Today I pay tribute to the life of Joan Yeo, who died in the early hours of 9 October, of motor neurone disease, at her house in Bowral. She was 72. She was surrounded by her husband, Phil, and daughters, Claire and Fleur, joined shortly thereafter by her son, John, who flew home from London.
Joan was a stalwart and much-loved member of the Southern Highlands branch of the Labor Party for over 40 years. She was a dedicated member throughout the seventies and eighties, and, even when the numbers were small and the finances were thin, Joan was always there to do her bit. She was a strong woman and she was passionate: passionate about her politics and passionate about the rights of women. She did not just talk the talk; she walked the walk. She was involved in everything over her life.
Today we pay tribute to Edward Gough Whitlam, QC, AC: patriot, veteran, barrister, Prime Minister, ambassador, Australian legend, husband to Margaret and father to Antony, Nick, Stephen and Catherine. We pass on our condolences to his family and all who knew and loved him.
Throughout the course of this discussion we have seen the best of the Australian parliament. We have seen the outflowing of genuine affection and admiration for a great Australian, and I believe in this discussion we have genuinely held up a mirror to the Australian nation. Gough himself was more than a reflection of Australia as he found it. He was a leader who gave political voice to Australia not as he found it, but as he thought it could be. As Gough himself explained in 1973, his government was elected on the basis of policies which were developed carefully, steadily and intelligently to meet the important demands of our community.
His was the politics of courage and conviction. Indeed it is hard to imagine Australia without the reforms that were driven through by the Whitlam government. In the area of equality, we turn our minds to the reforms to the education system: free access to tertiary education and needs-based funding for our school system. In the area of electoral reform: one vote, one value; lowering the age of voting so that the age of voting was the same as the age at which you could be conscripted to go and fight for the country—the age of 18. In the area of gender equality, we have heard many speakers talk about the importance of his family law reforms: no-fault divorce, introducing onto the PBS the contraceptive pill and reopening the equal pay case to ensure that that important principle could flow through to our industrial tribunals. In the area of land rights: ensuring that the First Australians could once again have full custodial ownership of their traditional lands. On race discrimination, one of his first acts was to ban race-based sporting contests, which was an incredibly controversial issue in the early 1970s, and we all remember the controversy around the Springbok tour. It went beyond that, he was indeed the father of modern multiculturalism.
It is a great pleasure to follow the member for Shortland in this important debate. You could not find a more passionate advocate for the interests of health consumers in this country. It is an area of long-standing interest for the member for Shortland—indeed, before she came to parliament she was an allied health professional herself.
The bill before the House is an important one. It deals with private health insurance, the government's subsidies to the private health insurance industry, and how they can be managed in a sustainable way over the long term. It gives parliament the opportunity to focus on how we fund our health system and the role that private health insurance has in that funding arrangement.
Private health insurance is important. It costs the Commonwealth budget in terms of the rebate approximately $5.8 billion a year. That's right: $5.8 billion in 2014-15, which is a little bit less than 10 per cent of the Commonwealth's total health expenditure. It is right and proper that Commonwealth government and this parliament regularly focus on the performance of private health insurance and how much we are paying for this subsidy.
Today the member for Cunningham and I stand in parliament and challenge the Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, to come to Wollongong and explain his egregious changes to the higher education system which are going to deny thousands of students from the Illawarra region their chance for a better life. The University of Wollongong has a unique role in the region. It started its life as an offshoot of the University of New South Wales and as a teachers college. But it really got a kick-start when the Whitlam government opened up higher education to students with backgrounds like mine and the member for Cunningham's to ensure that they could get the great opportunities available through higher education.
Today the University of Wollongong is a full-service university training nurses, doctors, engineers, teachers, lawyers and accountants. Many of them are the first in their family to get a degree. Many of them are getting a second chance in education. This is all at risk because of this government's 20 per cent cut to the University of Wollongong's funding, the massive increase in university fees and the increase in interest rates on those university debts that those opposite are voting for. My question to the Minister for Education is this: Why is free education good enough for you but not good enough for the students of Wollongong? (Time expired)
To the member for Bowman, who in his contribution made some passing criticism of Labor members for bringing this issue into the parliament and criticising the inaction of the government, I merely recite words of the great John Curtin, who in his time as Leader of the Opposition offered bipartisan support to the then government on the issue of national security but warned that this did not negate his obligation for patriotic criticism. In this respect, we all know that the clock is ticking and the government is not doing all that it ought be doing in relation to this international crisis.
