Medicare is Australia’s publicly funded universal health insurance scheme.

It is the main way Australian citizens and permanent residents access and pay for health care, with it either partially or fully covering the cost of most primary care in the public and private health system.

Most specialties and allied health services are also partially covered, including psychology and psychiatry, ophthalmology, physiotherapy and audiology, with the exception of dental services.

Without Medicare your medical bills would be incredibly expensive, as they are in some parts of the world, with health care only available to the well-off.


Universal health care is relatively new in Australia. In the past health care depended on many factors, including:

  • where you lived;
  • your background and education;
  • your income.

Unions have played an integral role in shaping the society we live in and the development of the social wage, and we can thank previous generations of working men and women for conceiving and nurturing Medicare.

Unions were strong advocates for the Whitlam Labor Government’s universal healthcare scheme – Medibank – during its time in office, from 1972 to 1975.

But many conservatives hated the idea of free public healthcare, and when Whitlam was dismissed in 1975, the new Liberal Party Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, attempted a direct attack on this new entitlement.

His government modified Medibank, establishing a levy of 2.5% on income to fund it. Other changes followed, such as changes to agreements with the states over how much money hospitals would receive, restrictions in benefits and billing, and rebates for those with private insurance.

In 1976, Fraser’s attacks led the ACTU to call a national strike to defend universal health care. Two million workers took action in an incredible show of support.

But by 1981 Fraser had succeeded in ending the system of universal health care.

The union movement didn’t give up.

In 1983, former ACTU President Bob Hawke was elected Prime Minister of a new Labor Government.

His government signed an agreement with the ACTU known as the Accord. As part of this agreement, unions would help tackle the major inflation crisis of the time by not pushing for certain wage increases.

In return we would see an increase in the “social wage”, social services to make working people’s lives better.

At the top of the list was universal healthcare, introduced by Hawke as Medicare in 1984, and which we still rely on today.


Despite attempts by the Liberal National Party Government in 2003 to change it to a more US-style private health insurance system, which unions campaigned against, Medicare remains a world-class public-health system providing us all with mostly free hospital care.

Without Medicare, the lives of those who could not afford a user-pays private health system would look very different.

Conservative governments still don’t like Medicare,

From 2015, the LNP Government began a review of the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS), and since 2016 has been making changes to it.

The MBS is a list of services the Government subsidises with Medicare rebates. Simply put, it details the amount the Government chips in to help cover our medical costs.

In 2021, the Morrison Government completely overhauled the system, leaving some patients with unexpected out-of-pocket costs.

The shake-up included more than 900 amendments to the MBS, with medical experts warning the changes would radically increase patients’ out of pocket costs.


Medicare remains a popular but imperfect scheme. Its claim to universality is undermined by the growing “gap” fee that many doctors charge above the scheduled rebate. It also excludes dental care, psychological treatments, and many allied health services.

But defending Medicare is a vital task for working people, and instead of cutting it back we should be expanding it.

Unions such as the AWU are ready to defend your rights to affordable health care again.

The best way you can help is to support your union, and if you are not a member, join the AWU!

Be a part of our community.

Join the AWU.

Stronger together.


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