Did you know that…the battle to implement universal health insurance in Australia was among the most bitter and controversial debates over policy in our history? Did you know that Medibank (as it was known then) was twice rejected by the Senate before it was finally passed at the first and only joint sitting of parliament in May 1974?
Medibank was strongly opposed by private health insurance funds, private and Catholic hospitals, and most State governments. However it was doctors, in particular the Australian Medical Association (AMA) and the General Practitioners’ Society of Australia (GPSA), who put up the biggest fight.
Did you know that the AMA were so determined to see Medibank defeated that they established a ‘Freedom Fund’ and used doctors’ surgeries as campaign centres to display posters and distribute leaflets and car bumper stickers to patients in an effort to turn them against Medibank. The AMA were so convinced of the dangers of ‘socialised medicine’, as they called it, that they encouraged doctors to get politically active by speaking at public meetings (where they were provided with speakers’ notes to ensure they stayed ‘on message’) and calling talkback radio programmes. They even urged them to recruit their spouses and secretaries to help spread their message. The GPSA were even more passionate in their opposition to Medibank. They claimed to be fighting not just for the freedom doctors, but for the freedom of all people in the country.
Despite the powerful opposition, Medibank was introduced in 1975-just moths before the Whitlam government was dismissed. Public support for Medibank was so strong that Malcolm Fraser was forced to abandon the party’s opposition to it during the 1975 election campaign and instead vowed to maintain it. Soon after gaining office however, the Fraser government backed away from the promise and gradually began to dismantle it. By 1981, Medibank had been completely demolished and Australia became the only country to ever implement then dismantle a universal health insurance scheme.
The story did not end there however as Medicare – virtually a carbon copy of Medibank – was implemented in 1984 soon after the Hawke government were elected, this time with far less of the bitterness and opposition that plagued Medibank.
Australian Health Policy Institute
at The University of Sydney