Bill Shorten in front of Save Medicare banner
(Image: AP/Rob Griffith)

While the Coalition has been trying to mount its own scare campaigns about Labor’s “war on business” and its negative gearing reforms — so far with little success — Labor has been demonstrating that it is more than capable of running effective fright shows.

Back in the 2013 election, when Tony Abbott was coasting to victory, Chris Bowen went hard on the Coalition’s refusal to rule out considering changes to the GST. Abbott was forced to issue his own version of John Howard’s “never ever” commitment, promising there’d be no changes to the GST at any time in his prime ministership, not just in the first term.

And when the newly minted pairing of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison decided to leave everything on the tax reform table as part of their commitment to having a mature policy debate, Labor went hard on that, too, warning that a GST rise was coming. Eventually, Turnbull was forced to nix the GST rise, and along the way made a dill of Morrison (one of the few success of Turnbull’s prime ministership so far has been his demolition of whatever political credibility Scott Morrison ever had, but that’s a story for another day).

[Treasurer down: how Turnbull’s election ploy wrecked Morrison]

And you can bet Labor would have run hard on a state income tax if Turnbull hadn’t blundered so badly in raising it that the idea was euthanised within hours of being unveiled.

For a few months now, Labor has been pushing the idea that a government study of how best to improve the IT systems for the delivery of Medicare payments is evidence the government wants to “privatise Medicare”. Yesterday, it seized on a Productivity Commission reference by Morrison for an inquiry into competition in human services. The inquiry flows from a recommendation of the Harper competition review for a study of whether human services delivery can be improved through competition. The PC has just released a discussion paper for the first stage of the inquiry.

Oddly, for a smoking gun that the government wants to privatise Medicare, the paper doesn’t mention Medicare once. But that’s not surprising: Medicare doesn’t deliver services. It’s primarily a funding system for services by other providers. It’s not Britain’s NHS. That’s why it couldn’t be “privatised” even if a government wanted to. What it can be is defunded, either because of budget pressure or because governments want to change the way it operates, for instance, to introduce a price signal.

That is where Labor is on somewhat stronger ground. Yesterday Shorten outlined a two-stage government attack on Medicare — defunding it (via MBS and pathology payment cuts, which he promised to reverse) and then privatising it (and worse than privatising it — selling it overseas. “It’s not some corporate asset to be sold off and exported,” Shorten declared). The latter is simply, demonstrably, false. The former is partly true, although the pathology “cuts” are of bulk-billing incentive payments that weren’t actually working, and as Health Minister Sussan Ley accurately pointed out, the angry reaction from the likes of Sonic Healthcare was more about protecting their share price than patients. But Labor knows that voters — Labor, Liberal, whatever — hate privatisation. They think it means handing public assets to the private sector, which then proceeds to gouge them and offer poorer service.

[The govt is not privatising Medicare — but tender process has risks]

Sticking “privatise” next to “Medicare” — about as close to policy motherhood as you’ll get in Australia — is therefore a potent combination. So potent that Turnbull moved yesterday to try to kill the whole thing off by ruling out any role for private providers in an overhauled Medicare payments system. It would all be kept in-house, he promised, in effect ending the whole payments system fix. You can criticise Turnbull for a lack of policy bravery, but it’s 50-50 at best in the polls and two weeks to go — what else could he have done?

Against Turnbull, however, is Tony Abbott’s long list of broken promises and bad faith after the 2013 election, when crystal-clear commitments to maintain funding in key areas like education, health and the ABC were chucked aside. Labor warned before the 2013 election that the Coalition was lying about its plans and, once in government, Tony Abbott appeared to go out of his way to prove that they’d been right. Also against him is a campaign by doctors’ groups against funding cuts. And voters sense the Coalition’s lack of enthusiasm about Medicare. Even if John Howard went from professing a determination to gut Medicare to boasting he was the best friend it ever had, there is still power in the line Shorten delivered yesterday: “The Liberals have never liked Medicare.”

[No cuts to the ABC? Public broadcaster $100m poorer than in 2013]

And it might not be true, but nor was Tony Abbott’s campaign against the carbon price true, in any way, shape or form. Nor is the current government’s scare campaign against Labor’s negative gearing proposals. Nor is it claims about Labor’s “war on business“. You don’t get to complain about scare campaigns when you’ve turned politics into a ghost train ride. And that goes for both sides.