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Senator gives first signs of support for the Government's private health insurance rebate proposal; says the Coalition has a mandate to implement its proposal.

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PETER CAVE: Independent Senator, Mal Colston, has given the Government the first vital signs of support for its health insurance rebate.  Senator Colston says he has some overall reservations, but he believes the Coalition has a mandate to implement its plan.  Sally Sara reports.


SALLY SARA: Senator Colston’s speech last night was popular viewing around Parliament House, nowhere more so than in the office of Health Minister, Michael Wooldridge.  No sooner had the speech finished and Dr Wooldridge was issuing a statement to welcome the remarks.  He even suggested that other Senators should allow the Government to move ahead with the rebate despite some of the uncertainties surrounding it.  It’s a leap of faith which Mal Colston is not pushing to one side.  He concedes that the rebate goes into unchartered waters and he remains unconvinced by many of the arguments being put forward, especially those based on surveys conducted by the health funds themselves.


MAL COLSTON:  Whether it is wise to spend up to $1.8 billion per year when such findings are among the best arguments mounted by the private health industry is also debatable.


SALLY SARA: The Government’s attempts to put it all into dollars and cents haven’t hit the mark either.  Senator Colston says the economic modelling has been limited and he says there remains a question mark over why the rebate is based on the same percentage regardless of someone’s income.  But most of his concern sits with the health funds and how they operate.  He says it’s hard to accept that the funds are playing their part to make private cover more affordable.  To add to that, Senator Colston is still angry that thousands of dollars worth of membership fees was spent coordinating a letter-writing campaign to Senators.  His office is still cluttered with the by-products of that particular effort.


MAL COLSTON:  One fund has even gone so far as to use their members’ fees to set up a reply-paid address for my office for what they claim to be the ‘genuine’ views of their members.  While I have made known my own comments on that and similar campaigns, it may be worthwhile considering the comment of a fund member who wrote to me after being confronted with that campaign.  The member’s comments read:  ‘I strongly disagree with views expressed on the enclosed card and with the way it was presented to me with a demand that I sign it, there and then, in the presence of the fund employee, whom I had just asked to undertake a service for me as a member of that fund.  I believe that you and Senator Harradine would have received far fewer of these cards had the fund merely distributed them to the customers and members and left it to them to decide whether to sign and send them in some privacy.’


SALLY SARA: So overall, there’s still plenty to be resolved before Mal Colston’s support is locked in, but he is already uttering one of the Government’s favourite words in the Senate, that is ‘mandate’.


MAL COLSTON:  If the mandate theory has to have any effect, surely the Coalition has a mandate to implement its proposal.


PETER CAVE: Senator Mal Colston.