The number of Ebola cases exceeded 10,000 this week and the number of dead—a mortality rate of about 50 per cent—has exceeded 4,900. Statistics like this have moved the UN Secretary-General, Mr Ban Ki-moon, to describe it as 'a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions'. The UN Security Council has deemed that this is indeed 'a threat to international peace and security', and the US Centre for Disease Control has said:
Without additional interventions or changes in community behaviour, CDC estimates that by January 20, 2015, there could be up to 1.4 million infections.
At a mortality rate of about 50 per cent, we are looking at well in excess of 750,000 people dying between now and the end of January next year. The Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has said that the outbreak could be contained within four to six months if the right steps were followed. It is these steps that the member for Ballarat's motion addresses. We think that with Australia playing a part alongside other countries we can be a part of the response that is needed to stem the spread of the EVD.
The US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, has said that the international response to Ebola needs to be taken to a wholly different scale than it is right now. That is a message that needs to be directed at our Minister for Health, our Prime Minister, along with all of the other countries who are not doing enough. We know that China is sending medical personnel; the UK, military, logistical and medical personnel; the US, several thousand medical personnel and military personnel; the EU are sending mobile labs; Israel is sending a team of doctors; the African Union, obviously closest to home, is sending over 1,000 health workers; and Cuba is sending over 250 medical personnel. Regrettably, Australia is not on the list and we on this side of the House believe we should be.
It has been said earlier by the member for Blair, in his fine contribution to this debate on the Aged Care and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2014, that the motto for Labor in government when it came to aged care was 'Living longer, living better.' That motto encapsulated the various policies and the spending priorities of Labor when it came to aged care. If we were to collect all of the policies and initiatives of the Abbott coalition government under one banner in its one year in office, the true and accurate slogan—which should be emblazoned across that banner—would be 'Working longer and you are on your own.' If you look at the lamentable facts about the Abbott government's contribution to the aged-care sector after one lonely year in government, it is a very sorry record indeed.
What have they done? They have cut pension benefits, to start with. They have changed the method of indexation. We know, through independent research, despite the protestations of the Prime Minister, that this initiative alone is going to see the average pensioner worse off over the next 10 years by around $80 a week. They have cut benefits for people who are residing in aged-care facilities—and I will have something more to say about that in a moment. They have cut benefits for people who care for people in aged care. If that was not enough, they have cut the agency which plans for workforce issues when it comes to health and the aged-care workforce in this country. It is an absolutely atrocious record after one short year in government. We can only begin to contemplate the horrors that beset the sector if this is allowed to run for another two years.
We do face some challenges in the sector; there is absolutely no doubt about it. We know, as every speaker in this debate has identified, that we have an ageing population. That is actually a sign of success. It is a sign of the success of our healthcare policies and of Australia as a country that we have one of the greatest life expectancies of any country in the OECD. Australians born today can expect to live nearly 25 years longer than those who were born at the beginning of the last century. Close to 15 per cent of Australia's population is now over the age of 65. That is expected to be about 24 per cent by mid-century. We know that we have some significant issues that we have to deal with when you put all of these demographic facts together.
The honourable minister said he wanted to inject a few facts into the debate. Here are a few facts the minister got wrong.
The first is that Medicare is not free. We pay for it. We pay for it through our Medicare levy. That includes those people who are concession card holders. I know the minister tries to deny the fact that concession card holders are also paying, but one of the facts he might like to go and find out for himself is how many of those concession card holders are also taking up private health insurance. They are being whacked twice by this GP tax, a fact the minister does not like to admit.
He also gets his facts wrong on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. He tries to convince people that it was the Labor government that introduced a co-payment for the PBS. I have news for the minister: there was this bloke called Menzies. The minister may not know our history very well but you would expect a Liberal Party minister to understand their own history a bit better than he does. It was Menzies who first introduced the co-payment into the PBS system. It was 1960 and it was a charge of five shillings.
Yesterday the House, and indeed the nation, mourned the passing of a great Australian. Today we on this side of the House recommit ourselves to his vision for a better Australia—a better Australia that includes universal access to health care. As Gough Whitlam stood on the steps of Parliament House some 39 years ago, he issued a solemn injunction to all fair-thinking Australians. He said to us, 'Maintain your rage.' Maintain your rage against all of those who seek to make Australia a place that is smaller than it is today—a place that is less equitable than it is today. There is much that we remain angry about. That sacred duty to maintain the rage now falls to each and every Labor member of parliament, because just as Labor was the party that introduced Medibank and Medicare, we are the last line of defence for those who would seek to destroy them.
