One way or another the Government was determined to get the focus back on health today. Throughout the week Question Time had been a back-and-forth between a Government grilling itself incessantly about health – whether its own health policies or those of Tony Abbott as Health minister – and an Opposition determined to steer discussion onto insulation, boatloads of asylum seekers or school construction projects.
So its first question to the Prime Minister today – on, surprise surprise, health – prompted Kevin Rudd to enquire as to what exactly the Opposition’s position was on the Government’s health reform proposal. Tony Abbott, obligingly, rose and said that if he was given the opportunity, he’d happily discuss it, which is exactly what the Government promptly did, doubtless hoping to catch Abbott on the hop. Despite that, Abbott pulled off a decent off-the-cuff speech, heavy on repetition and attacks on Rudd, although he blundered badly when he bizarrely insisted that a cancer centre at Royal Darwin Hospital named after a famed NT doctor, and a PET scanner at Royal North Shore hospital, should be named after him. Nevertheless, it lifted the Coalition’s backbench spirits and Anthony Albanese’s offer of an extra five minutes to speak looked awkward.
Nevertheless, the Government had got the focus back on health, right where it wanted it, and while Rudd’s response to Abbott was hardly sparkling – if any speech by Rudd ever sparkles in any way – it enabled the Prime Minister to quickly reprise his key themes about Abbott’s time as Health Minister, dwelling heavily on funding.
And that was as good as it got for the Opposition on the last Question Time before a Parliamentary break until the Budget (aside from Barack Obama’s address next Friday). Following the mini health debate, the Opposition inexplicably then asked Rudd about election debates, which allowed Rudd to invoke Abbott’s notorious health debate performance prior to the 2007 election and offer a debate on health next week. And at the end of Question Time, Rudd rose and, noting that the National Press Club was available on Tuesday, offered to debate Abbott then on health. The Opposition Leader had no choice but to feign enthusiasm.
So much for distracting the political agenda away from health.
The debate discussions bookended a vintage performance from Julia Gillard on stimulus package school projects. Gillard has regularly had Opposition questions raising individual cases about alleged cost blowouts, forcing her to ask them to provide details to her office for later action. Today, however, she seemed two steps ahead of the Opposition, quoting principals from the individual schools named and mauling, in turn, Kay Hull, Paul Fletcher (who was ejected from Parliament for reacting to Gillard), Alex Hawke and Christopher Pyne.
Doubtless Gillard’s demolition job on the Opposition will again be highlighted by a media eager to play up the leadership issue but Government MPs will leave Canberra happier than in recent weeks when insulation and poor polls have mired the Government in its worst period in office.