The Abbott Government Is Adrift on Health Policy

This is the week that the house of cards that is the Abbott government has collapsed.

It started with a public blue; it ended with a failed coup. And now we are in policy chaos: not just the submarines, not just the budget, but health care—and that is what I am going to focus on. The government is flailing around. It does not seem that anyone is really in charge. After a failed leadership challenge led by a brazen and at times principled group of backbenchers, there is no alternative candidate. So who knows who is in charge of the show? If you look at the cabinet, instead of talking to each other they are out there talking to the media, and they are looking over their shoulders all the time to work out who the next prime minister is going to be. It would be funny if it was not so important.

We have no budget strategy and no plan for health. In fact, if you look at the health area, we have had four plans for health in the last three months. In the last two years, we have had five plans for the health system—because the coalition went into the last election promising no changes to Medicare. Then we had the GP tax mark 1 foisted upon the Australian public immediately on the announcement of the budget. After promising they would not do it, they threatened to slug patients with a $7 co-payment—a GP tax just to visit their doctor—and to freeze Medicare rebates. When it became clear that the health minister just did not have support out in the community—let alone in his backroom—to push through this massive change to Medicare, they dumped it. We were then introduced to the GP tax mark 2 and, like many sequels—we all remember that Jaws 2 was not as good as Jaws 1—the GP tax mark 2 was a lot worse than the GP tax mark 1: in addition to the $5 slugging for the GP tax, people were also going to have a $20 cut to the GP rebate for short GP consultations. Is it any wonder that the public—and the medical practitioners—were up in arms? In fact, for a short time in the new year, GP surgeries were turned into a protest zone.

It is little wonder that the new and perhaps unfortunate receiver of the hospital pass, the new health minister, the member for Farrer, decided to interrupt the cricket season by announcing that the GP tax mark 2 was dumped—or at least in part, because the freeze on Medicare rebates is still in existence. This means that the amount of money we get back in our pocket after visiting the doctor is going to decrease over the period between now and 2018.

The fact is that we do not know what the health policy of the government was yesterday, what it is today, or even what it will be tomorrow, because we had the magnificent spectacle yesterday of senior members of the executive out there on the airwaves contradicting each other. We had the member for Aston, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, on the air saying that the GP tax, and in fact the whole plan, had been dumped, and that a commitment had been given to the party room that the GP tax had been dumped. He was not on his own; we had that bloke who pulled the pin on the political hand grenade, the member for Cowan, on Sky News—who could forget that episode?—making the announcement that he had received a promise from the Prime Minister in the party room that the GP tax was off, only then to have a phone call through to the Sky News studio, with the spectacle of David Speers announcing what the government policy was on national television. Yesterday, the member for Aston was saying one thing and then having to go back on the record and correct it. Meanwhile, one of his colleagues, another parliamentary secretary, Kelly O'Dwyer, was out there contradicting the policy as well. So, after four policies in three months—five in two years—we are left without a health policy. But the health minister assures us that the GP tax, the co-payments and the Medicare rebate freezes are still on the table.

I encourage the emboldened backbench to take a Taylor-Swift-like message to the minister and to the Prime Minister: when it comes to the GP tax, they ought to just shake it off and start again.

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