Television interview with Assistant Minister Ged Kearney and Greg Jennett, Afternoon Briefings - 31 January 2024

Read the transcript from Assistant Minister Kearney's television interview on Afternoon Briefings discussing cost of living.

The Hon Ged Kearney MP
Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care

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SUBJECTS: Stage 3 Tax Cuts, Inflation, Bulk billing, Medicare’s 40th Birthday
GREG JENNETT, HOST:  Let's bring in our political panel for the day and joining us from Melbourne Labor's Assistant Health Minister, Ged Kearney is back. Welcome back, Ged. And Liberal MP, the Member for Hughes in Sydney’s south Jenny Ware, in Sydney. Welcome to you too, Jenny.
Look a bit to get through. Why don't we start out on the economy and stage three tax cuts. All roads lead to there at the moment. Ged I'll go to you, first of all. The justification for changing stage three is that middle-income Australia needs relief from cost-of-living pressures now, but the benefits don't arrive for another five months. On the inflation trajectory that we are picking up today, the worst of the cost-of-living crisis could well be over by then. Couldn't it? Doesn't that invite more action before then?
GED KEARNEY, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: Well, that's very optimistic of you, Greg. I think that would be great, but the fact of the matter is that people are telling us right now that they need cost of living relief. And I heard your interview with, Minister Clare just before and he very succinctly listed all of the factors, all of the things that the Labor government is doing to alleviate the cost of living for Australians who are really struggling right now. It is good news that inflation is coming down. That just goes to show that all of these measures that we've introduced - which I might add the opposition, screamed and yelled would be inflationary - have in fact worked to lower inflation while at the same time giving good cost of living relief. And he mentioned a number of those like childcare, cheaper medicines, cheaper electricity bills, et cetera.
Down the track, I think people can look forward to these stage three tax cuts having a further impact on the cost of living for them. It allows them to keep their budgets intact. It allows them to know that further relief is coming and I'm sure no matter what happens in the next few months, that will be very, very welcome indeed.
HOST: Alright. Jenny, I'm sure you like every member of the Liberal Party room will be actively considering the best way to deal with this Bill when it hits the Parliament. Now, helpfully the government is breaking down electorate by electorate the number of people who will be better off under its plan. Are you now among those in your party recognising that it's getting harder, if not impossible for Liberals and Nationals to vote against it in the Parliament? Jenny?
JENNY WARE, MEMBER FOR HUGHES: First of all, Greg, this does of course represent another broken promise by the Albanese Labor government. The full stage three tax cuts won't be implemented following the back flip. We do need to consider the legislation. We've had announcements, but we've seen no legislation. And what will be particularly important, Greg, when this legislation comes before us, the Liberals will go through our usual party room processes. But what will be very important is how the Labor government deals with the Greens. The Labor government will need the support from the Greens to get this at least through the Senate. And the Greens have a very strange track record in regard to a lot of the comments and commitments around tax reform. We need to have a look at the legislation before we can form a view. But what will be very telling will be what arrangements the Labor Party needs to make with the Greens.
HOST: Sure thing. In presentation of that argument though, Jenny, where you almost make it sound like there's an incentive then for the Coalition to get in and cut a deal that you might view as best in the available political circumstances, before the Greens would get to it.
WARE: Well, we certainly want to see cost of living relief for all Australians. It is the major, it's the first, second, third, fourth and fifth issue for most Australians. We certainly want to see cost of living relief. We've been calling upon that for months now from the government. Greg, we need to see the legislation before we can consider our position, before we start any sort of negotiations or discussions with the government.
HOST: I understand that a process that will play out or begin to play out further in Canberra next week. Ged, just to pick up Jenny's point there, is there room for the government to enlarge the total size of the package? I mean it didn't really, did it, in the scope of the arrangements outlined last week, not the first four years anyway. Is there an acceptance that the Greens might push you further?
