Minister for Health and Aged Care speech – 6 February 2024

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's speech about the '40 years of Medicare' pop-up display at Parliament House.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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Here we have the story of Medicare in card form. But over here we have a living story of Medicare with Dr Mike Freelander. Because Dr Freelander opened his clinic on the 1st of February 1984 – the first day of Medicare.

Today’s exhibition, and exhibitions like it that we’re distributing through public libraries, is an opportunity to tell one of the most important stories of post-war politics in Australia and, indeed, right across the world.

Labor and Social Democratic parties came out of the ashes of the Great Depression and then World War Two, determined to build a fairer society.

There was no more important element to that platform than universal healthcare.

Truman tried to do it unsuccessfully in America, and Americans had to wait 6 more decades until President Obama. Attlee succeeded with the National Health Service.

But we know in our own country, Chifley was unable to achieve what the British had achieved in the 40s here in Australia, and it had to wait decades until Whitlam was able to establish Medibank for a short period of time.

And then Bob Hawke and the greatest health minister in Australia's history, Neal Blewett, were able to achieve Medicare in Australia.

And it changed the country. It was not just an abstract concept; it genuinely changed our country.

Before the 1st of February 1984, 1 in 7 Australians did not have health coverage. They just didn't have any coverage.

The leading cause of personal bankruptcies in this country was unpaid health and hospital bills.

After the 1st of February 1984, they stopped measuring unpaid health and hospital bills as a cause of bankruptcy, because it disappeared overnight. It simply disappeared.

That story of Australians just living through that cough or that pain in their chest, because they were worried about the financial impact of going to hospital or going to the doctor, disappeared overnight.

And in addition to that financial security it gave Australians, it delivered better healthcare.

Now, four decades on, when you measure healthcare systems across the world, overall, we are the number 3 performing healthcare system.

But importantly, in healthcare outcomes, there is no better healthcare system than Australia's.

In terms of equity, there is no better healthcare system than Australia.

And that is because the Labor Party fought the fight to establish Medicare.

It is an important part of the political history of this building and the building down the hill.

Because for 25 years, from the late 1960s until the mid-1990s, universal healthcare was perhaps the defining faultline between the 2 major parties, with a determination taken election after election by the conservative parties to – not just tamper with it – but to abolish universal healthcare, in its entirety.

And the determination of the Labor Party, the broader labour movement that has insisted on Medicare being a core element of the Accord in 1983, meant that we were able to establish the deep roots that the Prime Minister talks about, so often, as being important to social reform.

A long-term Labor government that was able to defend and really ensure that this system established the deep roots that are producing such enormous social and economic dividends to Australia today.

We think civics education is important. We think it's important that Australian students and adults understand our political history and how important some of the things that happen in this building are to the way of life that we enjoy in this country.

That's why this exhibition, and exhibitions like it at around the libraries of Australia, an interactive website that we hope schools will tap into to learn the history of the debate around universal healthcare coverage in Australia and what it has delivered for us, is a really important opportunity to just think about the sort of society that we've built since those post-war years.

Thank you all for coming along. Thank you, Mike, for living the history of this extraordinary social program, perhaps the most important social program that this country has.

Thank you very much.


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