This Liberal government has a woeful track record when it comes to public health - Terri Butler MP, Labor for Griffith

This Liberal government has a woeful track record when it comes to public health

Terri Butler MP speaking in the House of Representatives on the 19th June 2017 about guaranteeing Medicare.

Read the full speech below. 

Ms BUTLER (Griffith) (15:57): I rise to speak to the Medicare Guarantee Bill 2017, and to say that it is pretty clearly nothing more than a fig leaf. We have already had the government in here today with their bank levy legislation, which is a fig leaf to protect them from exposure in terms of their work to support the banks and protect the banks from a royal commission. Now, we see this fig-leaf legislation, which is all about protecting them from criticism in relation to their woeful record on Australian public health and Medicare. This bill is an attempt to set up a special account for a so-called Medicare guarantee. But the only way to guarantee and protect Medicare is to end the government's freeze on the Medicare Benefits Schedule, to stop this government from continuing to attack Medicare and public health in this country and, ultimately, to throw this mob out because, frankly, all they have ever done in government is to attack public health care in this country. And their record on private health is not that much better.

The idea of having a special account for Medicare is, of course, an illusion because the Constitution says that there is one account, and it is called the consolidated revenue. This idea of having a special account is really just a bit of creative accounting. It is a bit of trickery from the government to make it appear as though they are taking action on Medicare, while, at the same time, we are still seeing the consequences of freeze on the MBS. What has that meant? It has meant the equivalent of the GP co-payment. They could not get a GP co-payment through the front door, so it is a GP co-payment through the backdoor. And people are paying for it. Households are paying for it. These are the very same households that are suffering from low wages growth, that are suffering from high housing costs and that are suffering from high energy costs because, under this government, wholesale energy prices have doubled. Under this government, wholesale energy prices have doubled and there are flow-on effects for households. Those very same households are suffering the consequences of this government's freeze on the MBS, and why? Because those costs are being passed on to healthcare consumers or, as I like to call them, people. People are paying the costs of this government's MBS freeze and their attempts to pretend as though they are defending public health are falling flat.

No-one believes a word this Prime Minister and this government have to say when it comes to health care in this country. He can complain all he likes about how it is unfair that he is being called out for his attacks on public health. He can stand up at the dispatch box and complain about his perceived victimisation—'Oh, it's not fair; Labor called us out on our public health policies.' We did call the government out at the last election and we will continue to call the government out throughout this term of opposition because, in fact, the only party that has ever defended Medicare in this country is the party that created Medicare—the Australian Labor Party. Bill Hayden, Bob Hawke—the Hawke-Keating years were the years under which Medicare was solidified. Before that, of course, Gough Whitlam had introduced public health insurance. But, unfortunately, what happened? The Liberals, when they replaced Mr Whitlam's government, came in and got rid of the equivalent of Medicare at the time. So it took a Labor government to bring Medicare back. It was greatly sad that there could have been a longer period of time that we had Medicare in this country, but for the Liberal Party.

I think they learnt the lesson of what happened with then Prime Minister Fraser's decision to axe universal health care and Prime Minister Hawke's decision to bring it back. I think they learnt a lesson from that. But, unfortunately, the Liberals learnt the wrong lesson. They did not learn the lesson that they should defend public health care. They learnt the lesson that they should appear to defend public health care. And that is what this is. It is the appearance of defending public health care while, at the same time, taking an axe to it. But people are not stupid. My constituents are not stupid. They know what is going on here. They know that when you start cutting funds—the cuts to pathology, for example—or when you start freezing the Medicare Benefit Schedule, and you freeze it for years and years, the consequences are consequences for them. They know that when there are attempts to put up the price of medicine over and above CPI the consequences are felt by them. And they know that a bill like this is nothing but an attempt to pretend otherwise.

The GP bulk-billing rate in my electorate of Griffith is 68.1 per cent. That is a woeful rate. In fact, we are 141 out of 150 electorates in our ranking in terms of our GP bulk-billing rate. The overall rate is even lower—66.8 per cent. What this means is that up to eight per cent of people will delay and put off going to see the doctor. In an electorate the size of mine, that is up to 13,000 people. That is absolutely reckless. The last thing this country needs or wants is having people not going off to the GP when they should be. Early diagnosis matters. Early treatment matters. This government, instead of this ridiculous idea of running up this pretend protection of Medicare, should actually stand up for people and fix bulk-billing rates, not be sitting around saying, 'Let's brainstorm ways that we can make it appear as though we are defending Medicare. Let's come up with ideas to pretend that we are doing something about Medicare.' Instead of doing that, just fix bulk-billing rates. Get rid of your Medicare Benefit Schedule freeze—not the pretend getting rid of it that you announced in the budget but actually move to get rid of the freeze. Stop trying to introduce a co-payment by stealth. People understand what you are doing, and they are not going to stand for it.

As I said, this is a government that is really not much better on private health than it is on public health. In fact, in my electorate the estimates from the private health association are that more than 60 per cent of people are covered by private health insurance. Yet, private health insurance has been 18 per cent higher under the Liberals. What is the Liberal government doing in relation to these issues? I wrote to the health minister on the day that he became the health minister—the day that he was sworn in as the health minister for this country. I said to him: 'Health Minister, we have these bulk billing problems in my electorate and we have concerns about private health insurance costs.' But this Liberal government has done nothing about those costs—absolutely nothing. All they have done is sit around brainstorming trickery to try to pull the wool over the eyes of the Australian people, because they know how deeply unpopular it is when Liberal governments like Mr Fraser's, like Mr Abbott's and now like Mr Turnbull's take the axe to public health in this country.

