BREAKING POLITICS - Transcript - 17 March, 2014

This morning, I spoke with Chris Hammer about what's making news this week, notably the Government's repeal plan which confuses regulation that enhances public safety and accountability with burdensome red tape.



SUBJECT/S: Public polling on Medicare and Qantas; Home Insulation Program Royal Commission and cabinet confidentiality; Red tape and community safety.

CHRIS HAMMER: There's a new opinion poll out today in Fairfax showing the Government and Opposition running neck and neck. Perhaps of more interest is some of the questions further down the poll about peoples' attitudes towards Medicare and the Government helping Qantas. On Medicare, the poll reveals that some 52 per cent of respondents support means-testing bulk billing for Medicare. 49 per cent support a six-dollar surcharge every time someone visits the doctor. And 50 per cent agree that the Government needs to do something to reduce the costs of Medicare. Well, to discuss this issue and others, I'm joined by Andrew Leigh, the Labor member for Fraser in the ACT and also Assistant Shadow Treasurer.


HAMMER: And, Andrew Laming, the Member for Bowman in Queensland. Andrew Laming, first to you as a former medical practitioner. What does this poll tell you about peoples' attitude towards Medicare and the amount it costs government.

ANDREW LAMING: At the margins, it suggests that the Government's getting its message across about just how important is it to get the budget under control. But I think the bigger picture in health is that you get 50 per cent of people every day of the week supporting means-testing so long as it doesn't it doesn't means-test them. These numbers don't mean much to me and I don't think there's a great deal of savings to be made by introducing a few dollars here and there, given that already a quarter of Australia pay up to $50 to see a GP and overwhelming majority of the rest of them are already bulk-billed and will keep their bulk-billing status. The changes are very, very small.

HAMMER: So, the six dollar surcharge is not something you'd support?

LAMING: Look, it's not a matter of supporting it. It will have an impact in those large city clinics where there's an oversupply of doctors, people pop in and pop out for convenience GP visits. Collecting six dollars from them will raise somewhere in the vicinity of $175 million dollars over four years. It's a drop in the ocean compared to the $120 billion annual health budget. We really need to focus on the big picture in health and this is not it.

HAMMER: Okay. Well, Andrew Leigh, support for Medicare has been very strong over the years. The conventional wisdom is you don't tamper with it. Yet these polling figures people are willing to consider changes to Medicare including means-testing and the six dollar surcharge.

LEIGH: I think it's really important that we maintain a strong Medicare system Chris and it's true that Medicare is something that Australians are passionate about. But we had a huge period of Australian history where we fought about Medicare. Essentially all the elections from 1969 to 1993 are fights about Medicare, before finally the Coalition decides that they'll support the system. If they want to now go ahead and argue for a six dollar GP surcharge then they ought to come forward, put that proposal on the table for the Australian people. If that proposal is contained in the Commission of Audit, then that's one more reason why that 900 page report which is worrying many of my constituents ought to be in the public domain, as the last Commission of Audit report was, rather than sitting secret in the Treasury archives.

HAMMER: But, if a six dollar surcharge or means-testing means that Medicare remains more viable into the future as an entire system, isn't it simply sensible to look at this?

LEIGH: The Coalition needs to put a policy on the table and what I've been concerned about over the last few months and one of the reasons I think that this has been the first Government in my lifetime not to enjoy a honeymoon period is that the Government is floating too many thought bubbles and not enough considered policy development; not putting clear policy proposals out but floating ideas through sympathetic journalists and seeing what reception they get. That's not a good way, by and large, of making public policy.

HAMMER: Okay. Andrew Laming, just to touch on something you said in a previous answer. You said there were big savings to be made and these aren't where you should look. Where should you look in the medical system if the Government needs to save money?

LAMING: Most experts now agree it's in the complex co-morbidity space with people in and out of hospital all the time. Our communications between private specialists, public hospitals and GPs is almost non-existent. It's still done with fax machines. So we've really got to get that area, where the Europe and the US has moved, significantly ahead. We've got to get that in our focus. Back to the other situation, we have most politicians understanding that the health system is limited by what the visiting hours are at the local hospital. Very few of us have had any real in-depth experiences in these large money-hungry monoliths, so understanding how to fix the health system has always been something that causes trepidation amongst politicians. The first step will be to have a hard conversation about how we manage complex chronic disease.

