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Wednesday, 14 March 2012
Page: 1777


Senator CASH (Western Australia) (17:35): I rise to speak on the Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives Bill 2012 and related bills. Anybody watching these proceedings today may well be experiencing a sense of deja vu. Why do I say that? The reason is that the changes proposed by this bill have already been rejected twice by this parliament since the government tried to implement them following the 2009 budget. Despite the fact that they have twice been rejected by this parliament, we find ourselves in this situation again today. The difference is that this time the bills, as Senator Thistlethwaite said, will go through the Senate. Why will they go through? It is because of nothing more and nothing less than a grubby little deal that the government had with the Australian Greens in order to sit on that side of the chamber.

There is nothing fair about these bills. When you look at the title of the bills you may find it slightly ironic. If you were not properly versed in the politics of envy you might think that you were going to get something from the government under these bills, looking at their titles. You might think you would be receiving an increase in your private health insurance rebate. But nothing could be further from the truth because, despite the titles of these bills, this is what this government does best: it deliberately misleads the Australian taxpayer. Why do I say that? Let us look at the history of what the now government said about the bills that we are currently debating in this chamber. The promise that the Labor Party made to the people of Australia prior to the 2007 election was this: if elected to govern, a Labor government would not change the private health insurance rebate regime for the 11 million Australians who take responsibility for their own healthcare needs by taking out private health insurance and thereby relieving pressure on the public healthcare system in this country. That was in 2007; it would not change. That was Labor's promise to the people of Australia.

Now let us consider the promise that was made by the Labor Party and the actual reality of what we are doing here today. The bills that we are discussing today do exactly the opposite of what the Labor Party promised they would do when they made their announcement to the people of Australia in relation to these bills. These bills do nothing more and nothing less than represent yet another in a long line of betrayals by the former Labor government and the current Labor government in relation to policy positions they had prior to an election and policy positions they suddenly adopted when they were elected to government.

The former Prime Minister Mr Rudd—who was also the Minister for Foreign Affairs and who is now merely the member for Griffith—and the former Minister for Health and Ageing Nicola Roxon promised repeatedly that they would not alter the health insurance rebates. Ms Roxon, when shadow minister for health and ageing, confirmed that the then Labor opposition commitment was that they would not increase the private health insurance rebate. Those of us on this side of the chamber questioned the sincerity of that statement, but so adamant was Ms Roxon in this promise that she said:

Federal Labor has made it crystal clear that we are committed to retaining all of the existing Private Health Insurance rebates, including the 30 per cent general rebate and the 35 and 40 per cent rebates for older Australians … The Liberals … try to scare people into thinking Labor will take away the rebates.

This is absolutely untrue.

But it did not stop there. On 20 November 2007 in a letter to the AHIA the now former Prime Minister stated:

Both my Shadow Minister for Health, Nicola Roxon, and I have made clear on many occasions this year that Federal Labor is committed to retaining the existing private health insurance rebates, including the 30 per cent general rebate and the 35 and 40 per cent rebates for older Australians.

Federal Labor will also maintain Lifetime Health Cover and the Medicare Levy Surcharge.

The promises actually continued. In May 2008 on Macquarie radio then Health Minister Roxon said:

… we continue to support the 30 per cent, 35 per cent and 40 per cent rebate for those Australians who chose to take out private health insurance.

The promises continued. In October 2008, in a speech to the Australian Health Insurance Association conference, Ms Roxon said:

Private health insurance consumers will still be able to claim the 30 and 40 per cent rebate and the lifetime health cover incentives will remain in place.

There is a pattern of behaviour forming here. The Labor Party made their promises to the Australian people very clear: if elected to govern, they would not change the private health insurance rebate regime. That is the pattern of behaviour. Those are the continual promises that were made by the Labor Party in the lead-up to not one but two elections. The promises went on. On 24 February 2009 in the Age newspaper Health Minister Roxon said again, 'The government is firmly committed to retaining the existing private health insurance rebates.' But I have to say that that promise is not nearly as good as the promise given by the current Prime Minister in writing in a letter to the Weekend Australian on 15 October 2005, when the now Prime Minister said:

The truth is that I never had a secret plan to scrap the private health insurance rebate … For all Australians who wanted to have private health insurance, the private health insurance rebate would have remained under a Labor government. I gave an iron-clad guarantee of that during the election.

The difference between Tony "rock solid, iron-clad" Abbott and me is that when I make an "iron-clad commitment", I actually intend on keeping it.

That could not be further from the truth if Ms Gillard tried. Ms Gillard's version of an ironclad guarantee must be very different to what the Australian people understand an ironclad guarantee to be. It clearly is very similar to the, 'If elected, we will not impose a carbon tax under the government I lead,' statement 24 hours before an election—and then, once elected, suddenly the imposition of a carbon tax is Labor Party policy.

