CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
PM Rudd kicks off a very long campaign on health
, April 3, 2010
Australians face a choice between a former health minister and a former health bureaucrat in deciding which leader is better equipped to advance the nation's health system over the coming decade.
The first debate of the 2010 election campaign, staged recently at the National Press Club after another off-the-cuff decision by Kevin Rudd, did little to shed light on the two parties' policies.
Both Tony Abbott and Mr Rudd are holding back on full details of their policies until closer to the campaign proper, although the PM arrived at the debate at least with the bare bones of his (partial) hospital takeover proposal.
Mr Rudd has also taken a calculated risk that an election on health will always fall Labor's way because voters have traditionally favoured Labor over the Liberals to deliver on health and hospitals.
The PM is banking on health again being Labor's trump card in the coming campaign, and the history of the introduction of Medibank (Whitlam) and Medicare (Hawke) and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (Chifley) suggests voters may be persuaded.
Mr Rudd also went on the offensive knowing that calling the first snap debate of three (for an election which could still be six months away) would put Mr Abbott on the defensive, because it would be impossible for the Liberals to produce an alternative health policy within a few days.
Mr Rudd was able to parade his proposal for a takeover of 60 per cent of spending on hospitals by the Federal Government - but where was Mr Abbott's plan?
It was fairly crude and transparent politics and may have been successful, at least in the short term.
Commentators generally declared Mr Rudd the winner of the debate, in part because he had a positive message to sell. Mr Abbott, by contrast, was forced into a combative and critical position.
Veteran analyst Paul Kelly of The Australian
newspaper described Mr Rudd as "constructive and co-operative" whereas Mr Abbott was "more political and more negative".
And the electronic "worm" - a supposed indicator of a cross-section of voter opinion broadcast on commercial television networks - also declared an easy victory for Mr Rudd.
Yet the new Opposition leader delivered some telling blows which are likely to be repeated right through to the election.
Mr Abbott described the PM's recent gambit for a partial takeover of hospital funding as being "not a fix for public hospitals; it's a fix for the election".
He also described Mr Rudd as a "do-nothing Prime Minister", and declared that his alternative plan, when finally announced, would deliver oversight of hospital performance to local boards.
This promise by Mr Abbott produced the most positive response - voters clearly like the idea of local input and oversight compared with management by distant bureaucrats and the creation of new layer of bureaucracy.
Paul Kelly actually conceded that the Rudd hospital plan was not transformative, but rather a half-way funding arrangement which was unlikely to fix the so-called "blame game".
Results in recent state elections in South Australia and Tasmania also suggest that the electorate is restless and becoming less rusted on to incumbent state Labor governments.
The extended contract the Australian people had during the Howard years when voters kept the Coalition in power at the federal level, while keeping the states in Labor hands, is clearly now over.
And Labor's credentials on delivery of services have been dealt a hammering by state government ineptitude and, federally, in the form of the "pink batts" fiasco.
SA Premier Mike Rann was fortunate to retain power after big hostile swings in safe Labor seats, particularly in his own seat and those of other long-serving senior ministers.
While better marginal seat campaigning paid off for Labor, the mood of the South Australian electorate was for renewal, and the ALP would be wise to start searching for a successor to Mr Rann if it wants to stay in power.
In Tasmania, David Bartlett, never managed to bond with the people in the same way as his earthy predecessors Paul Lennon and Jim Bacon managed to do.
Labor was saved from a humiliating loss by aggressive campaigning against the Greens who, despite a lot media myth-making, only managed a small increase in their primary vote and the probable gain of one extra seat.
The good news for Mr Rudd is that these results mean that, barring any big surprises over coming months, seat changes at the coming federal poll are likely to be fairly small - even if the Government is on the nose.
However, there are two caveats.
First, Mr Rudd has chosen to kick off a very long campaign on health, hoping to wear down his opponent. This is a strategy with more downside risk for the Government than for Mr Abbott who has much less at stake and lower expectations from his party.
Second, Mr Rudd's lack of political judgment over recent months has been increasingly apparent, and his rash decision-making and poor management have been the talk of the Labor Party.
Mr Rudd might have "won" the first debate, but will need a more disciplined performance over the coming months or the whisperings about Julia Gillard are likely to get much louder.