HAMMER: So, do you think this idea of means-testing and the six dollar surcharge being floated, if the Government did pursue that it would obviously come at some political cost. Is your assessment that it's simply not worth the political cost?

LAMING: Well, picking up on Andrew's very good point, we fought over these things in the 1960s. The very point is we don't fight over them anymore. The same is our attitude to Work for the Dole or publically supporting companies with taxpayer money. These things change over time as Australians become more comfortable with decisions that Government is making. The very fact that we can now have an open debate about middle class Australians fundamentally paying the same amount to see a doctor as they do to fill one prescription at the pharmacist, indicates we've moved on this health debate.

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh, it seems if you combine the Medicare question, there was another question in the opinion poll about government assistance to Qantas. Something like forty per cent of people didn't want to give any assistance. Only 30 per cent supported the removal of foreign ownership restrictions. Only 20 per cent supported providing a debt guarantee. Put all this together, it does suggests the Government's message that these are tough economic times, that the Government's got to rein back spending, it's a sort of over-arching narrative, it does suggest that that message is getting traction in the electorate.

LEIGH: Chris, one of the things that makes these polls difficult to interpret is that voters' judgements on issues are also shaped by what political parties say on issues. The classic one is, you look at Liberal Party supporters' attitudes to climate change when Malcolm Turnbull is the leader supporting an emissions trading scheme and after Malcolm Turnbull cedes the leadership to Tony Abbott. The flip on the issue is massive. So I think you want to wary of reading too much into issues polls. But certainly on Qantas I'm not inundated at my street stalls and office meetings with constituents saying the real solution is to make Qantas a foreign owned airline. That's not a strongly popular view in my electorate and I'd be surprised if Andrew Laming, indeed other members of the House of Representatives, have people knocking their door down, saying the best thing to do is to sell off the Flying Kangaroo to people overseas.

HAMMER: If we move on, the Royal Commission into the whole home insulation, the so-called 'pink bats' Royal Commission is starting in Brisbane today.  Andrew Laming, at a time when the Government is sending out this message of restraint and tightening spending. It's $25 million to tell us what we already know sounds like a waste of money, doesn't it?

LAMING: Unless you're one of the families who had their home burnt down as a result of a government decision and we really need to know what happened to the advice, the recommendations and warnings. We all remember the program, $2.5 billion, we were watching teenagers running round with rolls of insulation in the backs of renter-trucks and wondering where our federal money was going and why it was spent this way. It's a small price to make sure this never happens again.

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh?

LEIGH: We've had a range of investigations on this Chris. These have included federal and state investigations. Labor supported it because we are concerned about workplace deaths and these handful of installers who died were part of the tragically, 200 a year who die from workplace injuries. Labor's always committed to making sure we have workplace safety but I am concerned when the Government ends a more than century-old cabinet confidentiality by handing over cabinet documents to the Royal Commission. I think that sets a precedent which this Government might ultimately regret.

HAMMER: So what will Labor do about that, the access to cabinet documents, the potential subpoenaing of cabinet ministers, indeed former prime minister Kevin Rudd to appear before a Royal Commission. What can Labor practically about that?

LEIGH: Well, each of those individuals are now private citizens and they will take their own legal advice and make their own decisions and I'm sure they'll cooperate to the greatest extent they're able to. In terms of cabinet documents, this is just a tradition. It's a tradition that's been upheld by every Australian government until this one. But there is nothing legally that Labor can do to protect the confidentiality of conversations that occur around the cabinet table and the strength of collective decision making that is underpinned by that tradition, now scrapped by this Government that calls itself conservative.

HAMMER: Andrew Laming, it's not a bad point. You know, separated away from the issue of home insulations, accessing cabinet documents so soon after the fact, doesn't that mean that any cabinet minister walking into cabinet this week is going to have to be careful of what they say, that there won't be a full and frank discussion around the cabinet table?

LAMING: That's a genuine concern. I think and that's why it should only be done under extremely critical circumstances. I am not sure if this one crosses the bar. But certainly this is a case that the Government will have to make if and when asked by the royal commission for access to those documents and one middle ground of course is that one of the commissioners can look at that document without the document becoming public. So there is some middle ground there, but we will have to wait and see what happens.

