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Wednesday, 14 March 2012
Page: 1793

Senator CROSSIN (Northern Territory) (18:48): I rise to support the government's changes to the private health insurance rebate system, which will inevitably make things fairer for everyone. Ordinary hard­working Australians have been subsidising the health insurance premiums of some of the wealthiest people in the country. This is not sensible policy and it is not fair. That is why the Gillard Labor government is proposing the Fairer Private Health Insur­ance Incentives Bill 2012, which will put an end to government financial assistance for high-income earners purchasing private health insurance. People who work hard, earn substantial incomes and pay their fair share of taxes are entitled to spend their money as they see fit. But this government believes that people who work just as hard but earn much less should not be expected to subsidise them.

These new arrangements will only begin to affect singles who earn more than $84,000 annually or families earning in excess of $168,000. The 10 per cent of highest income earners in our community will see progressive reductions in the size of their rebates as their incomes increase beyond this level. Only singles earning more than $130,000—that is one person living alone and earning more than $130,000—or families earning more than a quarter of a million dollars a year will lose their eligibility for any rebate. These changes will enable the government to make sure that every health dollar is spent in the best possible way. And within the health portfolio we are determined that every dollar is spent in the most effective way. So we will do away with this perk for the wealthy and invest in the new treatments, new medicines, and new technologies which will enable Australians to live happier, healthier lives.

The shrill cry from opposition members, as we have just heard, that the sky is falling—that people will abandon private health insurance in significant numbers—simply does not stand up to rigorous assessment. The federal Treasury has carefully examined the matter and has reported that less than one half of one per cent of Australians will give up their private health insurance as a result of these changes. In 2008, the government increased the Medicare levy surcharge threshold and insurers predicted that 913,000 people would drop their private health insurance cover. The reality was that the number of people with private health insurance cover continued to increase and, as at September 2011, 10.4 million Australians had hospital cover

This is the highest number since the introduction of Medicare. So the Henny Pennies sitting on the benches opposite me can relax. The sky is not falling. The future for hard-working Australians, though, looks positive with this major reform that the government is introducing.

In the Northern Territory, we are on the brink of an economic boom the likes of which we have never seen before. The $34 billion INPEX gas development is just the most high-profile of a number of new investment initiatives in the Territory which will underpin a period of unparalleled economic prosperity. As Territorians prepare to roll up their sleeves and make this country even greater, they will applaud the actions of the government as we remove inequity in the health insurance arrangements which prevent ordinary Australians from getting a full return on their efforts.

That is why it is so concerning to hear that my fellow Territorian the Country Liberal Party member for the Darwin-based seat of Solomon is objecting to this progressive legislation. These amendments will make life just a little bit easier for the thousands of low- and middle-income earners who live within her electorate, in the cities of Darwin and Palmerston, yet the member for Solomon will not support these changes. It seems unfortunate that, as she is busy managing more than 10 properties that she owns in joint ownership, the member for Solomon cannot possibly understand the circum­stances of the many thousands of people in her electorate who are simply working to pay off their first house. Rather than empathise with these families for whom home ownership is but a distant dream or those who struggle to pay the rent from one month to the next, just like all of those opposite me the member for Solomon wants these people to subsidise her very own private health insurance.

It is no crime to own at least 11 houses, but the question that hangs in the air is whether a real estate tycoon is the right person to represent the interests of battling Territorians in the national parliament. A woman with two young children who earns $36,000 a year as a certificate III qualified childcare worker in Palmerston needs this 30 per cent rebate to afford private health insurance, but she certainly cannot afford to continue to subsidise the private health insurance payments of those earning four or five times her salary, such as the member for Solomon. Those with large real estate portfolios have benefited from this inequitable situation, whereas the ordinary Australians who pay rent on those houses and may not themselves be able to afford private health insurance subsidise the private health insurance of the people who own the house that they rent. The majority of households in the electorate of Solomon do not have private health arrangements, and most who do will not be affected in any way by these changes.

Australians are not fools and a sense of a fair go is deeply ingrained within our psyche. That is why the Australian Labor Party wants to amend this legislation. We want to end the perverse twist on the Robin Hood ideal, where money is currently being taken from the poor and given to the rich. Nine out of 10 Australians will not be affected by these changes at all. There will be no discernible pressure on the public health system and no significant impact on Territory household budgets. In the Northern Territory, if you need accident and emergency treatment, there is only the public hospital to go to. In the Northern Territory, if you have a child that is chronically sick, there is only the public hospital to go to as that is where the paediatric ward is. Despite that, people in the Northern Territory still try to take out private health insurance. They simply now want a fair go in order to continue to afford that insurance policy.

That is why the member for Solomon has to decide if she wants to represent only the interests of the one in 10 people in her electorate who are very well off, including herself, or whether she will show some regard for the much larger number of Territorians who work hard just to make ends meet. Will she acknowledge those who are unemployed, those who have a disability, those who do not speak English as a first language or those who, for a range of reasons, sometimes find life to be a struggle? I am asking her to take this opportunity to support this legislation which will remove just a little bit of the burden from the shoulders of those Territorians who are finding the going tough. Mahatma Gandhi once observed:

A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.

So why would you continue to defend a system in which the poorest in society are subsiding the wealthiest members in society when it comes to private health insurance? This situation is simply and utterly unfair.

The Australian Labor Party makes no apology for our fundamental belief that ordinary working Australians are entitled to their fair share of our nation's bounty. That is why we have invested so heavily in improving our schools to skill up young Australians for work in the new economy; that is why we are building the long-awaited National Disability Insurance Scheme, so that people with a disability can get the support they need; and that is why we are amending this legislation to ensure that the poorest Australians who want private health insurance will no longer be asked to subsidise the wealthy, who can well and truly afford to pay for their own private health insurance. It is not the Labor way and it is not the Australian way.

The Labor Party is a party of sound economic management. It is indisputable that Labor steered this country through the global financial crisis in better shape than any other comparable economy in this world. We will continue to apply the principles of sound economic management to make this country stronger and fairer, particularly in the health system, for all Australians. That is why I am supporting this range of legislation. I am of course disappointed that the 'no-alition', the party on the other side of this chamber, who want to do everything except support our reforms and continually say no to everything we put up, will not back off and put their hands up for legislation that is fairer, that is just and that will provide for a better health system in this country.