Senator Birmingham (South Australia) (11:57 AM) -I thank the Senate for the opportunity to speak on these important pieces of legislation, the Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives (Medicare Levy Surcharge) Bill 2009 [No. 2] and the Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives (Medicare Levy Surcharge-Fringe Benefits) Bill 2009 [No. 2]. These are measures that speak volumes of the contempt that the Rudd government holds for the Australian people and for what the ALP said and did going into the last election. This legislation is a clear example of the government saying one thing to get elected and doing another thing in office. That is the tragedy behind so many stories of the way that the Rudd government has approached these things. But private health insurance stands out as one of the strongest and clearest examples of failings by the government to live up to its word and to live up to the promises that it made to millions of Australians.

Private health insurance is an issue that affects all Australians, whether they have it or they do not. That is something that is often misunderstood and misinterpreted by those on the other side in the way that they present information in this debate. A strong private health insurance industry helps all aspects of the health sector. A strong private health insurance sector that keeps people utilising private hospitals and private health facilities reduces demand on the public health sector. It is a very simple formula. It reduces demand on public hospitals and, in doing so, helps to ease what are very long and unacceptable waiting lists and delays at a state level.

The problem with the approaches and the policies of the Rudd government is that they will reduce the incentives for people to take out private health insurance and strip support for the taking out of private health insurance from many thousands of Australians. In doing so, they will ensure that the take-up rate of private health insurance is lower and that public support for and utilisation of the private healthcare sector is reduced. As a consequence, demand and pressure on the public sector will increase.

That is why this issue affects all Australians, whether they have private health insurance or not. All Australians should be concerned that this government-which promised not to fiddle with private health insurance rebates and which from Prime Minister Rudd down gave its solemn word in the run-up to the last election that it would not change anything-wants to break its promise on this and that, for the second time around, has brought legislation to this place to try to break its promise in this key area. Once again, we see the Australian Senate acting as both the barrier between the government and the breaking of its own promises and the body that tries to keep the government honest on what it delivers to the Australian people.

Between nine and 10 million Australians have private health insurance, and many of these people will be directly impacted by the changes that this government is attempting to introduce. We know that when Labor was last in power the private health insurance sector was a shadow of what it is today. It was a shadow of what the Howard government helped it to build itself up to. We saw during that period of Labor government that the participation rates in private health insurance dropped from 67 per cent in 1983 to just 33½ per cent in 1996. In 13 years of the Hawke-Keating Labor government attempting to manage private health insurance we saw this massive reduction-that is, a halving of participation in the private health insurance sector.

What will we see under the Rudd government? Based on its current policy and approaches, we will see the same type of outcome. We will see that its attacks on the health insurance sector and the taxes that it is applying to ordinary Australians who want to do their bit to look after themselves, their families and their health insurance will cause these rates to plummet yet again. The government broke its word to the Australian people after the last election, and I am sure that this will be the first of many assaults that this government launches on the health insurance sector, the nearly 10 million Australians who have health insurance and every single Australian who has an interest in the private health sector and, indeed, the health sector overall.

This debate impacts on every single electorate across Australia. Many of the South Australian electorates are directly affected by private health insurance. South Australia has among the highest numbers of older Australians in Australia. Older Australians cling to their private health insurance because they know how important it is. They go without to hold onto their private health insurance because they know how important it is. South Australians in every one of our federal electorates hold onto their private health insurance because they know how important it is for them to be able to access the private healthcare system, to do their bit to look after themselves and, in doing so, to ease the pressures on the public healthcare sector.

Let us look at some of those electorates where there will be a very direct impact on thousands and thousands of South Australians. In the electorate of Wakefield, there are some 44,567 voters who are estimated to have private health insurance. Nearly 63,000 people across the electorate are covered by that insurance-families with younger people-

Senator Fierravanti-Wells -And Labor voters.

Senator Birmingham -Indeed, many of them are Labor voters. In the seat of Wakefield, which the Labor Party won from the Liberal Party at the last election on the promise that they would not fiddle with private health insurance-‘not one jot, not one tiddle’ were the famously bizarre words of the Prime Minister when giving his commitment not to fiddle with private health insurance-there are 63,000 people. Where has Nick Champion, the local member, been on this issue? What has he been doing to champion the many people in his electorate who will be negatively impacted by the tax and attacks on private health by this government? In the electorate of Grey, 64½ thousand people have private health insurance-that is, around 47 per cent-and I am sure that a good many of them are Labor voters, as Senator Fierravanti-Wells pointed out before. I know that Rowan Ramsey, the member for Grey, has been pursuing this issue passionately, and at least he has stood up for the voters in his electorate.

