Ah for the good old days of John Howard, when Invasion Day was for flying a flag from your ute aerial and getting drunk around the barbie, and certainly not for debating its “meaning”, or more correctly debating the need for a debate.

Kevin Rudd now devotes an entire Prime Ministerial speech tour of the capital cities in the lead-up to January 26.  They should start making T-shirts for it.  Melbourne.  Hobart.  Adelaide. Perth.  Darwin.  Brisbane. Sydney. K-Rudd’s Aussie Day BBQ Stopper Tour 2010.

For they were typically Ruddian fare, heavy on statistics and public policy dilemmas.  How we arrived at the point where no one bats an eyelid when the country’s elected leader devotes his national celebration speeches to the gory detail of policy wonkery is a mystery, and something of a rebuke to people (such as me) who moan that there’s not enough focus on policy in public debate.  And in truth, I have to admit, Rudd’s speeches are very formulaic — he always starts with a few jokes before segueing into the serious stuff — but he knows he’s offering wonkery, and tries to leaven it as much as he can.  The jokes aren’t actually too bad for Prime Ministerial jokes, and half the time he himself is the butt of them.

But make no mistake: the Prime Minister’s speeches last week were an attempt to shape the political narrative right up the election, in terms entirely favourable to Labor.

There’s a growing sense that Labor failed to shape its story properly in the second-half of last year.  That may or may not be the reason why some recent Essential Research polling suggests it is failing in perceptions of issues management (Possum Comitatus looks at this issue here).  There is angst within the Government in this issue, particularly in relation to climate change and asylum seekers; the latter was always going to be problematic, but the first should be an absolute gimme for the Government given that climate denialists now run the coalition.

Unfortunately, the Government has treated climate change as a political weapon from the get-go, and just to show that there’s occasionally some justice in public life, has watched its weapon fall apart before its eyes.  The only saving grace is that, having produced an absolute dog of a policy in the CPRS, the Government will at least be able to point to the one political party in the Western world with an even worse policy, the coalition, which next week will unveil its latest magic bullet in its years-long search for a bullsh-t no-cost solution to climate change.

But the Government seemingly would prefer to be talking about big picture economics than an ETS, and on Monday Wayne Swan will unveil the latest inter-generational report from Treasury.  That report provided the context for Rudd’s Australia Day speeches, all of which were relatively small variations on the theme that an ageing Australia meant we needed higher productivity, which required a more skilled workforce, more infrastructure investment and a more consistent and business-friendly national regulatory environment.  Tax and transfer system reform feeds directly into it as well.

You can see why the Government is keen to make that equation the basis for the political narrative this year.  It is extremely Labor-friendly and incorporates key elements of the Rudd Government’s reform agenda already in place.  Apart from the Henry tax review, there have been significant gains in regulatory uniformity via COAG, despite the continuing debacle over Murray-Darling Basin management.  There has been higher investment in training and skills, although higher education remains unaddressed because of fiscal constraints.  And the Government can point to Infrastructure Australia as a new mechanism for better targeting infrastructure investment, although its non-transparent recommendation process doesn’t fill one with confidence.

In short, the ageing Australia/higher productivity agenda can link the Government’s first term with what it wants to do in the future, in areas traditionally favourable to Labor.

Less smooth and streamlined was Rudd’s attempt to shoehorn health policy into the ageing Australia equation.  Whenever politicians talk about the cost impacts of an ageing population, they always speak as hapless victims of some phenomenon over which they have no control, as if they aren’t in charge of health expenditure.  There is also an odd disconnection between Rudd declaring, as he did in some of his speeches, that 2010 would be the year of major health reform, and the problem of growing health expenditure, since none of the reforms being considered by the Government will make a big dent in health spending.

In fact “health reform” is a political, not a policy issue.  Australia doesn’t need major health reform.  We’re one of the world’s longest-lived societies, despite spending about average the OECD amount per GDP on health care.  There are specific issues that need reform — indigenous health, mental health, better access to health services for rural and regional communities — but no system-wide problem other than the one that no one will contemplate fixing — the overuse of some services and the absence of others because of the lack of a price signal.

And health reform is a political issue directly because Kevin Rudd as Opposition leader used the issue against the Howard Government for electoral advantage, and now has to follow through the consequences of his own rhetoric.  This is a merely a national example of a phenomenon that has been going on for years — Opposition politicians of stripes allying with the media and self-interested sectors of the health industry to convince urban Australians that the health service they don’t even pay for is a rip-off.

That’s why “health reform” has so far kept defaulting back to who funds hospitals, rather than, say, how can we give people in regional communities better health services.  It is mainly about catering to the over-expectations of urban Australians, rather than fixing the real priorities in health, which are mainly outside cities.

It’s a mug’s game, because urban Australians will never accept that they’re getting some of the world’s best health care, primarily because they have to wait a few hours so their non-urgent problems can be attended to in emergency wards or the media beats up the fact that someone, somewhere had a bad medical outcome despite the best efforts of health workers.

On the bright side for the Government, this means health reform can be fobbed off to a referendum on hospital funding, giving the illusion of major action on health.  Rudd could even build in some proposal for local control or oversight of hospitals, wedging Tony Abbott, who is an enthusiast for the potentially disastrous idea of local communities running hospitals rather than state governments.

This would leave the Government free to sell its story of higher productivity.  And at least that’s a real policy issue, unlike working out who pays for hospitals.

Peter Fray

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