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Tuesday, 25 November 2003
Page: 22778

Dr EMERSON (7:18 PM) —The medical indemnity insurance crisis has been going on for far too long and we welcome the fact that some measures have been adopted by this government, through the Medical Indemnity Amendment Bill 2003, that may help alleviate it. But they are all part of the mix that has created a crisis in our health system, a crisis characterised by a shortage of doctors and a slump in bulk-billing. In my electorate of Rankin, the slump in bulk-billing in the last three months has been dramatic, and over the last 15 months it has gone from a slide to a collapse. There is widespread concern about that, and I can certainly understand the point of view of GPs and specialists, wondering what is in it in a financial sense for them, because they work very hard and very long and they are very committed people, very committed Australians, performing what I think everyone would agree is an indispensable service to the community.

It is often too easy to blame doctors and say that they are doing very well for themselves but when you consider the costs that they incur, not only through their training but also through the practice itself, and the enormous hours that they work, you understand their view that to be burdened by the sorts of levies that were proposed by this government was intolerable. Before the minister's announcement that there was going to be at least temporary relief from the levy that was to be applied, I was anticipating real trouble at Logan hospital in my own electorate because its specialists were, as I understand it, looking seriously at withdrawing from the whole profession, which would have been a tragedy. We know that these are highly trained specialists who then acquire enormous skills through the practice of their profession, and to lose these people from our health system would have been nothing short of a tragedy. So there is some welcome news in this particular piece of legislation and we certainly are pleased to see that there is at least some relief and that, while the crisis in medical indemnity insurance is still there, at least it is not being given its full expression. If it were, I fear that we would see widespread resignations not only in Queensland but right across the nation.

As I said in my remarks a moment ago, this is one component of the enormous difficulties that our health system is now experiencing. These difficulties are in very large part a creation of this government going back to 1987, when the current Prime Minister who was then opposition leader told the John Laws program, in the lead-up to the 1987 election, that he would `take a scalpel to Medicare' and tear Medicare right apart. He described bulk-billing then as a rort. The truth of the matter is that the government preceding that, the Fraser government, had seven different health policies in seven years. They knew that what they wanted to do was to dismantle the then Medibank. They did that and went through seven different health policies in seven years and then the opposition that the now Prime Minister led seemed to have a different health policy each year in opposition, leading up to that statement by the Prime Minister that he would in fact take a scalpel to Medicare and tear it right apart.

He became wise after the event—the event being the 1987 election—and thereafter he did not renew his promise to take a scalpel to Medicare. But he has never believed in it. The government has never believed in Medicare and the truth of the matter is that, from the day this government was elected in March 1996, it began letting the Medicare system go, effectively dismantling it by stealth. It had at least wised up to the fact that the Australian community strongly supports Medicare, so it could not make public statements that it would take a scalpel to Medicare without bearing a very high political price.

So its tactic had been to allow Medicare to fall into disrepair and disrepute, hoping that the community would then join it in its view that Medicare should go. That has not happened. The community has not joined the government in its view that Medicare should go. The community, in fact, has strengthened their resolve in relation to Medicare to the point of saying, `We want you to save Medicare.' But they do know in their heart of hearts that this government will not save Medicare, because it has never been committed to it. Labor will save Medicare. Labor built Medicare, and only Labor will save Medicare.

We certainly see this bill as a very small amount of progress, but it does not in any way obviate the fact that Medicare and our public health system are in crisis and in urgent need of repair. The government's so-called MedicarePlus package, which is more aptly described as `MedicareMinus', will only result in a further decline in bulk-billing, an increase in out-of-pocket expenses and ultimately the destruction of Medicare. Madam Deputy Speaker, I say through you to the people of Australia that Labor built Medicare and only Labor will save Medicare.