Universal health care is something that Australians are rightly proud of. We are rightly proud of the fact that we live in a country where we believe in universal health care, where we do not support the American path of private insurance and insurance being contingent on whether you have got the sort of job that offers the right sort of health plan. We have not accepted that American path of health care costing tens of thousands of dollars. We believe in public health care in this country. We believe in universal health care. It is something that Labor introduced. It is something that Labor has defended for decades, and it is something that the Liberals have opposed for decades. The only difference between now and the 1970s is that they are a bit less honest about it—they are just a little bit less forthright than they have been in the past in relation to their hatred of universal health care.

They cannot stand it. They think it is socialism. They think it is too much state interference in the market. That is what the people sitting over there think about our universal healthcare system. They would love to hollow it out. They would love to reduce the amount of public funding that is going into public health care in this country, and the reason they want to do that is that they have a fundamental ideological objection to public health care and to universal health care.

This bill really bells the cat on that. This idea of creating a special account is an attempt to pretend that some action is being taken is just deeply embarrassing for the government. I think the health minister is an intelligent man. This should be beneath him, and yet this is the sort of thing that is being trotted out for the attention of this parliament to try to help the government deal with its perceived political problem in relation to how on the nose it is when it comes to universal health care and Medicare in this country.

But, as I said, there is a pretty simple way that the government can actually deal with that political problem–that is just to stop taking the axe to public health care. It is a pretty simple thing: if you do not want people to be unhappy with you for cutting public funding to health care, then stop cutting public funding health care. It is as simple as that.

The finance minister has defended this bill by saying, 'Oh look, the thing about having this special account is, if a future government touches it, people will know about it.' That is a pretty frank admission from the finance minister that the Liberals will continue to seek to touch public health care, that they will continue to seek to do that.

In contrast, the shadow minister for health has made very clear our view on this bill. In fact, she spoke in this debate incredibly well—I think most people in this chamber would agree; certainly, people on this side of the House would agree—about our concerns about what this government is doing to public health care. She does not agree with the finance minister. What she has said is that this is some trickery. This is an accounting mechanism. This is not something that in any way provides any real protection to public health care. And how can it?

As I said at the outset, the Constitution makes really clear: there is one fund. It is the Consolidated Revenue Fund. This is not some special source of revenue for Medicare. This is not some special source of guarantee funding as someone might ordinarily understand the word 'guarantee'. This is not a guarantee at all in fact. It is not anything other than a fund being described as a Medicare guarantee fund with a view to trying to persuade the people of Australia that they do not need to be worried about the Liberals when it comes to public health care.

But they do. The people of Australia do need to be worried about the Liberal Party of Australia when it comes to the protection of our universal healthcare system. As I said, whether it is cuts to pathology funding, freezes to the MBS, increases in the price of medicines or cuts to public funding going to the states for the hospital system, this Liberal government has a woeful track record when it comes to public health care in this country.

Trickery is not going to help with that. People are alert to what is happening and what the Liberal Party is trying to do. People know that simply describing something as a special account does not provide it with any measure of protection whatsoever, with any additional protection from attacks by the Liberal government on public health care. The best way to protect public health care is to vote for a party that actually believes in public health care, that has a fundamental values-based commitment to saying that every person in this country—no matter their circumstances, no matter their background—should have the right to health care. That is what we believe and that is why we have been the party of universal health care.

We do not believe that your access to health care should be dependent on your credit card. We believe it that should be dependent on your Medicare card. If you want to have a party that will actually stand up for Medicare—not with trickery, not with accounting moves, not with attempts to pretend to be doing something when you are not really, but genuinely stand up for public health care, genuinely stand up for the appropriate levels of funding for public health care rather than seeking to cut public health care—then there is really only one choice and that is to vote Labor. The Liberal Party of Australia, whether they are led by Malcolm Turnbull, whether they are led by Tony Abbott, whether they are led by Peter Dutton, will never stand up for public health care in this country, and they certainly will never do it to the same extent that the Australian Labor Party will.

Medicare is an important legacy of past Labor governments, and it now falls to the Labor members of this place to stand up at this time to defend Medicare from the Liberal Party and from the conservative attacks on universal health care. My colleagues and I have been standing up on this issue to call on the Liberals to stop attacking Medicare, to reverse their freezes to the MBS, to genuinely stand for better bulk-billing rates across the Australian population and to genuinely stand up for people like the people in my electorate, who, as I say, have an incredibly low rate of bulk-billing, and GP bulk-billing specifically. Labor and each member on this side of this House every day fights to support Medicare, our universal public health care system and access to health care for everybody, dependent on your Medicare card, not on your credit card. The question for every single member opposite, whether it is the member for Bonner, the member for Forde, the member for Capricornia, the member for Dawson or the member for Leichhardt, is: what are you going to do? Whether it is the member for Petrie, whether it is the member for— (Time expired)

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