On Monday Tony Abbott took credit for quite a chunk of the reform agenda of the Howard government, declaring in his “I’m not a protectionist but” speech to CEDA that he had established the Jobs Network, boosted construction industry productivity and “strengthened the cost-effectiveness tests that helped to drive increased life expectancy of more than two years over the course of the government’s term”.

It’s an odd claim to make — improved something that played a part in achieving something else over the life of an entire government, especially when he was only health minister for the final four years. The additional caveat is that Tony Abbott never actually ran the health portfolio when he was minister; rather, it was run by John Howard’s office while Abbott biked around the country. But he’s not Robinson Crusoe there — Kevin Rudd did the same.

But putting aside such quibbles, fortunately we can test the Abbott claim to have played a role in the increase in the life expectancy of Australians with recourse to ABS data. What happened to life expectancy while he was health minister from October 2003 to November 2007? Well it went up, of course, as it did throughout the life of the Howard government. In fact the ABS data shows that from 1996 to 2003, Australian life expectancy rose by about 0.37 years every year (based on rolling triennial data). And what happened when Abbott became health minister? 2004-06 is the last triennium for which the ABS currently has data, and it shows life expectancy only rose 0.24 years while he was health minister. That’s a big fall on the average rate of the Howard government under Abbott. Abbott claiming credit for improvements in life expectancy are another example of, shall we say, his struggle with truth.

Perhaps other data are kinder to Abbott. Annual male and female life expectancies data go up to 2009. They show that from 1999 to 2003, male life expectancy increased by 0.4 years annually. Under Abbott, up until the end of his tenure, it increased by 0.3 years. Female life expectancy increased by 0.25 years before Abbott, and 0.225 years under him. Let’s call that last one square.

Not that Labor has anything to boast about. For 2008 and 2009, male life expectancy increased by even less: 0.2 and 0.1 years respectively for male left expectancy; female life expectancy went up 0.2 years in 2009 and didn’t increase at all in 2008.

Some longer-term perspective using the ABS data is interesting: looking at the annual increase in life expectancy from select years back to the 1880s, and then with greater frequency in the 1980s and 1990s (note the rolling triennia toward the end that extend the x-axis disproportionately):

It shows that the big successes in life expectancy in the modern era were under the Fraser and Hawke governments. But under the Keating and Howard governments, increases in life expectancy reduced and became fairly consistent. Assuming no breakthroughs on the immortality front, they’re doubtless destined to taper off given Australians are already among the longest-lived people in the world.

But what role do governments play in whole-of-population life expectancy anyway? Does it really matter who is health minister at any particular time? The ABS suggests the biggest causes of increased life expectancy in the first half of the 20th century was control of infectious diseases, and in the second half of the 20th century, reductions in heart disease and cancer mortality through better diet, better drugs and reductions in smoking, and a big cut in the road toll that used to claim thousands of people — mainly young men — a year in the 1970s.

To the extent that Tony Abbott encourages people to get on a bike or go for a swim, he’s probably doing as much now for life expectancy as he ever managed while he was health minister, whatever he now claims. If you want a recent health minister who played a significant role on life expectancy, I suggest Michael Wooldridge for his successful immunisation programs.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey