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

While gender issues dominated the framing and reaction to Christine Holgate’s appearance before a Senate committee inquiry yesterday, it gave further impetus to a narrative that Labor may yet fruitfully exploit in the next election campaign.

The received political wisdom right now is that the government’s fate will hinge on its success or otherwise in rolling out its vaccination program. As it happens, that’s at the intersection of the two biggest issues that voters say influence their voting decisions: the economy and health services. Vaccination rollout should mean an end to the threat of COVID-19, reopening of borders, a return to economic normality, Australians dancing in the streets, etc.

But think back to the 2016 election when Labor generated, from basically nothing, an entire campaign based around saving Medicare from privatisation. It nearly carried Bill Shorten to a remarkable victory over Malcolm Turnbull.

Medicare is, for all that it’s a cliché, iconic. But the Mediscare campaign also tapped in to a deep voter hatred of privatisation. Voters dislike it, no matter which way they vote. They see it, rightly or wrongly, as a means by which corporations get to profit from ripping off customers who once got much better service for much lower costs from government.

And Labor has now seized on Holgate’s evidence yesterday to argue part of the reason for her shabby treatment was her opposition to a secret plan floated by Boston Consulting Group that might have led to both closures of post offices and potentially the privatisation of the corporation’s parcel business. Labor’s communications spokesperson Michelle Rowland has been hammering the theme in the last 24 hours.

For the record, in 2014 69% of voters opposed the privatisation of Australia Post, higher even than opposition to privatisation of the ABC and SBS. How much that has changed in recent years for a service that most of us now use only for parcel delivery isn’t clear. But, while it’s no “icon”, chances are voters still don’t regard the idea with any enthusiasm.

In fact, there’s no good reason why Australia Post shouldn’t be privatised, as long as it’s done with a focus on effective delivery of services rather than maximising the return to the government. Parcel delivery, in particular, is a bog-standard commercial business that corporations can and already do perform perfectly well, and often better than StarTrack. But good luck making that argument to the electorate. It’s noteworthy that Mathias Cormann, who oversaw the successful sale of Medibank Private, was decidedly cool on flogging off Australia Post.

Labor claims of a secret agenda to sell off “our iconic Australia Post” are thus likely to fall on fertile ground.

It isn’t just about Holgate. Labor has upped its mentions of privatisation of late. Shayne Neumann, veterans’ affairs spokesperson, now talks about how “42% of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs has been outsourced, labour-hired or privatised”. On a recent trip to Tasmania, Anthony Albanese repeatedly referred to the state Liberal government “privatising essential services like TAFE”.

Australia Post has nothing to do with health services, of course, but Labor has been cashing in on a steady flow of documents about the NDIS and the alleged independent review undertaken of it that demonstrate, in the words of Bill Shorten, “secret plans to make radical cuts to the NDIS”.

Shorten and Labor have had a virtual free kick on NDIS since Linda Reynolds was shunted from Defence to the portfolio. Reynolds, a tepid performer even before the Brittany Higgins issue wrecked her credibility and sent her to hospital, will be in the front line against what is likely to be a strong Labor campaign to “save the NDIS”.

Over in Communications, another poor performer, the slothful Paul Fletcher, will have to respond to a full-blown campaign against a “secret agenda to privatise Australia Post”. As the Turnbull government found, however unfounded such scare campaigns are, it’s very, very hard to fight them once they get traction.

Underneath the economy and the rollout, Labor is accumulating some useful ammunition. It won’t be repeating the 2019 mistake of it being the target, not the government.