On this day in 1974, Australians went to the polls for a double dissolution election that would shape the future of healthcare in this country. Parliament had been deadlocked for months as the Coalition parties blocked the proposition to form a new national Health Insurance Commission to be known as Medibank.
The Whitlam Government secured a narrow victory at the polls and, 3 months later, on 7 August 1974 Labor secured the votes in Parliament to enact its Bill. The vote however was close 95 – 92.
Medibank was born; Gough Whitlam and his Social Security Minister, Bill Hayden, had triumphed.
The Opposition leader, Bill Sneddon was defiant. “We are going to fight this scheme continually,” he bellowed to a crowded Chamber. That set the stage for a battle over healthcare that continues until this day.
The 1974 vote was historic for the Parliament and for the country. It was the first joint sitting of Parliament under section 59 of the Constitution – the deadlock provision for resolving disputes between the upper and lower House. It wasn’t until Malcolm Turnbull pulled the trigger in 2016 that a Prime Minister went to a double dissolution election under the deadlock provision. Ironically, the future of Medicare was a critical issue in that election too, and Turnbull nearly lost his job over it.
The 1974 ‘Medibank election’ and the vote that followed fundamentally transformed the way we think about healthcare in Australia. It set the framework for Bob Hawke and Neil Blewett to introduce Medicare a decade later.
As he introduced the Health Insurance Commission legislation, Bill Hayden, explained that
“the intention of the programme is to provide health services in the same way as education. A social utility available as a right to every Australian. Not a commodity to be purchased or as a privilege for a few.”
In 1973, the Henderson Poverty Inquiry had advised the Government that 15 per cent of the population had no health cover, and a larger proportion of the population had inadequate insurance to protect them in the event of serious illness or injury.
The path to universal health cover was torrid. Labor took it to the 1969, 1970 and 1972 elections.
It was at the centre of the double dissolution election of 1974. The Australian Medical Association - who are strong supporters of Medicare, today - were then, its fierce opponents.
The strongest opposition came from the Liberal and Country parties. These sworn enemies of Medibank saw it as nothing more than a “socialist scheme.” Hayden himself was described as a latter day “Don Corleone” armed with a weapon to stand over hospitals.
Medibank, it was claimed, “would reduce the standard of living in Australia to that of a banana republic.” The Queensland Country Party Senator Shiel made the fabulous claim that “under the Labor scheme people will be used for research.”
The Coalition parties vowed to fight and destroy it. They kept this promise.
After winning the 1975 election they dismantled Medibank’s universal health cover bit by bit. There was, of course, a fight.
On July 12, 1976, the ACTU - led by its President, R.J. Hawke - called a national strike to defend universal health cover; however, by April 1981 all that remained was the private health insurance arm Medibank Private.
From 1981, and until the Hawke Labor Government’s introduction of Medicare in February 1984, the vicissitudes of accident, illness or major injury could constitute a major financial crisis as well as a risk to the health and wellbeing of ordinary Australians.
We are still fighting to ensure that access to health care is a universal right to all Australians. I didn’t want to let this important anniversary pass without marking the event.
I’m back to Parliament next week. As we debate changes to corporate and personal income tax, it is worth reminding ourselves that that the reason we raise taxes is to pay for important services like Medicare.
In other news:
Little Kids - Big Cheque
Supporting local kids through the Stronger Community Grants.
Knitting for a Cause
Stella Maris Anniversary
Shout out to Stella Maris which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this weekend. A big achievement!
Great to catch up with Steve from Destination Southern Highlands to discuss Pie Time, happening this June. Check it out at www.southern-highlands.com.au/events/pietime.