What’s the purpose of the Medicare co-payments? It’s a good question that not even the government has been able to answer in its shambolic efforts to sell the budget
Quick, informed, engaged Crikey reader, tell me — what’s the purpose of the Medicare bulk-billing co-payment?
Is it to help address the budget emergency?
Is it to provide a price signal to change behaviour to ensure Medicare is, in the long-term, sustainable?
Is it to fund a vast medical research fund that will eventually, at some point perhaps in the 22nd century, reach tens of billions?
Is it because Bob Hawke wanted it and Labor was a proper reformist government prepared to take tough decisions unlike this mob opposite right now, Madam Speaker?
If you picked any of those four, you’d be right, because all four have been repeatedly offered by the government as justification in its shambolic efforts to sell the co-payment and the budget more broadly to voters.
The government has been ringing the changes this week in its efforts to sell the budget. The fact that it actually still needs to sell it is testimony to how badly it has gone down with voters. By this stage of the political cycle, in recent years, we’d already moved on to other matters — usually whether Julia Gillard was about to lose her job. But the media cycle stolidly refuses to move on from this dog of a budget.
So, this week, Joe Hockey dropped out of the budget sales pitch — apart from breakfast TV appearances yesterday, he’s kept a low profile this week, leaving the selling effort to the Prime Minister. Peter “the black hole” Dutton stepped up his efforts on the co-payment, including with a National Press Club address. Christopher Pyne also tried to lift his game in selling his laissez-faire education changes, only to cause another stuff-up for the government when he opined that it might be a good idea to chase the estates of dead people for their higher education loans.
Pyne (and Hockey, who in one of his few outings supported him) is entirely correct — there’s no reason why higher education loans should be treated differently to other loans. No reason except the political reason that it’s a shocking look, especially for a government that has already created the impression it views itself as an instrument of Old Testament fiscal justice raining down on the just and the unjust alike. Forget all those nasty, offensive “poodle” references — in chasing dead graduates and his Gonski debacle last year, Pyne is starting to look a lot like the loaded dog of the government.
One of the other changes was in its question time tactics, where the government, via Abbott and Hockey, tried to shift the argument back to the budget emergency (which, actually, the government has already won) by explaining how irresponsible Labor had been and how responsible the budget was for Australians. The result was a blizzard of numbers. Consider this answer to a Dixer from Hockey:
“At the moment we are paying a billion dollars a month—one billion dollars every month in interest on the debt that Labor has left. This would be $2.8 billion a month in 10 years time if nothing is done. That is $2.8 billion a month in 10 years time if nothing is done about the state of the budget. Under the legacy of the previous government, each Australian’s share of the interest would be $9,400 over the next 10 years. In four years time alone, if nothing is done, every single Australian will be paying the equivalent of $740 in interest alone on Labor’s debt—$740 each.”
That’s four separate numbers in mere seconds. During the week, the government tried out a variety of figures. Hockey talked about “$25,000 for every man, woman and child in Australia” the following day, as if holders of Australian bonds would be coming a’knockin’ on the door of every house to demand repayment of Labor’s debt, or they’d send the bailiffs in. Abbott tried “$1 billion a month of dead money”. Hockey used both. Then yesterday Abbott produced yet another figure, saying “a family of four would face a $100,000 share in Labor’s debt bill”.
This was a favourite trick of the Howard government — invent a number (say, about the cost of taking action on climate change) and divvy it up by population to warn that “every man, woman and child” would be up for some hideous debt. Except, the Howard government realised you need to stick to one number when using this tactic, not seven.
The other argument, on the co-payment specifically, was that it was a Labor idea, because Bob Hawke had introduced it. They skipped the bit where Paul Keating capitalised on the febrile reaction to the co-payment (which, in Hawke’s version, didn’t apply to pensioners and was accompanied by compensation) and used it as one of his weapons for blasting Hawke out of the Lodge. Perhaps Malcolm Turnbull remembers that particular bit. But Bob Hawke was “the father of the co-payment”, the government kept repeating, and yesterday it insisted Jenny Macklin — who back then was an adviser to then-Health Minister Brian Howe — was the “mother of the co-payment”.
Well, thank goodness the co-payment wasn’t reared by a single parent or same-sex couple.
That the Coalition brains trust seriously thinks this will be a compelling case for voters deeply hostile to the co-payment illustrates either their desperation or the profound loss of the sure populist touch they had in opposition. It’s reminiscent of a desperate John Hewson defending his GST in 1993 by arguing Paul Keating had wanted one in 1985. “And we decided it was such a bad idea we never introduced it,” Keating would shoot back.
News Corp has been doing its best to help out: today The Australian splashes with an “exclusive” (naturally) that “senior Labor leaders” supported a co-payment. Gamechanger! Who were these senior Labor leaders? Bill Shorten himself? Chris Bowen? Or maybe Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard or Wayne Swan in the former government? Well, as it turned out, the “senior Labor leaders” (sic) was Peter Beattie, in 2005, who considered charging payments for hospital admissions. We’ve all seen some desperate efforts to support the Coalition over the years from The Oz, but for sheer WTFness, this was a new high, even before you thought through the logic of the story, which was that Tony Abbott as federal health minister had, erm, blocked the proposal.
Still, at least it was only nine years ago, not 23.
The government might want to try the tactic of just shutting up. Its efforts to sell the budget, far from helping, are making things worse. Time to stop digging.