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Wednesday, 14 June 1989
Page: 3953

Senator COOK (Minister for Resources)(11.15) —I recognise that in this chamber a coalition of parties is ranged against the Government. The Liberal Party of Australia, since we came to government in 1983, has had five shadow Ministers for community services and health and six different policies, some of which it could not make add up. The Liberal Party is opposed to us. Then, unabashedly and unashamedly, there is the National Party of Australia. It is opposed to us, and the less said about that the better. What I cannot understand is why the Australian Democrats are opposed to us, but they are. With this conjunction of opposition, I have to recognise that the Government does not have the numbers and is likely therefore to lose. But before we go down, if that be our fate, let me address some remarks to the Democrats as to why I think they ought, prior to casting their votes, to think again about this issue.

In this chamber, last night and today, the Democrats have taken from the Government important amendments that it wanted to put through for general practitioners and health reinsurance. The Democrats have sent those proposals to a committee to inquire into them. Thus the reforms the Government wanted to make have been delayed. Thus the outcome for the future for general practitioners and health reinsurance is uncertain. The organisations which have induced this uncertainty, legislatively and in the wider community, are not the Government but those who have voted together to bring about this result. What now is being proposed is not necessary because, when the Senate select committee reports at the end of its inquiry, if there were no carriage of this motion, the Government would be still in a position of having to make a decision based on the report and acting on that decision. But this means that the proposals will fall to the floor by 1 July. That imposes on the Government and, I believe, the community a number of undesirable events.

Let me go to the administrative undesirables before I go to the policy undesirables. The first administrative undesirable is that the report of the select committee will be due by 1 March. Honourable senators opposite expect us to have developed a response to that report and to have consulted widely. In the last division we were accused of not consulting widely enough. Albeit we consulted 23 different organisations, that still was not wide enough. Honourable senators opposite want us to consult widely and to conclude those consultations in time to have the parliamentary draftsmen draft legislative change, have us bring it to the chamber and get passage in both Houses, contend with the capricious nature of this chamber, get final passage, and have the legislation under royal assent by 1 July.

The Democrats have never been in government and may never be in government, but I put to the Senate that that is an unreasonable imposition to place on government and because of its tight boundaries on time, it imposes on the whole of the community a considerable anxiety as to the future of health matters and reinsurance. Whether we will be able to meet the timetable is a significant problem.

The second objection I ask the Democrats to consider goes to the very nature of this chamber. By seeking a sunset provision like this, this chamber can be said to be seeking to be the primary legislative body. This chamber is a review chamber. It is not where the Government is formed; it is where legislation proposed by the Government is considered, reviewed and sent back for further consideration by the Government. The proposed amendment tries to harness this chamber as the primary legislative source and the one which will control the fate of legislation. I think that is unreasonable. The Senate may review these provisions, by all means, but it should not put the Government in a position in which it cannot govern. I raise that as a principled objection.

But let me go to the practical effect. What are the policy objections? In this legislation we have concentrated on delivering to the health insurance industry long and strong signals that enable the industry to act in a stable and ongoing way to provide continuity and to be able to work its tables out so that people know what the payments will be and what they will be into the future. This sunset provision removes that long term security and stability of the industry and plunges it into a position in which it can work its actuarial calculations only for one year, because that is the only period for which it has any certainty. After the year is up, who knows what will happen? Who knows how the industry can spin its wheels and calculate its figures to see what the new set of fees will be? That is an unreasonable thing to impose not only for the health insurance industry but for those who are consumers and have voluntarily decided to take out extra health insurance. This anxiety has been raised by pensioner organisations, by the voluntary health funds themselves on behalf of pensioners and by the wider constituency of those health funds.

The Democrats should consider the sunset provision in view of the fact that instability and constant anxiety and capriciousness is bad government-or at least the Liberals and the Nationals should consider the provision in that light. They should deliver some stability and certainty to the industry so that it can go ahead and make its calculations. If there is a need later, after the inquiry and its report, to modify at the margin, we can do so; but not on a basis that they are chopped off after one year and the whole thing is plunged into some sort of chaos.

If this amendment is carried and goes back to the House of Representatives, the Government will seek to reject it there and the legislation will have to come back here again. I do not say that lightly. It is a significant problem. The Government will not resile from its position. We will then be required to have another debate on this issue. I say those things to the Democrats and ask them, before proceeding on this issue, finally to reconsider some of those principles and make a decision in the interests of the industry, the wider community and some degree of stability.

Let me conclude by referring to some of Senator Puplick's remarks. I find his remark that the Liberal Party is about better health care very odd indeed. That may well be the rhetoric the Liberal Party engages in. We just had a burst of it a minute ago. That is what members of the Liberal Party say, but political organisations are judged not so much by what they say but by what they do. What was the record of the Liberal Party during the Fraser years? Can anyone remember how many times Medibank, as it was then, was changed, the health arrangements were altered, people were forced into private health insurance that led, finally, to crippling burdens, and where the sense of equity that we have introduced in Medicare was removed from the community? Can we remember back in those days?

The Liberal Party says it wants better private health care. What is that code for? It is code for Andrew Peacock saying, `Yes, there is a need in the wider economy to cut government expenditure further'. He said this many times in the lead-up to his leadership challenge, but very little since his election because he wants to fudge and cloud this issue. Where will he cut expenditure? In set-piece speeches in which he has had a considered view to put-so he is not being doorstopped; he has not had a question popped at him out of the blue and made a false response-he has said that he will find cuts in the Medicare and health care areas, in the welfare area. That means that more and more of the burden of health costs go on to the shoulders of the wider community. Because the distribution of incomes is unequal, but the imposition of the burden will be equal, those who are least able to afford it will pay most and they will be put in real jeopardy. That is the Liberal Party's position. Why would a Labor Government, committed to social equity, connive to bring about that result? We will not do so. We will not be put in a position in which we shift the cost back on to those who can least afford it.

Senator Puplick made the quite remarkable argument that he is concerned about the anxiety that has been created among less fortunate people in the community. That is a very patronising view, because it assumes absolutely that the pensioner organisations do not have a true perception of their self- interest, that the pensioner organisations that have been lobbying Senator Puplick, this Government and, I believe, the Australian Democrats do not know what they are lobbying the parties about. Of course, they know. Of course, they know the risk to their constituents that those sorts of changes, if brought about, would create.

Senator Puplick's argument also presupposes that the voluntary health insurance organisations do not know what is in their real interest. He concluded by saying that he would not be bound by the ongoing values of the Labor Party. That may also be code for saying that the Opposition does not support the community rating principle. The Government wants to see the community rating principle continue. That principle requires a brief explanation. Because older people are more likely to get sick and require medical attention more often, some people are lobbying for the amount they pay for health insurance to be related to the frequency with which they go to hospital and for the cost of insurance not to be calculated right across the population, including all types of people, ages and income groups who take up private health insurance. That would mean that younger, fitter people would pay less while older people, prone to ill health, would pay more. There is a strong lobby to turn over the community rating principle and Senator Puplick has said that he does not want to be bound by the ongoing values of the Government. Why does he not come out and clearly say that he does not want the community rating principle enshrined, because that is what he is saying?

I can understand why someone who takes an administrative or a rationally logical and narrow approach-such as an Australian Democrat-would move a sunset provision like this. But to do so narrowly is to do so blinkeredly and to do so blinkeredly, without taking account of the wider landscape and the impact that a blinkered decision would have on that wider landscape, is bad policy, bad decision-making and just plain wrong. Therefore, I ask the three parties to reconsider their support for this amendment; I ask that it be defeated.