If you’re politician running a distraction, it’s not a bad idea to make sure the distraction doesn’t end up biting you. Now John Brumby’s high-profile opposition to the federal government’s health and hospitals has started to focus attention on his own hospital system, which until recently was regarded among most non-expert commentators as the nation’s best or close to it.
That was until the Daily Telegraph’s Sue Dunlevy stood up yesterday at the Press Club after Brumby’s address and produced a strong candidate for best press question of the year.
Mr Brumby, Sue Dunlevy from the Daily Telegraph. You’re saying today — the title of your address is “putting patients first”. But it’s not something that you’re doing in your own hospital system. Victoria’s hospitals see fewer emergency and elective surgery patients within the recommended time than hospitals in New South Wales. You spend $123 less per patient than New South Wales. Your hospital system provides fewer beds per thousand people than New South Wales. And your hospital performance has been going backwards for five years. Why should you be regarded as some kind of authority on health? And why should patients in other states have to put up with a second-rate system because someone who can’t run his own health system is behaving like a bully?
A rattled Brumby immediately suggested Dunlevy had been given the question, then struggled to respond, falling back on suggesting that regardless of the indicators Dunlevy quoted, it was outcomes that were important. The Australian’s health editor Adam Cresswell explored Victoria’s performance more this morning. And the Prime Minister today began suggesting what government sources have previously mentioned off the record, that Victoria’s record might not be all it’s cracked up to be.
Ted Baillieu must be unable to believe his luck, watching federal Labor prepare a nice package of attack lines for him to use in the Victorian election in November.
Brumby’s Press Club presentation was a weird exercise in mutually incompatible statements. He was insistent that he was looking forward to the COAG discussions and was being positive, yet he spent most of his speech outlining why the federal government’s plan was fundamentally unworkable. His own counter offer amounted to nothing more than a demand for large sums of extra Commonwealth funding in exchange for Victoria continuing to do what it is doing now. Indeed, part of Brumby’s response to Dunlevy’s question was to insist any problems in the Victorian health system were the consequence of insufficient Commonwealth funding.
Mike Rann is right to compare Brumby’s performance on this with his performance on the Murray-Darling Basin. In that instance, Rudd caved in and rewarded Brumby’s intransigence, giving him substantial extra funding for water irrigation infrastructure in exchange for a vague commitment to remove the 4% water trading cap sometime in the distant future. Now Brumby is trying exactly the same tactic on health, while spinning furiously to distract from his state political problems.
Hopefully Rudd learnt from his experience with the Murray-Darling Basin. If you’re going to bribe a Premier, you get their commitment to real reform signed in blood first.