ABC CANBERRA MORNINGS WITH ROSS SOLLY
MONDAY, 17 OCTOBER 2022
SUBJECTS: BUDGET ANNOUNCEMENTS, COMPETITION, MEDICARE RORTS AND BULK BILLING IN THE ACT.
ROSS SOLLY: As you may have heard yesterday, the federal government announced – or let the cat out of the bag with some infrastructure spending that will be unveiled in the mini-budget which is coming up. Now, a lot of money being splashed around the place everywhere except unfortunately it seemed for the ACT. Now, later onin the day, the government said, “Don’t worry, there is some stuff coming your way,” but they wouldn’t say what it was. So, I mean, I’m not cynical and I’m not suggesting a conspiracy theory, but maybe we just got forgotten about for a little while. I don’t know.
Andrew Leigh is the Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury, and he joins me this morning. Andrew Leigh, good to talk to you.
ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR CHARITIES, COMPETITION AND TREASURY THE HOB DR ANDREW LEIGH: Great to talk to you, Ross. And sorry in advance – I won’t be able to spill the beans on the announcement that’s to come. But you can rest assured that with a Finance Minister from the ACT, the ACT is never forgotten in the Budget.
SOLLY: Well, that’s what I was a bit concerned about – how come everybody else got a little bit of the action yesterday and we were left sort of sitting on the subs bench waiting? The 90th minute came on, we still weren’t called on. We went into extra time – nothing happened. What happened?
LEIGH: It was exciting to have other states’ infrastructure announcements announced yesterday. It will be exciting to have the ACT’s infrastructure spend announced in the coming days. Certainly, we know there’s some small-bore investments – there’s the $5 million to improve cycling connections through the Northbourne cycle corridor, and that will be a construction of a new garden city cycle route. There’s also the benefits that people in the ACT will get from safety upgrades to a dangerous section of the Brindabella Road in New South Wales.
SOLLY: In New South Wales.
LEIGH: Yeah, exactly. So used by us, but certainly, a spend that’s in New South Wales. But then you should also be keeping your eyes peeled for the sort of infrastructure investment that Canberrans should expect from a government that understands that the ACT ought to get its fair share. You know, I remember the last Budget – we got a fifth of our fair share. It was just outrageous. I think that was one of the things that contributed to Zed Seselja ultimately losing his seat.
SOLLY: Quite possibly. But as you may have seen, David Pocock, who took his seat, he was very unhappy yesterday. Put out a tweet saying, “Why have we been forgotten?” I know you’re saying something’s coming up, but is there a reason why we weren’t part of the announcement yesterday?
LEIGH: It’s just about the timing of the announcements. You know, people shouldn’t think this is slowing down the projects in any way. It’s just, you know, some things get announced on Sunday, some things get announced on Thursday, and that’s the way it is.
SOLLY: It did seem like everybody else had an announcement yesterday.
LEIGH: I know, I know. I share that frustration. It’s like when you’re a little kid and you’re watching your siblings unwrap their birthday presents and you’re thinking, “Why isn’t it my birthday today?” But I promise Canberrans that we will get our fair share of infrastructure spending, and that announcement will be coming in the coming days.
SOLLY: All right. Just on some other issues, Andrew Leigh, you may have heard in the news this morning this joint Sydney Morning Herald ABC investigation into Medicare. Quite extraordinary - $8 billion a year apparently being rorted from Medicare services. Some because of mistakes, but others quite obviously not mistakes – dead people have been billed, patient records have been falsified to boost profits. As the Assistant Minister for the Treasury and other portfolios, what do you make of this? And we know that GPs want your government to boost Medicare funding and increase rebates. This is not going to help their cause, is it?
LEIGH: Well, these are shocking allegations. And I think, you know, really hit all of those – all of us who care deeply about Medicare. I’m a representative of the party that built Medicare, that wants to make Medicare better, wants to strengthen Medicare. And people who are rorting Medicare really undermine that.
You know it’s a bit like these small minority of people who are ripping off the National Disability Insurance Scheme – really damaging the scheme for others. So, we need to make sure those allegations are reported to the department. And I know the Health Minister is immediately seeking further advice on these specific allegations that are being made.
