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Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Page: 1490


Senator CORMANN (2:11 PM) —My question is to Senator Ludwig, the Minister representing the Minister for Health and Ageing. Minister, when exactly before the election did the Labor Party advise the Australian people that they would be making changes to the Medicare levy surcharge policy?


Senator LUDWIG (Minister for Human Services) —On 10 May 2008 the federal Treasurer, Hon. Wayne Swan MP, announced that as part of the budget the Commonwealth government will increase the Medicare levy surcharge thresholds to $100,000 for individuals and $150,000 for families from 1 July 2008. This announcement—


Senator Cormann —Mr President, I rise on a point of order. I asked the minister a very specific question: when exactly before the election did the Labor Party advise the Australian people about making changes to the Medicare levy surcharge policy? I would ask that you direct the minister to answer the question.


The PRESIDENT —I cannot direct the minister as to how he will answer the question. He has been going for 30 seconds, so we will see what transpires.


Senator LUDWIG —As I was saying, this announcement has attracted a lot of media interest and clearly interest from the opposition, including our press articles on 13 May 2008. It is estimated to result in published savings of around $299 million over the first four years. This measure was squarely targeted at bringing relief to working families, and it will offer welcome relief for over two million Australians. When the policy was introduced by the former government, they said:

High income earners will be asked to pay a Medicare Levy surcharge if they do not have private health insurance ... These are the people who can afford to purchase health insurance, and this measure will relieve some of the pressure on the public hospital system.

That is what was said. These thresholds, originally targeted at high-income earners, have not been moved in a decade. This was a dirty trick played by the previous Liberal government on hundreds of thousands of Australians. That is what it was. I would like to challenge the Liberal Party to find someone who is earning $51,000 who thinks that they are a high-income earner.

We promised in opposition to review this measure, and we have. As a result of this change, individuals will be up to $1,000 a year better off—and up to $1,500 for a couple. The Commonwealth government strongly believes that a mixed model of private and public health services is essential to the provision of universal access to high-quality, affordable healthcare services for all Australians, unlike, it seems from the interruptions from the other side, the current opposition. We are strong supporters of private health insurance and have delivered on all of our election promises in this area. We will retain the full package of private health insurance rebates, a policy which ends the previous government’s practice—


Senator Cormann —Mr President, I rise on a point of order. We are now quite far into the answer, and 10 May is not before the election, as far as I can tell. I would ask you to remind the minister of the question about when before the election Labor told the Australian people that they would make those changes.


Senator Chris Evans —Mr President, on the point of order: on the question of relevance, it is very clear that Senator Ludwig is right on topic. The question that has been asked of him has been addressed by him throughout his answer, and I suggest that this is another attempt at a frivolous point of order. Senator Ludwig is directly on the topic about which he was asked.


Senator Ian Macdonald —Mr President, on the point of order: this makes a complete farce of question time.


The PRESIDENT —What is your point of order?


Senator Ian Macdonald —I am responding in this series of points of order and answering Senator Evans. This makes a complete farce of question time if a question is asked specifically about when an announcement was made and we have a four-minute diatribe about how terrible the previous government was.


The PRESIDENT —Order! You are starting to debate the question.


Senator Ian Macdonald —But Mr President, we have to get him to answer the question.


The PRESIDENT —Order! I do not intend to allow senators to debate the point of order. Senator Evans, it is not a frivolous point of order. As I said earlier to Senator Cormann, I cannot direct the minister as to how he will answer the question. During his answer he has referred to the Medicare levy surcharge on numerous occasions. So he is not out of order.


Senator LUDWIG —What the Medicare levy surcharge will do is take some pressure off working families who were already struggling to pay for the rising cost of health care under the previous Liberal government. It is estimated that 11 per cent of privately-insured patients who are treated at a public hospital opt to be treated as public patients. If the previous government really cared about making sure all Australians had access to quality health care, they would have done this long ago. The Department of Health and Ageing will communicate the changes to the private health insurance industry and consumers. Looking at comments that were made prior to the election, it was reported in the Daily Telegraph on 10 January that:

Labor health spokeswoman Nicola Roxon yesterday attacked the Government for not indexing the surcharge but would not commit a Labor government to indexation. “We now see that because the Government has failed to index the levy that people who are earning average incomes are now being hit with an extra charge,” Ms Roxon said.

She went on to say:

“We think this is an outrage and the Government should be looking at ways it can appropriately adjust that threshold,” she said.

On 5 November 2007, it was reported that Ms Roxon described the failure to index the levy—(Time expired)


Senator CORMANN —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I note that Labor did not advise the Australian people before the election about changes to the Medicare levy surcharge policy. My supplementary question is: isn’t it the case that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Health and Ageing, representing the minister in Senate additional estimates earlier this year, committed that there would be no changes to the Medicare levy surcharge policy? Doesn’t this prove the point made by Mr Garrett: ‘Once we get in, we’ll just change it all’?

Honourable senators interjecting—


The PRESIDENT —Order! We will not continue until the Senate comes to order.


Senator LUDWIG (Minister for Human Services) —It is worth putting on the record, in answering the supplementary question, that the Daily Telegraph article was dated 10 January 2007. As I was going to say—and I now say in answer to the supplementary question—the Daily Telegraph on 5 November 2007 stated:

Earlier this year Ms Roxon described the failure to index the levy, which has raised almost $1 billion, as an “outrage”. “It is one of those measures we would consider looking at in government,” her office told the Daily Telegraph.

This matter was clearly on the record prior to the election. It was a matter that we were going to look at in government. With respect to the impact on private health insurance and premiums, what we will do from 1 July 2008— (Time expired)