19 January 2015

Health and education

The consensus in political science and journalism for a generation has been that the major parties are converging in terms of policy and personnel-types. There's a lot to commend that theory, what with the political class and Large and Powerful Interests and so on.

The last hold-out, it seemed, was in workplace relations. Unions would not let go of the ALP, and Labor attempts to snap off the wrist of the unions look half-hearted. Yet, even that fundamental political difference has succumbed to policy inertia. Despite a ferocious pseudo-campaign over labour productivity and union corruption, the Abbott government has not proposed a single amendment to the Fair Work Act, let alone take their chances in the Senate.

This isn't to say that they won't; Eric Abetz could well throw something out there from sheer boredom as much as anything else, particularly if this government gets to a point where it knows it can't win.

It seems that the major parties do have a real cleavage on points of principle, ones that affect people day to day and which have real budgetary impacts. These differences go to big questions like what and whom is government for.

Health and education seem to be the big political cleavages that matter in Australia. Labor believes in public health; it will make changes around the edges of that, but basically can be trusted to maintain Medicare more than it can necessarily be trusted on other issues. The Coalition start from the a priori assumption that Medicare is too big and must be wound back, making healthcare confusing and expensive in some neo-Marxian attempt to make conditions so intolerable that people will overthrow the system.

It is generally agreed that the government backed down/backflipped on a decision to impose a $20 levy on GP visits, the first time the press gallery as a whole has openly accused the government in this way.

Until recently the press gallery was confused whenever Abbott backed down/backflipped. Either they would simply report the new development without any context, or it would treat the idea that a politician may say one thing but do another as though it was bewildering, some aberration that would soon pass. It isn't possible to do that with the issue of healthcare. Nobody believes the issue can be fully understood as a revenue-saving measure, or as just another he-said-he-said political football.

Even Sydney's Murdoch tabloid The Daily Telegraph has noticed price signals in medicine matter. Yet, in this piece, Richard Chirgwin shows price signals are almost beside the point: why can't specialists issue scrips? There are plenty of other savings going begging in pursuit of cut, cut, cut.

For the Opposition, this isn't just an excuse to stick it to Abbott. The last Labor government had a strong record in the area, make it difficult to support the 'chaos' narrative. They seem to be embracing public health as core business, as a way of rebuilding themselves rather than just pulling the other guys down. It's one reason Labor health spokesperson Catherine King made it atop this list, and why Labor candidates in winnable Coalition seats will want her to visit as often as possible.

Peter Dutton was technically the Coalition's health spokesperson in opposition, but he was canny enough never to challenge Nicola Roxon or Tanya Plibersek on their grasp of policy. He did no policy work and could claim no mandate for anything he did. Sussan Ley's promise to 'consult' has been universally interpreted by the press gallery as a weakness on her part, but her career suggests she is not some patsy who will do whatever the PM's office says (unlike, say, George Christensen). The consultation process may well see Ley develop and own a solution rather than play for time and await instructions from Credlin. This would demonstrate a normal functioning of government, and the press gallery will almost certainly misreport it.

That said, this is excellent. It explains complex policy and politics clearly. Taylor's admission that the Abbott government's policy incompetence was foreseeable is a breath of fresh air against those who insist Abbott still deserves the benefit of the doubt, like this or that. Read Taylor's article once, to get across the policy issues.

In a social media world where people are hyper-alert for bias, read it again to get a feel for what good just-the-facts reporting looks like. Taylor is not trying to fence-sit, measuring out faint praise and muffled criticism to 'both sides'; she is playing the cards where they lay.

Read it a third time to wonder what the value of press gallery reporting is. Good, solid research - links to ACOSS and the Grattan Institute and a paper from the parliamentary library, even the generosity to link to a Murdoch piece. You don't need a press gallery pass to do any of that. No cosy quote from a politician, no pointed press-conference exchange, no press release as primary source. That article owes little, if anything, to inside-Canberra tattle of the sort necessary(?) for something like this.

