02 July 2016
by Phillip Coorey
Medicare poses late scare as Liberals cling to narrow lead
The federal government's cuts to Medicare have flared in the dying hours of the election campaign, posing a late threat to the Coalition's modest lead which hinges on holding the line in NSW, where a large number of seats remain volatile.
Less than 24 hours before polling booths opened and with the polls tight, Malcolm Turnbull was exposed when letters emerged from doctors informing patients of a new a co-payment for visits because of the government's plans to continue the freeze on the Medicare rebate paid to GPs.
The letters appeared just after the Prime Minister, when asked on morning television whether he could guarantee people would not pay more to see the doctor due to the freeze, said "absolutely and bulk-billing is at an all-time high".
The development gave Labor hope it could close the gap on the Coalition, which has its nose ahead in all the national polls, including two more released on Friday. Labor insisted its polling showed it could still win. Coalition insiders conceded they could be pushed to a hung Parliament but were confident of holding on.
"It's tight, but I'd rather be us than them," said one.
Mr Turnbull lashed the doctors, effectively accusing them of rorting by charging co-payments of around $15. He said the effect of not indexing the rebate for this financial year would be less than 60c.
"If indexation were restored today, doctors would receive less than 60 cents additional. So if a doctor chooses to charge his or her patients $15 more or $10 more or $20 more, that's not because indexation does not resume, it's because they want to charge $15 or $20 more," he said.
"The argument that these large increases in doctors' charges are a consequence of indexation not being continued is simply not correct."
But the AMA argues that having to start charging patients creates additional business costs because staff and software would be required to change billing practices.
AMA president Michael Gannon said the costs would deter people from seeing the doctor.
"There are a lot of GPs who've decided they could probably take a hit for a couple of years, but they are saying enough is enough."
One letter, sent from a practice in north-west Sydney, informed pensioners, healthcare cardholders "and other bulk-billed patients" would now be charged $14.95 for a standard consultation.
The AMA, which had warned the government of the co-payment after it extended the rebate freeze in the May 3 budget, estimated about two-thirds of the nation's 24,000 GPs would start charging a fee.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said Mr Turnbull had been caught out.
"It is outrageous. It is untruthful. And he knows the facts are different to what he said on television this morning," Mr Shorten said.
"Tomorrow the Australian people, I suspect, are going to send a very clear message to Malcolm Turnbull: 'Hands off Medicare'."
Strategists on both sides agreed the development may be too late to heavily influence Saturday's vote. By close of business on Thursday 3.5 million of the nation's 15 million voters had already cast pre-poll and postal votes.
NSW remains the state where the election will be decided.
Based on estimates from both camps, Labor, which needs 19 seats nationally to win back government, is on track to win about six outside NSW. These include two in Western Australia, one in each of South Australia, Tasmania, Queensland and the Northern Territory, but none in Victoria where the dispute between the state Labor government and the Country Fire Authority has cruelled federal Labor's chances of picking up three seats there and has even threatened some of its own seats, including Chisholm.
There is seething anger in federal Labor towards the Andrews government in Victoria which may explode on Sunday.
"Seriously, it has been a long dispute and it is greatly disappointing," Mr Shorten said Friday.
Labor was on track to take at least two seats in NSW – Eden-Monaro and Macarthur. One source said many other seats in the state were volatile.
"(But) if Labor gets a run on, the best result is they could win 12-to-13-seats," he said.
This would not give Labor government but could lead to a hung parliament. The Coalition had grave concerns for the NSW Nationals-held seat of Cowper, which is being contested by independent Rob Oakshott.
Mr Turnbull emphasised time and again on Friday for voters to avoid minor parties and independents.
"This is a very close election. No one can take it for granted. Every vote counts. Every single vote counts," he said.
"We have the Labor Party promising higher debt, higher deficits, higher taxes. And if that wasn't bad enough, the prospect of a hung parliament and some sort of chaotic alliance with the Greens and independents."
Mr Turnbull needs a strong result to stamp his authority within the party after he rolled Tony Abbott for the leadership last September. He also needs a least 83 seats – down from 90 in the last parliament – to ensure he will have the numbers in a joint sitting of the two houses to pass the two industrial relations bills which triggered this double dissolution election.
If he wins, the Prime Minister will bring parliament back in the first week of August and immediately legislate to introduce the income tax cut from the budget in which the $80,001 income threshold, below which the 32.5 per cent tax rate applies, would change to $87,000.
That tax cut was supposed to start Friday. Mr Turnbull said people would start receiving the tax cut from the moment it was legislated. The cut owed between now and then would be reimbursed at the end of the financial year.