This government, just like the former Labor government, have proved time and time again that, based on the promises that they make to the Australian people prior to an election and based on the policies that they impose on the Australian people once they are elected, they are not fit to govern. The very fact that we debating these bills which have already been rejected twice by the parliament goes straight to the Labor Party's hatred of private health insurance and to its politics of envy. These bills have nothing to do with reforming the private health insurance system. We all know that. But, in typical Labor style, they have everything to do with raising revenue to fix the massive black hole that the Labor government has created through its reckless spending. Quite frankly, these bills should not be listed as health bills but as appropriation bills, because Labor's fiscal incompetence means that it needs to rip money from the pockets of hardworking Australians yet again to fund its reckless spending.

What is worse is that the Labor government has admitted that it is not going to put any of the money it rips out of the private health system back into the public system. You would at least expect that if it was going to rip money out of the private system it might actually put it into the public system. Minister Plibersek had the opportunity to confirm this when she was interviewed by Steve Price on 15 February 2012. Ms Plibersek refused to commit to Labor putting any of this money back into the public health system. Ms Plibersek also refused to rule out Labor's making any more changes to the public or private health sectors, saying the Gillard government 'have no plans at the moment to make any further changes …'. Clearly, the key words in that statement were 'at the moment'. If Austra­lians were unable to believe an ironclad guarantee from the Prime Minister that the private health insurance rebate would not be touched, Minister Plibersek's statement that Labor has no plans at the moment to make any further changes to the public or private health system should be seen for exactly what it is: absolutely worthless.

Putting aside the fact that these bills represent nothing more and nothing less than a blatant broken promise to the Australian people, among the huge issues we on this side have with these bills is that they are fundamentally flawed and will have a detrimental impact for young people. The bills have nothing to do with saving money. They have everything to do with the ideology of those on the government side who are determined to hit hard-working Australians who actually pay out of their own pockets to look after their own health needs. These bills are all about the Labor government's ideological push to target the so-called rich. The reality is, as it always has been, that Labor hates private health insurance. God forbid that you should actually put a bit of money away, take a bit of responsibility and ease the pressure on the public health system. If you do that the Labor government will slap you around and tell you that is not good enough. But this is where the Labor government has got it very wrong. The problem for the Labor Party is that, in targeting the so-called rich—and these people are far from rich: a doctor's salary and a nurse's salary combined is not rich, but it is under the definition of this legislation—the damage these bills will cause is going to be much more widespread and is going to hit those people who cannot afford to take out private health insurance. That is a great policy aim.

Whatever money the government tells the people of Australia it is trying to save by implementing these reforms, the actual effect of the legislation when it goes through will be that the consumer, the Australian people, will end up paying, either in longer public hospital waiting lists or in increased private health premiums. That is the fundamental flaw of this legislation. It is not the coalition saying that about this legislation; it is the experts who do this daily and who have done this day in, day out for decade after decade. They say that people will drop out of private health insurance because they cannot afford the higher health premiums. According to the conservative estimate provided by the government owned insurer Medibank Private, if this legislation goes through, 37,000 people will drop their cover and 92,500 will downgrade their cover. Again, this is not the coalition, these are Medibank Private's own figures. If you do not believe Medibank Private you might believe the independent analysis undertaken by Deloitte, which predicts that 175,000 people would be expected to withdraw from private health cover in the first year alone, with a further 583,000 people expected to downgrade their cover. Over five years that figure would increase to 1.6 million Australians who, as of today, hold private health insurance and who would drop that cover and another 4.3 million who would downgrade. That would lead to $3.8 billion in additional recurrent costs for the public health system as a result of this fundamentally flawed legislation. There are Australians who want to continue do the right thing because they want to take responsibility for their own health. It is not because they are rich; in fact, they are far from it. They say: 'If I have a little bit of extra money I won't spend it on a holiday, I won't spend it on frivolous things. I will actually insure my family and my children through the private health system.' But what will the Labor government deliver to you? Because of this legislation, premiums will increase by 14, 29 or 43 per cent depending on your income bracket. So much for helping the battler! That is a direct slap in the face to those Australians who, because they can, stand up and take responsibility for their own health needs.

For those people who are not as fortunate, who cannot afford to take out private health insurance and who rely on those who can to actually do so, the bad news is this: hospital waiting lists will increase. So if you thought it was bad in the public system now, believe you me, you have not seen anything yet—because if 1.6 million Australians are expected to drop their private healthcare cover over the next five years then they can only go to one other place, and that is the public hospital system. For those people who currently have no other access but through the public hospital system, guess what? The waiting list is going to get longer the minute this legislation goes through. Anyone who has ever queued at an emergency department will know that that is not funny, it is actually very serious. The bad news is that, if this legislation goes through, those queues at emergency departments will just get longer. Anyone who has had to wait in an emergency department with a sick parent, a sick partner or a sick child will know that emergency waiting times are already unacceptably high. Well, they are going to get a lot higher as soon as this legislation goes through.

In terms of statistics—and this is not the coalition speaking; this is the experts who have looked at this legislation and analysed it—the government's decision to means test private health insurance will mean that an estimated 845,000 new procedures will be forced onto the public hospital system, yet again putting further pressure on waiting lists.

This is an ideological war that the Labor Party has been pursuing for decades against people with private health insurance. The Liberal Party will not be supporting this legislation. We have never supported legislation of this type and, unlike the Greens and Labor, our position will not change.