Prime Minister John Howard has surprised many with a string of recent statements indicating that he is already looking at Australian politics well beyond a war in Iraq.
He hasn’t quite asked Cabinet not to mention the war, but has urged his top Ministers to concentrate their minds on the domestic agenda over the next few months and to make sure his frontbench is keyed into the concerns of ordinary Australians.
According to the thinking inside the PM’s office, whether the war lasts a week, three months, whether it goes well or badly, or does not occur at all, will be largely immaterial to the domestic situation in 12 months time.
At some point the media and Australians in general will turn their focus back on to issues closer to home and there are plenty of potential problems bubbling away beneath the surface which can emerge and do considerable harm to the Government’s electoral standing.
Howard, once branded as a risk-averse politician, has backed his own judgement on Iraq. This opinion consists of the belief that, regardless of what opinion polls say about Australia participating in a US-led war, the general public would eventually come around to his view that serious and decisive action had to be taken on Saddam Hussein.
Whether the reasons for taking that view were properly and fully articulated by Howard or George W. Bush for that matter, is another question. However, as Labor’s position has been confused and constantly shifting, Howard would appear to have won the politics of the debate regardless of the ultimate outcome.
In the meantime, however, petrol prices have been going up, share prices have been going down, farmers and more recently shoppers have been financially burnt by the drought, more and more doctors have been walking away from Medicare bulk billing, and the Government faces a host of difficult decisions on higher education through to budget spending.
It is difficult to underestimate, for example, the seriousness of the Medicare problem which could turn out to be a flash point for the Government, yet even Howard seems oblivious to the potential problems ahead.
Health has always been the Coalition’s Achilles heel, arguably costing it government a couple of times during the 1980s, yet even in government it has never been able to build an alternative comprehensive policy agenda to replace Labor’s universal Medicare scheme.
The Howard Government has prided itself on lifting private health insurance rates, and for giving people a tax break for their health insurance premiums.
Indeed the policy has been one of the most popular with the Howard heartland voters. But it has actually achieved very little.
Yet premiums continue to outpace inflation, and people who actually claim for hospital expenses very often wonder whether they were not better off going to the public system where they could have got equal treatment for nothing.
On the other side of the ledger, the Government must surely be starting to realise that the rapid downward spiral of Medicare bulk billing is not a universal problem. In affluent parts of the major cities, particularly Melbourne and Sydney (where doctors like to live), there are still plenty of bulk billing doctors. Yet in less affluent rural Australia and the not-so-trendy parts of the city, doctors and cartels of doctors can charge what they like.
In simple terms this means the less well-off in the community are paying more for their health care than the rich because of government policy. Eventually the people will revolt against this kind of inequity.
The Government claims it is trying its darndest to get more doctors in country areas by giving them cash incentives to move, but even if they do, any doctor who tries to bulk bill in a country town is soon shunned.
Treasurer Peter Costello has already warned that there is no money in the Budget to stop the bulk billing decline.
Unfortunately, Health Minister Kay Patterson is not the strongest advocate in the Cabinet and her newness to the job makes her easy pickings for other Ministers with higher priorities for government spending.
Senator Patterson recently ended the rorting of health insurance funds which were providing cover for members so they could claim gym shoes, CDs and tents, but this is simply fiddling with the more fundamental problem.
Whether Labor can capitalise on the Government’s problem areas is another matter.
Labor too has a fairly weak health spokesman. Stephen Smith is an almost perfect cardboard cut-out of the modern-day cautious poll-driven Labor politician. He is reluctant to drop the rebate in its entirety but has “hinted” that he may make it more difficult to get.
Interestingly, health is not even on the Howard Government’s top 10 priorities policy issues, but given the problems outlined above the Prime Minister should make an urgent amendment to his domestic agenda list.