Dec 11, 2009

Health care should become the big battleline

IF Kevin Rudd wants to ensure that he wins the next election and if Tony Abbott really does want to give Labor "the fright of their lives" there's one thing they can both do that will galvanise the electorate more than any debate over climate change: take over the public hospital system and make it work.

The Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader have previously declared their support for the idea and have developed detailed models to do so.

But so far the Rudd government has deferred and delayed real structural health reform that would take control of public hospital system out of the hands of the state government bureaucracies.

And Abbott has concentrated on his negative attack on the emissions trading scheme.

As Labor leader and Howard government health minister, respectively, Rudd and Abbott squared off to an extent in the 2007 election campaign over hospital services. Essentially, Rudd promised to take over the system if the states didn't improve their performance in delivering health care, especially in the vexed area of waiting lists for urgent and elective surgery and delays in emergency treatment.

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Related Coverage

    * Talk, but no action on health Courier Mail, 3 days ago
    * Clock ticks on hospital reform agenda The Australian, 3 days ago
    * Patience wears thin on health reforms The Australian, 3 days ago
    * Abbott keen to lead us back to the 1950s The Australian, 6 days ago
    * Abbott's grenade ignites debate The Australian, 6 days ago

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As health minister in the Howard government and in his political manifesto Battlelines, published just a few months ago, Abbott argued for federal funding of local hospital boards to cut out state government bureaucratic costs and waste.

Both leaders have faced this huge and popular reform at a time when the public is sick of what Rudd calls "the blame game" between state and federal governments over funding and poor services and what the newly elected Liberal leader, trying to revive the party's standing, has declared in Battlelines.

"Because voters think that health and education are so important, it's hard to imagine the revival of a political party that basically says that `these are subjects for the states' or even that policies in this area depend on working with the states," Abbott wrote.

"Whenever enough voters think that state governments are neglecting an important issue, the commonwealth ends up becoming involved."

Rudd understands this as well and it's why he put the states on notice over public hospitals and threatened to take them over, remove hospital funding to the states and shake them up if they failed to improve hospital services.

While Rudd recognises this and put a deadline for the states to shape up or ship out at the middle of this year, the reality of the complexity of delivering such a promise has pushed the deadline out to the middle of next year.

It means he's not only agreed to the federal funding but coughed up an extra $300 million for elective surgery and he's becoming frustrated with the states.

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