KEARNEY: I think that what the government has outlined is incredibly fair and I think if you compare it to what the previous government had planned for these stage three tax cuts, which did not take into account the cost-of-living pressures on the lowest income earners in this country. We have redistributed that money. It is the same packet of money that was flagged in the original legislation. It has been costed and is in the budget. We hear from Treasury and from the RBA, it will not be inflationary. I think this is a very responsible package and I certainly hope it gets the support of the entire Parliament, including the Coalition. I think you raised the issue of the fact that I think about 85% of people in Coalition seats actually will get a very good saving in their income tax. I think this is a good package. I'm hoping that the entire Parliament will support it. It's sensible, it's not inflationary and it will give relief to the people who really, really need it the most.
HOST: And what's your outlook, Jenny, on those who were disadvantaged or relatively disadvantaged through the Labor changes to stage three? I mean, we're talking higher income earners, particularly those over $190,000. Will it be a Liberal ambition to fully restore to them the benefits they might have got before Labor had made these changes? Jenny?  
WARE: Greg, we have to, as I've said, look at the legislation itself. We need to consider the full ramifications of it and the impacts it will have for all Australians across all of our electorates. And, that includes Australians at all income levels. With all Labor policies and announcement, the devil is always in the detail. And so we are waiting for the detail before we can make any other commitments around where we will go with future policy.
HOST: Alright. Tax reform, Ged Kearney, I think you might have read today as I did that business groups, generally through their peak bodies at least, are somewhat despairing about the room to manoeuvre on further deep-rooted tax reform in this country. So much so I think they're talking about organising a summit among themselves. Now that one key tax policy has been broken and redrawn does that clear the way for Labor to press into other areas? What's next? Capital gains? Negative gearing?
KEARNEY: Well, I think the Treasurer has made it clear that with taxing multinational corporations and making sure that they pay their fair share of tax and redistributing this tax reform right across the entire economy - not leaving out our lowest income earners, giving it to who really needs it most – has been quite broad tax reform.
Given the good response we're getting from the community, I think people are really welcoming it. I have children in their thirties, all of whom have mortgages, and when I sort of flagged them as a bellwether for me: “What do you think about it”? They said, “Well, mum, this is going to help us”. And I think that that is the good thing about this reform. I think the Treasurer has made it clear that there's no further reform on the agenda. But, you know, this was a big step forward for the Labor government to do this. It was a responsible thing to do. It was the right thing to do, and I think the Prime Minister has shown that he can be trusted to make right decisions around these issues - big issues for our economy and for everyday Australians.  I think it's been warmly welcomed as it is.
HOST: Alright, Jenny, last one on tax because we'll move to some health and social issues in a moment, but do you share the view of big business lobby groups, in particular, that this appears to be the end of the road for wholesale tax reform?
WARE: Well, I think that we've heard this week that there have been those from the Labor caucus, Labor back benches speaking under the cloak of anonymity to say that they are concerned, they want to see changes to negative gearing, for example. We haven't had it firmly ruled out that there won't be those changes. I'd like to see the government make a firm commitment that there be no changes, for example, for taxes on the family home or a wealth tax and other taxes that have been making headlines and have been discussed recently. I think the government does need to go further than it has so far in explaining to Australians what future tax reform it is considering.
HOST: Alright. Let’s continue with that when you all return to Canberra next week.
Medicare turns 40 tomorrow and Ged Carney as Assistant Health Minister, you'll be involved in various forms of celebrations. I'll ask you about the celebratory nature of that in just a moment. But on a substantive question, bulk billing incentives for doctors, the budgets were a lot of money added - more than $3 billion as I recall, over four to five years - what benchmark increases in bulk billing rates do we expect or would you set to go with that investment?
KEARNEY: Well, I understand there's going to be some data released in the next few days, Greg. That will give us a good idea of what is happening out there. I know there's been lots of commentary around bulk billing rates and targets and various measures being used right across various commentary platforms. I think the Minister made it clear that the previous government, the Coalition, had been using sort of COVID data, which would be very skewed of course given the pandemic.
Anecdotally though I'm hearing that bulk billing rates have improved, albeit patchy across the country. Some areas it has improved a lot more than others. I think it's important not to really leap to conclusions, but to wait and see what the data will tell us.
