Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (7.39 pm)-At the outset, I would like to share a story with you, Madam Acting Deputy President Moore. I was talking to a primary school teacher a little while back. She told me about a homework project that she had set her students.
The project was for students to go home and ask their parents what two plus two equals. She told me about three students in particular. The first student went home and asked her father, who was an economist, what two plus two equals. He said, ‘Darling, for two plus two the answer is within the range of three to six, with a probability that the answer is four.’
The second student went home and asked her father, who was an accountant, what two plus two equals. The accountant said, ‘Darling, that’s easy. The answer is four.’ The third student went home and asked her father, who was a politician, ‘Dad, what does two plus two equal?’ The politician parent answered, ‘Darling, that depends. What do you want the answer to be?’ That was very much Prime Minister Rudd’s approach at the last election: tell the public what you think they want to hear, tell interest groups what you think they want to hear, tell industry groups what you think they want to hear and, in this case, tell health insurers what you think they want to hear and tell holders of private health insurance what you think they want to hear.
The Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives (Medicare Levy Surcharge) Bill 2009 [No. 2] before this chamber is the legislative embodiment of a lie. It is the legislative enactment of Labor hypocrisy. Before the last election Peter Garrett, that well-known paragon of public sector virtue and capacity, indicated the government’s approach to election commitments. He indicated what the Labor Party’s approach would be to honouring election commitments. I recall, as all senators would, that radio host Steve Price asked Mr
Garrett if Labor’s promises could be believed. Mr Garrett replied, as we would remember: ‘When we get in we’ll just change it all.’ He was right. The coalition at that time elected to believe Mr Garrett rather than
Mr Rudd in terms of how Labor would operate in government.
That is why we asked the then Labor opposition time and again in this chamber, in the other place, in debates, on radio and on TV: will Labor commit to not altering the private health insurance rebate in any way, shape or form? Every time we posed that question, Labor confirmed that there would be no change to the private health insurance rebate. Labor laughed at the very suggestion-how could we possibly ask that; this was new Labor, economically conservative. Labor were in fact now lovers of private health insurance.
Mr Rudd even sent what you might call a policy love letter to the Australian Health Insurance Association.
It was a truly charming letter. It was a declaration of love; it was a declaration that psychologists would call unconditional positive regard; it was a declaration of policy, fidelity and commitment. It was a letter which you would have been absolutely delighted to receive as head of an industry association. I will quote from it. It was directed to Dr Michael Armitage, Chief Executive of the Australian Health Insurance Association. In the letter the current Prime Minister, then Leader of the Opposition, 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. “
That was a lie. Mr Rudd goes on. As if that was not reassurance enough, he says:
“Labor will maintain the existing framework for regulating private health insurance …
That was a lie. Mr Rudd goes on, because he appreciated that this was a great concern to the private health insurance industry, a great concern to Australians who hold private health insurance. He knew that this was a matter of serious concern-this was a matter upon which thousands of Australians, if not tens of thousands, if not more, would determine their vote. He says in the letter:
“I trust this allays your concerns.”
The purpose of this letter was to allay the concerns of the private health insurance industry, to allay the concerns of Australians who held private health insurance and to allay the concerns of Australians for whom this is a very important matter-to allay the concerns of Australians who may well have determined their vote on this issue.
Mr Rudd continues in this letter:
“Federal Labor values its relationship with the private health insurance sector and we look forward to this continuing regardless of the election outcome on November 24.”
We know the election outcome and, sadly, federal Labor did not continue to value that relationship after it
took office. The positive relationship is no longer there. Labor did what Mr Garrett predicted. Mr Garrett predicted, ‘Once we get in, we’ll just change it all’-and that is exactly what happened. We know that the government introduced legislation into the parliament to means-test the private health insurance rebate and the parliament rejected that legislation upon its first introduction. It was a broken promise. The parliament was acutely aware of the fact that the government was seeking to break a solemn election promise. The parliament held Labor to its commitment and it quite rightly defeated the bill. On this side of the chamber we did so not just for reasons of keeping faith with the Australian people, which is important-after all, the coalition committed to the Australian people that we would not change the rebate, and we could hardly go back on that; apart from keeping faith with the Australian people there are also extremely good public policy reasons for defeating this legislation and for defending current arrangements.
On this side of the chamber we believe in a mixed health system and we believe in choice. We believe in a strong public system and we believe in a strong private system. We believe in a strong private system because it frees up capacity in public hospitals and because it takes pressure off public hospitals. We know that if this attempt to break a problem is successful, if this attempt to means-test the rebate is successful, people will give up private health insurance. It stands to follow: if you make private health insurance more expensive, some people will give it up and others who might have taken it up will not. And as the pool of people in private health insurance shrinks, fewer people paying premiums will mean higher premiums, which means more people will give it up, premiums will further increase and so it goes. This means as a matter of inexorable logic that there will be more people in the public health system, more people seeking to avail themselves of limited resources. It is a recipe for damage to both the public and the private health sectors. It is clear that Labor hate private health insurance so much that they are prepared to damage the public hospital system in the ideological crusade against the private health system and against choice.
