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GP visit less than two beers: Hockey

Spend less on cigarettes and beers, and more on visiting the doctor says the Treasurer.

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Forget inflation; forget the government bond rate. Treasurer Joe Hockey on Thursday morning injected a new price measure into the political lexicon: the Middy Exchange Rate (MER).

In an interview with the ABC’s Chris Uhlmann on Thursday morning, Mr Hockey said Labor and doctors’ groups needed a reality check on the impact of a $7 Medicare co-payment on GP visits.

Treasurer Joe Hockey arriving in the press gallery for early morning interviews on Thursday.

Treasurer Joe Hockey arriving in the press gallery for early morning interviews on Thursday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Compared to other everyday costs, he said, a co-payment is small beer – even for poor patients.

“I'd say to you, Chris, one of the things that quite astounds me is some people are screaming about a $7 co-payment,” Mr Hockey said.

“One packet of cigarettes costs $22. That gives you three visits to the doctor. You can spend just over $3 on a middy of beer, so that's two middies of beer to go to the doctor.

“And is a parent really going to deny their sick child a visit to the doctor which would be the equivalent payment of a couple of beers or one-third of a packet of cigarettes?”

(A middy – for those unfamiliar with NSW drinking habits – is a 285-millilitre glass of beer. In Darwin you’d call it a handle; a pot in Melbourne. And to be strictly accurate, you'd have to go back to 2006 to find a middy that is cheaper, when it cost $2.87. The most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics data, from 2011, shows the average price of a middy is $3.74.)

Uhlmann, an experienced interrogator, pressed on. What if you’re 27 years old, unemployed and no longer have access to welfare benefits, he asked. Would a visit to the doctor - like a beer or cigarettes - become a luxury?

“Well, I would expect to be in a job,” Mr Hockey shot back. “That'd be the starting point, you'd be in a job. And we need you to work.”

In later interviews, Mr Hockey ditched the middy for a macchiato.

"[T]he fundamental point is: are people in a position now where they're not prepared to give up a couple of cups of coffee or something else in their lives in order to take a sick child to the doctor?" he said.  

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said the comments showed how out of touch Mr Hockey was with the "real needs of ordinary Australians".

"Casually dismissing the new tax on going to the doctor and saying that it wasn't very much money at all and what was the fuss about," he said.

While Mr Hockey is the first politician to deploy the MER, he’s hardly Robinson Crusoe when it comes to beverage-related comparisons.

Earlier this year, Labor accused Liberal MP Ann Sudmalis of arrogance for comparing the cost of a co-payment to a cup of coffee.

And Amanda Vanstone, then a senior minister in the Howard government, undercut her own party’s $5 tax cuts with an oft-repeated analogy. 

"Five dollars: hell, what will it buy them?” she asked. “A sandwich and a milkshake if you are lucky. Not much." 

- with Gareth Hutchens

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