If we cast our minds back to the 2004 election, a final week visit to Tasmania by Howard and Latham became both an electoral turning point and defining image of that campaign. Could history be about to repeat itself? This time it won’t be about forests. It’s health that will get the leaders to Braddon.

The only poster in Braddon showing sitting Liberal Member Mark Baker with John Howard is the one outside the Mersey campus of the North West Regional Hospital.

The takeover, which probably seemed like a vote winner at the time, has turned into a highly political and potentially damaging waiting game. There are rumours that John Howard will be back in Braddon this week, presumably to make an announcement.

Both Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott and State Minister Lara Giddings were working over the weekend, and continuing what is now a very boring finger pointing exercise going. Mr Abbott is on the back foot – he’s given three points for the reason for the delay, one of which is names of the staff to be seconded.

On ABC radio on Monday morning, Mr Abbott, sounding almost wistful, said “it would be nice to know the names”. Hardly a sticking point.

The second is an amendment of the license so that Emergency and Paediatric services can continue. This is a formality, but there was no mention of the ICU, which was by all accounts unviable, with only a quarter of the minimum number of patients. This was raised to justify point one, but this is what the people at the Mersey end of the electorate wanted and what the take over was mainly about.

The third was professional indemnity insurance for the staff from the Burnie campus of the North West Regional Hospital (the Mersey is the other campus) who work at both.

Again, this is a formality. The confusion is generating anger and frustration in those staff.

The latest Tasmanian opinion poll shows that 91% scored “Health services in Tasmania” 4 or 5 (where 5 is “very important”), making it the clear winner.

Given this, it’s understandable why Mr Abbott is “pleading” tongue in cheek for these non sticking points to be cleared up.

“I ask you politely, respectfully and as agreeably as I can to do this,” he asked of his State counterpart (he called her Laura), after the interviewer had said, “The delays aren’t exactly working against you, are they?”. The formal takeover could be after the election, and somebody else can sort out the mess.

Lara Giddings had previously said that “There is only one thing that must be completed, and that is the payment by Mr Abbott of the $1 asking price for the hospital.”

John Howard may have a political fix to the farce, perhaps a promise to take over the whole North West regional health service, or at least both campuses of the Regional Hospital as a pilot for the Coalition’s hospital boards plan. Logical, but it’s unfortunate for him that the cost of the boards hasn’t been allocated in the policy document submitted to the Finance Department under the Charter of Budget Honesty Act. This has been seized on by Labor Health spokesperson Nicola Roxon.

The cost of a 10 member Board at $10,000 each/year is about the same as for one senior Federal Health bureaucrat. It may well be that a Labor Razor Gang could make it cost neutral by not particularly ruthless pruning and attrition – there are apparently 4,000 to choose from in Canberra.

Kevin Rudd is rumoured to be coming this week as well.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey