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Tuesday, 16 September 2003
Page: 20218

Ms O'BYRNE (9:00 PM) —I rise to speak on the Howard government's demolition of Medicare and its impact on Australian families. It is nothing less than a national disgrace that the people of Bass and Braddon find it so difficult to access affordable health care—a national disgrace that the bulk-billing rate for the first three months of this year was 48.5 per cent. That means less than half of all GP visits in my electorate are bulk-billed and represents a fall of five full percentage points in the last three years. This government's demolition of Medicare means that many Bass families are forced to find $50 each time they have to take their sick children to the doctor. The Howard government's ideological opposition to universal health care means it is content to force families to choose between buying food, paying their electricity bill and taking their sick children to the doctor.

Mr Bartlett —Rubbish!

Mr Hardgrave —Hear, hear!

Ms O'BYRNE —The members opposite can say, `Rubbish!' but they have no idea what it is like in the real world. Mr Speaker, this is an example of ideology run rampant. It is an example of the indifference of an arrogant government to the needs of working families, and it is an example of extraordinary stupidity. The Senate inquiry into Medicare recently heard that many Tasmanian families are delaying their visits to the GP and these delays are resulting in a deterioration of medical conditions and increased public health costs. Alongside its terrible impact on working families in my electorate and the counterproductive impact on health costs, the Howard government's demolition of Medicare hits one group especially hard: disabled children and their carers.

On 3 August this year, Labor revealed that a government cost-cutting exercise, disguised as an eligibility review, threatened the $87 per fortnight carer allowance paid to Australian families caring for children with conditions such as diabetes, down syndrome, cystic fibrosis and cerebral palsy. In order to meet the government's new eligibility criteria, many families caring for children with these conditions were told they had to fill in a 30-page form and see a GP or, in some cases, a specialist to have their claims verified. For families in regional electorates like Bass, where less than 50 per cent of GP visits are bulk-billed—

Mr Bartlett —She needs a doctor!

Ms O'BYRNE —I only wish we could afford one!—this meant filling in a 30-page form and then paying a doctor $50 to verify that their children's disability was genuine. I have a slight belief in the universality of health care! The government has now revised the review, so families with children with down syndrome or cystic fibrosis will no longer be required to fill in a 30-page form. But many others will still have to fill in that form, including families with children with diabetes, chronic severe asthma, ADD, cerebral palsy and autism spectrum disorders.

This is a pattern of conduct that epitomises the Howard government. First, pick on the weak. Second, if that attracts criticism, quickly insinuate that the weak are responsible for their plight. The key to this government's behaviour is that it never takes on the strong. If you are healthy and wealthy then this government is your friend. Want a 30 per cent rebate for a private health insurance package that delivers running shoes and relaxation tapes? The Howard government is your friend. Want affordable and accessible GP services for your sick children? Sorry, you are out on your own.

Mr Sidebottom —Hit the road!

Ms O'BYRNE —Yes, hit the road. Last month Minister Vanstone said the regular review of entitlements was part of a robust welfare system. What she meant to say was that it is part of a robust social security system, because demonstrated need is not part of the Howard government's corporate welfare program. Let me use Manildra as a case study.

Following a series of private meetings between the Prime Minister and the chairman of Manildra, the Howard government is to deliver the Manildra Group around $30 million in corporate welfare this financial year. I have had a look at the difference between the Howard government's approach to corporate welfare and its approach to social security. One of the first and most obvious differences is that most recipients of Centrelink payments just do not seem to figure on BRW's list of Australia's richest people. The second is that they do not get many private meetings with the Prime Minister. The third is that for some reason they do not tend to make huge donations to the coalition parties.

It is because of these differences that the government is not concerned that the $30 million to be paid to Manildra in ethanol subsidies this year could fund 342,000 fortnightly carer allowance payments of $87.70. It is also enough to fund the carer allowance for 13,000 families for a year. Senator Vanstone is cutting the benefits of vulnerable Australians to fund benefits for one of Australia's wealthiest businesspeople. I wonder how many forms Mr Honan had to fill out in order to receive his tailored and, at $30 million per year, very `robust' corporate taxpayer funded welfare. I also wonder how many 30-page forms he will have to complete each year to ensure that he continues to qualify for that payment. I expect it is none, Mr Speaker. Manildra has already filled out the cheque made out to the coalition, already declared the donation to the AEC and already deposited the government's ethanol payments in its private company account.