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Election 2004: Democrats Leader and Deputy discuss the future of party in the Senate; superannuation policies; and Medicare.

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Wednesday 8 September 2004

Election 2004: Democrats Leader and Deputy discuss the future of party in the Senate; superannuation policies; and Medicare


MARK COLVIN: This el ection the Australian Democrats, founded by Don Chipp in 1977, will be fighting for their political lives. 


Since the last election, their popularity's been damaged by the leadership battle, the ousting of Natasha Stott-Despoja, and Andrew Bartlett's decision to give up alcohol after a threatening incident in the Parliament. 


And polls suggest that the Greens have picked up as many votes as the Democrats have lost. 


The Democrats clearly need to reassert their relevance. Today they criticised the new Labor tax package for dumping the superannuation co-contribution, and attacked the Government's Medicare proposal. 


Democrats leader, Andrew Bartlett, and Deputy leader, Lyn Allison, have been talking to Catherine McGrath about tax and health policy, and the Democrats' falling popularity. 


ANDREW BARTLETT: Well the election is about the Senate for the Democrats and the polls are not Senate polls, and the Senate is the area where the Democrats have always polled higher.  


We're wanting to remind people that whoever they end up with voting for on polling day out of Mr Latham or Mr Howard as Prime Minister, they need the strongest possible Senate, and that's what the Democrats provide.  


So we'll wait and see for some Senate polls, and obviously wait for what the Senate vote is on polling day. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: What about the rise of the Greens? Because in a sense Bob Brown's success over the last two to three years has come at the expense of some of the Democrats vote, and yet the Democrats and Greens are exchanging preferences, with your worst enemy, so to speak. Why's that? 


LYN ALLISON: Well we're like minded in terms of policy in a number of areas, but of course we're very different in our approach to the Senate, and I think people understand that. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Andrew Bartlett, that must be very difficult, because you've spoken out publicly about where you believe the Greens have been involved in bad policy - popularism from Bob Brown - and yet you're giving each other this support now. 


ANDREW BARTLETT: Well obviously in an election campaign you point to the flaws in your opponents as part of highlighting our strengths. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: And you do what you have to do, I suppose. 


ANDREW BARTLETT: But we've also pointed out far more flaws in the policies and approach of Labor and Liberal. So we've always exchanged preferences with the Greens ahead of the majors, particularly in the Senate, because you need as many possible non-major party voices in the Senate. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Now Labor yesterday released their tax policy - their long awaited tax policy - it's going to see things like income splitting, an eight tax dollar tax cut for many people earning less than $52,000, and a new restructured family payment called A Better Family Payment. What's your response to it? 


ANDREW BARTLETT: Well it suffers from having to build on grossly unfair income tax cuts that Labor allowed through the Senate that the Government put forward in the budget. And they're keeping those incredibly unfair and extremely expensive income tax cuts in place.  


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Well you mean they're accepting the Government's proposals for the May budget? They're not being changed. They're being accepted. 


ANDREW BARTLETT: Well they're accepting those. They're actually building on them in terms of further tax cuts for quite high-income earners. I mean let's not forget that the average income - the middle income, sorry - is no more than $50-odd thousand. So the vast majority of people are below that mark, and they need extra assistance.  


Now for them to be paying for that by taking away assistance for saving, for superannuation for low-income earners through the co-contribution is something that concerns us a lot. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: We'll move to the superannuation if we can in a minute, but first of all, what do you think specifically of restructuring the family payments? 


ANDREW BARTLETT: I think aspects of it are an improvement, there's no doubt about that, and I certainly don't want to come along and say we're going to stop everything, oppose everything, unless we like every little bit of it. It'll need a proper examination, and that's what the Senate should do anyway. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: And the threshold? The dual threshold now for families whereby they get a virtual tax free threshold of $12,000? 


ANDREW BARTLETT: Well I think, and we have campaigned for a long time on increasing the bottom tax free threshold for people, that's where the real tax relief for lower income earners can start. So mechanisms that go in that direction are ones worth looking at.  


CATHERINE MCGRATH: And on superannuation, this is something that the Democrats have a particular interest in - the co-contribution scheme - because you helped negotiate a better deal in effect for low income earners. What do you think of Labor's plan to get rid of it? 


ANDREW BARTLETT: Well I think it's a real mistake for Labor to do that. I mean, we're quite willing to look at ways to improve it, enhance it, modify it, but to simply scrap it and not provide any other mechanism that assists with savings incentives for low-income earners is grossly irresponsible. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Because they say that it's being used mainly by high-income earners to support their spouses. 


ANDREW BARTLETT: Well the evidence does not show that, and again we're not saying it's perfect. But we are saying that low-income earners need every assistance that they can get, particularly for savings incentives and unless they provide something to replace it that does that better, then we'd be very reluctant to let it go. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Lyn Allison, this week has seen a bidding war in Medicare. Wouldn't you be the first to applaud a policy whereby there's 100 per cent rebate for the scheduled fee for GPs? In one case for just bulk billed, in one case for bulk billed and non bulk billed consultations. 


LYN ALLISON: Indeed we do welcome an increase in money going into Medicare, no doubt about that. With the Government's package, we're saying confine those rebate increases to the bulk billed consultations. We'd save about $600-million over four years in doing that, and we'd use that money to tackle the really serious problems, particularly specialist services. Two thirds of out of pocket costs are for specialists, and there's nothing in this proposal - either proposal - to contain those costs. 


We won't agree with Labor's approach of abolishing the safety net. Our approach has been to say well, contain those costs, make sure that people are not paying very high out of pocket costs, and at that stage we'll look at what can be done with the safety net. But in the mean time it's serving a very important purpose. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Aren't consumers the winners, though, in essence, because when the Medicare package first came out it was around $900-million, now it's $5-billion. 


LYN ALLISON: It's an extraordinary increase. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: It's only gone up because the parties have been bidding against each other. 


LYN ALLISON: That's true. In fact we would say that a lot of that money - talking about the Coalition's proposal - could go straight into the pockets of GPs without making any difference to the costs to patients. 


So I think you've got to be pretty careful when you're throwing that sort of amount of money around to make sure that it's the most effective use. 


We'd like to see in there midwives, nurse practitioners, allied health workers, a whole range of other ways of improving access to health services. This country's very backward in focusing entirely on GPs and ignoring the very other important services people are really looking for. 


MARK COLVIN: The Democrats Deputy leader, Lyn Allison, and the Democrats leader, Andrew Bartlett, were speaking to our Chief Political Correspondent, Catherine McGrath.