Bulk-billing has been eroded on John Howard’s watch – from 80% in 1996 to 69% in 2003 and in all too many outer suburbs and regional and rural communities it is almost non-existent says ACTU President Sharan Burrow.

Welcome and thank you. It is genuinely heartening for working Australia to see the mix of political and community leaders here today in genuine concern to protect Medicare.

Australia is a wealthy nation but all too many Australians are not wealthy. We are an increasingly divided nation with most divisions being driven by the dollar. The Australian ethos of the ‘fair go’ has always involved a mix of education and healthcare. For unions that has always been represented in public policy terms by the social wage.

A quaint rather old fashioned concept it may seem in the wake of the damage created by the individualism of a ‘user pays’ society but the social wage has always been for working Australians that piece of dignity that made us all equal through the opportunity of public education and the guarantee of health care.

John Howard has set out to dismantle the social wage in Australia, and it is working.

It is no accident that over the last 12 months, health and education costs have been the fastest rising contributors to inflation of any of the CPI groups measured by the Bureau of Statistics: health costs increased by 7.2% in the year to March – more than double the overall rate of inflation of 3.4%. Education costs for the year were up by 4.9%.

John Howard has never shared the vision of Medicare – a universal system of equal opportunity for healthcare paid for through a progressive taxation system. As a member of the Fraser Government John Howard worked to secure the death of Medibank – an act so significant for union members that the ACTU led a general strike of protest in 1976.

In 1983 Medicare was seen by the Labour movement as a foundation stone of the social wage component of the Accord Process. Thus in 1984 Medicare was introduced as a universal system for the financing of public health.

Bulk billing enabled Australians to access doctors knowing that they had already paid through the tax system. Of course there was a small minority of some doctors who refused to bulk bill but working families and their children had a choice and bulk billing became an entitlement whereby healthcare did not depend on your capacity to pay.

John Howard’s hatred of Medicare surfaced again in the lead up to the 1987 election…consider these quotes:

“The second thing we will do is get rid of the bulk-billing system. It’s an absolute rort”

“We will be proposing changes to Medicare which amount to its de facto dismantling ….. we will pull it right apart”

and then in the 1987 election policy:

“Bulk billing will not be permitted for anyone except pensioners and the disadvantaged. Doctors will be free to charge whatever they choose”

We are under no illusion that this is unfinished business for John Howard. As far as Medicare is concerned John Howard is Dr Death! Hence the skeleton hanging off the Medicare sign on the cover of our fact sheet. But Liberal party members should make no mistake – there is a Save Medicare ambulance on the inside – a little retro in style, for we are old fashioned enough to stand by the fundamental principles of universal care. Medicare is a line in the sand for us.

Medicare / bulk billing is not free. John Howard would have us believe it is. The reality is that his proposals would make Australians pay three times: 1. through the general tax base, 2. through the Medicare levy and now 3. a direct cost based on a subjective judgement by a doctor of what his patients can afford!

Bulk-billing has already been eroded on the Prime Minister’s watch – from 80% in 1996 to 69% in 2003 and in all too many outer suburbs and regional and rural communities it is almost non-existent.

We have a nation bullied into private health insurance – taxpayers dollars spent to prop up the private insurance industry, neglect of Medicare and now a further step in the Americanisation of the health system. If the Prime Minister is successful employers will not thank him either for the cost of health cover is bargained for by unions and can cost up to 20% of the wages bill as it does in the US. This is not a path we want to tread.

I will say a little more about the union community campaign later in the morning but can I assure you that working families can take heart from this coalition of concern and on their behalf I thank you for being here and being prepared to stand up as public defenders of Medicare. Your commitment to a decent Australia stands in stark contrast to John Howard and Kay Paterson who have cast themselves in the role of Medicare vandals.

Sharan Burrow