When Lenore Taylor has written lesser articles than that this blog has gone her hard. She deserves the benefit of the doubt as one of Australia's better political commentators, and will be getting it without exempting her from any criticism at all.

The idea that Labor is good at health policy kept Jay Weatherall in office in South Australia, it helped Labor win government in Victoria rather than a nice-try-but-not-this-time, and in Queensland and NSW the perception of competence has brought the party back from the dead. It's one thing for Labor to corral nurses and ambos into grass-roots campaigning; when they start running more of them as candidates in winnable seats, it will be clear they recognise the centrality of health to their identity and future. Mind you, it will also likely mean that the party operates on the basis of shared assumptions and groupthink that non-healthcare people don't have.

As manufacturing declines, watch the nursing and allied health professionals step up. Watch the scourging of Jacksonville and see whatever rises in its place - that's where Labor's future could be.

Labor have overcome their historic reluctance to embrace education as a vehicle for class mobility. Neville Wran was right about working to get out of the working class. It is the one issue that they can reliably use to connect with the people who were once their base.

Labor can't commit to Gonski-style funding and to opposing Pyne's amendments to university funding because this would bring on questions about revenue for which Labor isn't ready, questions that have killed all but a few would-be Labor governments. It should, though, but this is easy to say from the sidelines:
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten should adopt a less negative stance and try to cut a deal with the Abbott government on higher education policy, according to former Labor MP Maxine McKew.
She would say that. In his attempt to simply quote what people say and never mind the context, Matthew Knott has overlooked the fact that Pyne's proposals stand to benefit bigger, more established universities like ... McKew's employer, the University of Melbourne. Long-term Labor MPs who've been in and out of government must be killing themselves laughing at being lectured on More Labor Than Thou by a oncer.

McKew might have a lot to say about what universities are and should be for, but perhaps Knott is not the person to explore that sort of big-picture stuff.
Education Minister Christopher Pyne backed Ms McKew's comments and said Labor had become a "laughing stock" on higher education policy.

"I have invited the Labor Party to enter into negotiations with the government regarding higher education; however, they have steadfastly refused, despite many of their members privately supporting our reforms," Mr Pyne said.
He, too, would say that.

Fancy giving Pyne the last word in your article. Knott really thinks he's being 'balanced' by quoting one person who proposes supporting Pyne's proposals, and then quotes another who also supports that outcome. The case for those proposals is no further advanced by this article. It was not worth writing or publishing, let alone reading. There are people struggling on local papers who are infinitely better journalists than Knott, and they should be rotated through the press gallery until the folly of Fairfax's self-negating hiring policies become clear.

If you don't know anything but transcribing, you can't be an effective reporter. To say that the people who run traditional media companies disagree with that wholeheartedly is beside the point - I'm solvent and they aren't. I'm the audience they need but can never understand. Knott is an overpaid transcription service, and Fairfax readers are poorer for having to go around this sort of stuff in order to find out what is going on in public debate.

Media courses have attracted the best and brightest of a generation. As one of the last traditional media outlets, Fairfax could have the pick of that generation, curious active and well-informed, people who could yet save the company from going to the dogs. Who have they chosen? Obtuse clerks like Knott, Latika Bourke, and Earring Girl, who shows how bleak her employer's future is by simply quoting social media on delay. You can't set yourself above social media while trailing after it. If you think I'm being unfair, compare the pithy wit of this to Cox's entire clippings file. If people will tweet for free, how long can Fairfax keep paying these dupes?

Look, w(h)ither Labor? questions are properly matters for ALP members, and having lapsed back into media criticism I might just leave it there. You need to get across health and education policy if you're going to understand 21st century politics in this country. Merely critiquing politicians' messaging, like most of the press gallery do most of the time, is not healthy or educative. It is a non-job with no future.