HAMMER: So you think maybe that this issue isn't important enough to cross that threshold?

LAMING: I am in two minds in this one. I think that confidentiality of cabinet documents is absolutely critical, but if the argument is ultimately made for those documents to remain privilege, it will go to a court of law and that is where it will be decided.

HAMMER: Okay, now this Wednesday has been declared ‘Repeal Day’ because the Government is introducing legislation or to amend legislation that will cut up to a billion dollars in red tape. Isn't the timing of this rather unfortunate Andrew Laming, in that, on the one hand we have a Royal Commission into what happens when we there's not enough regulation and on the other hand the government is trying to get rid of all this regulation?

LAMING: Well you got a fair point that we want a responsiveness when warnings were first received. That's a little different to the bigger picture when ultimately I am a Liberal. I just love seeing wheel barrows full of regulations being carried to dumpsters. I mean it is one of the reasons I go into public life. But, in a practical sense, how does that change the lives of Australians. They will be judging repeal day not on the number of pages or regulations but how our ability to enjoy a free and incumbent life for those who lead honest and hardworking lives without the impact of government, people who are trying to start a business and people who are trying to run their lives the responsible way will want to see a difference from these repeal laws. That will be a very strong case that the government will have to make. It will be a challenging one. We will have to convince Australians that repealing these laws make a practical difference to the way we lead our lives. And that's a case that is yet to be made.

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh?

LEIGH: Well as this, your point I think highlights this Chris, that there are many regulations that improve work, health and safety. It worried me yesterday when the Prime Minister gave us one of his main examples of what would occur on repeal day, childcare regulations. Now we have childcare regulations so we keep our kids safe. Now Andrew and I have both had kids in childcare. Regulations such as the regulations that workers need to not have criminal convictions, to make sure that food preparation is safe, that communicable diseases are reported. Which of these bits of childcare red tape would the Prime Minister like to get rid of? I'd like to know.

LAMING: The answer probably is Chris, the areas that overlap between state and local government regulations. So increasingly part of repeal day will be  to find those overlaps.

HAMMER: Isn't that a good point Andrew [Leigh]? That is tends to be that regulation is brought in with all good intentions, legislation whatever, but it tends to build up and accumulate, there's duplication between state and federal and indeed local, that from time to time you really need to go in with a broom and sweep it out.

LEIGH: You have just got to be careful that you look after the kids in that process. In the area of childcare regulations this looking after an incredibly vulnerable set of kids. By and large there’s clarity as to what the state and territories do and what the federal government does. And so really people ought to be make sure that red tape repeal day doesn't make us a more vulnerable society. We have bits of red tape for example that ensure that airline safety is maintained, that trucks are safe on the roads. This idea that red tape is dragging us our society down, flies in the face of the huge rise in safety that we have seen in the Australian community over recent generations.

LAMING: Chris, we make the argument for safety. But in 2007 the roads were safe, the childcare centres were safe but since then we have introduced 975 new laws, 22,000 more regulations. Ultimately we have to try and draw the line somewhere.

HAMMER: But what's the rush? I mean there's sensible, logical, mature all those adjectives that Tony Abbott was quoting on taking government. Why the rush now? Why this big push to try and even have a repeal day. It suggests spin rather than content?

LAMING: It's kind of ironic that whether we are writing laws or repealing them, politicians will always busy. But I argue that whether I come down here to Canberra, and spend time out of my electorate making up new laws, is really building a better society. In the end it's not so much a rush, but we've got an agenda. This won't be the first repeal day nor the last. So these repeal days are likely to be continued into the future.

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh, does this give Labor a political opportunity, that the Government is being too keen in repealing regulations?

LEIGH: Well one of the issues that I have portfolio responsibility is the Australians Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission. That's expected to be on the chopping block on Wednesday despite the fact that it has a red tape reduction directorate. It was set up with the aim of reducing duplication for charities across states and federal. And the Charities Not-for-Profits Commission is set up in order to protect people who donate to charity, to make sure that they are not ripped off by scammers. If the ACNC is removed then Australian charitable donors and good charities - who are the vast majority of charities - will be placed at risk.

HAMMER: Okay, gentlemen thanks once again for your participation.

LEIGH: Thanks Chris, thanks Andrew.


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.