House debates

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives Bill 2009; Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives (Medicare Levy Surcharge) Bill 2009; Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives (Medicare Levy Surcharge — Fringe Benefits) Bill 2009

Second Reading

8:59 pm

Photo of Peter SlipperPeter Slipper (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I also oppose this legislation because I believe that the parliament of Australia ought to hold the government of Australia to its promises. I also speak on behalf of the 58,299 people in the electorate of Fisher who, as at 1 January this year, are covered by private health insurance. All of us believe that good quality health services are absolutely essential in 2009. We are a country which has been perceived to be the lucky country, and over the years we have had relatively good health services. One of the challenges that the former Howard government had was that people were dropping out of the private health insurance system and those who remained were paying ever higher premiums, and also it meant that people who were dropping out of the system moved into public health and extended waiting lists even further.

The way to have a prosperous and successful public health system is to have a large proportion of the community covered by private health insurance because people who are covered by private health insurance largely will not use public hospitals, and that means that the public hospitals are available for those people who do not have private health insurance or who cannot afford private health insurance even with the assistance of rebates. The legislation before the chamber will have the effect of discouraging people either from entering into private health insurance or from continuing to be in private health insurance. I just think that it is one of the most retrograde pieces of legislation that I have ever seen in the parliament during the period of my service. The rebates are being reduced to 20 per cent for singles earning between $75,001 and $90,000 and families earning between $150,001 and $180,000, and reduced further to 10 per cent for singles earning between $90,001 and $120,000 and families earning between $180,001 and $240,000.

We have a situation where the government has been thoroughly irresponsible in the economic area. It inherited a budget that was in surplus, and now we have moved from a situation of absolutely no government debt to a position where we have mortgaged the future for generations to come. There is $300 billion of debt that this government has sought to impose on today’s Australians and tomorrow’s Australians and Australians into the future. Australians are now paying the price for the government’s reckless spending, including spiralling and out-of-control debt and deficits, which will be before us for a very long period of time.

The government had an option, which was pointed out by the Leader of the Opposition in his budget reply speech, and what could have happened is that there should have been an increase in the excise on tobacco. That would have meant that the Prime Minister and the government would have been able to make those savings and allow people to continue to receive the private health insurance rebate at the rate that it currently is. I simply do not know why the government seeks to encourage the use of tobacco at the same time as it is forcing people out of the private health insurance system.

Let us look at a number of the promises made by the Prime Minister and by the Minister for Health and Ageing over the months and years which helped to assure people that they would not tinker with this system. But the system has been attacked by this government and a lot of people would feel that they voted on a fraudulent basis at the last election. They voted believing the government would not play with the private health insurance system, yet what is being delivered by this government is quite different from the rhetoric and promises that were delivered by the government when it was in opposition. The Prime Minister in an interview with Leon Byner on radio FIVEaa on 24 August 2007 had this exchange:

BYNER: All right, now, let me ask you a couple of questions that listeners have called in on—Lorraine wants to know if you are going to take off the rebate for private health funds which currently the Government supports, that’s the 30 per cent we’re talking about?

The Prime Minister answered:

Absolutely not.

The Prime Minister in a letter to the AHIA on 20 November 2007 said:

Both my Shadow Minister for Health, Nicola Roxon, and I have made clear on many occasions this year that Federal Labor is committed to retaining the existing private health insurance rebates, including the 30 per cent general rebate and the 35 and 40 per cent rebates for older Australians.

The Prime Minister on 25 February 2008 at a press conference in his courtyard said:

The Private Health Insurance Rebate policy remains unchanged and will remain unchanged.

The now Minister for Health and Ageing, then shadow minister, in a media release on 26 September 2007 said:

On many occasions for many months, Federal Labor has made it crystal clear that we are committed to retaining all of the existing Private Health Insurance rebates, including the 30 per cent general rebate and the 35 and 50 per cent rebates for older Australians.

The Liberals continue to try to scare people into thinking Labor will take away the rebates. This is absolutely untrue.

The health minister on 24 February this year said to the Age:

The Government is firmly committed to retaining the existing private health insurance rebates.

The minister for health accuses the opposition of trying to scare people into thinking Labor will take away the rebates. What Labor is doing in this legislation is diminishing the rebates, taking away some of the rebates, and it is really sad when the government of the country has been caught telling untruths.

The attitude of the government towards private health insurance simply represents an ongoing ideological hatred of private health insurance, which the Labor Party has possessed for a very long time. It is a poorly considered, ideologically driven policy. Despite the Prime Minister’s ‘Robin Hood’ rhetoric, one million Australians with private health insurance live in households where the annual income is less than $26,000 and all of those people will be affected.

We believe that it is right for all Australians to take charge of their own healthcare needs and plan for the future. We have always worked hard to deliver incentives to promote the uptake of private health insurance and to take the pressure off Medicare. These were key reforms by the former Howard government. These are reforms which are being unwound in this legislation. These are reforms which are being unwound as a result of the government breaking the promises that it made not once, not twice, not thrice, but over and over again. There would have been many people who voted in the election on 24 November 2007 on the basis of the promises of the government not to interfere with private health insurance, but obviously the government has its core promises and its non-core promises. Clearly it seems to me that any promise made by this government would go into the category of a non-core promise.

Let us look at what organisations like the Australian Health Insurance Association have said. They said, on 12 May 2009:

The Rudd government’s decision to dismantle the private health insurance rebate will place increased pressure on the public hospital system and force up premiums for those Australians who take responsibility for their own health care by taking out private health cover.

The AMA said, on the same date:

Changes to the 30% Private Health Insurance Rebate mean many Australian singles and families will pay a lot more for health insurance, and if you don’t keep your private health insurance you’ll be supplied with an increased Medicare levy surcharge. They get you both ways.

The Australian Private Hospitals Association said on 12 May:

The changes to the private health insurance rebate announced in tonight’s budget are a clear breach of election promises made by the Rudd Government.

The National Association of Specialist Obstetricians and Gynaecologists have pointed out in a press release:

Federal budget announcement to wind back safety net rebates for private obstetric services will significantly affect affordability for the majority of Australian women choosing to hear from specialist obstetricians.

Dr Pesce, President of the National Association … said this is a disappointing outcome for women who seek choice, access and affordability for pregnancy care.

The Heart Foundation have said in respect of tobacco:

Price increases are one of the most effective best ways of encouraging smokers to quit as well is deterring young people from starting.

The AMA said on 15 May that it welcomed a proposed increase in tobacco tax.

So the government has the choice of increasing tobacco excise and leaving the private health insurance rebate where it is. The government has the choice of improving the health outcome for Australians by discouraging tobacco use on the one hand or, on the other hand, it has the choice of breaking a promise made by the health minister and the Prime Minister and numerous other luminaries in the government over a very long period of time.

I have a lot more to say but quite regrettably, because of the time constraints and the arrangements made between the whips, I must conclude now. I do want to say I very strongly oppose this legislation. It is bad legislation; it is legislation which breaks an election promise. It is not necessary to break that promise because there is a clear alternative there and that is to increase the tobacco excise. The same amount of revenue would have come from increased tobacco excise and it would have meant that so many Australians who will be forced out of the private health insurance system would have been able to stay there. The best way to have a strong public health system is to have a strong private health system, and this government through the changes in this legislation will undermine both the private health system and the public health system. It stands condemned.


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