*Pic: The Buck stops HERE ... From Peter Gutwein’s Facebook page. Treasurer Gutwein and Premier Will Hodgman spruik the 2016 Budget ...
*Pic: from Michael Ferguson’s Facebook page ...
Nationally we have, most probably, a hung parliament with a minority government led for the moment by an angry and insecure Prime Minister. In Tasmania there is no such uncertainty. The Liberals were wiped out with massive swings.
Eric Hutchinson, the least divisive of the Three Amigos, experienced the smallest swing with 3.75% of two-party-preferred voters deserting him for Labor. It was more than the national swing but it was their best result in Tasmania. In Braddon, Brett Whiteley was bundled out with a swing of 5.33%. And Andrew Nikolic, in Lyons ‒ Tony Abbott’s most enthusiastic booster ‒ went down to Labor with a huge swing of 10.83% against him.
After two years, the Three Amigos are gone. How could it have come to this?
That question has a one-word answer. Health.
This state has Australia’s oldest, sickest and poorest population. There is a greater need than anywhere else for an adequate and properly-funded public hospital and health system but we have the least adequate and the worst funded.
This state government and its predecessor have made a hash of health. Lara Gidding’s mad budget cuts and Michelle O’Byrne’s term as a monumentally incompetent health minister was one of the most powerful of the reasons Labor lost government in a landslide.
The new Liberal government came to power with a health minister, Michael Ferguson, who said Tasmania’s health system was broken and he was here to fix it. Ferguson, now no longer able plausibly to blame Labor for the mess he now owns, has conspicuously failed to do so. Cuts in three successive budgets have produced scandal after scandal which the minister has treated as a political bushfire to be extinguished rather than as symptoms of an increasingly dysfunctional system.
The latest scandal, about the emergency department at the Launceston General Hospital, came in the last fortnight of the campaign and coincided neatly with federal Labor’s claim that the Liberals would privatise Medicare. That was a coincidence, not a plot by doctors. But it helped Labor and sealed the fate of the local member, Andrew Nikolic.
Public fury on health, and disillusion with the way the Hodgman government has handled it, have been gathering for many months but have never shown up in state polls.
Without a viable opposition ‒ the unreformed state ALP is not a credible alternative government ‒ that anger has had nowhere to go.
The blame for the state of the whole of the public health system ‒ Medicare, the PBS and free public hospitals ‒ has been sheeted home to the Liberals. As there are no clear lines of responsibility in health funding and administration, both levels of government have to wear the blame.
Federally, the Liberal Party’s appalling record on universal health care dates back to 1944, when they fought bitterly against the Curtin wartime government’s attempt to establish a Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme to make then-expensive drugs like penicillin available to everyone. Doctors sided with the conservatives to deny their patients access life-saving medicines, an attitude which would be unthinkable today.
Then there was the Medibank/Medicare saga. The Whitlam government’s original scheme was abolished by Malcolm Fraser. In the most egregious act of his Prime Ministership, Fraser turned the public Medibank into Medibank Private, now the most grasping of all the private health insurers. The Liberals and the doctors kept up the fight when Hawke introduced Medicare, before caving in inevitably but grudgingly in 1985.
A key element of Whitlam’s Medibank and Hawke’s Medicare was the partial funding by the Commonwealth of state public hospitals in order to make them free for everyone. Until then, public hospitals were free only in Queensland. But the Liberals did not want free public hospitals.
In 1996 John Howard realised he could not beat Paul Keating unless the Liberal Party promised to retain Medicare. But in government, Howard began what Abbott and Turnbull have continued: taking money out of the public system and transferring it to private insurers, effectively removing an increasing level of responsibility for health from the government to the individual.
The same process has been employed by the Hodgman government in Tasmania. Money has been taken out of the health system to fund Peter Gutwein’s economically unnecessary quest for a surplus at all costs. For people waiting on trolleys in emergency rooms, that priority looks strange indeed.
