Not heard anything: Independent Senator Nick Xenophon assumes that the proposed Medicare co-payment is “on the backburner”. Photo: Quinn RooneyThe Abbott government’s $7 Medicare co-payment appears to be on hold, with crossbench senators saying they’ve had no recent discussions with the government about the controversial budget measure.
With Parliament starting its final sitting fortnight of the year on Monday, the government is under pressure to snatch a legislative victory before Christmas, with its higher education reforms tipped to be the likeliest contender.
Cabinet will meet on Monday to discuss the year ahead. But the Abbott government faces perhaps even greater headaches getting legislation through the Upper House with Senator Jacqui Lambie expected to announce she will split from the Palmer United Party.
On the proposed $7 Medicare co-payment, key crossbench Senators Nick Xenophon, David Leyonhjelm and Bob Day all said they had not heard from the government lately on the issue.
“I just assume it’s on the backburner,” Senator Xenophon told Fairfax Media.
Senator Day likewise said he’d “not had any discussions lately”, while Senator Leyonhjelm told ABC’s Insiders program: “I haven’t had any discussions with [Health Minister] Peter Dutton’s office on that for quite a while now.”
A spokesman for Mr Dutton said that talks with the crossbenchers were “ongoing” but the government would “not provide a running commentary on these discussions”.
Labor on Sunday called on the government to rule out trying to push the co-payment through by regulation rather than legislation – a move it used to resume indexation on fuel excise and for its “future of financial advice” reforms before a last-ditch reversal by Senator Lambie and Motoring Enthusiast Senator Ricky Muir.
Shadow Health Minister Catherine King said she wrote to Treasurer Joe Hockey last week demanding the government rule out “trying to sneak its GP tax in via the back door”.
Coalition sources meanwhile said there was concern in the ranks that Prime Minister Tony Abbott had not done enough to personally reach out to crossbenchers to win their support for contentious bills.
A spokesman for Mr Abbott retorted that “while we don’t comment on specifics of the Prime Minister’s schedule, discussions with crossbench senators are ongoing”.
Senate leader Eric Abetz will hold a briefing session for the crossbenchers on Monday morning to outline the government’s agenda for the final fortnight.
Education Minister Christopher Pyne has indicated a willingness to compromise on his higher education reforms, though Senator Xenophon said on Sunday he could not see any breakthrough at present.
Among other changes, the reforms include the controversial abolition of caps on the fees universities can charge students.
On Monday, peak body Universities Australia will launch an advertising campaign to urge crossbench Senators to pass the reforms with amendments including reducing the cut to taxpayer funding to universities, keeping student loans at the low interest rate of inflation, and help for rural and poor students.
Complicating the task for the government, Senator Lambie is expected to quit the PUP after her spectacular falling out with leader Clive Palmer.
A spokesman said Senator Lambie would decide after consulting with “family friend and Tasmanian barrister” Glynn Williams, whom she was expecting to meet with late on Monday. Mr Williams is president of Poppy Growers Tasmania, which Senator Lambie supports, the spokesman said.