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Wednesday, 14 March 2012
Page: 1692

Senator CAMERON (New South Wales) (11:28): We have had two contributions to this debate so far: one from Senator Abetz and one from Senator Di Natale. Senator Abetz's contribution was typical Senator Abetz. It was about ideology. It really was not about economics and it was not about the health system; it was simply about the ideology of the coalition and the coalition looking after those who can really afford to look after themselves—looking after those who can afford to pay private health insurance and not caring about the bulk of the Australian population who see the public health system as absolutely essential to their wellbeing in the future. Senator Di Natale has been here only a short period—I accept that—but it would be nice now and again for the Greens to recognise that the Labor Party actually introduced the universal health system in this country. It was the Labor Party who stood against the private health system dominating health in this country. It was the Labor Party who actually brought about the change that was required to build a decent society and a decent health system in this country. It would just be nice now and again to get some recognition—instead of the platitudes and the 'old party' and 'new party' rubbish that you hear from the Greens—that the Labor Party is a party that has set about to make the big changes in this country: the changes that make a difference on industrial relations, on health, on education and on the economy. It would just be nice now and again to get some recognition of that.

Let me get back to Senator Abetz. With great respect to your speech, Senator Di Natale, I found his speech more interesting. His speech is more interesting because it is pure ideological nonsense. It is the message out to the public that the Labor Party and Greens, who are trying to get some changes to the system and make it more fair and more equitable, are involved in class warfare. What did Senator Abetz say? He said, 'Let us make no mistake: this bill is not fair, conceived as it is in the time warp of class warfare and gestated in the womb of destructive envy.' Nice turn of phrase, but meaningless—a bit of nonsense. But that is where the coalition come from on this. They see this as class warfare. If it is class warfare to say that a boilermaker or a fitter or a rigger should not be subsidising Gina Rinehart, should not be subsidising the big end of town and should not be subsidising me in terms of paying my health insurance—if that is class warfare—I am guilty; I am in it, because I do not think it is fair or equitable that ordinary Australians should be paying more to subsidise those who can afford to pay for their own health insurance in this country. So I plead guilty to that. I will always plead guilty to looking after ordinary people in this country, and that is the way we should be doing it.

What this is about, and what was not mentioned by Senator Abetz, is that this is an economic argument as well as a social argument. Health is a hugely important social issue, because if we are going to build a decent society then we have got to have a decent health system. If someone is sick, they have got to have access to a decent health system. That is what Labor has always been about. The reason we are dealing with this bill at the moment is the economic profligacy of the coalition and the lack of economic reality from the coalition. You hear much from the coalition about what great economic managers they are and were under the Howard government. The longer I sit in this place and listen to the arguments put forward by the coalition, the more I realise that it is simply myth. The coalition were not good economic managers and the coalition will never be good economic managers. In fact, I have said on a number of occasions that probably the worst Treasurer we have had in recent times has been Peter Costello. Why? Because Peter Costello did not have the backbone or the courage to stand up to the giveaway mentality of John Howard, his leader. He did not do it. And John Howard was always on the lookout for some way to give money out to those he thought could do some good for the coalition. That was the giveaway mentality of the Howard government. Peter Costello never had the courage or the conviction to actually stand up against John Howard. On that basis, he was an absolute, abject failure. The bills we are debating are trying to deal with that giveaway mentality of the coalition: 'If somebody wants to raise their hand for more money, give it to them, because we might get a vote.' That was the approach of the coalition. They were economic incompetents and they are economic incompetents now.

A book was launched last week called The Australian Moment by George Megalogenis. He is, I think, one of the most widely respected economic commentators and writers in this country. On page 302 of The Australian Moment it says this:

Every voter that cried "cost of living" was given a wad of cash to quieten them down.

He is talking about the Howard government here. They were given a wad of cash. John Howard said, 'We've got a problem over here. Throw some money at it. Don't worry about setting up a sovereign wealth fund for the future of the country. Do not worry about making sure the public health system is okay. Don't worry about the public education system. We have got some of your mates up on the North Shore who are not too happy. Throw some money at them.' This is what George Megalogenis says. He goes on:

But the next voter wanted the same. The competition for handouts infected the government itself. Howard and Costello argued, repeatedly, over the quantity and the content of the largesse.

So this was not economic responsibility. This was largesse; this was bribes; this was pork-barrelling. This was the Howard government in full flight—economic incompetence, throwing money wherever there was a problem, without any worry about the consequences for the country. Megalogenis goes on to say:

But it was Howard's government—

that is John Howard's government—

not the Howard-Costello government: the prime minister always prevailed because the treasurer didn't want to take the fight to the public, even though, as Paul Keating demonstrated throughout the '80s, the deputy with the calculator can often pull rank on the leader with the chequebook.

What does that say about Peter Costello? I will tell you what it says to me: that he had no backbone, he had no courage, and he had no commitment to this country. All he wanted to do was think how he could quietly assume the prime ministership of this country without having the backbone to take John Howard on. That was the position and it has been exposed. And the exposition of this weakness of the Howard government's Treasurer is demonstrated in where we are now in a whole range of areas. Megalogenis goes on to say:

While Howard searched for the next payment to make to his target audience—

'Who is the next target we can make a payment to?'—

Costello tried to reinforce a sense of purity by cutting income taxes as well.

