Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The First Step Of A Journey Of A Thousand Miles

Are you running through the streets celebrating and cheering the astonishing revolution in health and public hospitals? Are you throwing hour hands in the air and dancing a jig, surrounded by cheering crowds with streamers and confetti raining down all around? No? Haven’t you heard? Saint Kevin has single handedly saved us all from the tragedy of a crumbling public hospital system. Well, perhaps not single handedly, since all of the Premiers and Chief Ministers have all signed up to make it happen. Well, almost all. There is one Premier who has refused to be saved, condemning his constituents to continue to depend on the existing hospital services. That’s the Premier of Western Australia, Colin Barnett, who by the strangest coincidence also happens to be the only Liberal Party Leader in government.

Perhaps it is overly cynical to suggest that the decision not to sign is motivated purely by politics, and a desire to derail the success of the Labor Leaders. The truth is that a genuine philosophical difference does exist between the parties, and the surrender of any State power to the Commonwealth is a move which cannot and should not be taken lightly. However, it has proven to be the one fly in the ointment for Kevin Rudd’s grand reform of health and hospitals. Without that one signature, the Prime Minister cannot truly claim to have achieved the agreement he was seeking. But equally, it cannot be said that he has failed either. With the weight of the other States and Territories aligned with the Commonwealth, the fact is that the Western Australian Premier will ultimately be forced to come to an agreement because there really is no other option.

While it has been Kevin Rudd who has forced the issue of health reform, with the promises made at the last election leading to the Health And Hospital Reform Commission, and culminating in the Council Of Australian Governments agreement, it would never have happened if the Premiers and Chief Ministers remained intransigent. It is a matter of record that New South Wales Premier Kristina Keneally has played in integral role in bringing this agreement about. Aside from being the Chair of the cohort of State and Territory leaders, it has been reported that it was Kristina Keneally who negotiated the deal with Victorian Premier John Brumby. In fact, she was credited in one report as having “dug him out of a hole” after his previous reluctance to sign up for the change to the GST arrangements. Perhaps that’s why the Prime Minister appeared to be a lot more friendly to the New South Wales Premier than he has on previous occasions.

But now that the backslapping and mutual congratulations are behind us, not to mention the rampant public celebrations in the streets, the real question remains: does this agreement actually deliver the genuine reform that we were promised, and which we all know we desperately need? If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, we won’t really know for at least four years, but the significance of what has been decided here should not be underestimated. The financial underpinnings have been put into place to pave the way for the operational reforms that are needed, such as more hospital beds, as well as better access to community based care, mental health care, and aged care.

In that respect, it is the first step of a journey of a thousand miles.

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