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Thursday, 16 December 1993
Page: 4843

Senator HERRON (3.28 p.m.) —by leave—I move:

  That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Health (Senator Richardson) in response to a question without notice asked by Senator Herron this day, relating to the government health package.

Honourable senators may not be aware of the significance of my question. The significance of my question to Senator Richardson was that the entire health package will be subject to veto by the ACTU caucus working party. He did not deny the fact that the whole of his health package will be sent to an ACTU caucus working party. Senator Richardson's proposals are now in total disarray. The Senate will recall that his first proposal was for a higher Medicare levy. When the heat was too much, he sent it off to the ACTU caucus working party. The significance of an ACTU working party is beyond me. This is another clear demonstration that everything this government does is subject to the imprimatur of the ACTU. There is a total alliance. In fact, the minister is almost proud of it.

  The minister's second point was that there should be an unholy alliance between the insurance associations and the private hospitals of Australia to contract procedural people attending those hospitals so that they could cap fees. That has been opposed by practically every organisation around the place. The only ones in favour of that action are some of the insurance associations because they see bigger money in it for them. Of course there is political capital in it for the government because then the private hospitals and the insurance associations would be able to attempt to control costs.

  I have heard it said that this would create a two tier health system. The Prime Minister (Mr Keating) should be aware that it would create a three tier health system. People of any ability would not work in that system and they would continue as they do now, contracting their services on a one to one basis with their patients. The second tier would be those who could not get patients to go to them and they would perhaps enter into those contracts. The third tier would be the public hospital system as it exists today. That proposal is to be considered by an ACTU caucus working party.

  The minister's proposed third tier is designed to limit the number of insurance associations that are controlling the private insurance industry. Why that is occurring is again beyond me because 83 per cent of people who are insured in Australia are under the aegis of seven insurance companies. The minister wishes to reduce that number. The other 17 per cent of people are controlled by two groups of organisations—11 of which are regionally based and the remainder are industry based. There is nothing to be achieved by this system.

  What was more significant in the minister's answer to me today was that he had no alternatives. As I said yesterday, if one comes down on both sides of the fence it can be very painful. That is what the minister is about to do. On the one hand, if his proposals go ahead he is effectively dismantling Medicare. That is significant and is recognised by the Left and the Centre Left of the Labor Party. If, on the other hand, his proposals do not go ahead, he is totally discredited because he has no alternatives.

  He has no answer to the rapidly declining number of people who are able to afford private health insurance in this nation. The number is decreasing at a rate of two per cent per annum. It is now less than 39 per cent. In my own state of Queensland it is down to 30 per cent and declining. The minister has no answer to that.

  The only chance for the survival of Medicare in this country is if people are accommodated by the private hospital industry and the private health associations. People who are unable to afford private health insurance, or do not wish to afford it, can stay under the umbrella of Medicare. Unless something drastic is done to rapidly improve the opportunities for lower and middle income earners to take out private insurance, the health system will not survive. The minister knows that, I know that and anybody with any knowledge in this field knows that. It must be done as a matter of urgency. However, it will not be done.

  The minister will have to consider his position if he is rolled on the proposal he is putting before cabinet tonight. This is crisis point; he knows it and I know it. The opposition has alternative proposals which we put forward to encourage people into private insurance so that Medicare can survive.

  Question resolved in the affirmative.