PENNY WONG, ACTING LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: I wanted to talk today about reports in today’s papers of another broken promise from Tony Abbott. And this is the fact that the Government is considering a hospital tax, a hospital tax which is another broken promise from Tony Abbott. And it is Australian families who will pay the price.

Now, I don’t think parents who are worried about their child’s health, who go to a public hospital in the middle of the night should be worried about their credit card. Their Medicare card should be enough. We don’t want parents having to worry about a credit card, they should be carrying their Medicare card and get access to the services that they need for their child.

Tony Abbott wants to put a paywall around Australia’s emergency departments. And not only is that wrong, it’s also a broken promise. Because who can forget, before the last election, Mr Abbott assured Australians, he promised Australians, no cuts to health. He promised Australians no new taxes as well. We’ve got a GP tax on the table already, and now we have a hospital tax: a clear broken promise from Tony Abbott.

I’m happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Shouldn’t there be a penalty though to at least deter people from clogging up hospitals who don’t need to be there?

WONG: I refer you to the comments from the AMA today, who’ve said that that is not a problem, that the triage arrangements do deal very well with this and, more importantly, what they say is we know that if you put co-payments into the system, it is a disincentive for people to seek the healthcare they need. And I think any parent knows, if you take a child to hospital in the middle of the night, you’re worried about them. And it might only be a sore throat but it might be something else. That’s why you’re there.

We’ve got a principle in this country that says we don’t have two tiers for healthcare. We don’t have one for those who can afford it and another for those who can’t. We say, as Australians, we have a Medicare card and we get access to universal healthcare. Tony Abbott wants to put a paywall around Australia’s public hospitals.

JOURNALIST: Is there any way Tony Abbott could make the states do it?

WONG: You’d have to ask him. All that I know is this is obviously being put to the papers, being reported very widely, and that the Government’s refusing to rule it out. Now, if Tony Abbott were a man of his word, and if he cared about public health, if he cared about health services, then he would be ruling this out pretty quickly. This is quite clearly another broken promise.

JOURNALIST: Speaking of promises – the submarines. 12 submarines was the figure in both the White Papers under the Gillard/Rudd Governments. Why is 12 submarines the right number for Australia as opposed to a different set-up with an ongoing build?

WONG: We made a decision on that capability I think it was in the 2009 White Paper. And I think it was in that that we set up some of the rationale for the capability. But I want to make clear that the broken commitment from Tony Abbott is not just around the number. It’s also around where it will be built and what will be built. He gave very strong commitments as a result of questioning not only from the now Opposition but also from, let’s be fair, South Australian journalists, who put this question reasonably to Mr Abbott – because it is a big issue for us, here in South Australia.

And he eventually made a commitment around building submarines here and he made a commitment to building 12. If you’ve read Minister David Johnston’s speech, they’ve not only walked away from 12, but everything’s on the table. And the commitment to build in Adelaide is no longer a commitment.

And I think South Australians are entitled to ask what has Tony Abbott got against South Australia? He clearly didn’t help Holdens, he effectively showed them the door and now he’s walking away from a commitment which is so important for our economy. Making sure we maintain those skills, those advanced engineering and manufacturing skills here in South Australia, but also I believe it’s a national security issue. And I think it’s a very important capability.

JOURNALIST: Senator Johnston has repeated though that the work will be centred around the South Australian shipyards, isn’t that enough?

WONG: What I’d say to you is don’t allow the spin to get in the way of what’s previously been said. That’s what Tony Abbott said previously, before he then made a stronger commitment, frankly under political pressure from people here in South Australia. So they’ve now junked the commitment and gone back to the language which can only be described as fudging. These are just weasel words to walk away from the commitment that was made.

JOURNALIST: What do you think “centred around” could mean though? Do you think that’s indicating modified off the shelf, full off the shelf?

WONG: Well I know “centred around” means weasel words to crab walk away from the commitment.

JOURNALIST: Back onto the hospital issue. As a former Finance Minister –

WONG: I love questions that begin with that.

JOURNALIST: Is the proposal to charge for using emergency services something that’s tossed up every budget?

WONG: We’re the party that built Medicare and the fundamental principle that underpins Medicare is universality of access, and that is not something Labor will support. We believe Medicare needs to be defended. And what I’d say to you is I think Australians expect that to be the case.

JOURNALIST: How would you reign in the ballooning health budget?

WONG: I’ll tell you, one of the things we did do which the Coalition wants to reverse is the means testing of the private health rebate, bitterly opposed by Joe Hockey. Tony Abbott has a commitment at some point to bring it back. I know that wasn’t popular but that was an important savings measure that we put in place. And I’ll tell what’s the other thing I’d do, I wouldn’t put in place a rolled gold paid parental leave scheme.

JOURNALIST: Why didn’t Labor take the pressure off hospitals by delivering on its promise to build GP super clinics?

WONG: A number of GP super clinics have been built and I would say in terms of hospital reform, we put more funding and more resources into public hospitals than any previous government and certainly more than this government’s proposing to put in over the budget period.

JOURNALIST: Senator, are you opposed to means testing for bulk billing patients? I mean why should the wealthy people be able to bulk bill?

WONG: I again go back to this: do we want a system like there is in America, where there are two tiers of health services available, where your credit card is what is important, not your Medicare card, where some people can afford health care and others can’t? We made the decision as a nation decades ago, we didn’t want to do that. We wanted a proper health system. We wanted a health system that we all contributed to and we all could benefit from. And Tony Abbott, what they’re setting to do is starting to dismantle that.

JOURNALIST: Senator you were involved in a pretty well-publicised pre-selection process prior to the Senate election. What’s your view on the direct election of Senate candidates and, indeed, delegates to the National Convention?

WONG: I’ve said and I think this might’ve been asked yesterday and I’ve certainly said in a couple of interviews in the last couple of days, I think we should have the discussion about how we strengthen our party. An important part of that is extending the franchise, making our party more democratic, opening up our processes, because if you want people to be members they have to be involved.

I’m a big supporter of the new leadership rules and I think even those people in the party who are concerned about them I think saw the process of the most recent election of the Labor Leader as being a constructive one and a positive one. So I’m up for that discussion, I’m certainly open to that discussion. That’s an important suggestion that’s being put on the table, but there are others and I think we ought to consider them all very carefully.

JOURNALIST: Just on health again, would Labor ever talk about capping services, for example, hip replacements for 99 year olds or anything like that?

WONG: I’m not going to get into hypotheticals around what else might or might not be considered by the government. What I’d say is as the Opposition we’re very clear about what our principles are. And I think Australians are pretty clear about what they’re being told today. They’re being told Tony Abbott is welching on his commitment that there’ll be no cuts to health. Tony Abbott said there’d be no cuts to health, no new taxes. Well a new hospital tax on top of the GP tax – clearly breaking the election commitment.

Thank you, very much.


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