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Thursday, 12 November 1959

Mr DUTHIE (Wilmot) .- This is where the Opposition has a fundamental disagreement with the Government on this National Health Bill. We will vote against the 5s. levy.

Mr Turnbull - Irrespective of cost?

Mr DUTHIE - Yes, irrespective of cost, because we feel that it is a completely unnecessary imposition on the sick people of Australia. The Opposition is concerned for the sick people. These are the people who will have to pay. This is a clumsy and desperate method of trying to reduce the high cost of prescriptions. I am sure that the Government could have devised a much fairer means than this. Obviously, not very much thought was given to it. It is a stab in the dark. It is an outrageous imposition on the sick folk of the Commonwealth. It is against the people. Possibly about 20 per cent. of part pensioners in Australia will have to pay the 5s. levy.

My colleague the honorable member for Eden-Monaro (Mr. Allan Fraser) has just said that all pensioners receiving their full pension plus £2 a week will be liable to the 5s. imposition. The people mainly affected are mostly over 60 and many of them are over 65 years of age. Illnesses are almost constantly with them. Day by day and month by month some of them are just keeping out of hospital by a miracle. Any one who receives the miserable amount of £6 15s. or more a week will have to pay the 5s. levy. This is a decisive body blow at the sick most of whom will be in the higher age group. Obviously, this is no longer a free health scheme to pensioners or part pensioners. This cuts right across the first principle of the act.

On this side of the chamber we commend the Government on having provided pharmaceutical benefits for the people of Australia. But we oppose the way in which the Government has forced the people into a medical benefits scheme. We will always oppose that. We hope that if we become a government that scheme will be excised from the act. Here we have an additional burden of 5s. The cost of living in sickness is becoming higher and higher and the cost of dying is becoming higher and higher.

We have two principal costs if we are not pensioners. Those of us who are in hospital and medical benefits funds are paying from £8 to £10 a year in premiums. On top of that imposition, there will be 5s. for every prescription. That could amount to 15s., because there could be three units on the one prescription, and a 5s. charge for each would make a total of 15s.

Mr Buchanan - One will not be charged for.

Mr DUTHIE - Only two will be charged for. I am indebted to the honorable member for correcting me on that point. This imposition means that those who cannot afford to pay will be required to pay just as much as is paid by those who can afford to pay. As a number of my colleagues pointed out at the second-reading stage, Mr. Chairman, this charge becomes like an ungraded tax, and is a very heavy imposi tion on those who cannot afford to pay. It discriminates against those who can least afford to pay.

I have here a letter written by a chemist to my colleague, the honorable member for Eden-Monaro.

Mr Wight - The honorable member should not read other people's mail.

Mr DUTHIE - The honorable member for Eden-Monaro has passed it on to me so that I may quote it, although he has asked me not to mention the name of the chemist.

Referring to the 5s. levy, this chemist writes -

We are completely opposed to this in principle as well as fact, for the following reasons: -

(a)   The sum mentioned depends in actual fact on the whim of the Minister concerned and may be varied up or down at will.

That is an important point. In this connexion, I should like to read part of proposed new sub -section (1.) of section 99 of the principal act, which provides -

The Minister may, after consultation with the Federated Pharmaceutical Service Guild of Australia, determine -

(a)   the rates by reference to which . . . and

(b)   the conditions subject to which payments will be made ... in respect of the supply of pharmaceutical benefits .. .

In other words, the Minister has the right to fix the rates and to vary them. Therefore, we are at the caprice of a Minister in this. No wonder the chemists are against that.

The letter written by this chemist continues -

(b)   We feel that the collection of this sum should not be the concern of the chemist, but part of the Government's responsibility. As you will perceive, the collection of a small sum of money such as this, if not paid on the spot, would be completely uneconomical - more so now with the iniquitous price of postage.

The chemist points out there that, if he cannot get his 5s. from the patient there and then, in the shop, he has to send out an account, and that means additional cost to him. For the two reasons which I have given, this chemist, along with the majority of chemists, is opposed to the collection of this 5s. levy.

The Government has made the chemists compulsory collectors. This is a very easy way out for the Government. This levy will bring in about £5,000,000 a year, and the Government is forcing the chemists to become collectors. It is almost like the situation in relation to the pay-roll tax. Those who collect that tax perform the functions of a government instrumentality without being paid for the services they render.

Mr Turnbull - The chemists will not be collecting for the Government at all.

Mr Anthony - They will be collecting for themselves.

Mr DUTHIE - If they do not do the collecting, they will not get the 5s.

Mr Anthony - Tt is the same as selling anything else.

Mr DUTHIE - It is not. I do not think that the honorable member would make a very good chemist.

For the reasons which I have given, Mr. Chairman, I add my protests to those made by the honorable member for Eden-Monaro and others of my colleagues. The Government's proposals represent a clumsy and desperate attempt to pass on to the public the high cost of medicines. This proposal for a levy of 5s. on each prescription will not achieve the purpose that the Government has in mind. Over the next twelve months, we shall assess it. The proposal will go through now, because the Government has the numbers. But we shall probably find, at the time of the next Budget, that this levy has not achieved the purpose for which it is being imposed.

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