labor health

Bill Shorten had a ragged media conference in the Adelaide seat of Boothby yesterday. He claimed Labor had no new or increased taxes on superannuation — technically correct, but several proposed rule super changes will raise more revenue — and a journalist got stroppy when the Labor leader refused to answer a question about the impact of Labor’s climate action policies to achieve its more ambitious emissions reduction targets.

The journalist, Ten’s Jonathan Lea, had asked Shorten “when can voters learn more about Labor’s emission reduction target, how you will get there and the cost to the economy?” It’s a fair question, given Labor has opted for a shopping list of emissions abatement measures rather than a coherent policy. The extent to which an emissions safeguard scheme that doesn’t cover around three-quarters of emissions, an electric vehicle target and some subsidy programs will drive a reduction of over 40% of emissions by 2030 is a valid subject for discussion during an election campaign, even if the government literally has no climate policy beyond, apparently, fixing the “climate deficit” by increasing emissions.

Lea made another point, noting that Shorten had “spoken almost exclusively since your budget in reply speech and focused on health.” Shorten disputed that, but it’s nearly true. Despite promising a couple of months ago that the election would be a “referendum on wages”, all Labor has done over the last fortnight is talk about health. Multiple announcements about spending on cancer treatment. MRI machines. New research funding. “Labor’s surgery waiting list blitz”. A (separate) “cancer waiting list blitz”. Mental health services. Yesterday it was pathology services. This morning it’s “$20 million to give blood cancer patients access to clinical trial drugs and therapies for blood cancer.” And, all the time, the incessant lie — and it is a lie, Labor-voting readers — that the government has cut health spending.

Health is the most influential issue in determining how people vote. And it’s a Labor strong point. Health was key to Labor coming within an ace of winning in 2016 off the back of its (again, deceitful) Mediscare campaign. And its own internal work has obviously prompted the strategy of beginning the campaign with a health spending blitz. The strategy has some conservatives rattled. “Shorten’s tactical focus on health, hospitals and cancer has kept health in the headlights, to Labor’s immense benefit,” Paul Kelly frets in The Australian today, conjuring the doubtless horrific vision that “voters decide they prefer higher taxes over the decade to finance higher levels of social spending.”

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Perhaps — I can’t believe I’m typing this — Kelly’s right. If disengaged voters go into Easter with no idea about the election beyond that Labor is going to spend more on health, that will be a carefully-prepared win for Labor. But Australians are among the world’s longest-lived people and our quality of life in medical terms is improving. The priority in health spending is in Indigenous health, where “the gap” remains stubbornly unclosed, but Indigenous health has been absent from Labor’s campaign and was unmentioned in Shorten’s budget reply. There are indeed priorities in health, like removing the private health insurance subsidy and redirecting that spending elsewhere in health, but Labor’s focus so far suggests it wants the campaign to be a referendum on health services, while other key policy areas, like climate action, or wages, are obscured.

Health is undoubtedly a winner for Labor, but at this point it is starting to look like it is relying too much on an area where, at least for white Australians, they’re well-served.