02 August 2009

Punch lines

Tony Abbott is doing to the Liberal Party what Noordin Muhammad Topp did to the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta. I don't care if he has a book to sell, Abbott should keep his trap shut about important areas of policy in which he is not qualified to speak.

This article shows the sort of self-indulgence which one expects of Opposition figures who quite like being freed from the responsibilities of office, and who are happy to drag their colleagues, their party and all of its supporters into utter hopelessness when it comes to the next election, and as many after that until they tire of treating their party as a personal plaything.
A coalition government would devolve the running of the nation's public hospitals to the private sector, community groups and charities, opposition frontbencher Tony Abbott says.

"We wouldn't run them with public servants," he told the Ten Network.

Firstly, the Opposition spokesperson on health is a placeholder from Queensland named Peter Dutton, and if he had guts or brains in any quantity he would realise that his position is now untenable.

Secondly, Tony Abbott doesn't make unilateral decisions like this. As Health Minister his main achievement was to play silly-buggers with state health bureaucracies, and any pronouncement like this must be judged in the same light as an arsonist joining a rural fire brigade.

This is a huge issue, so let's judge it on its merits. If it has merit then Abbott is right to speak out about it.
Mr Abbott, a health minister in the previous Howard coalition government, said it was time to give the public hospital system back to the people.

His vision includes the establishment of local hospital boards with the power to appoint their own chief executive and the ability to retain revenue from privately-insured patients.

His vision, in other words, is a return to an era where big-ticket technologies and insurance were unheard of, and where cronyism and petty politics made health policy harder, not easier, to implement. His vision involves government abrogating a core responsibility and abandoning its one real option for keeping costs low and maintaining accountability. That's the quality of his vision, it will tank at the polls if the Liberal Party dare to put it to voters.

Several good Liberal MPs will be pole-axed by their constituencies and no new Coalition voters will be attracted to such a badly thought-out policy. It will kill the Liberals' hopes of winning state government.

Rather than direct funding by government, non-government providers will demand - and get - a premium for "adjustments" in taking on a whole lot of health bureaucrats at higher levels of pay, and then a premium on the running costs because, well, there are profits to be made and drugs and equipment and machines-that-go-ping aren't getting any cheaper. This will still have to be managed by a whole bunch of bureaucrats. If this had been a good idea, Abbott would have done it long before now.
"It is a dog's breakfast of divided responsibility," Mr Abbott said of the present system where the states blamed the commonwealth for lack of funding.

You had your chance to be part of the solution, Tony, but you were only ever part of the problem. I think you enjoyed the problem, and in true public service style you would have enjoyed the perpetual status of health.
The Commonwealth, under a coalition government, would devolve management of public hospitals in the same the way it did for the employment services network and nursing homes.

Employment services aren't as capital-intensive as health services are, and there were never any federal government nursing homes: AAP has disgraced itself by implying that there were, and sloppy in not finding this out.
"That's why, generally, Commonwealth services are delivered much better that state services."

Compared to what? The Feds don't run schools, the states don't run defence (look at that masterwork of federal administration, and despair). There were Federal repatriation hospitals but they were handed over to the states.
Mr Abbott said the states were presently running the hospital system with giant top-down bureaucracies.

"The trouble with our public hospital system is that no-one is in charge."

That's the very problem with employment services, and defence, and pretty much every exclusively federal area of policy (not a Rudd thing or a Howard thing - it seems endemic to Canberra really). Abbott has no excuse for blithely ignoring it and it is an indictment on journalism as a profession that he was allowed to get away with it. Next time you hear the journosphere screaming about blogs, consider the free pass that so-called professional journalists gave Tony Abbott on these silly pronouncements.
Local administrators were frightened to make decisions without referring to them first to senior health department bureaucrats or the minister's office, Mr Abbott said.

As Health Minister, Tony Abbott projected the ethos of the Howard government whereby any decision could and would be micromanaged regardless of policy, process or any consideration at all, really. He's complaining about an environment that he set up and, if re-elected, would make worse not better. Why did nobody call him on this?
Local hospital boards should be able to keep any revenue they receive from treating privately-insured patients and donations.

Local hospitals face almost no risk of being overwhelmed with donations or in stretching to accommodate private services. This reveals just how weak his vision is, a non-solution to a non-issue.

Abbott's triumph over the Mersey Hospital in Tasmania shows he must be kept well away from any sort of health system anywhere. Healthcare was a weak point for the Liberals throughout the 1980s and '90s, and now it will become one again thanks both to this fool, and the persistent failure to keep his comments to the portfolio to which he's been allocated.

Abbott is mouthing loyalty to Turnbull but actually undermining him, in a similar way that John Howard did to anyone leading the Liberal Party other than himself. He wouldn't know what Liberal health policy is and has no right to pre-empt it. Turnbull might be bemused but he must put Abbott in his box. If he fails to do so the Liberals will find themselves with a leader determined to turn a party of government into a small band of jihadis, who will keep Labor in government federally and in NSW by providing such an obnoxious rallying point such that swinging voters will be repelled from voting Liberal.

Abbott's key flaw, as I've said earlier in this blog, is his fragile sense of manhood - the overweening nature of his participation in boxing and rugby, his abrogation of responsibility over his teenage pregnancy (and his failure to weave that experience into a sensible and nuanced wider policy), his portrayal of the monarchy as a source of maturity which Australia cannot find within itself, his admission that he leaves his wife to raise his daughters single-handedly, and his persistence with a series of silly policies in office for no reason other than "backing down" might make him look and feel weak. Howard had this too, but in Abbott it is much more brittle.

The idea that Tony Abbott as Opposition Leader would help Labor define what it stands for assumes that Labor needs external help in defining itself.

Turnbull must take on Abbott's book and trash it, and with it nailing the politically toxic idea that Abbott might have a greater future than a past. Battlelines has to be presented as an innumerate Fightback, or The Things That Matter without the wit and hidden depths - it is not a manifesto for government of anything but some obscure European principality in the thirteenth century. The book, and the idea that it is more important than the business of opposition, is a series of punchlines waiting for reality to set up the jokes; Turnbull should set them up and knock 'im down. A chastened Tony Abbott might be motivated to take on Jenny Macklin's stumblebum performance in FAHCSIA; a rampant Tony Abbott is no good to anyone, inside the Liberal Party or out.


  1. I could not agree more. The one thing you do not hear from Mr. Abbott is anything about the shadow ministry he represents. Remeber that Medibank was introduced and was popular because private insurance was a disaster. Medicare needs strenghting, not weaken further. There should be no subsidies for the private sector.

    He is right to look at how the Federation works today. It has been weaken gradually since WWW11 when the States lost their taxation powers. The States if they are to remain as the Federation fathers seen them, need these powers back or a new system created. The present system cannot continue while one section of government continues to undermine the states because it has control of the taxation system and uses it power to impose it will on the states, while at the same time, blaming the states for any failure.

    Personaaly I believe we need the states or something similar, such as regional centres. To move the state power to the Commonwealth government would result in unwieldy government which is to far removed from the areas it is responsible for.

  2. You were going so well until you came up with that Whitlamite bullshit about regional centres.

    I think the idea of clarity has to be reasserted here - who's in charge of what - as well as the old idea that those responsible for spending money have to be responsible (and held responsible) for paying for it. After a bloody century of political experimentation it's clear that high-tax-high-services is as much of a non-starter as low-tax-low-services.