I rise to support the second reading amendment to the Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives Bill 2011 moved earlier this afternoon by the Leader of the Opposition, because I think it is a prudent amendment which speaks for itself.
Here we go again talking about trust. I am still a relatively new member and already I have lost count of the number of times that I have come here to discuss legislation that represents an enormous breach of faith with the Australian people. It is quite depressing that here we are at the start of a new parliamentary year and already we are talking about another broken promise, another betrayal, another backflip.
Today we learnt in the House about some comments made back in 2007: 'Labor is committed to the maintenance of the private health insurance rebate, and I have given an iron-clad guarantee of that on a number of occasions. I grow tired of saying this. Labor is committed to the 30 per cent health insurance rebate.' Then what changed? But backflips are something that this government is used to. Before the election in 2010, on 12 August, the Treasurer on The 7.30 Report was asked about the issue of the carbon tax, and his response was:
We have made our position very clear. We have ruled it out.
On 15 August, on Meet the Press on Channel 10, a journalist asked the Treasurer:
Can you tell us exactly when Labor will apply a price to carbon?
Wayne Swan's response was:
Well, certainly what we reject is this hysterical allegation that somehow we are moving towards a carbon tax … We certainly reject that.
They went on to do an absolute backflip. I have just come from the Main Committee chamber, where I was speaking on the appropriation bills, in which $3.6 billion has been appropriated for the clean energy legislation. That is just another example of the betrayal of this government.
The second reading amendment to this bill basically speaks to putting this legislation on hold so that it can be assessed with full diligence by the Australian public after an election. This is another example of the Labor Party trying to wiggle their way off the hook of their own economic incompetence. More to the point, we are also here again discussing a so-called health policy that might as well have come from the office of the Treasury. It is worth reflecting that, despite the main bill before the House being named the Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives Bill 2011, it has very little to do with fairness but everything to do with dollars—just like the alcopops tax or the attempt to slash the cataract rebate. This is Treasury policy dressed up as health reform.
This is the third time that the parliament has considered this legislation. It was introduced in the last parliament despite explicit promises at the 2007 election: 'Federal Labor has made it crystal clear that we are committed to retaining all the existing private health insurance rebates.' That was Minister Roxon on 26 September 2007.
Ms Plibersek: You slept through 2010 too, didn't you.
Mr BUCHHOLZ: We can have the debate about credibility. You may have just missed my comments on the Treasurer with reference to the carbon tax. I can repeat them but they are there in Hansard for you to peruse. Yes, both sides of parliament are probably not without blame. But if we are making a point about credibility, I have got ammunition.
Ms Plibersek: The GST 'never, ever'—how about that?
Mr BUCHHOLZ: As recently as 2009, Roxon said the government was committed to retaining the existing rebates.
Ms Gambaro: Mr Deputy Speaker, on a point of order, I just ask that the member be heard in silence, as a courtesy.
The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Symon ): The chamber is relatively quiet at the moment. I am keeping an eye on that.
Ms Plibersek: Mr Deputy Speaker, I would ask that the member address the former health minister by her proper title.
The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Thank you, Minister. I am sure it will be to the benefit of everyone if we do stick to formalities.
Mr BUCHHOLZ: I thank the Deputy Speaker and I will do my level best to apply proper protocol. As recently as 2009, Roxon said the government was committed to retaining the existing rebates. A few months after that the wheels fell off and now some 2.4 million people are facing immediate increases in their premiums of 14 per cent, 29 per cent or 43 per cent, depending on how much money they make.
Before I go on, I would like to debunk this ridiculous, ludicrous theory the government is running that private health insurance is somehow the exclusive playground of the well-to-do. The Labor Party wants you to believe that private health insurance, which covers half the population, is a rich man's luxury. What a load of rubbish. Over 5½ million people who have private health insurance have an annual household income of less than $50,000, and 3½ million of them earn less than $35,000. We are not talking about the Packers or the Murdochs here. We are talking about older Australians who may be sick and do not wish to put themselves through the stress or the uncertainty of treatment through the public health system. We are talking about young parents with kids, trying to make sure their families are covered if the worst should happen. These are people who have made sacrifices in order to look after their own future and their own wellbeing. We should be applauding them, not slugging them with higher premiums. For Labor to argue that these people are living so high on the hog that they can afford to cop a bit more financial pain shows just how out of touch they really are.
