Thursday, 11 February 2010
Matters of Public Importance
Thank you, Mr Speaker. My letter to you contains a sober reflection on something which is really a most serious problem—that is, the way the government is treating the achievements of senior Australians. It is the sneer in the voice. It is the pejorative language. It is the implication that all the problems that this government might face now in making projections—whether it be to raise taxes as in the ETS, a grand tax on everything, or other taxes—are the fault of senior Australians who are daring to live longer and healthier lives. That, indeed, is a cause for great joy; not a cause for insulting and demeaning those senior Australians who have built this country, raised families and given us the great prosperity that we enjoy.
With the production of the last Intergenerational report, we had from Mr Swan dire predictions about what a problem we were going to have to face and that senior Australians were definitely a problem that had to be dealt with. Whereas in fact there is nothing new in the statements that the Intergenerational report has made. The earliest publication on the fact that we are an ageing population were made as far back as 2001, when the first serious research was done by Access Economics, showing, quite frankly, that the way we have organised ourselves in Australia—with an age pension being paid out of consolidated revenue, not out of funds, like in other countries, which were going to go broke because they had not figured on people living so long—has made it quite sustainable and made us able to deal with it. One of the areas where we do have a serious funding problem is in our healthcare system. But the healthcare system is not a problem of the ageing of the population. It plays a very small part in the overall escalation of healthcare costs. To try and blame it on senior Australians and to try and make people feel bad that they are using the healthcare system that we have built up is in fact reprehensible.
Statistically speaking, we all use the healthcare system the most in the last two years of our life. I have never been prepared to say which will be the last two years of my life and I have never asked anybody else to do that either, because it is simply silly to do so. But what is real is that, if we use our healthcare system properly, use our pharmaceutical benefits system properly, use our private health insurance properly and take care of our public hospital systems properly, we will see something that we should all strive towards: the compression of morbidity. That is when the time that people are unwell or infirm or have some form of incapacity is compressed into a smaller and smaller time of life closer to the time of death.
Relevant to this whole question is the way in which the government is presently attacking the private health insurance system. Currently we have over nine million people who have private health insurance. It is a very sensible policy because it opens up an alternative to the overburdened public hospital system. We have an efficient private hospital system and it is the private health insurance organisations which finance it and enable it to be in place at all.
There was a time previously when, I guess, the infamous Senator Richardson spent most of his time trying to drive private health insurance down below 22 per cent, which would in fact have meant that the whole system would have collapsed. Fortunately, we on this side, even in opposition in those days, always maintained a strong and purposeful campaign to maintain a good private health insurance system. Finally, we prevailed. Since we brought in our reforms when we were in office we have seen a very high incidence of private health insurance. It has been a carrot and a stick. There is a surcharge if you are earning above, I think, $75,000 a year and if you do not have private health insurance you have to pay an additional one per cent levy. That is fair.
But we also said we would give a rebate if you took out private health insurance. We set it at 30 per cent initially because 30 per cent is about the rate of income tax that 80 per cent of the population pay. It is a good benchmark. We then said, ‘Medicare is available to everybody; therefore, the private health insurance rebate should be available to everybody who takes it out.’ The stipulation was that you could only have the rebate for private health insurance if you were eligible for Medicare. The two are inextricably linked, and it is fair and reasonable that we continue to see and support a private health insurance system.
If you look at older Australians, you will see that they value that private health insurance almost more than anything else. Indeed, the older our senior Australians become the more precious it is to them. They know that, due to the way Labor governments right across Australia have let our public hospital systems run down, their opportunity to have anything other than life-threatening incidents dealt with immediately in the public health system is very limited. They feel that they need that backup to know that they can have their doctor of choice and entry into a private health facility with that private health insurance.
This government has set out to penalise people. It has set out to take away that 30 per cent rebate for thousands upon thousands of Australians. Yet in the lead-up to the election, when Mr Rudd and the now Minister for Health and Ageing sat on this side of the House, they would stand up day after day and say they would not touch the private health insurance rebate—‘No, hand on heart, we won’t touch it. You can rely on it remaining with us.’