Australia’s most famous political broken promise can be summed up in
just three letters – L-A-W law. But just like Aretha Franklin, all
voters are askin’ for is just a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T. All the details
of the Medicare backflip have been raked over during the last 24 hours.
We don’t need to repeat them here. We need to look at the promise
itself – and how it was broken.

The Australian
is spot on in its leader
this morning: “John Howard should be criticised for the decision
to increase the amount people must pay for health care before the
commonwealth’s Medicare Safety Net catches them so soon after the
election, where it was a foundation of his health policy. But he
deserves far more censure for adopting it in the first place…”

It was Medicare fools gold. Bad politics and worse economics. Exactly
the sort of expensive tripe John Howard has been bribing the electorate
with since the wobbles at the start of 2001. Costly policies, poorly
targeted, that are politically difficult to claw back.

The first drum roll announcing the political gymnastics came on Monday. Then the treasurer turned up on AM on Tuesday, talking about aging, and came up with this:

STEPHANIE KENNEDY: Older Australians are high users of the
Medicare Safety Net, and that is obviously blowing out from around $440
million to $1 billion. Hasn’t the government completely miscalculated
the cost of the Medicare Safety Net?

PETER COSTELLO: No we haven’t. We’ve actually put down in our estimates
reasonable anticipation of those costs. But since you’re on the
question, let me remind you of this. With the population aging,
with the draw down on services four times higher for over 65s, the
policy that was put forward at the last election, the so called
Medicare Gold policy – free health care – must have been the most
irresponsible policy ever announced in Australian history. Fortunately
nobody ever had to hang around to see its implementation.

STEPHANIE KENNEDY: But Labor also said at the time that the Medicare
Safety Net would blow out to around $1 billion and it has done. What
will you do to rein it in?

PETER COSTELLO: Well, as I’ve said now, in the last three
questions, the answer in Australia is to get our health services on to a
sustainable basis.

In other words, if you think this is bad policy, you should have seen
Labor’s. Nothing on how the doctored Medicare Safety Net will still
cost twice the original estimate. Nothing on how it wouldn’t even
be needed if Medicare worked properly – if levels of bulk billing were

And what about the way the back flip’s been handled? Number one – do it
while the health minister is on leave. Number two – quarantine the bad
news from Budget. Number three – announce it during a one-on-one interview
with Sky. David Speers is good, but he’s just one bloke. It ain’t like
a full scale presser or a doorstop. Finally, number four – announce the
backflip the day before the oh-we-care-so-much solemn-look
hijack-personal-tragedy-for-political-gain memorial service for the
Nias Sea King crash victims in Parliament House. No-one’s going to
interrupt that with a shout of “Why did you lie during the election
campaign, prime minister?”

L-A-W and a whole raft of election commitments from 1993 were abandoned
in the Budget that followed six months later. It gave the Liberals the
boost they needed to recover from losing the unlosable election.
Paul Keating never really recovered politically. It was all noise
and gesture from then. John Howard must know that. So why not a little
more respect?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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