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Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 54

Senator KNOWLES (3:56 PM) —Today we have heard a very interesting contribution by Senator McLucas, little of which, I have to say, is accurate. But then that comes as no surprise either. One of the most stunning things that I think the Labor Party have a record for in this place is trying to drive down private health insurance membership. Do you know, Mr Deputy President, that none of them admit to having private health insurance, and that is part of the problem, because everyone over there is earning more than $100,000 and they want to clog up the public system. They do not declare their private health insurance status. I think that is atrocious—to think that they want to bleed the public system while trying, in a policy sense, to drive down membership of private health insurance.

Senator McLucas cited an example from someone or other very early on in her contribution, saying that more pressure is being placed on household budgets because of the increases and because of interest rate increases. Isn’t it amazing? As Senator Patterson said in question time, Senator McLucas has not been here all that long, but some of us have and some of us have memories. I wonder if Senator McLucas remembers 1991-92, when the average increase in private health insurance—not the highest increase, but the average increase, which means, of course, that there are lots higher to get an average increase—was 17 per cent. Guess what? Interest rates were exactly the same.

So do not come in here lecturing this government about interest rates and levels of PHI increase because the average increase under the Labor government was 11 per cent. They had a system where the private health insurance companies could just say, ‘Think we might increase the premiums today.’ There was no control, there was no vetting system and they did not have to prove, in any way, shape or form, to the government, that it had to be increased. But the Labor Party just lived with it and said, ‘Who cares?’ They drove down private health insurance from around 70 per cent to around 30 per cent in 11 short years—it was 11 long years if you were in opposition, let me tell you. That is their record, and they come in here and talk about the fact that more pressure is being placed on household budgets. How hypocritical is that, when they only tell half the story?

The other half of the story is what the real rates of increase are. I want to give the Senate some examples, because listening to senators opposite you would think that the real rates of increase are going to absolutely blow people clean out of the water. From the Hospital Benefits Fund in Western Australia, one of the largest funds in Australia, rate increase examples are as follows: for young single savers, an extra 40c per week; single intermediate hospital with $100 excess is an extra 65c per week; intermediate hospital family cover with $100 excess is an extra $1.25 per week; single top hospital with $100 excess is an extra 75c per week; and family top hospital with $100 excess is an extra $1.45 a week. And the Labor Party come in here and say: ‘This is outrageous! It’s absolutely and utterly outrageous!’

But what Labor also do not take into account is that those increases are even less for people over 65 and over 70, because those people over 65 and over 70 get a rebate of 35 per cent and 40 per cent respectively. They get a larger rebate, which the Labor Party want to abolish altogether. So elect the Labor Party as a government and you will have no 30 per cent rebate, the over-65s will not have a 35 per cent rebate and the over-70s will not have a 40 per cent rebate. Labor will have none of that, because their interest, as we can see from this debate today, is to drive down private health insurance membership. As I say, increases under Labor were simply a flick of the pen. There was no approval process in place at all—they did not see a need to have it.

The other interesting thing that Senator McLucas said was that there is a reduction in the number of younger people. I could not help myself—I had to interject and say that that is absolutely wrong. But she did not correct it. She simply went ahead and told the story the way she wanted to tell it. The fact of the matter is that the review of Lifetime Health Cover, for example, shows that coverage of people aged 30 to 39 years is now 12.7 per cent higher than it was when Lifetime Health Cover was introduced—so do not come in here and say that it is less—and the coverage of people aged between 40 and 54 years is now 14 per cent higher. The very age brackets that Senator McLucas said were lower are not lower; they are higher.

Senator Marshall —Is it going down?

Senator KNOWLES —And here we go, saying, ‘Is it going down?’ The fact of the matter, Senator Marshall, is that private health insurance uptake is considerably higher than when the Labor government was in office, and it will continue to stay higher than it was. The fact of the matter is that Senator McLucas came in here and tried to convey that the number of young people with health insurance was lower than it used to be, and it is not. And here we go: Senator Marshall will no doubt try and swing the lid again to try and convince people that it is lower.

The other fact of the matter is that people are voting with their feet: 56 per cent of hospital episodes are done in the private sector. And Senator McLucas said, ‘It is not taking the weight off the public hospital system.’ Well, put all those people back into the public hospital system and see what weight it has taken off! Look at the number of hip replacements! Look at the number of cardiothoracic procedures! Just have a look at the whole range of procedures that are done in private hospitals. Take them out of private hospitals and stick them back into the public hospital system and see what it does to the public hospital system!

The public hospital system was groaning at the knees—and the ankles, the hips and everywhere else—when Labor left government. We have brought it back up so that private hospital insurance is affordable again. And what do the Labor Party want to do? They want to drive it back down again, and they are part of the problem. People earning over $100,000 a year on that side of this house choose to clog up the public hospital system by not taking out private hospital insurance. That is a disgrace, because they then take the place of a person who is on a low income and a very long waiting list. They may well say, ‘I’ll self-insure.’ Let’s see whether they do. There are some notable members of the Labor Party who have been hospitalised in recent times. Did they go to a private hospital? No. They went to a public hospital—at the expense of low-income earners, I might add—and they should be ashamed of themselves.

Let us not forget in this debate that the average rate of increase in private health insurance premiums under Labor was 11 per cent. Let us also not forget—and come in here with this cry of ‘woe is me’—that they have a record, from 1991-92, of a 17 per cent increase in private health insurance premiums and interest rates of 17 per cent. I would be ashamed if I had been a member of that government. Fortunately I was not, but I would be equally ashamed if I had been a member of that government and now, in opposition, I was coming in here and trying to chastise a government that has provided the incentives for people to take out private health insurance. (Time expired)