An Australian Health Warning for UK MPs
by Mark Horner
Mon 1st Aug 2016
History shows a strong correlation between Australian and British politics. And so the recent warning served up by Australian voters to their members of parliament (MPs) at the July federal election ought to be of interest to UK MPs and voters. And that warning is: 'Thou shall not tamper with our national health service'.
The Australian conservative Liberal National Party (LNP) government, akin to a mix of Thatcher Tory and rural gentry, called an election taking a healthy 14 seat majority in the 150 seat House of Representatives (House of Commons) to the election and hoping to increase that majority on the popularity of its newly appointed leader, Malcolm Turnbull.
And yet all it took for the voters to rip the LNPs hopes to shreds was a scare campaign claiming that the LNP was contemplating privatising the national health service, Medicare. As a result, the LNP barely crawled back into government, clinging to the barest majority of one seat. The Medicare scare campaign, nicknamed “Mediscare”, was mounted late in the campaign by the main opposition party, the Australian Labor Party (ALP). The ALP is akin to a mix of classic British Labour and a fair share of Blair.
Mediscare became an election tsunami. And when Turnbull's mastery of language failed to stem the tide, his sandbagging with the three word slogan of “One Big Lie” fared no better. Whether or not the privatisation claim was one big lie turns on what definition of privatisation one relies on. Troubling the minds of the voters at the 2016 election was the thought that in the 2013 election the LNP promised not to touch Medicare if elected to government. However, that promise was broken at the first opportunity. In the 2014 budget, the LNP government, led then by Tony Abbott, announced that “the age of entitlement is over” and proposed a Medicare co-payment scheme whereby the public would pay a contribution to the private providers of many health services which were hitherto paid in full by the government. The voters and media alike considered that the co-payment scheme fell within the definition of privatisation if for no other reason than the scheme led to a reduction in government contributions to the national health service.
Although the LNP passed the co-payment scheme in the House of Representatives, where it held a majority of seats, the scheme was defeated in the Senate (House of Lords), where the LNP was in a minority. But for the Senate, Medicare would be heading down the path of privatisation and taking a further step at each LNP budget. And so the reassuring 2016 election promise made by Turnbull as the new leader of the LNP government that Medicare would not be privatised cut no slack with voters still hurting from the same promise made and yet broken in 2014 by the same LNP government under Tony Abbott's leadership. The overarching truth is that many swinging voters were not prepared to gamble on whether or not Mediscare was “One Big Lie” - once bitten, twice shy!
The cost of Mediscare in terms of lost LNP seats is estimated to be about 10 seats in the House of Representatives. A raw translation in to the UK parliament, where there are 650 seats, is a loss of about 44 Tory seats. However, a reflective translation might result in forecasting a greater loss of Tory seats of about 60+ seats. A greater loss from a UK scare campaign is forecast because the policy settings in the UK national health service which led to strikes in the workplace and are toxic in an election campaign were not present in Australia. For example, the policy settings around junior doctor contracts and engineering a seven-day-week service. Those settings are clearly complementary to outsourcing health services to the private sector and create even more fertile ground for a privatisation scare campaign than was available in Australia. Had the UK policy settings been present in Australia at the time of the 2016 election, then there is little doubt that the LNP government would have suffered a landslide election defeat.
Clearly, in Australia and the UK there is a disconnect between MPs and voters on the issue of a national health service. MPs are failing to recognise that the national health service is a first-class member of the community which voters and their families look upon as a guardian angel and more so in uncertain economic times. The national health service is the principal place where the public and government meet on a daily basis from the cradle to the grave. And so MPs need to align their perception of the national health service with that of the voters who ultimately control the fate of MPs at the ballot box. Clearly, the Australian 2016 election result is sending out its own health warning and saying to MPs: 'Thou shall not tamper with our national health service'. Or phrased in parliamentary terms, the voters are warning parliamentary candidates to accept a new reality: a national health service is not a discretionary budgetary expense but rather it is a non-discretionary investment made in retaining or gaining a seat in parliament.