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Tuesday, 3 June 2003
Page: 15876

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR (6:24 PM) —The honourable member for Maranoa has spoken very eloquently about water shortages in coming decades. Of course he seeks every opportunity to drive the boot into that good Labor government in Queensland and into the Queensland Labor Premier. I think he has demonstrated here tonight that there is no shortage of hot air in this place. Much of the criticism that he has levelled at that excellent state Labor government in Queensland is unfounded. The 2003-04 budget, documented in the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2003-2004 that we are debating in this House today, enshrines all that is arrogant and cynical in the Howard government. Under the guise of the smallest tax cuts in Australia's history, the Howard government seeks to wreck Medicare and load families with extra debt to educate their children.

Geelong's battling families are supposed to get on their knees in grateful thanks before this arrogant Treasurer while he smirks and grins as he taxes them every time they buy a litre of milk for their family or when they put sugar in their tea or their coffee. Today the smirk was no longer there. The Treasurer had to come to grips with the Prime Minister's announcement that he, rather than the Treasurer, would lead the coalition at the next election. The Treasurer, who we on this side of the House have described as the Prince Charles of Australian politics—that is, the man who never gets his chance to sit on the throne of the prime ministership—had the smirk well and truly wiped off his face today by the Prime Minister's announcement. I think it is a fitting treatment for a Treasurer who continues to bring down budgets that entrench inequalities in our society and who continues to burden working families in my electorate.

Therefore, I have great pleasure in supporting the second reading amendment of the shadow Treasurer, the member for Canberra. In that amendment he has detailed the litany of shortcomings in Treasurer Costello's eighth budget. The federal budget is the document which outlines the revenue raising and expenditure of the federal government and its priorities in the next financial year. But it is much more than an accounting document. Enshrined in it is the philosophy and world view of the party that commands the majority in the House of Representatives, which forms the government of the day and which has the right to bring such a budget before the Australian people.

There is a very simple conservative philosophy dominating the Treasurer's budget, and it is this: the government is seeking to shift the cost of health and education from the budget on to Australian families, whether it is by imposing higher costs on families to visit the doctor, imposing a 30 per cent hike in the cost of essential medicines, increasing HECS fees by 30 per cent or driving students and their families into debt to pay for a tertiary education. The Howard government has demonstrated a callous disregard for working families in the electorate of Corio and burdened them with additional costs. In granting miserly $4 a week tax cuts to low-paid families, the Howard government seeks to mask the increased taxation burden on families elsewhere in the budget. This budget is indeed a bitter pill that the Treasurer expects my electorate to swallow.

Let me turn to an area of critical importance to Geelong families: the state of Medicare and the health system in our community. The health system in Geelong is in crisis, and this budget does little to address its outstanding problems. I draw the attention of the House to the decline in bulk-billing in Geelong. It is a matter that I have raised in debates before in this chamber. Bulk-billing in the Corio electorate has reached all-time low figures. If we look at the historical comparisons, in December 2000, 66.9 per cent was the level of bulk-billing. In December 2002, that had declined by 8.4 per cent to 58.5 per cent, one of the lowest in the country. These are the facts, and people need to understand the implications of this situation for Australian families and for people in my electorate.

The decline in bulk-billing in Corio means that many Geelong people have to pay more when they go to their local GP. That is the result of the massive decline in bulk-billing that we have experienced. But the crisis does not end there. We face in Geelong, as elsewhere throughout regional Victoria and Australia, a critical shortage of GPs—a problem that is confined not just to the Corio electorate; it is also being experienced by many urban electorates. We also face a significant shortage of GPs who bulk-bill.

Once again, I have raised these issues on the floor of the parliament on behalf of doctors and of my community. The shortage of GPs simply means that many of my constituents are forced to wait for treatment, and many practices are not taking new patients. Doctors are not bulk-billing. They are forced to use a pricing mechanism to more rigidly control the flow of patients and to ration services. But there is an adverse impact on doctors also. GPs in the electorate of Corio are being expected to work longer hours and face the difficulty of maintaining the quality of their services. The hours that many of them work pose a real danger to their own health. While they advise others on the state of their health, they simply find that the hours of work they are forced to do in living out the oath that they took to the Australian community when they became doctors simply puts their own health and wellbeing and that of their families in jeopardy.

But the impacts are not confined to doctors and patients. Because patients have difficulty in accessing their GPs, they are now seeking treatment at the Geelong public hospital, creating additional burdens on emergency departments and outpatient services. I commend here the efforts of the Bracks government in increasing public hospital funding in Geelong and elsewhere in Victoria. They have attempted to address some of the problems that have been created as a result of the Howard government ripping funding away from the public hospital system in Victoria. But of course they cannot do it alone, and the federal government has a real responsibility in its health policy to ensure that my constituents, along with other Australians, have access to universal health cover and to the GP of their choice.

Dr Southcott —Madam Deputy Speaker—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms Gambaro)—Does the member for Boothby wish to ask a question?

Dr Southcott —Yes.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Does the member for Corio wish to give way?

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR —No, Madam Deputy Speaker. The other implications of this are simply the increased medical costs for families. As a result of the policies of the Howard government, we are facing changes to the PBS and increases costs of essential medicines to the tune of 30 per cent. But it does not end there. If we go to the private health insurance area of policy, under the Howard government Geelong families have been burdened by massive premium hikes from private health insurers, and they face increasing gaps in their private insurance costs as well. The IR reforms have failed to deliver to Geelong families reduced costs for private health insurance, and those who seek access to public hospital facilities face increased costs also.

