The Australian Senate Wednesday rejected a bill providing for means test for health rebate. The defeat provides Prime Minister Kevin Rudd a double trigger for dissolution of Parliament and early elections, commentators say.
The bill meant to means test the 30 per cent private health rebate would save $1.9 billion over three years, the government argued, but the opposition would have none of it. It is the second time the legislation has been blocked and it joins the original emissions trading scheme, which was blocked twice last year.
Health Minister Nicola Roxon condemned the Senate vote on means test. "The opposition have blown a $2 billion hole in the budget and have no health policies of any substance to put forward to the public," she said.
"We are committed to making sure that private health insurance is affordable for low- and middle-income earners."
Opposition health spokesman Peter Dutton said the Prime Minister should "heed the message from the parliament and from the Australian people to stop attacking private health and doing to it what Labor has done to public hospitals."
The Senate could also block changes to the Youth Allowance for university students as well as the reintroduction of a compulsory student fee to fund campus services - the latter could become a third trigger because it has been blocked more then three months before.
Mr Rudd does not intend to hold an early election but he can hold a double dissolution as late as October 16, when the next normal half-Senate election is due.
A double dissolution is when both houses are dissolved and includes a full Senate election. The government could use it as an excuse to try for a less complex Senate and, if successful, hold a joint sitting of Parliament afterwards to pass blocked bills.
The Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, says he relishes a double dissolution on either climate change or the private health insurance means test because the latter was a broken promise.
Health Minister Roxon said she had no problem fighting an election on a policy that would stop taxpayers subsidising the health insurance of the wealthy.
"I am absolutely happy to stand up anywhere anytime to defend the view that taxi drivers and secretaries and nurses should not be paying for the private health insurance of bankers and politicians and millionaires," the health minister told ABC Radio.
"I think that is a very clear and easy argument to make."
That argument might be easily prosecuted - but in fact it's not just the ultra-rich that will be affected.
Labor actually wants to means test and reduce the rebate for individuals earning more than $75,000 a year and couples earning more than $150,000 a year.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says the opposition's determination to block the government's measures "goes to the heart of our ability to provide finance for our hospital system for the future".
"The leader of the opposition is standing by the principle that the least-salaried Australians should subsidise the private health insurance costs of someone on $200,000 and $300,000 a year," Mr Rudd told parliament.