Last week shadow Health spokesman Peter Dutton called the Prime Minister’s health announcement a “distraction”. Yesterday Tony Abbott was busy trying to distract from the distraction with his own distraction.  Had he succeeded?  Well, yes, because the press were distracted and mainly talked about parental leave yesterday.

In question time, it was the battle of the narratives, with the government focusing most of its questions on health, and the Opposition doing likewise on parental leave, although at the eleventh hour, almost in recognition that Rudd’s health proposal was too vast to ignore, they asked a question on the issue.

There’s not much to take from that, really, except that the Opposition sent a signal that it would prefer the political narrative stay off health.  Unfortunately, the narrative will keep drifting back to health at least until next month, particularly because the senate has blocked the government’s private health rebate cuts again.

Senate obstructionism will be a key theme for the government as a demonstration of the emerging characterisation of Abbott as “relentlessly negative”.  This morning a whole clutch of senior ministers — Nicola Roxon, Jenny Macklin, Stephen Conroy, Penny Wong, and led by Lindsay Tanner — held a press conference to assail Abbott for blocking key measures in the senate.

But I’ve been distracted from distractions.  The problem with Abbott’s distraction is that it generated its own distraction.  Having failed to consult his party room — described by Wilson Tuckey this morning as a “well of great wisdom” — or pretty much anyone else, Abbott copped a kicking from his joint party-room meeting, and that’s what led the evening news coverage, which was none too positive about the proposal.  Laurie Oakes, in particular, made the effort to nail Abbott on being confused about the threshold for paying the extra company tax.

The issue even carried over this morning, with Abbott refusing to commit to never failing to consult again, which apparently is what at least one backbencher — that guardian of party room protocol  Tuckey — understood him to say. Suddenly we’re back in the sort of territory Malcolm Turnbull ended up in, with backbenchers sniping over lack of consultation.

In any event, the primary forum for the government’s health narrative isn’t Parliament, or the day-to-day political media coverage (in fact, they’re a distraction), but on the ground, in hospitals in cities and regional areas.  And it’s not just the government that’s out there talking about health reform.  The coalition is out on the ground too, pushing a scare campaign about hospital closures.  A Crikey reader in Nelson Bay on the NSW central coast reported that Bob Baldwin and Bronwyn Bishop had told a meeting there on Monday that under the Rudd reform plan, the local hospital would be closed and relocated to Newcastle. And on the same day Andrew Southcott issued a press release warning voters in regional electorates that the plan “will likely lead to the downgrading or closure of small rural hospitals”.  Expect a lot more of this from the coalition.

That’s only a smaller battlefront, however.  The ultimate targets of the Rudd reform plan are city voters convinced, because politicians and the media have repeatedly told them so, that they’re being poorly served by state-run hospitals.  And when it comes to voter resentment, there’s very little that can distract from it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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