Grattan on Friday: With the budget hitting the living so hard, pursuing the dead would be a step too far

michelle grattan

By Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

THE government believes it has had a better week with its dog of a budget, but if so, it hasn’t been due to good performance.

With key measures both causing grief and facing a doubtful future in the Senate, it managed to start a scare that it might try to collect HECS debts from the dead.

Education minister Christopher Pyne told the Australian Financial Review he had no “ideological opposition” to the idea, though it would need proper safeguards. Treasurer Joe Hockey seemed attracted to this stick of political dynamite.

The legislation for various higher education changes was being drafted and apparently the possibility hadn’t been ruled out. The matter was only finally settled when Tony Abbott (unsurprisingly) slapped down the notion, before it could do further harm.

The dead and their debts are safe but the past isn’t entirely deceased. Thanks to good archives, footage of a youthful Hockey, a bright-faced student activist, opposing a Labor government charge and vowing to fight for free education got wide air play.

Apart from such distractions, the government battled on with its advocacy of its unpopular measures, including the Medicare co-payment where it persists with misrepresenting the facts.

A main rationale it advances for the $7 co-payment is to put in a price signal to stop over-use.

But its claim that people on average visit the doctor 11 times a year (initially made by Commission of Audit chairman Tony Shepherd) was early on discredited by fact checking. The correct number is about half that.

This didn’t stop Hockey saying on Sunday: “Labor introduced a co-payment in 1991 which they said at the time was to address the visits at doctor which averaged at that time four visits, now it’s up to 11 visits according to the Commission of Audit.”

Likewise Social Services minister Kevin Andrews told Lateline on Tuesday: “When the Hawke Government looked to introduce a co-payment, they argued at that stage that people were going to the doctor four times a year on average. Today people are going the doctor 11 times a year.”

After he was pulled up by the interviewer for inaccuracy Andrews said “I am relying on what the Health Minister tells me. And we all rely on each other in this.”

Not to worry. Andrews ploughed on. “Whether it’s gone from four to 11 or it’s gone from four to roughly six, there’s still been an increase in it, there’s been a 42 per cent increase in the amount of money that we spend on these things.”

Health Minister Peter Dutton had previously been forced to admit the 11 referred not to how many times people visit the doctor but the number of services provided.

Under questioning about the 11 claim, he said last week, “Now, when you go to a doctor, it’s not just about the item number that the taxpayer provides support to. It’s also about the pathology that’s ordered, it’s about the diagnostics, the X-ray or the CT scan that’s ordered. It’s about the referral off to the specialist…”

For what it’s worth, this surely somewhat undermines the proposition about patients overusing doctors. If the doctor feels the need to order pathology, an X-ray etc, it suggests the patient’s decision to visit in the first place was reasonable (unless the government argues the doctors are ripping off the system by ordering unnecessary tests).

The point is this. Despite the claim about 11 visits having been shown to be wrong, ministers continued to use it, either because it is a useful exaggeration or because they haven’t caught up with the facts. Either way, it’s a bad look.

Although it was another messy week, the mood within Coalition ranks was calm. Before the budget, alarmed backbenchers went public. They are quieter now. West Australian Liberal Dennis Jensen was an exception, strongly attacking the proposed medical research fund and the absence of a coherent approach to science in the budget. But there was no sign of any concerted backbench revolts.

One Liberal says: “The troops are feeling better than a week ago”. Queensland Liberal Warren Entsch, who was very critical pre-budget, said on Thursday, “The message is starting to get out there [to the community]. People don’t like it, but I think people are accepting of it”.

How much the improved spirit reflects reality or the efforts, including in the party room, to rally Coalition MPs will be indicated by the next polls.

In coming weeks the government’s attention will be swinging on to the difficult negotiations to get what it can through the Senate.

Clive Palmer and his Palmer United Party senators-elect, who will be vital after July 1, refused this week to have official talks because the government won’t give PUP the staff Palmer says it needs to study legislation.

He did however happily fraternise with one minister. On Wednesday Malcolm Turnbull dined with Tom Harley (a Liberal party vice president), a business colleague of Harley’s, and also Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson (whom they happened to encounter in a parliamentary car park). Turnbull texted Palmer, with whom he apparently gets on well, inviting him along.

Turnbull’s ministerial colleagues were left to make what they would of this Turnbull-Palmer tete-a-tete.

The party position of Harley, a prominent moderate (these days a rare species), has been under some pressure, with critics trying to argue his business interests put him in the lobbyist category – which he strongly denies – and that he should quit his vice-presidency.

With the Liberal federal council just weeks away, party sources say Abbott has secured his choice for president. Former Howard cabinet minister Richard Alston has the numbers over West Australian Danielle Blain, a close friend of Julie Bishop.

Victorian premier Denis Napthine has backed Alston, despite Alston embarrassing Napthine in a fight over a state preselection. With Victoria having no representation in the federal leadership, at least the presidency (now held by Victorian Alan Stockdale) gives it a direct channel to the PM.

One reason certain Liberals want Alston is they believe he’ll be willing to give Abbott some tough realpolitik advice that he’s not getting enough of at the moment.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with guest Fred Chaney, here.

The Conversation

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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