Those on the other side of the chamber are not so silly as to not know that this is bad policy. Those opposite know this is bad policy. Those opposite also know that this is an attempt to break an election promise. Because of those two reasons, which those opposite are acutely aware of, the government needs a cover. The cover for this legislation is that it is all really a part of budget repair. Labor put the budget into deficit, which is another broken promise, and the solution for that broken promise of putting the budget into deficit is apparently to break another promise.
On this side of the chamber we do not actually believe that it is our responsibility to pay off Labor debt. That is the government’s responsibility. They are the government; they are responsible; they ran up the debt; it is their job to pay it down. It is not our job to find the solutions to the problems that they cause-unless, however, we are elected to government, in which case we will again do what we always do: clean up Labor’s mess. But that is not our job from this side of the chamber. Labor’s mismanagement of the budget is not a reason for the coalition to break a commitment that it gave to the Australian people on private health insurance. Budget repair is a false premise for this legislation. The other part of Labor’s strategy in relation to this legislation is a threat of thoughts-the same threat that the government tried with the ETS. Labor are dropping hints about a double dissolution election on the private health insurance rebate. If you read the newspapers over the last week or so you would see that there are a number of journalists who have been briefed to write that a double dissolution election on the private health insurance rebate is a possibility and the government is actively thinking about it. The PM has also played a more direct role in relation to putting that furphy out there. The Prime Minister on Sunrise on 19 February, when asked about the private health insurance rebate and the timing of the election, said:
“Now, as for election timing, what form an election takes, well let’s wait and see.”
Very coy. He continues:
“My intention, as I’ve said many, many times is for our Government to serve its full term. But let’s just see how this one unfolds.”
I have bated breath, I am shivering in terror at the prospect of a double dissolution election on the private health insurance rebate-a double dissolution election on a broken promise. Bring it on! Make our day! Have a double dissolution election on the basis of the private health insurance rebate means test, a breach of a solemn election promise. If the Prime Minister is trying to spook us into supporting this legislation because he thinks we are scared of an election, he had better think again. We are not scared of an election. We are in opposition. The only way for an opposition to get back into government is through an election.
As far as we are concerned, the more elections the better, the sooner the better. Bring it on! We would love to fight an election on the private health insurance rebate. The timing of the reintroduction of this legislation is curious for another reason. We know for all of last year that the greatest moral challenge facing the world was climate change and the need for an emissions trading scheme. There was not a moment to lose. We could not wait another week; we could not wait another month; we could not wait to vote on the ETS legislation until after Copenhagen, let alone after Christmas-there was not a moment to lose. This parliament had to decide; this parliament had to pass the ETS legislation to save the world. We were told that time and again. There was no rationale as to why we could not wait until after Copenhagen or wait to see what the rest of the world might do. We had to get on with it-we had to pass it-and the very first thing the government was going to do after parliament returned, on the very first day of parliament this year, was reintroduce it. It was going to get it through the House as quickly as possible, without a moment to lose. But then, at the earliest available opportunity, when the Senate resumed, the government forgot about that. Now the most pressing matter facing the nation is a means test of the private health insurance rebate and we, the Australian public and the press gallery are meant to sit back and say,
‘Okay, fine, we recognise it now: the private health insurance rebate, yes-great moral challenge.’
This legislation, to means test for the private health insurance rebate, is a great moral challenge, but it is a
great moral challenge for those opposite. The moral challenge is for them to honour their election commitment, solemnly given at the last election. This is perhaps the most breathtaking and cynical hypocrisy I have seen in this place. I have never seen so much hand wringing over any piece of legislation as I have seen over the ETS-never. And it had to be put to this parliament and passed through this parliament as quickly as possible. And what happens? We are not going to debate it this week: not for one day, not for one hour, not even for a minute this week are we going to be substantively debating the ETS legislation.
No, we are going to be debating a means test on the private health insurance rebate. You will forgive us if we get a little confused sometimes on this side of the chamber about what constitutes a real and genuine priority, because this government has had so many No. 1 priorities-everything is a priority; everything is a great moral challenge; everything is a test of our great political morality on this side of the chamber. Nothing is ever just a straightforward policy debate, with the parliament debating the relative merits of a piece of legislation. No. With this government every piece of legislation is a great test of the integrity and morality of this side of the chamber. What rot. What utter, utter bunkum. This government is seeking to break an election commitment that it was asked about time and again at the last election. It was asked: would it guarantee that it would not alter the private health insurance rebate in any way, shape or form? And we were mocked when we asked that. We know Labor well. We know that you do not listen to what Labor say; you look at what they do. We know Labor will seek to break this election commitment. We on this side of the chamber are going to honour the faith of the Australian people. We undertook to defend private health insurance; we are going to do exactly that. We are going to vote against this legislation. This legislation should be defeated, and it is my hope that it is.