You hear the coalition all the time saying, 'We've got to cut income tax. We've got to cut taxes. We're the party of low taxes.' Well, let us see what this eminent economic analyst says about that:

The upshot was taxes were no longer being collected to provide public services, or to build buffers in good times to deploy in bad times, but to churn back to the electorate. The budget became a frequent-voter program, with rewards based on loyalty, not need.

If ever there was a very concise analysis of the lack of economic credibility of the Howard government, there it is, on page 302 of The Australian Moment, by George Megalogenis, and that just nails this argument about proper economic process under the Howard government. He goes on to say, on page 303:

The reform decades of the 1980s and 1990s had promised a more productive nation that could compete with the rest of the world. But the GST blotted the script—

so the great economic change from the Howard government, the GST, blotted the script—

by facilitating the rise of middle-class welfare in the twenty-first century.

This is not just middle-class welfare that we are trying to deal with in this bill; this is upper-class welfare. This is welfare to the super-rich, and we are determined to deal with it. Megalogenis goes on to say:

Subsidies that the Hawke and Keating governments had taught us to live without were being revived by Howard in an act of electoral appeasement.

Electoral appeasement: that is what the Howard government were about. He goes on to say:

But it was bad policy, because it reverted to the mentality of the 1970s, when every family was told it deserved to gorge on the magic pudding of government protection.

John Howard was the chief architect of that magic pudding. He made the recipe, he baked the cake and the 'magic pudding' was that everybody had to get middle-class and upper-class welfare. That just demonstrates how inept and incompetent the Howard government were in terms of economic approaches for this country. They were prepared to put their electoral success before the economic success of this country.

My view is that all the arguments you hear from Senator Abetz, the arguments about class warfare, are all about trying to paper over what is becoming more and more clear—that the coalition government under John Howard were economically incompetent and were not—

Senator Nash: Oh, please!

Senator CAMERON: They've sent in the cavalry! Imagine sending in the National Party to defend economic competence! Imagine sending Senator Nash from the National Party to try and lecture me about economic competence when the coalition's economic competence, driven by people like John Howard and the then leader of the National Party, was just to send money anywhere there was a problem: just send it out into the community and try and bribe your way back into office. Pork-barrel your way to government—that is the National Party approach. Senator Nash comes in here and starts trying to have a go at me about economic issues when she should actually have listened. I am sure somebody was listening and they said, 'You'd better get someone down there, because Senator Cameron is carving our economic credibility up.' It is not a big job, because there is not a lot of economic credibility there to carve up.

Senator Fierravanti-Wells interjecting

Senator CAMERON: Now they're all going! It would be microsurgery carving their economic credibility up—not a lot of it there!

Senator Abetz argues that it is about class envy and socialist dogma. The 'dogma of equal low-class service for all and the politics of envy'—that is how he describes trying to make sure that boilermakers, bus drivers and cleaners do not pay Senator Abetz's private health funds, that they do not subsidise me and that they do not subsidise Twiggy Forrest or Gina Rinehart. If it is Gina Rinehart or Twiggy Forrest or Clive Palmer against the general public, the coalition are on the side of the mining magnates every day. They want the ordinary workers—the boilermakers, the fitters, the bus drivers, the cleaners, the restaurant workers—to subsidise the health payments for these multibillionaires. I say that is not class warfare—it is class warfare from them on ordinary workers—I say it is the right thing to do. It is the economically responsi­ble thing for this government to do, and I am pleased that we have actually tackled this issue and are going to deal with it.

The coalition argues that it is going to be the end of the public system. The argument was that this was some sort of Greens proposal. I draw your attention to the fact that this is a bill that goes back to 2008. This was a bill where in 2008 the Labor Party tried to get some fairness and rational approaches into private health insurance. Professor Deeble, who is recognised as the leading expert on the public health system said that there would not be a significant cost to the public health system by doing this. He also said that it would not send the private health system broke.

And why would it send the private health system broke? This is a private health system that gets more subsidy than the whole manufacturing industry in this country, that employs a million people. The private health industry gets a bigger subsidy than the whole of the manufacturing industry. Where is the economic rationale for that? Where is the economic logic in that? There is none! And it is simply about the coalition supporting that big end of town—the private health industry—that supports them with donations for the next election. So if it is about a donation to the coalition or the good of the country, the coalition go for the donation every time. They will stand up for the mining magnates and they will stand up for the private health industry, a private health industry whose profits before tax increased to $1.27 billion for the year ended 31 December 2011.

We get all these lectures about the market operating: I do not hear Senator Abetz giving us a lecture about how an industry that is making billions of dollars of profit should not have any public subsidies. I did not hear that argument come through. Where was that argument? They are absolutely hypocritical in their approach. These people, if there is a quid in it for their election campaign their principles and policies go out the door. They will simply be sycophants for whatever industry is prepared to put money in, even if it is the tobacco industry.

I will not take any lectures from the coalition about good economics and I will not take any lectures from the coalition about a decent health system. Look at their record when they were in power: their record on health was abysmal. The first thing they did was scrap the Commonwealth Dental Program. The ratio of federal funding for public hospitals dropped to just over 40 per cent by 2007. In 2003 alone the Howard government ripped a billion dollars out of public hospitals, so do not come here lecturing us about economics or lecturing us about health. Your record is abysmal and you just do not have a clue about what is in the national interest. You would put your electoral interests before the national interest every time. You should be condemned for that. You should be supporting this bill because it is the right thing to do and it is the right thing for all Australians.