they are cutting funding for operations that hospitals performed 18 months ago, they are going to strip Victorian taxpayers of other funds that could very well support the Victorian health system, whether that be through hospitals, aged care or preventative health, and support Victorian schools. We are going to strip Victorians of other funds and make them pay, and that yet again demonstrates what is at the heart of the Labor Party. We saw it earlier today in the debate on free speech: a glaring authoritarianism. Do what the unions want in the workplace or the thugs will do a run-through as they did in eastern Melbourne a decade ago. Remove any restrictions on illegality or unions running amok in the building industry. Now it is about punishing Victorian taxpayers for the Victorian government doing nothing less than saying, 'The Commonwealth has taken $107 million off us, so we don't have $107 million to spend on our health system this year.'

But there is also another catch. The government have said that we will get this money back in. This is the problem: when the government did cut funding in December and those changes were made with the statements of priorities and the health networks in Victoria, people lost their jobs, operating theatres were mothballed, staff were told to go and find other work and priorities were rearranged. Despite the money coming back—by the way, not a single dollar has arrived in a Victorian hospital since this announcement three weeks ago—it is absolutely impossible for most of our health systems to do a catch-up of three months in three months. They would have to do almost double the work planned in the coming three months in order to fill the gap that the Labor Party caused by stripping.

So we have recommended in this report that the Commonwealth never again cut funding on the basis of services already delivered. The Commonwealth is the financial gorilla in this federation, to one of its great flaws. If the Commonwealth gets its population statistics wrong then the Commonwealth, not patients, should bear the cost. It is not like returning a particular good that you purchased. That cannot be done in health care. The committee has also recommended that the Commonwealth immediately desist from its threat to punish Victorian taxpayers for the funding cuts it undertook. We also recommend that the Commonwealth should not seek to create more red tape and bureaucracy despite their absolute love for it. It seems like it is a job plan for this government to create more people filling out forms. By going to the hospitals and health networks directly, they are just going to force more compliance costs. I fear to see what these MOUs are going to contain in terms of reporting and compliance.

We have also recommended that consideration be given to a further inquiry into the total health price index formula because it clearly is not capturing some data, but this government stands condemned for its behaviour in this matter.