Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (1.06 p.m.)-On the front page of the Herald Sun of Tuesday last week was a heart-rending story that goes directly to the debate on this Tax Laws Amendment (Medicare Levy Surcharge Thresholds) Bill 2008. The front page featured the story of six children and was emblazoned with the headline ‘Save us’. But it was the subheading that let the reader know about the threat from which these children were seeking salvation. The subheading on the Herald Sun front page tells all. It proclaims: ‘400 children forced to wait for heart surgery’. These boys and girls are threatened by an overcrowded public hospital system without enough paediatric intensive care beds to accommodate those in need. The Herald Sun tells of eight-month-old Lincoln whose arteries are too small but who has suffered seven cancellations of his surgery over the past 30 days or so. Then there is eight-year-old Kevin, who has languished on a waiting list for over a year with an opening in his heart, and 10-month-old Julian, who also has an opening in his heart as well as a narrowed artery.
These stories are merely part of a microcosm in a public healthcare system that is in crisis throughout Australia. Our public hospitals in particular are overworked, overburdened and overstressed. I know this firsthand in my own state of Victoria, where last year 70,000 patients waited eight hours or more on emergency room trolleys before admission to beds and where 40,000 sick and injured people are trapped for months and even years in a medical maze of surgical waiting lists while they wait for proper treatment. There is an old saying which proclaims ‘When you’re in a hole, stop digging’, and there is now no doubt that Australia’s public hospitals are in it up to their eyebrows. But, rather than fill in that hole, the Labor government has set to work with a policy steam shovel that promises to bury public health care and many of its patients. The government’s proposal to raise the Medicare levy surcharge threshold is pure madness. It is a scheme that is illogical; it is a scheme that is irrational; it is a scheme that makes absolutely no sense; it is a scheme that is opposed by NGOs ranging from the Australian Medical Association to Catholic Health Australia; it is a scheme that reflects an economic illiteracy that can only be found in a government dominated by former trade unionists and, as we have seen over the past week or so, that is a domination which is only increasing.
To be fair, though, the Medicare levy surcharge threshold initiative is not a measure that the Treasurer has sought to surreptitiously and quietly slip into some other bill in the hope that it will pass unnoticed; he is bandying around the Medicare levy surcharge threshold increase as if it were a badge of honour, rather than a public policy train wreck. It is all supposedly part of Labor’s plan to ease the cost of living pressures, as Mr Swan declared in a recent media release. But instead of delivering for working families, as the Treasurer claims, he will actually be delivering a body blow to an area in which public health is very much ailing. The bill proposes an increase in the MLS threshold from $50,000 to $100,000 per annum for individuals, and from $100,000 to $150,000 for families. So in one fell swoop many Australians will be able to drop private health insurance without suffering any penalty. In one fell swoop the financial incentive to acquire private health cover will no longer apply to thousands of Australian families.
The Treasury’s own modelling predicts that 485,000 people will cancel their private health insurance as a result of the Treasurer’s proposal, but this figure does not include children or dependants, and the industry estimates put the real number of people dropping out of cover at closer to 900,000. What will be the result of this massive shift? What will happen to health insurance companies that suddenly begin to haemorrhage policyholders by the hundreds of thousands? Sharp increases in premium prices to offset lost revenue will be the mandate of those firms in order to survive.
This Labor measure should come as no surprise. Labor have always been opposed to the private health system. They have always failed to understand that Australia’s health needs are best catered for in an environment of choice between a strong public health system and a strong private health system. We know, for instance, that Labor have long wanted to axe the private health insurance rebate. They promised at the last election that they truly believe in the private health insurance rebate. They put their hand on their heart and said they would not tinker with the private health insurance rebate. I guess, technically, Labor have honoured that commitment. Instead, Labor have found a sneaky new way of attacking the rebate-not by axing it, not by tinkering with it but by creating a situation whereby far fewer individuals will be eligible to claim it. Australia’s private health system and those families who rely upon it will become the real collateral damage for the next salvo of Labor’s class war and envy politics.
