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Tuesday, 10 September 1996
Page: 3837

Mr LEE(3.40 p.m.) —We have two accusations to make against the Minister for Health and Family Services (Dr Wooldridge). First, he has misled the Australian people and he has also misled his leader about what has happened with this entire debacle. That is the first accusation we make against you, Minister. The second accusation we make is that contributors will not get the full benefit of the tax rebate, as you promised them on budget night. They are the two accusations that we are going to pursue in this debate this afternoon, in question time tomorrow and throughout every day—until you, Minister, come clean and until this government and this Prime Minister (Mr Howard) come clean with us and tell us exactly what has been happening about these increases in private health insurance.

For 13 years while in opposition, the Liberal and National parties have been working on a health policy which they say will address the problems that are out there in the community. The only solution they came up with in those 13 years in the wilderness was a magic wand that would give people a tax rebate for their private health insurance. After 13 years of work in the wilderness, it is the tax rebate for private health insurance that will solve all of the problems.

And what do we find after only six months? This government's $1.7 billion carrot, $1.7 billion in tax rebates for private health insur ance, is virtually stolen away through increases in the premiums of the private health insurance funds.

Mr Leo McLeay —And he knew about it.

Mr LEE —And, as the Chief Opposition Whip interjects, we want to know, Minister, when you knew. You have told the parliament that you knew in budget week that two funds had approval from your department to increase their premiums. We asked you yesterday and today how many other funds had advised you that they had applied for increases. We note with interest that you have taken a few things on notice this afternoon, and we will be reading very—

Dr Wooldridge interjecting

Mr LEE —You told me that you were going to check with your staff about whether they were advised by the health funds.

Dr Wooldridge interjecting—

Mr LEE —Sorry, you would check, but you did not say you would tell me; is that what you have just said? Is that what you have said: that you would check but that you would not necessarily tell me?

Dr Wooldridge interjecting

Mr LEE —A minister of the Crown says across the table in a debate on an MPI that he assured the House of Representatives that he would check with his staff—and then he tells this House that he will not necessarily advise the House of the outcome of those inquiries.

Remember the new standards of accountability that Prime Minister Howard was going to establish for the Australian parliament? The new standards of accountability in the Australian parliament are exposed before us this afternoon. The minister assures the House that he will check with his staff and he will tell us whether his staff were told by the health funds that they had applied for the increases. The minister assures the House that he will investigate this question that is raised by the opposition—and today on the MPI, when the press gallery is almost empty, he makes it clear that he is not actually going to tell us the outcome of the inquiries.

Minister, what is the point of making the inquiries if you do not tell anyone? Were you intending to tell the Prime Minister or the Treasurer (Mr Costello) or any of your other colleagues about the outcome of your inquiries? Is it only the opposition and the press who were not going to find out about the outcome of the inquiries you are going to make? Minister, we are determined to find out to what extent you knew about these increases before budget week, before the week you were running around the country on radio, on television, giving briefings to the health journalists, telling people that this government would ensure that the contributors would get the full value of those tax rebates. That is what you were saying. You would ensure that the full benefit of those tax rebates ended up in the contributors' pockets.

Minister, what has happened in the couple of weeks you have been overseas? What has happened is that we have had Australian Unity and HBA increase their rates. A couple with Australian Unity have lost $187 a year of their tax rebate; with HBA, they have lost $126. People who have family private health insurance with Manchester Unity have lost $323. For a couple, the tax rebate is only worth $250—and the rate has gone up $323. So those family couples are $73 a week worse off—yet the tax rebate does not cut in until next July.

Minister, what are you going to do to ensure that those couples get the full benefit of the tax rebate? What do you intend to do to ensure that the full benefit of that tax rebate ends up in their pockets? Minister, we know that you knew all along that these increases were going to take place. You knew all along that they were going to take place—and you did nothing.

You did not ask your department to sit down with the funds. You did not try to extract some guarantee from the funds in return for this $1,700 million tax rebate. You did not seek some assurance from the funds that they would moderate the increases in their premiums. You were not prepared to ask them to wait until 1 July when the tax rebate was meant to make a difference to the viability of the funds. No, you completely gave away the $1.7 billion tax carrot without getting any assurances or guarantees from the funds in return.

We are entitled to ask: is this $1.7 billion being well spent? Think how many public hospitals you could have built with $1.7 billion. Think how many extra operations could have been performed in public and private hospitals around the country with the $1.7 billion. Minister, why didn't you try to extract those assurances from the health funds before you simply gave it away?

What really happened is that the government offered the money with the tax carrot and the health funds turned it into a lemon. They snatched away that $1.7 billion. That means that the money will not end up in the contributors' pockets. To every member of the public in the gallery today, to every Australian who will feel the increases in the premiums taking away the benefits of the tax rebate, I say: this is the man to blame—Dr Michael Wooldridge, the Minister for Health and Human Services—who took no action when he knew that these premium increases were going to flow through.

This is the person who did not direct his department to intervene and take some action. John Howard's minister for health failed to act when it was necessary to make sure that John Howard's government could keep the promises made on budget night and have the benefit stay in the pocket of the contributors.

But it was not just in budget week that the government was shooting its mouth off. The Prime Minister, as late as 28 August, made this promise to the Australian people:

However you look at it, people will get the full value, the full measure, the full benefit of the tax rebate that was announced in the budget.