SOLLY: Yeah, I mean, $8 billion, that is not a drop in the ocean, is it? That’s quite a large slice. And if GPs are now turning around saying, “We want” – again, to use this pie analogy – by the way, Andrew, I’m not hungry; I have had breakfast this morning – but that’s quite a large slice of the pie. If the GPs want a bit more, then maybe they need to get their own house in order.
LEIGH: Well, I think these are rogue actors, and we need to make sure that they’re brought to bear. We understand that GPs, the vast majority of GPs are doing absolutely the right thing. They got into general practice because they care deeply about their patients. They want Medicare to be strengthened. They’ve brought a strong case to the government for doing so. So, I don’t think they should be the target here. This is really about wrongdoers who are breaking the law, and who should have the book thrown at them.
SOLLY: You just mentioned that you feel strongly about bulk billing et cetera and the Medicare process. I did see a report on the weekend that the amount of bulk billing practices in the ACT now quite disturbing – I think less than five, which is unbelievable.
LEIGH: Absolutely. Well, with the closure of the National Health Co-op, Ross, I think that’s really constrained things right down to people with health care cards and to children. So, for adults who don’t qualify for one of those cards, it is very hard to find a bulk-billing doctor in the ACT.
SOLLY: How do we turn that around?
LEIGH: It’s a matter certainly I’ve been engaged with the ACT government on trying to get more of those incentives. But it’s just difficult for many of these practices to make the finances work. That was ultimately a challenge the National Health Co-op. You know, I thought had that model of you pay an annual fee and then you bulk bill for everything else, and they just couldn’t make the finances stack up.
SOLLY: I know you’re delivering a speech later today – and we’ll talk about it later in a moment – about reforms. But is the health system in bad need of reform do you think at the moment?
LEIGH: Look, there’s always ongoing reforms to be done in the health care system, Ross. But, you know, I’ve just returned from the United States and that is always a reminder as to what a strong healthcare system we have and the fact that the values of universalism run through the system, that there is a very strong ethic that people ought to get the same level of health care according to their Medicare card, not according to their credit card. But, you know, we need to make sure that the system is kept up to scratch, that we are bringing as many of those new medical innovations to Australian patients as we can.
SOLLY: I know we often compare ourselves with the United States when we want to make ourselves feel pretty good, but then I’ve just returned from living in the UK, and I know their system gets ridiculed a lot, but at the same time you can go to a doctor there you don’t have to pay anything over the counter, you can go to a chemist, you can pick up prescriptions, you don’t have to pay anything over the counter. It’s a lot different here – there’s a lot ofout-of-pocket expenses here in Australia.
LEIGH: Yeah, there’s certainly more. And, you know, I think in both those examples and many more it’s the importance of learning from other countries and making sure that our system is doing as well as it can. There’s – you know the government has been focused on getting more medicines listed, more essential medicines available to Australians. And the work that Mark Butler has been doing engaging with the College of GPs to ensure that we get more people going into general practice is important.
He's been sitting down with medical students and saying, “What does it take for you to consider a job as a GP? Why is it that people are turning away from general practice?” So, you know, Mark’s really rolling his sleeves up trying to make sure that he’s engaging both with the structures but also with the people that underpin our great system.
SOLLY: It’s 16 away from 9 o’clock on ABC Canberra Mornings. You’re with Ross Solly filling in for Adam Shirley today. My guest is Andrew Leigh, the Assistant Minister for Competition and Treasury. We’ll talk about some other issues regarding your speech in just a moment, but I know there was a lot of disappointment in the ACT last week, late last week – and I’ll be talking to Andrew Barr after the news at 9 o’clock – with the inability of the Commonwealth to wipeout the ACT’s housing debt. There was a feeling that it’s happened for others but, again, to quote the Moving Pictures, “What about me,” Andrew Leigh? Why won’t your government wipe out the ACT’s housing debt?
