Diary Australia


8 February 2014

9:00 AM

8 February 2014

9:00 AM

Here in Patterson Lakes — Melbourne’s Mecca for cashed-up tradies and tattooed ladies — Tony Abbott has an image problem. Being a man so often pictured in his swimwear, the consensus of Patto’s body art cognoscenti is that he really could do with a sleeve tatt. Nearby Seaford beach is Melbourne’s most picturesque: the PM and his budgie-smugglers should pay Patto a visit.

Last summer I lamented in the Speccie that Patto’s over-the-top Christmas lights were dimmed by then Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her hated carbon tax. I’m pleased to say that this year’s light shows were bigger, brighter and brassier than ever. In 1975, the Liberal election slogan was ‘Turn on the Lights’: in Patto, Abbott’s handsome election win turned on the Christmas lights in all their garish glory.

In January I became a bête noir of inner-city latte-sippers. Executive director of the Australian Centre for Health Research and former ALP national president Neil Batt (who once likened losing the Tasmanian Labor leadership to defeat in a dwarf-tossing contest) commissioned me to revisit the Hawke government’s short-lived $3.50 co-payment on bulk-billed GP visits. Inflation makes that $6 today and, drawing on a definitive American study, I estimated it would slow the growth of Medicare-subsidised GP services while not deterring people from seeing the doctor if necessary. The paper was released in October, noticed only by the Australian’s economics writer Adam Creighton.

It resurfaced with a vengeance after Christmas, when journalist Samantha Maiden reported Batt gave my paper to the government’s Commission of Audit, albeit alongside hundreds of other private submissions on how the Abbott government can repair the fiscal damage left by its failed Labor predecessors. Her piece, front-paging Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph and featuring prominently in sister papers, was like the Bishop of Bradford commenting on Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson: it broke a taboo on questioning one of Australia’s most sacred policy cows, Medicare. Because the PM didn’t take Maiden’s invitation to refute GP co-payments, and the Commission of Audit is a secretive beastie, my paper became silly season manna for a news-starved media.

Responding to criticism, I said public hospitals could charge at least a matching co-payment for people going to emergency departments when they should be seeing their GPs. When I appeared on the ABC’s News Breakfast programme to discuss this, Aunty’s online correspondent, Latika Bourke, earnestly live-tweeted the interview. Only then I realised how fraught this debate was becoming.

The ABC-Fairfax ‘love media’ lined up critic after critic and the Age, to which I contribute regularly, prissily editorialised that I am taking ‘care’ out of Medicare. Even some Murdoch newspapers joined in: the Brisbane Courier-Mail ran a large photo of your diarist headlined ‘Meet the man who plans to kill free healthcare.’ But if Medicare is about everyone paying according to their means, why shouldn’t those with means pay? That includes Porsche-piloting Patto plumbers.

Indignant lefties hurriedly organised ‘Save Medicare’ rallies around the country (don’t they have anything else to do?) against my proposal and the allegedly complicit Abbott government. I confess to being quietly chuffed: not everyone can say they’ve had people march in the streets against them.

The government’s been evasive on GP co-payments, fuelling the speculation. A courageous exception was the Coalition’s by-election candidate in Griffith, Bill Glasson, hammered by Labor for daring to say GP ‘price signals’ aren’t necessarily bad. Bill’s a long-term friend, whose willingness to put honesty before politics shows why he would be an adornment to parliament. When campaigning in Griffith last week, Julie Bishop distanced my proposal as the work of ‘an entity’. I took this as a backhanded compliment from someone I once worked with: surely it’s better to be an entity than a nonentity?

The Left’s confected hysteria over my modest proposal offers a valuable lesson for a government still uncertain as how to use the bully pulpit of incumbency (although Cabinet’s decision to resist SPC Ardmona’s rent-seeking is encouraging). Like nature, political debate and the relentless media cycle abhor a vacuum: if the government won’t fill it, Abbott-haters and vested interests certainly will. Ministers — not surrogates — must lead the national conversation, and not let events and opponents always do it for them. At least Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews has started his own debate on welfare reform, asking whether Australia’s wealth-devouring benefits system puts bludgers before battlers.

Me and the Missus celebrated Australia Day at a community sausage sizzle hosted by bayside Carrum Sailing Club. Carrum’s no elite yacht club: respected commodore Carol Flanagan is a child-care worker. Beachgoers rocked up in droves for their free feed, some literally wearing their patriotism on their chests as Southern Cross and Aussie flag tattoos. In Patto, Australia Day means barbies, beer, boating, and more beer, and long may it remain so!

Terry Barnes is a Melbourne consultant and a former senior adviser in the Howard government.

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Show comments
  • Sam Chafe

    Terry Barnes is enormously entertaining. I hope we can have more of him.

    • Terry Barnes

      Thank you! Glad you like the piece.