The Treasurer came into the House today and talked about the strength of the economy. I met last week with a business owner who employs 80 people. He said to me, 'Scotty, it is tough out there—I have never seen it so tough.' There are increased energy costs; the list goes on. With reference to this legislation, cost-of-living pressures are biting and this is another tax that my people in the electorate of Wright could do without.
If this legislation passes, the results will be swift and potentially catastrophic. As you would expect, the first thing that will happen will be upward pressure on premiums, which will see a mass exodus from the private system to a public system that is already groaning at the seams. Those who elect to remain in the private system will be forced to pay higher premiums to retain current levels of cover or to take up cheaper policies with more procedures excluded. A report from Deloitte shows that around 175,000 people could be expected to abandon their private hospital cover and that more than half a million will downgrade. That is probably the more likely option, because there is that exit clause. The Labor government have got you there as well. On the way out, if you do not take the insurance coverage you are in for 1.25 per cent of your gross income. So they are going to tax you if you are not in it anyway. I suggest that you will see people wind back their insurance coverage and possibly stay in. Over five years you are looking at 1.6 million members leaving and 4.3 million downgrading.
These changes will also impose an enormous compliance burden on industry and individuals completing their tax returns. Private insurers will have to make significant changes to their systems to be able to adjust premiums according to incomes. It is not clear how the rebate will be administered under these arrangements, especially where a person is not able to accurately predict their income for the current financial year.
So why would anyone in their right mind try to do this? I will tell you. This government has inevitably succumbed to the same malady that eventually afflicts all left wingers: they have run out of other people's money. That they have managed to do it in just four years, after starting from a position of almost unprecedented national wealth, is an indictment of them and of the whole Labor philosophy. To support those comments I have Labor's debt figures for the last four years. I think it is interesting to reflect on those. Under Labor, in the 2008-09 year there was a deficit of $27 billion, in 2009-10 it was $54 billion, in 2010-11 it was $47 billion and in 2011-12—the reporting period—it is $37 billion, making a total of $165 billion.
The legislation before the House is an opportunity cost forgone as a result of the government trying to bring the books back into some type of order and return some type of economic credibility to its argument for pursuing a surplus. And this is one of the ways it is going to do it. It is going to put its hands into the pockets of mums and dads right across this country and force them to kick the tin a little bit more.
The reason the Labor Party is not bothered by the likely consequences of this policy is that in its heart of hearts it loves the idea of everyone being in the public health system. I am reminded of the famous quote by Winston Churchill about the inherent virtue of socialism being the equal distribution of misery. It seems particularly relevant here. Sure, our emergency departments are overflowing and the waiting lists in our hospitals stretch from here to eternity—we have now even created in our public hospital system a process that is a waiting list to go onto the waiting list; it sounds like a caricature out of something like Fawlty Towers or Yes Minister—but none of that matters. The important thing is to make sure that nobody is better off than anybody else. Let me assure members that you cannot legislate a nation into prosperity.
These bills speak to fairness—the titles include the word fairer. I see nothing fair in them. One would like to think we have evolved beyond such bloody minded nonsense, but apparently not. I suppose we should not be surprised. Over the past four and a bit years the crowning achievement of the Labor Party on health policy has been to increase massively the number of public servants it employs. But that is what the so-called historic health reforms are: the states get more federal money to carry on doing pretty much as they always have done, as long as they employ another tier of bureaucracy to manage the whole thing. That is the Labor way. It is always a case of measuring inputs instead of outcomes. It is always about funding the expansion of the public service by slugging the private sector. The one thing it is not about is improving the lot of patients. Is it easier to get into a public hospital? Will I have to spend 12 hours at the ER before my kid gets some treatment? Is it easier for my Dad or Mum to get a hip replacement? Can I find a bulk-billing GP any easier than I could four years ago? As far as Labor is concerned the answer to those questions is: 'Who cares? Look at how much money we've spent. How impressive is that?' It is not impressive, it is a disgrace. Why? Because it is that attitude that has caused them to end up here, so short of cash that they are seriously proposing to save a few bucks by driving people back into a system that already cannot cope with demand. It is not right, it is certainly not fair and it deserves to be voted down. I encourage members of the House to support the amendment moved by the Leader of the Opposition.