Yesterday’s mental health funding announcement by the coalition was Tony Abbott was at his best, directing his big-spending tendency towards a deserving area, and adeptly targeting a government weakness.

Thanks to Kevin Rudd’s distraction with the RSPT, health reform has dropped entirely from the media cycle.  Until Julia Gillard rids herself of the mining tax issue, either by nutting out a deal or offering a compromise and telling an increasingly divided mining industry to take it or leave it, what was a strong issue for the government remains parked in the garage.

Worse, Rudd and Nicola Roxon — but primarily the former — allowed mental health to turn against them as an issue.  After criticism that mental health had been omitted from the health reform package, Rudd agreed to an additional $171 million in order to get COAG over the line on April 20.

But then the head of the government’s mental health advisory council, Professor John Mendoza, was allowed to resign, focusing further attention on the issue.  Mendoza gave plenty of notice about his intention to quit and not merely did Roxon and Rudd’s offices fail to stop him, they took their time even responding to him.  It’s the sort of error that seems typical of this government in the last days of Rudd’s prime ministership.

It’s always wise to be sceptical of the claims of health professionals about the lack of government funding.  A certain self-interest informs their criticism — there isn’t a health professional who doesn’t think more money should be spent in their area, and as with everything in health there’s always a few extra zeros involved in the funding figures.  Alas, in the absence of a magic pudding for a budget, politicians are stuck with the task of having pick which deserving cause gets funding.

But Australia has historically underinvested in mental health.  Morris Iemma was the first to put his hand up and say governments had to do much better in funding mental health services, back in 2005.  The Howard government, with Tony Abbott as health minister, followed suit in 2006.

Now Abbott has adeptly seized the opportunity provided by the government’s inattention.  With a package as large and as complex as the government’s health reforms, it was always easier to draw attention to what was missing than what was there.  While it’s rare that good politics makes good policy, Abbott’s proposed rollout of more Headspace centres and a lot more psychosis prevention and intervention centers drew strong praise from mental health professionals.

Andrew Robb’s participation yesterday might have looked awkward except that Robb is always ready to explain what he has been through, in detail, without the least personal embarrassment, convinced that by doing so he is encouraging people who suffer from depression or other mental illnesses to seek treatment.  In his remarks, he made a nice contrast between his capacity to pick up the phone to Jeff Kennett and seek help, and the plight of those enduring mental illness in the community.

Now suddenly the government looks flat-footed and reactive on health, which should be its strength.

Plenty of time to respond before the election, though, even if mental health isn’t a vote-changing issue.

Peter Fray

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