Comment: Government by hints and whispers

This fake $7 Australian note is part of a broader protest against the government's budget measures, including the $7 Medicare co-payment. (AAP)

The government played a very small target strategy ahead of the election - but the media is to blame, apparently.

During last year’s election campaign, the Liberal Party did all it could to say very little that might rock any boats other than asylum seeker ones.

It was happy to talk about border and national security but on issues like education and health it played a straight bat and suggested little change was coming. While such a strategy may have been the safe play in opposition, it's rebounded badly on them now they’re in government.

A few weeks ago at the National Press Club, Guardian Australia journalist Katharine Murphy suggested to Christopher Pyne that one of the reasons the government was struggling to sell its policy was that “there was a deliberate effort by the Coalition to minimise the differences and the perceptions of the differences in education between the Coalition and Labor”. 

So, instead of coming clean with their “cracker” of a policy, the Liberal Party – despite being overwhelming favourites to win the election - chose the cowards way out and decided to foist its agenda onto the Australian voters after the fact. It is an agenda which, no matter which way you look at it, is directed at turning the Australian health system into an antipodean version of the USA.

Pyne replied that he had given speeches “hinting” that the Liberal Party in government would propose the changes it had and that “the fact that some members of the fourth estate missed that is not my responsibility.”

Like education, the Liberal Party’s health policy was barely articulated.

In the months leading up to the election, Peter Dutton told the Australian Financial Review that “Our policy is ready to go. I’ve been working on policy with stakeholders in this portfolio behind the scenes every day over the past five years. We will have a cracker of a policy as we did at the last election”.

Yet the policy never came. As James Gillespie, the Deputy Director, Menzies Centre for Health Policy, writing for the Crikey website noted, “the Coalition revealed little of the new government’s health agenda during the election campaign.”

Nowhere in the Liberal Party’s health policy document was there anything relating to GP co-payment, nor anything suggesting, as was reported yesterday, that private health insurers would get control over general practitioner treatments.

There is a simple reason why there was no such mention: no political party would be stupid enough to think such policies would help them get elected.

So, instead of coming clean with their “cracker” of a policy, the Liberal Party – despite being overwhelming favourites to win the election - chose the cowards way out and decided to foist its agenda onto the Australian voters after the fact. It is an agenda which, no matter which way you look at it, is directed at turning the Australian health system into an antipodean version of the USA.

News Corp Australia's national health reporter Sue Dunlevy led her article on the proposed changes to GP services by describing it “a US-style healthcare revolution”. There are few phrases that should set off alarm bells more than any that include “US” and “healthcare”. In the USA, 29% of bankruptcies are due to medical bills and 62% of bankruptcies involve medical related causes.

Gee, that sounds like something worth copying.

The biggest political issue thus far has been the proposed GP co-payment. The government’s proposal was for the payment to be $7 with $2 going to GPs and $5 going to a medical research fund.

The AMA was against it. But lest you be under some delusion that the AMA was against a co-payment, let me correct you. As the president of the AMA, Brian Owler, told the media yesterday, “The AMA’s position has never been that everyone should be bulk-billed.”

As expected, the AMA - after all, a union for doctors - was more worried about how much money was going to GPs. Its policy is that the $7 fee should be cut to $6.15 and for there to be blanket exemptions for concession card holders and patients under 16. Oh, and for all of the $6.15 to go to GPs.

It’s a nice result for GPs but it won’t happen. The government is not particularly keen on picking up the bill and neither are crossbench senators.

So, the government remains saddled with a policy that has little love among voters and less among the people needed to make it into law.

Having failed to convince anyone that the GP co-payment was of any value as a health policy, the government also even more laughably tried to suggest this week that it was actually a budget savings measure.

Joe Hockey told reporters that because the medical research fund will provide a return on investment “the overall benefit of our health reforms is a significant saving to the Budget”.

When journalist suggested the government hadn’t made this argument before, Hockey echoing Pyne at the National Press Club replied, “We have but perhaps you didn’t hear it.”

Oddly, neither Tony Abbott, Peter Dutton nor Joe Hockey in their 13 answers to questions on the fund in parliament have ever alluded to it being a budget saving.

Maybe Hansard didn’t hear it either.

Government by hints and whispers, it seems.

At this point I’m surprised the government hasn’t tried to suggest the GP co-payment is a national security measure because that seems to be about the only issue on which they seem to have any credibility.

But even that is being tested, with the Prime Minister seeking to suggest terrorist beheadings could happen in Australia. At least John Howard settled for “be alert, not alarmed”, it would seem Tony Abbott is so desperate to set himself up as a “war-time leader” that he wants us to ditch the alert stage and go straight to alarmed.

It might resonate with voters, and at this stage it needs to, because little else is working. But that's primarily because little else was told to voters before the election.

Greg Jericho is an economics and politics blogger and writes for The Guardian and The Drum.

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