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Thursday, 12 February 2015
Page: 697

Senator O'NEILL (New South Wales) (18:50): I rise this evening in this period of adjournment to speak to the health matters that are so preoccupying the minds of Australians and also the minds of the Labor senators, certainly, with regard to the changes in government policy around the health sector. Most Australians live out their lives happily in great health. Many of us have the capacity to live out our lives in great health because Australia is renowned as one of the countries around the world that have a highly accessible public health system. If you are sick, if your children are sick, if your parents are sick or if your neighbour is sick, in Australia we believe—and we have for 40 years believed—in Medicare and had the capacity to go and accept the treatment, the guidance and the advice of very well trained doctors in this country.

But from that certainty this government has created incredible confusion, and it continues to refuse to rule out putting what it calls a price signal on access to health care—a price signal that tells people, 'No matter how sick you are, think about what it's costing before you take your children to the doctor.' What a shambles! Put yourself in the shoes of an Australian voter who is trying to keep up with what Tony Abbott's government is doing right now. Before the election the promise was made that there would be no new taxes, no changes to Medicare, no cuts to pensions and no changes to unemployment benefits; but there have been broken promises in the budget and voters left dumbstruck. There were new taxes after all: we are going to have to pay to go to the doctor; indexation of pensions means retirees are going to get less; and unemployed youth are going to have their benefits stalled for six months. In the midst of all that chaos the government has been under enormous pressure from the doctors around this country and from ordinary Australians who have been writing in the hundreds of thousands—nay, millions—to this parliament saying, 'Hold your horses, guys. There is no way we are going to allow you to destroy this fundamental plank of equality and fairness in Australia.'

In light of that incredible political pressure, and the determination and will of the Labor Party on this side of the chamber to stand firm and hold firm for Medicare, have come the backflips. We had the GP copayment that was announced as $7 in the budget—every time you go to the doctor you pay another $7—and the doctors were advised of that on the same night as the budget was released. This government held no consultation with doctors who run businesses as GPs across this entire country, as Senator Cameron made very, very clear this afternoon. That is what most local GPs are—small businesses, single practitioners, small cooperatives of doctors together. Of course there are larger corporates, but predominantly they are small businesses right across this country. These doctors ,who are at the heart of good health for the country, found out on budget night that they were going to have to implement a $7 copayment. There had been no consultation with the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and no consultation with the Australian Medical Association. The arrogance of this government is absolutely breathtaking.

When we stood up for Australians' access to those GPs, we saw the government come to the end of the year in December saying, 'We are listening to you. We are a new, consultative government.' This was before they figured out they were a bad government 520 days in; at this time they were probably only about 470 days or something in. They decided that they should change their policy and, instead of a $7 copayment, they said, 'We will change it to $5, but we are going to take away the opportunity for doctors to manage their own consultations. We are going to take money away if they consult for anything less than 10 minutes.' Doctors, as small businesses situated in most communities around the country—who have not been known to be champions of the Labor cause—absolutely went ballistic. And they needed to, because this nearly-deaf government was refusing to listen to them. In the same way as the arrogance of this government was revealed by their failing to consult the sector prior to their budget announcement, the way they showed that they had learned was to contact the AMA and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners half an hour before they made the December announcement saying, 'Look guys, we don't really want to know about what you think, or what your business models say. We don't want to do any hard numbers or hard work, or get the hard evidence or facts. We are just going to tell you right now, with half an hour's notice—consider us your good friends!—that we are going to change everything again.'

You can imagine how well that went down: the cheekiness of this government in attempting to do that in the lead-up to Christmas, thinking that they could hide it and get away with it. Come January and doctors, health professionals, the Labor Party and every activist who cares about the health and wellbeing of this nation prevailed day in and day out on the health minister to get rid of that new bad policy. There is a pattern here—a very disturbing pattern of a government of incredible arrogance; a government with a history, over many iterations of having power in this country, of doing everything they can on every occasion to destroy Medicare. Make no mistake—there is a gulf that is enormous between what those in this government believe about Medicare and access to health for ordinary Australians and what the Labor Party believes and stands for. We support access for all Australians to the health care you need when you need it, not when somebody in the Liberal Party decides you can have it, which is when you can afford it.

I have the privilege of chairing the select health committee where I, along with my colleague Senator McLucas who is here in the chamber, Senator Cameron, three Liberal senators—who do not seem to show much interest—

and Senator Di Natale, hear evidence from people who believe in the provision of medical health care. These are people from peak bodies and GPs from right across this country who are coming to us and saying, 'The government refuses to hear, but our voices are important.' These are people who have never participated in the political process before. The government has drawn them all out—doctors one and all—saying, 'This government simply does not understand health.' At 520 days in, after looking over the precipice of his own personal demise, the Prime Minister declared that he had found the way to good government. But we end this first week of the parliamentary sitting with this Prime Minister and his new health minister—there has been a change of personnel on the Titanic over there, but it is the same old message—saying, 'We are going to send a price signal to the sick. We are going to put financial capacity between you and the health care you need, and we do not care about the outcomes. We will not consult. We are just going to go ahead and do it again.' So at the end of this week we still have a government committed to a price signal which means more money for ordinary Australians to go to the doctor.

On Thursday of last week, here in Parliament House, in our inquiry, we heard from GP after GP saying that their business models will not sustain the attack that is being launched by this government. They awakened us to the idea that, when the government says '$5', you should hear '$100' as the amount that has got to leave your wallet if you want to see a doctor if you are not a concession holder. But even more disturbing to me was the fact that concession holders would likely have to be charged, and one practice in the Tamworth area said that their business model meant $60 for a concession patient to see the doctor. That is what the Liberal Party want to rain down on this country.

Tomorrow, that committee will be hearing from Indigenous health organisations across this country. I have told you a bad story about ordinary Australians; multiply that for all Indigenous people. (Time expired)