The state and federal health systems are inseparable, as Whitlam and Hawke intended they should be. When something goes wrong at one level ‒ particularly when the same party is in power in Canberra and in the state ‒ both governments wear the blame. The Liberals’ history makes them uniquely vulnerable to this phenomenon.
We saw is playing out on Saturday night. Malcolm Turnbull complained bitterly against Labor’s Medicare scare campaign but scare campaigns don’t work unless there is something solid behind them.
This one was what one Liberal strategist earlier called a ‘dead cat’. When the discussion is not going the way you want, you throw a dead cat on the table. Everyone forgets what they were talking about and says: ‘There’s a dead cat!’ And however much overreach there may be in your dead cat, everyone then starts talking about the topic you want.
But there is more than one way of privatising a health system. One is to sell it off at once to the highest bidder, something that clearly will not happen. The other is to do it piecemeal, starving the public system and boosting its less efficient private competitors. The first was never a credible accusation. The second is not overreach but a simple description of what is happening.
The campaign on health was more effective in Tasmania than anywhere else in the country because the state government’s evisceration of hospital budgets made it more plausible than anywhere else.
When, finally, the Labor Party reinvents itself by removing at least half its current MPs and installing a new and credible leader, the Hodgman government will be seriously vulnerable. So far, the pain has been borne by the party’s federal members. Eventually, though, Will Hodgman will pay the price.
*Martyn Goddard is a Hobart-based policy analyst specialising in health issues. He is a former journalist and ABC documentary maker who became involved in health policy during the AIDS crisis in Sydney. Since then he has been a member of the main Commonwealth advisory bodies on AIDS and hepatitis and was the first consumer member of the committee that lists drugs on the PBS. He was also health policy officer for the Australian Consumers’ Association. For the past decade he has concentrated on examining and explaining Tasmania’s health issues.
• Peter Martin, Economics Editor, The Age, Fairfax: Election 2016: ‘Mediscare’ campaign worked because voters were already scared Scare campaigns only work when they reinforce or add to what is already known.
• Dr Michael Powell in Comments: Andrew Nikolic is today in theatrical mode on Facebook. It was all lies and a GetUp! campaign that robbed him, but the man can’t count. Nikolic lost 10 000 votes on Saturday, a third of the vote he achieved in 2013. By anybody’s count that is staggering rejection. He made it a referendum on himself and lost. And by a greater swing than almost anywhere else in the country …
• Leo Schofield, AM, in Comments: Oh frabjous joy to see the so called Three Amigos clip-clopping towards the political sunset from which they emerged. The odious Whiteley, Mr Potato Head, media nymphomaniac leaping to contribute his two bob’s worth to any story that will give him three pennyworth’s of publicity. The even more odious Nikolic, he who was prepared to vanquish critics with threats to their livelihood. Whine he may do about Mediscare but the fact is that no single opposition issue can be responsible for a 10% defection. The candidate himself has to be seriously and comprehensive on the nose. Hutchison is a cipher and as useless as a wooden leg to a tap dancer. This trio of smug dunces were a disgrace to Tasmania and the citizens who fast tracked them to oblivion are to be commended for their perspicacity.
• AFR: Whoever wins Tasmania will get its $150 million pork barrel … But there is one higher education promise that has no barrier in the way of implementation. That’s the $150 million Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said he would give to the University of Tasmania to build new campuses in Launceston and Burnie. What reason is there to suppose this particular election promise is one that will stick? That’s because Labor promised it, too. So no matter which side of politics forms the next government Tasmania’s $150 million should sail through with bipartisan support …
• Greg James in Comments: … All of this is part of the mosaic. #26 argues that a deficit is bad. Yet, this is a time of low interest rates, this is the time to build infrastructure and accumulate debt, there is no better opportunity, would you have the government do it in a time of high interest rates? Immigration can solve the ageing population problem and this is what we should invest that money in, building roads and houses, hospitals and schools and generating real wealth …
• Crikey: Pssst, Abetz: GetUp is not a charity, does not care what you think GetUp donation’s aren’t tax-deductible, so you’ll have to try harder, Senator.