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Monday, 13 February 2012
Page: 897

Mr CHRISTENSEN (Dawson) (18:12): In rising to address this Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives Bill, I have some difficulty getting past the name of the bill itself. It makes it sound like the bill will make things 'fairer'. But this bill has nothing to do with fairness. In fact, it is the exact opposite of fairness. It is about trying to justify the introduction of what is most certainly not fair. I am reminded of the late master of wit Groucho Marx, who said: 'The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made.' That is a rather appropriate quote for this bill, I thought, because the bill is anything but honest and it is trying to fake fairness. In reality it is not about fairness at all. It is actually more in line with the views of the other Marx, Karl, and penalising the so-called rich. It is about a desperate bid to create a surplus and it is about robbing the hard-working people of this nation who will do the work to create that surplus, if it ever happens. It has been 21 years since the Labor Party posted a surplus and it must be getting embarrassing for the government every year as they introduce new budgets. We have the Treasurer here trying to say that he is going to get one next year—because he will do anything to create the illusion of a surplus; just making it look like a surplus temporarily will do. But Australian families know that what this government says is only good for a few months at best.

But this time there is not enough smoke, there aren't enough mirrors. So now we see the Treasurer hoping to pull a rabbit out of the hat—a $2.78 billion rabbit. They were running around, rifling through the files, looking up old copies of Hansard, scanning the demographic data, trying to find a sector of the community that is getting ahead, trying to find someone who hopes for a better future and is willing to work hard to achieve it. That was their bunny and they found it: a dead and twice-buried plan to tax those people who work hard for a better life. They have found yet another way to rob the rewards that were earned by someone else. So here we are today, once again standing up to the Labor Party, the party of big tax. The title of this bill purports to be about a private health insurance incentive. That word is important: 'incentive'. The proposed legislation is not about incentive at all. There is no carrot here. This is the stick and stick approach. This government is pulling out the stick to those who pay for private health insurance. Anyone who has the gall to work hard and earn $80,000 or more a year will now have to pay more for their health insurance. That is not an incentive; that is a disincentive. It is a disincentive to earn more and it is a disincentive to purchase private health cover. Just in case this legislation means you cannot afford private health cover anymore, the government has another stick waiting for you—a baseball bat to slug more tax out of you in the form of the Medicare levy. So what we have is a lose-lose situation. This plan was beaten down twice before when there was so much opposition that even this government promised it would not happen again. Yet here it is again today. Prior to the 2007 election, we had Labor's then shadow health minister promising, in a media statement from 26 September 2007:

Federal Labor rejects the Liberal scare campaign around the private health insurance rebates. On many occasions for many months, Federal Labor has made it crystal clear that we are committed to retaining all of the existing Private Health rebates, including the 30 per cent general rebate and the 35 and 40 per cent rebates for older Australians.

It goes on to say:

The Liberals continue to try to scare people into thinking Labor will take away the rebates. This is absolutely untrue.

If this is absolutely untrue, then why is Labor introducing a bill today to do exactly that again? I thought maybe there was a typo in the media release and that the member for Gellibrand meant that it was absolutely correct. But then she was backed up two months later by then federal Labor leader, Kevin Rudd, the future Prime Minister, going to the 2007 election with this promise—this is what the member for Griffith wrote to Dr Michael Armitage of the Australian Health Insurance Association just four days before the 2007 election:

Both my Shadow Minister for Health, Nicola Roxon, and I have made clear on many occasions this year that Federal Labor is committed to retaining the existing private health insurance rebates, including the 30 per cent general rebate and the 35 and 40 per cent rebates for older Australians.

We even had the current Prime Minister, back when she was shadow Minister for Health and Ageing, saying this to Laurie Oakes:

We will leave the 30 per cent private health insurance rebate undisturbed because we understand it's factored into family incomes—

a very interesting observation from the Prime Minister. Clearly the Australian Labor Party no longer understands Australian families or the fact that they have to factor these costs into their household budgets. So here we are debating a 'fairer' private health insurance incentive bill.

What is fair about this scenario? Consider two young men. Let us call one Bill. He lives and works in Melbourne and earns $79,000. The other—let us call him Ben—lives and works in regional Australia, participating in the resources boom that currently underpins our economy. Bill in Melbourne leads a pretty comfortable life. He has no trade and no tertiary studies behind him. He has spent long periods on unemployment benefits. He currently has a nine-to-five job which pays a good income of $79,000. He rents a large furnished apartment in the CBD for $450 a week. He does not need a car and walks to the MCG to watch his football team play, or to the cricket, and it is a pretty good life.