I am sure that 47 per cent of voters in Grey will be grateful to Rowan, as will the people in Barker, where the local member, Patrick Secker, has stood up for the 48 per cent of people in that electorate who have private health insurance. Nearly 70,000 people in the electorate of Barker have private health insurance and will be impacted by this legislation. Patrick Secker has been out there with Rowan Ramsey talking about the impact in his electorate and standing up for his voters.

That stands in stark contrast to the electorate of Port Adelaide, where the local member, the Parliamentary Secretary for Health, Mark Butler, is a key defender of these attacks on private health insurance. He is defending them notwithstanding the fact that 67,400 people living in his electorate have private health insurance coverage and that those people will be impacted by his and his government’s decision to attack the private health insurance industry and make it harder for them to maintain their private health coverage. That is what it comes down to: it is making it harder for them to maintain it.

Another seat that the Labor Party won at the last election was Kingston. Another new member, Amanda Rishworth, joins Nick Champion, from Wakefield, in having gone silent on this issue. She has been dead quiet when it comes to standing up for her electorate. But she should be standing up for her electorate because, in Kingston, 55 per cent of people have private health insurance-that is right: 75,400-odd people living in the electorate of Kingston have private health insurance, which is the majority of households and families. They are doing their bit to look after themselves and will be penalised by the decision of the Rudd government that their local member, Ms Rishworth, is supporting.

An electorate with an even higher proportion of private health insurance is Adelaide, represented by Kate Ellis, a minister in this government, no less. She is, once again, defending this policy despite the fact that 68 per cent of households in her electorate are covered by private health insurance. That is up to around 89,000 people in the electorate of Adelaide who have coverage-old people and young people, on the roll and not on the roll. A clear majority of people in the electorate of Adelaide who commit themselves to doing their bit to help the system overall will be penalised by the decision of Ms Ellis and the Rudd government to make it harder for them to keep up their private health insurance.

In the adjacent electorate of Hindmarsh, Mr Steve Georganas, who chairs one of the parliament’s committees on health and ageing matters, seems to think it is acceptable to attack the private health insurance industry. This is notwithstanding the fact that, estimated on previous figures, 89,193 people-or some 68,000, or 69 per cent of, voters-in Hindmarsh, an electorate that statistically has been shown time and again to have one of the highest proportions of older Australians anywhere in the country, have private health insurance. Many of them will be hurt by this decision. Where has the Chair of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health and Ageing been? Where has the member for Hindmarsh been in standing up for nearly 70 per cent of his electorate? Where has he been as the representative of the electorate in Australia with one of the oldest populations and therefore, unsurprisingly, such a high level of private health insurance? These members all stand condemned for their failure to champion the issues in their electorates.

The final electorate in South Australia is Sturt, represented by Christopher Pyne. It has the highest, 70-plus per cent, coverage of private health insurance in South Australia. Christopher Pyne, Patrick Secker, Jamie Briggs in Mayo, which has an equally high level of private health insurance coverage, and Rohan Ramsey in Grey have all championed the tens of thousands of families in their electorates who will be hurt by this measure. But we have heard not a peep from any of these Labor members, in particular Mr Georganas, who represents an electorate with such an aged population. This is the shame of it.

I have gone through those statistics to demonstrate that there is a clear reason why the opposition is taking a strong stance on this issue. We are taking a strong stance because the policy issues stack up. As I explained at the beginning of my contribution, it is about protecting the private health insurance sector so that we can sustain the public health sector in a strong way. But it is also about standing up for voters, standing up for people who will be adversely affected by this measure and standing up for the people who heard the promises of the Rudd Labor government during the last election campaign that it would not change anything to do with private health insurance rebates-not one jot; not one tiddle, as I have said before. Instead, the Rudd government has come in and, in one fell swoop, is attempting to hit so many voters so hard on this issue that is so important to them.

That is why we will continue to stand steadfast in our opposition to these changes. We will continue to oppose the government. We will continue to ensure that, no matter how hard the government try to break their promises, we will be there holding them to their promises, holding them to do what is right and, in doing so, standing up for the millions of Australians who will otherwise be hit by this seriously wrong policy measure.