Despite the hard work of specialists and GPs, the hard work of nurses and other health professionals and significant injections of funding by the Bracks government, Geelong's health system is in a state of crisis. We know the Medicare system is under severe strain. The decline in bulk-billing and the decline in funding to public hospitals have put an enormous strain on our public health resources. We know that the Prime Minister has always opposed Medicare. Indeed, on previous occasions he has stated that he wants to destroy it. His recent reforms have that intent. You do not change the spots on the leopard. The Prime Minister is committed to the destruction of Medicare and he does that under the guise of so-called reform.

Geelong families want Medicare enhanced and they know that only a Labor government can do that. In his budget reply speech, the Leader of the Opposition, the member for Hotham, outlined the opposition's plan to enhance and revamp Medicare. He committed the opposition to lifting the patient rebate immediately upon coming to office to 95 per cent of the schedule fee and then taking it to 100 per cent—an average rise of $5 for every consultation that is bulk-billed. He also outlined that the opposition would reward doctors who meet bulk-billing targets; they will receive additional incentive payments.

For example, doctors in metropolitan areas who bulk-bill 80 per cent of services will receive an additional $7,500 a year, doctors in outer metropolitan areas who bulk-bill 75 per cent of services will receive an additional $15,000 a year, and doctors in rural and regional areas who bulk-bill 70 per cent of services will receive an additional $22,500 a year. This is the equivalent of increasing the patient rebate by as much as $6.30 for a doctor in a metropolitan area, $7.80 in an outer metropolitan area and $9.60 in a rural area. The opposition are absolutely committed to the retention and the enhancement of Medicare, and we oppose the attempt of the Prime Minister to develop in Australia a two-tiered health care system. We oppose his attempts to Americanise Australia's great public health care system.

In the time remaining to me, I would like to refer to some comments that were made by the honourable member for Corangamite in his contribution to the appropriation debate last week. I do this because the honourable member for Corangamite shares, if you like, the representation of the Geelong region with me. In his contribution, the honourable member for Corangamite lauded the performance of the Australian economy and the Howard government in the process—denigrating, as he is wont to do, the contribution of Labor in our 13 years of government to our current economic prosperity. He mentioned the growth rate at 3.25 per cent for the next financial year, but of course he did not mention that Labor left the coalition a growth rate of four per cent plus for the four years prior to 1996. You would imagine, from the way in which the coalition refers to growth rates of four per cent, that they were something new in the Australian experience. We gave it to you, and the least you could do in government is maintain it. If you have, that is full marks to you, but do not denigrate an economy that was given to you with the features in it that have laid the foundations for the prosperity we now enjoy.

The honourable member for Corangamite mentioned a surplus of $2.2 billion as if it is some great revelation or achievement, but he did not mention the fact that Labor was the first government since the early fifties to deliver a surplus budget in the national accounts. He had the temerity to mention public debt reductions, claiming $63 billion has been paid off the public debt—but he failed to mention that almost all of that has occurred as a result of asset sales. Of course, the Howard government keeps selling parts of the farm, and it does it badly. For example, it has been estimated by market analysts that, on the first tranche sale of Telstra, the Howard government was done over in the market to the tune of $13 billion. A share of Telstra—an enterprise the Australian people owned—was sold for $13 billion under its value, and the proceeds were then used to retire debt. The member for Corangamite wants this House to pat him on the back for his government's incompetence.

Of course, we all remember the Liberal debt truck and the deceptive manner in which the member for Higgins, now the Treasurer, lumped in the public debt, the household debt and the trad-ing deficit to pump up a debt figure for every man, woman and child in Australia. What is good for the goose is good for the gander, and we know who the goose is for using statistics so deceptively. The Howard government is in the business of transferring its responsibilities on to households. As a consequence, many Australian families have had to ramp up their house-hold debt. Household debt under the Howard government has doubled to $600 billion. We have to get our heads around this—household debt has increased over 120 per cent to $600 billion. As a percentage or as a proportion of household income, it has risen over 130 per cent.

The Liberal's debt saga continues in the area of student debt. Since it came to power, the Howard government has cut $5 billion from Australian universities and has massively increased HECS fees to students. As a result, student debt under the Howard government has tripled—and this budget adds another $800 million of debt on to Australian students—and is expected to reach a record $11.5 billion by 2005-06. That is a really successful policy, isn't it: transferring your responsibilities on to households and saddling them with debt!

But it does not end there. If we look at the trading debt, we see that Treasurer Costello's record is appalling. There have been 16 consecutive trade deficits, which have led to foreign debt crashing through the $350 billion barrier. The Treasurer, when in opposition, said that the foreign debt was $10,000 for every man, woman and child in Australia and he went around saying that that was a state of crisis for Australia. It is now $18,000. I wonder what the Treasurer would say to that. With no industry policy, this government has returned Australia to simply a farm and a quarry.

The honourable member for Corangamite said that the tax cuts are a showpiece of this particular budget. He really cannot be serious. You are really out of touch if you take that view. Senator Vanstone got it right when she poured scorn on her own Treasurer and said that the tax cuts were not enough to buy a milkshake and a sandwich. I went to the footy on Saturday at Kardinia Park and that $4 tax cut a week would have bought me four dim sims, or I could have had a bucket of chips, or 95 per cent of a hot dog or two-thirds of a continental sausage. The Australian people are not fooled by this chicanery, and the honourable member for Corangamite ought to do something in his party about reducing the burdens on Geelong households.