It’s the nearest thing to kabuki in Parliament: the Government repeatedly attacks Tony Abbott for his “$1b gouge” out of the health system during Question Time; at the end of Question Time, Abbott rises to make a personal explanation that he didn’t do anything of the sort.

“Does the member claim to have been misrepresented?” inquires Harry Jenkins, managing each time to sound as though he would be astonished that such a thing might happen.  “Most grievously,” replies Abbott.

Quite.

Like kabuki, the ritual goes back centuries, or at the least modern political equivalent, to the early days of the Hawke Government, when Hawke and his frontbench would slam John Howard for the monster budget deficit he had left them. This was in the days before Howard and Paul Keating fell out and there was an air of mutual respect between the Labor leadership and Howard. Nevertheless, Labor never let an opportunity go by to refer to “disgraced former Treasurer John Howard”.

When Howard got into office, he applied the same treatment to Kim Beazley, with the “Beazley black hole”, the $10b deficit Howard and Peter Costello pinned on Beazley, who had been Finance Minister in the dying days of the Keating Government.

Keating and Ralph Willis had undoubtedly left a large deficit, courtesy of a jobless recovery and that fate of all long-term governments, fiscal indiscipline. But the $10b figure was a crock, padded with all sorts of rubbish to make it appear much bigger. As a pencil-pusher in the Department of Transport, I was amazed to discover that an ambitious Finance official had slipped in hundreds of millions of dollars in transport infrastructure proposals that had never been anywhere near the Keating Cabinet.

Still, the tag had enough truth to stick, and stick it did.  Which brings us up to the present day.

The $1b “gouge” is, like the $10b Beazley black hole, rubbish. The Howard Government did not cut $1b out of the health budget. Adjustments to the rate of increase of funding in Forward Estimates, particularly relating to Commonwealth-State funding agreements, are not the same as reducing funding. But the claim has just enough truth to stick if you repeat it often enough — and the Government is repeating it often enough.

Quite what Abbott can do about it isn’t clear — especially when it is repeated in Parliament, where formal rules prevent him from replying during Question Time, when the cameras are on — although he tried yesterday. Every time he jacks up about it, he runs the risk of drawing attention to it.  But to sit there and cop it isn’t an option either.

Not that he has helped himself with his various explanations of the reduction, which the Prime Minister used to mock him yesterday. Bear in mind figures are not Abbott’s strong point — this is a bloke who couldn’t be sure whether his paid parental leave proposal related to companies paying tax of $5m a year or with taxable income of $5m a year.

The Government is on stronger ground with its attacks on the chronic disease dental scheme. Expect to hear more on this. For two days running, Chris Bowen has been given a spot in Question Time to savage Abbott over health costs, and yesterday it was the blowout in the costs of Abbott’s own chronic disease dental scheme, which has been the subject of Medicare investigation for rorting. If Abbott wants to push the line that the Government can’t manage programs, the Government is equally keen to show that Abbott couldn’t either.

The Government’s attacks on Abbott are ironic, though, because he talks about small government and cutting taxes but he’s at heart a big government tax-and-spender. Governments should be trying to rein in growth in health spending, particularly by making patients pay more for health services, not succumbing to this learned helplessness that admits defeat in the face of ever-growing health budgets. And in the wake of the first Intergenerational Report Peter Costello commendably took some initial steps to curb the rise in health spending, particularly on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Labor shamefully blocked those reforms for two years.

But instead of defending that legacy, Abbott feels compelled to deny it. What a strange leader of the Liberal Party he is.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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