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Thursday, 13 April 2000
Page: 15904

Mr SLIPPER (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance and Administration) (10:40 AM) —in reply—Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to sum up on behalf of the government on this important piece of legislation, the Medicare Levy Amendment (CPI Indexation) Bill 1999. At the outset I would like to thank all honourable members for their contribution to the debate on this bill. It is regrettable that opposition members have not concentrated on the subject matter of the bill before the House.

The Medicare Levy Act 1986 provides an exemption from the Medicare levy for low income individuals and families. Exemption from liability for the Medicare levy surcharge is also provided by reference to the low income thresholds. This bill will provide for increases in the thresholds for individuals, married couples and sole parents. For example, the threshold for individuals is to be increased from $13,389 to $13,550 and for couples with no children from $22,594 to $22,865. These increases are in line with increases in the consumer price index.

The legislation itself is not controversial, and both sides of the parliament are supporting the Medicare Levy Amendment (CPI Indexation) Bill 1999. However, the Australian Labor Party comes into the chamber and seeks to attack this government on its health policies and on our support for a healthy Australia.

Mr Martin Ferguson —That wouldn't be hard.

Mr SLIPPER —I would like to place on record some facts. The member opposite claims that the government's record is not good. Quite to the contrary: the coalition believes that all Australians should have access to a high quality health care system. The coalition is committed to a viable and universally publicly funded health system called Medicare. When one listens to the contributions made by some honourable members opposite, it seems as if the message has not got through to them.

The coalition also believes in a strong private health sector to complement the public system. The private health system allows Australians to choose their own doctor and hospital and helps to alleviate pressure on the public system. I would like to tell honourable members that during 1999-2000 the health portfolio will receive nearly $24 billion in budget funding, with $4.3 billion being raised from the Medicare levy. When one listens to the honourable member for Jagajaga and other honourable members opposite, one could almost be misled into believing they were part of a government that did indeed deliver reasonable health care for Australians.

It is appropriate at this stage to look at Labor's record, because they have nothing to be proud of. Labor failed to deliver adequate health outcomes for all Australians. They failed to deliver meaningful solutions on rural health. During Labor's period in government, they allowed a decline in rural health services and an exodus of general practitioners from the bush. They failed to immunise Australia's children.

Mr Anthony —What a disgusting record.

Mr SLIPPER —It is a disgusting record of the Labor Party. In 1996 Australia's full immunisation rate for children was at a dangerous 53 per cent, well below places such as China, Algeria, Laos and Vietnam. The member for Fremantle had the gall to come in here and criticise this government. The Labor Party huff and puff about their support for indigenous health. They failed to improve indigenous health. By 1996, the National Aboriginal Health Strategy had collapsed and the health of indigenous Australians was relatively poorer than it had been in 1983—that sad year when the Hawke Labor government was elected.

What else has Labor failed to do? Labor ignored the private health system for 13 years. Let us look back: in 1983 when Labor was elected to office, nearly two out of three Australians were covered by private health insurance. By March 1996, this proportion had plummeted to below 34 per cent, even though former health minister Graham Richardson had warned in 1993 that, if private coverage fell below 40 per cent, the entire health system would collapse.

While Labor was in government, private health insurance premiums increased by an average of 12 per cent a year. In many cases, people simply could not afford to remain part of the private health insurance sector. Consequently, the exodus from private health placed unsustainable pressures on the public system and, if allowed to continue, this would have required the building of two large hospitals each year solely to cope with the increase in public demand. Labor's poor management of the health system left it badly in need of repair. The cost of Medicare and the PBS was growing at unsustainable rates. It is interesting that the cost of the Medicare benefits schedule increased from $2.3 billion to over $6 billion from 1984 to 1996. The cost of the PBS doubled in Labor's last term in government. The Labor Party likes to talk about election promises. The Labor Party constantly broke its election promises not to increase the Medicare levy. Following the introduction of Medicare by Labor in 1984, the Medicare levy was increased in December 1985, again in July 1993 and once again in 1995.

The simple fact of the matter is that the Labor Party in office did very little for health. There has also been a suggestion by opposition members that we ought not to support private health insurance, as indeed we have, and that we should simply give more money to public hospitals. Let me again clarify this situation for honourable members and for those members of the community who are listening to this debate. The coalition has increased the funding given to state and territory public hospitals to a record $31 billion over the life of the 1998-2003 agreement. This amount represents an increase of over $7 billion—a lot of money in anyone's terms—or 25 per cent in real terms, above what Labor gave to public hospitals in its last Medicare agreement signed in 1993. It is now up to the states and territories to match the federal government's increased public hospital funding, and the budget papers show that this financial year—that is, 1999-2000—the states and territories on average intend to increase their own hospital expenditure by only 0.3 per cent compared with the federal government's 7.1 per cent. I think on any objective criteria, the federal government is more than meeting its fair share of public hospital expenditure and, combined with the private health incentives, the coalition is restoring accessibility, equality and balance to the Australian health care system.

In her contribution, the honourable member for Jagajaga claimed that my colleague the Minister for Health and Aged Care has failed to introduce legislation to deal with policies with large excess payment requirements. I want to put the record straight for the benefit of honourable members. The minister and the government are committed to dealing with these types of policies. Legislation has not yet been introduced, but will be introduced as soon as practicable. The honourable member for Jagajaga also claimed that there is inadequate funding to the states for public hospitals. The Labor Party, including the member for Jagajaga, opposed the government's tax reform package. This includes the GST, the revenue from which will all go to the states and territories, and this is exactly what the states and territories have been after: a reliable source of revenue to fund health, education and other matters. The opposition is being absolutely hypocritical and we reject absolutely what the opposition has been trying to say most inadequately in this parliament.

The coalition has reformed the Australian health system over the last four years. When Labor was in government it was completely bereft of ideas on how to tackle the challenges of new technologies and changing demographics and their impact on the health of all Australians. Labor had three health ministers between 1993 and 1996—none of whom was capable of or dedicated to genuine reform. On the other hand, the coalition remains committed to a high quality health care system for all by combining a universal health system, Medicare, with the freedom of choice provided by a strong public sector.

The coalition also acknowledges the importance of ensuring that those Australians living in rural and remote parts of the country have similar access to health services as those who live in the city. The Labor Party stand condemned for their hypocrisy, for the way they come into the chamber and ignore the fact that for 13 years they failed comprehensively in the area of health and, might I say, in so many other areas of governance. The Labor Party were rejected at the 1996 election and the 1998 election. Yet, instead of coming in here and apologising for what they failed to do, we find honourable members from the opposition coming in here criticising the government and covering up for their absolute failure in the area of health reform.

As I have said, all honourable members actually support the terms of this bill. The Labor Party have been debating something else and running away from their failure in the area of health. I am very pleased to commend the Medicare Levy Amendment (CPI Indexation) Bill 1999 to the chamber.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.