But I have to say that Australians love Medicare. They are very proud of it. It has endured these 40 years, and it is something I think that the Labor government, as opposed to the Coalition when they were in government, is 100% committed to improving. We've tripled bulk billing rates. We have increased indexation to the point where GPs will get 34% more from a standard bulk billed session and some 50%. You know, depending on whether you are in a regional area or in the city. We've introduced an hour-long item under Medicare, which can I just say is a huge bonus particularly for women who often present with sort of vague symptoms like pelvic pain that really need investigation. We really are working hard. We are committed to Medicare and we want to see it accessible and affordable right across the country.
HOST: Okay. I will ask you a follow-up in a moment, but Jenny, on bulk billing since that's where I took Ged, do you have anecdotally even any indication that this enlarged incentive is working in your part of the world?  
WARE: First of all happy birthday I suppose to Medicare. It is a very important part of the Australian health policy, the retention of Medicare.  I am seeing in my electorate that bulk billing rates are declining at an alarming rate and my seat is in the city. Some of the recent figures that we've seen is that overall bulk billing across the country is at a 10-year low at around 77%. I'm hearing from doctors in my electorate as well as from patients that bulk billing rates are declining at a very, very fast rate.
HOST: And therefore, Jenny Ware - I think it's only been operating for three months now – this enlarged incentive is what? Not working ?
WARE: It’s not. That's not the evidence that I've seen in my electorate. And I would also say that when Ged is talking about expanding Medicare, the psychological sessions that were Medicare funded - the Coalition government had brought it in - there were 20 sessions per calendar year, that's now been slashed to 10. Despite the Coalition constantly asking for that to be reinstated, the government has refused to reinstate those. And I think particularly at a time where we now recognise that there are significant mental health challenges for many throughout our whole country. I think that that is something that the government should be looking at doing and should change its position as a matter of urgency and priority.
HOST: Alright, look, just to round it all out, on a slightly lighter note, what's not to love about a celebration, but Ged Kearney, why do we need to have a traveling road show, information campaign, printed logos on cards and other paraphernalia for a system which is still going to be there the day after tomorrow? How much are we spending on the party element of this birthday?
KEARNEY: You've asked me a question I really don't know the answer to and how much, but you know, a celebration is a celebration. People love Medicare and I think why not? Why not get out and celebrate it? And I think you'll find that people will enjoy it and they'll come out and say, “Yes, we love Medicare”. It's worth celebrating. You know, Bob Hawke who instigated it 40 years ago said they never believed it would still be here 40 years later. It was constantly attacked by Liberal governments and Coalition governments in the past and it's stayed the course now. Worth celebrating in my view.
HOST: Let’s not re-prosecute that. Last word to you, Jenny. Are you on board for a party, even if it does involve a little bit of taxpayer expense?
WARE: Well, I think that this is a matter of style over substance. As I said Greg, I think that Australians would much prefer the Medicare system where bulk billing rates were increased. And also that things like restoring those extra 10 psychological sessions per year for people suffering from mental health difficulties were restored.
The Coalition has also, in terms of women's health, announced that it would give $4 million to ovarian cancer research and that there would be further funding for women for both diagnosis and treatment for ovarian cancer through Medicare. I think that Australians would rather see funding going through in meaningful ways rather than some…
KEARNEY: … but it's not an either-or situation. Greg, of course, we've got a huge investment in women's health. I'm so proud of the endometriosis clinics and the stuff that I'm doing in my portfolio. The psychologist sessions as we know were not going to the people who needed them. In fact, 45,000 people were blocked from getting any mental health care because of the design of that system. It's worth revisiting that system and making sure it works for everybody.
HOST: Noted to both. My take is that neither side is proposing to demolish Medicare on its 40th birthday. We can all celebrate. Jenny Ware, Ged Kearney we'll get you both back again in not too long. Thanks for joining us today.
KEARNEY: Thanks. See you, Jenny.
WARE: Bye bye, Ged.


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