Avoiding the hole in the middle

Wednesday, 21 April 2010 

Kevin Rudd now faces in John Brumby the most intense challenge to his political authority and policy credentials from within the Labor Party since he became Prime Minister. This challenge penetrates to the heart of Rudd’s re-election strategy.

Paul Kelly The Australian 14 April

That Rudd was facing the strongest opposition for his health plan from state leaders within his own party was supposed to mean that this was a grave political test for the Prime Minister. Either that, or the complete opposite. It could have showed how little political content there really was in the argy-bargy we have seen over the last few weeks. Even Colin Barnett, whose opposition probably comes more from a Liberal leader keen to try and show what being Liberal actually means these days, had no real problem with the plan, and certainly not spending more on hospitals, which Liberals sometimes used to oppose. Of course, Rudd’s plan could have led to a split in the Labor party, given that giving control to local boards by-passes state health unions, which is why the right, like Abbott, have traditionally argued for it. But that doesn’t seem to be such an issue in the ALP these days

Rudd himself seemed to unintentionally diminish what was at stake on The 7.30 Report last night by saying Barnett’s opposition was really about nothing more than an ‘accounting device’, i.e. insisting on the state’s ownership of GST monies that would have been spent on hospitals anyway. But isn’t taking control of those monies off the states what the whole plan was supposed to be about? In fact, Rudd has helped to turn it into an ‘accounting device’ by not even opposing Brumby’s call for the states to decide how such monies would be allocated to the local boards. What on earth has all this been about?

Lenore Taylor got closer to the point on Insiders calling it more a fight over states’ rights than health funding. But this was one with a difference, given that, WA apart, opposition didn’t come from the traditional culprits like Queensland, but those that are usually more in tune with the federal agenda, Victoria and NSW.

In reality this was no so much about states’ rights than the states’ right to exist. Essentially Rudd wrapped a big boost to health funding up in a political agenda that called the states’ right to exist into question. It is the difficulty of responding to that question, which has especially become an issue for the large states that can’t hide behind a phoney regionalism like, say, Queensland does, that has been the source of that ‘crisis’ that the media has been feeding off for the last few weeks.

No doubt Rudd needed a deal to address the drift that has been perceptible since Copenhagen, but never as much as the media suggested. Certainly the referendum threat was not as hollow as some like Shanahan claim. There was a good chance it could have carried for the same reason that so many have lost in the past; it would have been about taking power away from the political class much as past ones were about giving it to them. However, there would have been a potential for things to get out of control given the political sensitivity of what was at stake, which was what drove all parties to compromise at the end. And it is precisely the same reason, of Rudd putting his anti-political finger on the hollowness of Australian political life, that the federal Liberals will also be forced to go along, no matter how much they might want to “take the fight up to the government”.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 21 April 2010.

Filed under State of the parties

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7 responses to “Avoiding the hole in the middle”

  1. kymbos on 21st April 2010 11:53 am

    I’m finding it really hard to care about this ‘reform’. Does that mean I’m disengaged, or that it doesn’t really matter whether it happens or not?

  2. The Piping Shrike on 21st April 2010 3:43 pm

    It means there has been a lot of political hoo-hah about a straightforward funding boost.

  3. Wood Duck on 21st April 2010 5:59 pm

    Well, it all now seems to done and dusted. Unless, of course, the Senate blocks as usual.
    I have watched this unfold as though I have been watching an exercise in looking as though something is being done – nothing more. At same time, I’ve watched with interest some quite respected health experts show their exaspiration over what has happened. It is a shame that they won’t be listened to.

  4. Graeme on 21st April 2010 9:28 pm

    C’est vrai.

    If policy had really been at stake, the obvious solution all along was for some states to adopt the Rudd plan and others to retain their status quo. (Which would amount to genuine competitive federalism at work). That that option has never been seriously discussed in the media let alone at the bargaining table shows how it has never been about policy outcomes.

    The media seemed to sense that posturing was the dominant force not just for negotiating purposes, but as an essential, sine qua non of the whole theatre. But they did not have their heads around the basics of the process. It seems to me to have been all about atmospherics and the appearance of power and agenda control, particularly on the part of the main protagonists, Rudd, Brumby and Barnett.

    ps is there a journalist in the world as awash with purple prose and bombast as our venerable Mr Kelly?

  5. Graeme on 21st April 2010 9:35 pm

    pps a referendum would have been fun. The role of the states is so deprecated and debased at present (as AJ Brown’s opinion poll shows) Rudd would have made hay. But then the States would have run a big rearguard campaign – with unlimited State money, whilst Rudd would have been limited to distributing an even-handed ‘yes’/’no’ booklet.

    Anti-political politicking, or rather finger-pointing, has been endemic in Australian politics since day 1 (the colonial parliaments and governors had each other and Whitehall). It is especially useful since it permits members of the same party to ‘stand up’ to each other, and thereby appear non-partisan.

  6. Neil on 23rd April 2010 8:06 am

    Abbott and his cronies will have to think twice before opposing this in the Senate. The campaign attacking state health care that was run over the past decade has meant no-one in the media could oppose the policy.

    Am I the only to appreciate the irony of a campaign orchestrated by Howard to attack the wall to wall State Labor governments is now being used by a federal Labor government to marginalise the Liberal opposition?

    The over 65’s who are the major users of health care are the biggest supporters of the Liberals I doubt the Libs really want to antagonise their strongest support base.

  7. Ricc on 23rd April 2010 3:19 pm

    Abbot was fudging on that issue on GMA with Gillard

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