LEIGH: Look, I’d like to see that done, Ross. But we’ve got a trillion dollars of government debt and a whole range of priorities we’ve come into office with. So, the cheaper childcare reforms that will be part of this budget, the work that we’re doing and the investing in infrastructure across the country, the work in energy markets to make sure we move to 43 per cent emissions reduction by 2030. It is something that I’d ultimately like to see done. We’re not the only jurisdiction with a housing debt. And so, making sure that that’s done in a fair and equitable way is important to Katy Gallagher. As she’s put it, she’s not Finance Minister for the ACT; she’s Finance Minister for Australia.
LEIGH: And she can’t offer her own jurisdiction some special deal. It’s important to come up with a principled approach across the board.
SOLLY: But it’s not a special deal, is it? Because, for example, Tasmania has had it done. There have been other states that have had favourable results in this regard. So, it’s not as if we’re putting our hand up saying, “Pick me, pick me.”
LEIGH: Well, I’m not sure about other states that have had favourable results, Ross. I mean, there’s some states that have paid off their housing debt, so they would then say, “Why did we pay it off if you’re getting a free deal?” Tasmania was the one where the special deal was done, and I don’t think anyone thought that that was good public administration. So then if we are to find a solution to these housing debts, it needs to be done on a basis that is fair and equitable across the country.
SOLLY: All right. Just on your speech today, you’re talking about setting Australia up for a zippier economy, Andrew Leigh, looking at the history of the Hilmer reforms. Of course, it was a major shake-up of competition in Australia. Did it serve us well, and is it time for another Hilmer-type review of where we are and where we’re going for the future?
LEIGH: Well, you can’t invent the wheel a second time, but I think there’s certainly issues we can learn from Fred Hilmer’s remarkable reforms of the early 1990s. It’s 30 years ago this month since Paul Keating gave Fred Hilmer that reference to look at reforming Australia’s competition laws and all of the regulations. So, you know, that saw things like the removal of regulations as to the time of the day when bakers could bake bread and which opened up a whole lot of opportunities in the economy, unlocked innovation in energy markets and, according to one estimate, put about $5,000 into the pockets of the typical household.
So, the challenge today is where we can learn from that and deal with some of these issues that are gumming up the economy, which has seen the start-up rate go done, which have seen mark-ups increase and market concentration rise. I’m really worried that Australia is not as dynamic an economy as it could be. And I think learning from that great Hilmer review process a generation ago could set us on a zippier path forward.
SOLLY: One of the things you are going to say in your speech today, though, is that these economic reforms may have contributed to the challenges that a lot of rural communities are now facing. So, were they basically forgotten about? Is that the problem?
LEIGH: I think there were a lot of benefits for rural communities, but I think we can do a better job this time around of making sure that equity is at the heart of competition reform and that whatever reforms we put in place are done in the interests of the most disadvantaged households.
One other aspect of that is that the reforms a generation ago weren’t putting the same premium on green reforms. Now if you’re doing anything in the energy space you want to think not only what it does for prices but also about what it does for emissions.
So, we don’t need to watch the old movie; we need to write a new script and one which is fit for purpose for the more egalitarian environmentally focused Australia we want to deliver.
SOLLY: A couple of texts I’ll read to you to leave you with, Andrew Leigh. James from Spence suggesting, “I think our forgotten announcement is because the government doesn’t want the rest of the country seeing that Canberra is getting money for projects. They’re playing to the wider electorate.” You’re thoughts on that, Andrew Leigh? I mean, we do know that people don’t like to see Canberrans doing well.
LEIGH: Well, I think we need to turn that around, don’t we, Ross? I mean, one of the things I’m always keen to do with new parliamentary colleagues is to get them a bit out of the triangle to see Canberra in its rich diversity and to get a sense that this is a city they should be proud of, that they should call their home. With the parliamentary visits program for kids one of the things we aim to do there is to say that this national capital is a national asset. So, I’m not shy in putting that case forward, and I would hope my parliamentary colleagues aren’t either.
SOLLY: Andrew Leigh, good to chat with you this morning. Thank you for your time.
LEIGH: Lovely to chat with you, Ross. Take care.