Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

40 years on, time to replicate the 1976 Medibank strike

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A damning report published by the Australian Medical Association (AMA) earlier this year confirmed what many Australians already know: Medicare faces “a growing funding crisis”. The AMA’s annual health report card warned that “things will get much worse in the coming years unless the (government) reverses its drastic cuts from recent budgets”, noting that “dire consequences of (the cuts) are already starting to show”.

Despite these warnings, plans are a foot for deep cuts to public health care, with privatisation the ultimate aim. In the face of opposition from doctors, nurses and ordinary people, the Coalition was forced to abandon its controversial $7 co-payment fee to see a GP in April 2015. However since then the undermining of the public health system has continued via different means.

In May Scott Morrison announced that $925.3 million would be slashed from Medicare by extending a rebate freeze on annual increases to GP funding. Doctors condemned the move, saying the freeze will result in less bulk billing and higher fees for patients. The rebate freeze is on top of $650 million of cuts announced last December. These cuts reduced or removed access to bulk-billing for pathology tests, including blood tests, diagnostic imaging and MRI scans.

Earlier in the year Turnbull established a $5 million taskforce to consider plans to privatise parts of Medicare, including online payment processing. It should come as no surprise that some of the largest multinational corporations in the world have shown interest in the potentially lucrative government contracts.

Labor has said they will “fight for Medicare”, but as their record shows they aren’t to be trusted on public health. Like the Coalition, Labor has been complicit in the push towards a for-profit, user-pays health system.

In 2012, under Julia Gillard, Labor not only imposed a freeze on Medicare rebates, but pushed for the privatisation of disability services and the introduction of a voucher system through the NDIS. Last month, Shorten pledged an additional $2 billion in funding for public hospitals but ruled out reversing $57 billion of long-term cuts to the sector.

Neither of the major parties can be trusted to defend the public health system. We need to build a movement that opposes government cutbacks and fights for public healthcare to be extended. This could be paid for by taxing big business. History shows what is possible if we mobilise.

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Medibank strike. Medibank, the precursor to Medicare, was introduced by the Whitlam Labor government in 1975 under immense pressure from trade unions and social movements of the era.

While Whitlam wanted to charge a 1% levy to fund it, the Liberals took a populist stance and blocked it, and Medibank was fully funded from general revenue. In 1976, the Fraser government quickly showed their true colours by introducing an extra 2.5% levy on ordinary people to finance it. While an extra levy was always supported by both parties, Fraser’s attack was met with huge resistance from ordinary people. A 24-hour nationwide general strike was called by the ACTU for July 12, 1976.

Hundreds of thousands of workers took part, and the country came to a halt. Even pubs shut down. Working people have the power to bring society to a halt, but without a plan to escalate the campaign, these magnificent efforts can be squandered.

Under the leadership of Bob Hawke, the ACTU refused to carry out further industrial action, and the levy was kept, along with a range of regressive attacks dismantling parts of Medibank over the next 8 years. The strike was not enough to force Fraser to drop his plans but it did weaken the government. In 1984, the Hawke Labor government introduced Medicare to replace Medibank, with the original levy of 1%, which would creep up steadily under both parties.

The ALP’s claim to defend Medicare is shallow and ahistorical. They trade off the false perception that Labor is the party of healthcare. In reality universal healthcare was won by the efforts of ordinary people.

We must campaign to make all medical care free at the point of service. Medicare should be further expanded to include dental care and mental health services. We must fight to remove private profit from the sector. This would involve bringing all hospitals, as well as the pharmaceutical industry, into public control. On this basis a plan could be introduced to use the resources we have efficiently and expand the system.

In the long run only the fight for a democratic socialist society can stop private interests from constantly degrading the quality of public services.

By Conor Flynn


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