Let me now turn to the impacts of premium increases. From day one, the government has been talking up inflation in the economy. We had the Treasurer saying that the inflation genie was out of the bottle. Of course there is an inflation challenge-there is always an inflation challenge; part of the job of being a government is to deal with the challenge of inflation-but there is no crisis, and the Reserve Bank Governor has confirmed that. However, if the government is concerned about inflation, why is it taking so many decisions that will actually increase prices? The government’s raft of new tax slugs and the completely discredited Fuelwatch scheme will all contribute to higher fuel prices. And this bill will result in higher private health insurance premiums, and this will exacerbate inflationary pressures in the economy.
Labor’s response is to accuse the coalition of siding with the private health insurance industry. Labor seek to portray the coalition as siding with big business whilst Labor play the role of supposedly the people’s champion. Sadly, it is yet more spin. If Labor want to know who the coalition are standing up for, I am happy to help them. We are standing up for the millions of Australians with private health insurance who face massive hikes in their premiums; we are standing up for the hundreds of Australians working for private health funds whose jobs are at risk; we are standing up for the dedicated doctors, nurses and staff of our public hospitals, who are already under extreme pressure and overworked but who face an even bigger workload with these proposed changes; and we are standing up for all those Australians who rely on our public health system, who after years of neglect by state Labor governments face even longer waiting lists for vital procedures and surgery. So we will not be verballed by Labor and their dishonest attacks. We know exactly who we are fighting for in this parliament and we will not back away one inch in the face of Labor’s opportunistic posturing.
But of course the ravaging of the private health insurance industry is only part of the problem. Our public health systems in every state and territory are stressed, strained and cash-strapped. There are not enough intensive care beds as it is; there are not enough GPs as it is; there are not enough nurses, operating theatres or diagnostic imagining equipment as it is. So how will our public hospitals cope with this massive influx of new patients who have left private health care for the public system? The answer is: they will not cope-at least not very well. The answer is: longer waiting lists, and longer lists translate into longer patient suffering.
Public hospitals in New South Wales are already burdened with surgical treatment queues that total 59,000 patients, and yet the Treasurer’s scheme will bring another 140,000 people into the state’s public hospital system. For some patients this influx will prove almost a death warrant. AMA President, Dr Rosanna Capolingua, predicted that Labor’s MLS threshold scheme will have a ‘cascade effect’ with far-reaching consequences, and none of those consequences will be positive.
It is said that the definition of insanity is to try the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. But the Treasurer has taken that principle one step further. Not only is he doing nothing to address the existing waiting-list crisis that plagues Australia’s public health systems but he is consciously taking action that will make it worse. It is nothing more than a massive exercise in robbing Peter to pay Paul. It is designed to purchase a cheap headline by putting a few extra dollars in people’s pockets at the cost of wreaking havoc on a public healthcare system that is already creaking under the existing strain.
But there is an extra sweetener for the government in pursuing this measure. It is revealed in the Treasurer’s press release of 13 May 2008, which said:
The overall impact on the Budget-
is a net saving in excess of $299 million over the next four years.
So there you have it. It is just about the bottom line-just like the alcopops tax grab, just like the condensate tax hike and just like the luxury car tax hike. This is nothing more than a revenue enhancement scheme thinly camouflaged as a measure for the public good.
So we on this side of the chamber will heed that cry for help from those six young children, as reported on the front page of the Herald Sun. We will stand up for a health system with both a strong private sector and a strong public sector. We will stand up for Australians struggling under cost-of-living pressures, who hardly need an increase in their health insurance premiums on top of their other challenges. And we will stand up for the men and women working in our public hospitals, who do not need the added pressure of hundreds of thousands of extra patients streaming through their doors to add an even more extreme workload.
We will oppose this cynical measure that seeks to reap a bit of short-term gain at the expense of massive long-term pain. This is the type of legislation you get when you have a government that is obsessed with spin and devoid of substance, and it deserves to be defeated.