  1. Lenore Taylor: the only sane person in the room on an episode of Insiders.

    It's surprising the unions haven't started using the ambos and nurse as poster childs sooner. Much nicer then sweaty, hairy, men. Not to mention the sympathy vote they bring, everyone knows how hard they work and how skilled they need to be.
    They tryed using the ADF and their EBA last year for increased coverage, but everyone KNOWS how good a wicket your on when your in defense. No sympathy there.

  2. And the Economy!

    Shorten should be hammering Labor's excellent performance, particularly during the GFC, in comparison to the LNP's failure to pass a budget at all.

    Why Labor is keeping quiet on these three fronts is beyond me!

  3. 'Earring Girl' ...priceless

    1. Yes. I'll give Earring Girl her due - she at least told me that Asbestos Julie's lost earring has its own Twitter account. Knowing that is a thing (like the Texts from Pyne Facebook page) makes me irrationally happy.

  4. “That said, this is excellent. It explains complex policy and politics clearly. Taylor's admission that the Abbott government's policy incompetence was foreseeable is a breath of fresh air against those who insist Abbott still deserves the benefit of the doubt, like this or that. Read Taylor's article once, to get across the policy issues.”

    Am afraid you are showering praise on what appears to be nothing more than a regurgitation of shallow Labor/Green propaganda that actually brings the credit of the Grattan Institute into question.I had followed the link to Lenore’s article and was taken aback to read the following: “As the Grattan Institute’s health program director, Stephen Duckett, points out, if the numbers are adjusted for population growth and inflation, the increase in spending over the decade isn’t 200%, but closer to 50%. Whether or not 50% is “sustainable” depends on whether we’re getting value for money for our extra government spending. But there’s good evidence that we are. We have much lower health spending than other advanced economies (the US, for example, spends 17.7% of its GDP on health compared with Australia’s 9.5%) and we have better average life expectancy or, to use a different measure, Australia’s “amenable death rate” (death from illnesses that can be prevented) has for the past decade been steadily falling. And spending money on primary care – stopping people from getting sick – is far more efficient than spending it on hospital admissions later. So why look for savings from GPs?”

    Andrew, this is what the very same (presumably) Stephen Duckett had written on behalf of Grattan Institute in The Conversation only six months before:

    “Why are health costs rising?
    "Received wisdom is that rising health costs are all about demographic change, but this is not true. Together, population growth and the ageing population structure accounted for only a quarter of government expenditure growth above CPI since 2002-2003. A further 5% of the growth comes from health inflation growing faster than CPI.
    “The rest of the increase is due to people of all ages getting more and more expensive services per person. On average, a 50-year-old now is seeing doctors more often, having more tests and operations, and taking more prescription drugs, than a 50-year-old did ten years ago. The quality of the treatment they are getting has improved in many cases, and there are new treatments that did not exist in 2003.
    “There’s no reason to think that this trend will slow down in the next ten years without major policy reform. Government health spending now consumes an additional 1% of GDP compared to a decade ago; this is projected to increase to 2% in the next ten years.”

    As a policy wonk, Andrew, you read should read this lengthy and substantial policy discussion published by the Duckett and Grattan Institute in April 2014 at http://theconversation.com/tough-choices-how-to-rein-in-australias-rising-health-bill-13658, then compare it to the comparatively shallow submission to senate select committee by same Grattan Institute only six months later at http://grattan.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/232_Submission_DucketBreadon_Senate_140918.pdf and maybe ask why Lenore Taylor chose the latter over the former and declined to even write about the startling contradictions contained therein?

    1. You seem quick to acuse Taylor of bias yet dont substantiate the claim. What you do is present some lengthy out of context quotes and then fold your arm like you've just proved something astonishing. Needs to do better.

  5. Taylor was liberated when she moved from Fairfax.


  6. Tabloid_middlebrow_Lite® SMH appeals less and less. Close to getting vanilla sub to Crikey. Rundle alone would warrant it.
    McGeough and West excepted.

  7. Isn't McKew as Bob Hogg's partner, little more connected than being a 'oncer' might suggest?

  8. Andrew...that Phil the Greek got a knighthood is beyond hilarious!

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