Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Agreement To Make An Agreement Delays Health Reform

Two years ago, Kevin Rudd and the Labor Party were elected to government after a campaign which promised two major reforms. One was the end of Work Choices. The other was health and hospitals. Specifically, Kevin Rudd promised that he would end the so called “blame game” and that the buck would stop with him. He promised that the States would be held accountable and that if they failed to deliver improved health care he would bring about a federal takeover of the hospital system. He set a clear deadline for that to happen. That deadline came and went on the 30th of June this year.

Progress has been made, with increased funding arrangements and the landmark inquiry by the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission, but so far there has been no attempt to address the structural reform needed to make the system fair, efficient and sustainable. In the light of that election promise two years ago, expectations were high that yesterday’s Council Of Australian Governments meeting would result in a significant step forward towards that reform. Instead, what we got from that meeting was an agreement to make an agreement next year.

This has led to widespread condemnation form doctors, nurses, and the community. Why the wait? Don’t we have the Reform Commission recommendations? Haven’t the politicians had enough time to formulate a plan? The opposition has accused him of being a bureaucrat who makes promises, establishes inquiries and committees, but never actually does anything. It certainly seems as if Kevin Rudd is a politician who is very good at delivering the grand symbolic gesture, signing the redundant Kyoto Protocol, and making the apologies to the stolen generations and the forgotten Australians, but it seems actually doing something is a bit more of a challenge.

The Prime Minister insists that it is important for the government to “get it right”. While that’s true, haven’t we already been patient? The inquiry is over, the report has been completed, the doctors and nurses, not to mention the patients, deserve to know what’s going to happen. And while we are all waiting, the system continues to struggle and deteriorate, prompting questions of how much longer it can last without suffering a major failure. Prue Power of the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association described the hospital system as being in a holding pattern and said, “If the government is not careful, the plane may run out of fuel before it has a chance to land safely."

One possible explanation for the delay is the timing of elections. The next federal election is due at the end of next year, and some other State elections are also on the way. Could it be that that the Prime Minister and his Labor Premier colleagues are staging this process to deliver a favourable outcome at just the right time to make them look good going into an election campaign? That might appear to be a very cynical question to ask, but it would be far more cynical if the answer turned out to be “yes”.

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