Amidst the confusion, the chaos, the ineptitude, the false communication and the rotten handling of this terrible budget, we can define a consistent line of thought that joins this Prime Minister, this health minister and the policies of this rotten government to those Liberal elitists who sought to destroy Medibank 40 years ago—who sought to stop Medibank ever being introduced and then over the next four years pulled it apart, brick by brick. It was Billy Snedden who said in the debates during the historic joint sitting of parliament to introduce the Medibank legislation:
We will fight and we will continue to fight. We will destroy it.
Of all the promises that this government seeks to keep and all the faith that they tried to keep between 1974 and today, it is the promise to destroy Medicare brick by brick—and that is exactly what they are attempting to do. They are trying to destroy Medicare, just as they tried to stop it happening in 1974 and again in 1984.
I want to talk about the regions. When we contemplate the impact that these atrocious policies are going to have on regional Australia we are left wondering what it is that binds the MPs on the other side of the House to these mad policies. Let's contemplate the facts—as the member for Ballarat has done today—of the cost of diagnostic imaging for people living in regional Australia. It is $90 up front for an X-ray, $380 for a CAT scan and $160 for a mammogram. A PET scan could cost over $1,000 for people who are living in some of the poorest communities in the country. You have got to ask yourself why the people who pretend to represent those communities in regional Australia are binding themselves to these mad policies. If they were such good members as they pretend to be, they would be standing here today arguing against those policies and they would be crossing the floor when the legislation comes before the House because that is the right thing to do. (Time expired)
The bill before the House deals with two particularly important schemes—the Medicare Chronic Diseases Dental Scheme and the Child Dental Benefits Scheme. They both deal with the way in which the Commonwealth government supports public dental services. In the case of the CDDS, it is about chronic diseases—or it was about chronic diseases. In the case of the CDBS, it is about children's dental services and, particularly, what the Commonwealth can do to prevent the onset of chronic diseases within children at a very young age. There is agreement before the House on the passage of these bills but there is a very different approach between the major parties on how we deal with dental health and dental health care, and the public support for dental health care in this country.
Before addressing some of these issues, it is worth going through some of the key facts around dental health in this country. Many may not be aware that in 2010 government survey data showed that more than one-quarter of people aged five or older avoided or delayed visiting a dentist due to cost—that is, more than one in four aged five or over delayed visiting a dentist because of cost. From 1994 to 2010, there was an increase in the proportion of adults avoiding a visit to their dentist from 25 to 30 per cent—again, because of cost.
It is my great pleasure to be speaking on the subject matter of education and the Australian Education Amendment bill. I will say at the outset that it is not so much what is in the bill that attracts the attention of members on this side of the House, but the things that are not in the bill and the mess that surrounds it. If there is one thing that has been consistent about this minister and this government's approach to education—whether it is early childhood education or primary, secondary or tertiary education—it is this: they have buggered up everything they have touched. In the 12 short months that they have been in government they have absolutely made a mess of everything that they have touched when it comes to the education sector. I was at my own university—the University of Wollongong, a fine institution—in the Illawarra this week, where they are facing redundancies because of the 20 per cent cut in university funding. You have academics, students and community members up in arms because of the uncertainty surrounding higher education. This has been a critical institution in the Illawarra for giving kids from ordinary working-class backgrounds, like my own, an opportunity in life and a foot on the ladder of opportunity.
This is a terribly important issue and it affects over four million Australians—hearing loss affects over four million Australians, and a full half of them are at working age. It would probably surprise you to know that, when you look at the employment statistics for people with hearing disabilities, males are 20 per cent more likely to be unemployed than the rest of the population; it is 16½ per cent for females. So we cannot underestimate the importance of this issue. Ours is a wealthy country doing very, very well in a whole heap of areas of providing health care and services for people who are less advantaged or have a disability, but it would astound you, I am sure, Mr Deputy Speaker, to know that 24 per cent of people who need a hearing aid do not have one.
I congratulate the member for Wakefield on bringing this motion before the House, because the purpose of it is really quite transparent. It is to seek a champion on the other side of the House for Australian Hearing. The member for Wakefield, a champion in his own right, is willing to stand up here and say, 'We need to defend Australian Hearing services.' The member for McPherson has called us irrational or emotional. That is quite right: we are quite emotional about this because Australian Hearing was established by Ben Chifley in the immediate aftermath of World War II. There were lots of Australian servicemen coming back with hearing impairments. Combined with veterans and young people suffering hearing loss, something needed to be done. We could not, as those opposite have suggested, just leave it to the market. There was a clear need for Australian government intervention.