Now let us look at Ben, the bloke in country Queensland. He spent three years doing an apprenticeship when he supplemented his income to survive by working a casual job on nights and weekends. He has never missed a day of work and currently works long hours to earn $80,000. He has to maintain a work ute to get to job sites and carry his tools. He pays $550 a week in rent and if he wants to watch the Bulldogs play football, he is up for $600 in flights and $600 accommodation before a ball is bounced. Groceries, fuel, even a cup of coffee in his area are much more expensive because a labour shortage and high freight costs are pushing up the price of everything. I am sure Ben cannot wait for the carbon tax because he will cop the worst of the cost increases, being in regional Queensland. He will not be compensated in any way because his income is deemed 'too high'. As a result, Bill puts his feet up in his Melbourne apartment, comfortable in the knowledge that, even though he has a lower salary, he has a much higher disposable income compared with Ben.

Under this 'fairer' legislation, Ben will also be facing higher costs for private health insurance. He works harder and longer hours. He has less money to spend but this government wants to tax him more, even though he already pays more tax than Bill. How is that fair? This is not an exaggerated case to make a point. This government wants to remove private health insurance incentives entirely from a family earning $249,000 this year. They would have us believe that this family sits around, watching a big plasma television, waiting for a $250,000 cheque to turn up in the mail. They would have us believe a family earning $249,000 or more a year are greedy, rich people who should be robbed with an unfair tax. This family is not just a statistic. It is a family of real human beings with real jobs, real children and real expenses.

For a husband and wife who both work in the mines at Moranbah in your electorate of Capricornia, Madam Deputy Speaker Livermore, where they live with their four children, to rent an average four-bedroom home they will be paying between $1,800 and $3,200 a week. Some rents are even higher. That translates to between $93,000 and $166,000 just for rent. By the time you take out income tax and rent, our family on $249,000 a year out in Moranbah probably cannot afford to feed the kids, let alone pay fully for private health insurance. This government would have us believe that these people are evil people of 'privilege'—the old class warfare bogey. This government does not even know these people because it stopped connecting with real people a long time ago. This government wants to smack such a family back down to the lowest level because they dared to have a dream—they wanted to get ahead.

I noticed an interesting headline in the Australian on Friday from a family talking about the costs this legislation will impose on them. The headline was a quote from Ms Kylie Richards from Adelaide, who, with her husband, owns a commercial flooring business. She said:

It's ridiculous—the better we do, the more the government takes … Every time we try to get ahead and don't rely on the welfare system, we get a guarantee they'll hit us again.

Ms Richards has summed up beautifully this government's fallback position: none shall get ahead. I can imagine the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport taking a quote from Gandalf. They shall not pass is what he is saying to Australian families. What this government will do with this bill is crucify both the economy and the health system.

According to this government, there are 2.4 million people living a life of privilege in this country, because that is how many people will be affected by this legislation. The result will be thousands—tens of thousands, I would say—of Australians dropping private health insurance because they simply cannot afford it anymore. In my electorate of Dawson, there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of residents who will be worse off. Families that are already under pressure from the escalating costs of living will have to make a saving somewhere else.

The minister has claimed 27,000 individuals would drop their health insurance cover if this bill were passed. But the government owned insurer Medibank Private suggests that figure is more, that in fact 37,000 of their members alone will drop their cover and a massive 92,500 people will downgrade their private health cover. That is just Medibank Private and what they see happening with their own members.

Taking an independent, industry-wide approach, the Australian Health Insurance Association commissioned Deloitte to assess the impact of this proposal. Their findings were that, should this bill be passed, 1.6 million consumers would drop private hospital cover, a further 4.3 million would downgrade their cover and a further 2.8 million would drop their general cover. Deloitte also has predicted that health insurance premiums would rise by 10 per cent over and above what they would otherwise be. So then everyone will cop it because of this government's bill.

As families and individuals leave private health in droves, this government will be rubbing its hands with glee. On the face of it—fingers crossed, guys!—that will be a massive saving for this year's budget deficit. It may be enough of a saving to create the illusion of a surplus. But the truth is that, for every dollar the government spends on health insurance rebates, the private health insurers are spending $2 on the provision of health services. Those private health services will now have to be provided by the public health system. What this government is hoping to do is throw a 'hospital pass' to the states for the sake of taxing Australian families and squeezing out its first surplus in 22 years.

Being a Queenslander, I find that a frightening proposition. The Labor government in Queensland has plumbed the very depths of incompetence already without having to cope with more pressure on its health service. Private hospitals currently treat 40 per cent of all patients in Australia—some 3.5 million patients in the 2009-10 financial year. How will the bungling Queensland Health system—an organisation that the Premier tells us has failed under her watch—cope with their share of the increased workload? Private hospitals currently perform 64 per cent of elective surgeries in Australia. Where will the funding come from for the public health system to cope with such an increased workload?

In creating this 'damned if you do and damned if you don't' situation for families with private health cover, the government is basically kicking an own goal. Even if this white rabbit is combined with enough smoke and mirrors to create the illusion of a surplus, it will be just a matter of time before the mirrors crack and the smoke clears. When it does, Australian families who can no longer afford private health insurance will see nothing but a rotting rabbit carcass that carries the stench of deception, incompetence and betrayal.