That was the Prime Minister on 28 August after this minister had known for three weeks that one fund was increasing its premiums and had known for at least 10 days that a second fund, Australian Unity, was increasing its premiums. Here is the Prime Minister saying to the contributors that they would get the `full value, the full measure, the full benefit' of the tax rebate. It is clear that the government has failed to keep even the commitments made by the Prime Minister as late as 28 August.

One of the things we will keep probing is what this minister told the Prime Minister before 28 August. Minister, we want to know: did you or your office tell the Prime Minister or his staff that you knew about the increases that were coming through? We also want to know how many of the other funds advised you that they had applied for increases. Sure, you have told us about the two funds which had approval from the department, but how many other funds had told you that they had applied? And did you tell the Prime Minister that these increases were also in the pipeline?

There are so many contradictions in this whole debate. We had the Prime Minister saying, `If I had been told about these increases I would have requested that they be announced publicly and openly.' If that was good enough for the Prime Minister why was it not good enough for you? Why is it not good enough for the minister for health in the Prime Minister's government to announce publicly and openly before the budget was brought down that the increases were coming?

Minister, we want to know whether you have misled not only the Australian people but also the Prime Minister, and whether you have caused the Prime Minister to mislead the Australian people. As recently as last Monday, your own parliamentary secretary, Dr Bob Woods, said on the Witness program—

Mr Leo McLeay —He wants the job.

Mr LEE —He definitely does want the job, you can be sure of that—or Dr Brendan does; either one. On the Witness program the minister's own parliamentary secretary said:

But Minister Wooldridge didn't know about the fee rises which were actually in the pipeline at the time.

Your own parliamentary secretary said that to the Australian public three or four weeks after you knew that the increases were coming through. He misled the viewers of the Witness program. How do you explain that?

How do you explain the fact that your representative in the Senate, Senator Newman—who had been the acting minister for health during the time you were away—said in the Senate yesterday about the letters you got from the funds:

I understand that the minister's office did receive correspondence from health funds as a courtesy but that that information was not translated or transferred to the minister.

Minister, you came into the House yesterday and said that you were aware, while your, own representative in the Senate, almost at the same time, was telling the Senate that your office had received the correspondence but you had not seen it. We also know that your office told the media that you were not aware. I quote the Sydney Morning Herald of 28 August:

A spokesman for Dr Wooldridge said the Government had no knowledge of the increases but that if it had, it would have made no difference.

We all know that the journalists in the press gallery who look after the health round were told by the minister's office that he was not aware of the fact that the increases were coming through. Yet yesterday in this parliament the minister told us that he had known about the HBA increases for three weeks before the budget. The minister told the House yesterday that he did know about Australian Unity getting approval to increase their premiums in budget week. Yet, minister, your office was telling the Sydney Morning Herald and all the other journalists that they had it wrong.

Minister, what has happened? Why do you not know what is happening in your office? Why was your office handing out misleading information to journalists and, indirectly, to the Australian people? These are the sorts of questions we want you to answer because we are determined to hold you accountable.

The minister was off overseas, the Prime Minister got an explosive public reaction to the fact that people were losing their tax rebate, and what happened? The Prime Minister intervened, determining that in future he, the Treasurer and the minister for health would make decisions on future increases. What a vote of no confidence in this minister for health that the Prime Minister and the Treasurer had to intervene in this issue.

It is not as though this minister is not aware of this sort of behaviour in the past. On the Sunday program in March the minister talked about this. He was asked by Laurie Oakes about whether he had learned anything from his MBA thesis on the Fraser government's debacle with health policy. He said that in those days:

. . . the people deciding the policy were separate from the people implementing the policy; and second, there was a complete breakdown between the Health Minister and his department, and the Government and the department. So they're two mistakes that won't be made again.

Minister, after only six months it is clear that it has already happened again in your time. Laurie Oakes went on to ask you about who was deciding policy in the Fraser years. You said in reply:

In the 1970s, it was the Prime Minister's department and Treasury, but things are quite different today.

Minister, after only six months we have the Prime Minister intervening, allegedly with your support, and we are going to have the Prime Minister and Treasurer working with you in the future to approve future increases. Laurie Oakes then asked him—wait for this; this is the killer:

. . . John Howard's promised less interference anyway. Do you think he realises the same mistake—

and Michael Wooldridge said in reply:

I'm sure he does. John Howard wants his Ministers to govern and I think that's going to be a real challenge for us and very exciting.

It has been very exciting for us at question time, and it is very clear that what the minister said would never happen—he said we would never get a repeat of the Fraser years with John Howard, Treasurer, and Malcolm Fraser, Prime Minister, interfering with the health minister—we have got after only six months. We have got John Howard, Prime Minister, and Peter Costello, Treasurer, interfering with the way you do your job—the very thing you promised us would not happen.

You said that in the 1970s it was the Prime Minister's department and Treasury deciding policy but that things are very different today. Minister, we certainly know what is different today. We know that you have misled the public. We suspect you have misled your leader. We suspect you caused your leader to mislead the public. We will make sure that you are held accountable for the fact that contributors will not get the full benefit that you promised. We will hold you accountable for the fact that contributors will not get in their pockets the full benefit of that tax rebate, because we are determined to make sure that this government and this minister are held accountable for the con they have pulled on the Australian public over health insurance.