Deakinites more exercised about health economies than health of the economy

Back in April, when Labor leader Bill Shorten officially launched his party’s campaign for government, he chose to do so from a lounge room in Mitcham, deep in what not so long ago was considered safe Liberal territory. 

It was a cheeky enough move to inspire ABC political writer Annabel Crabb to quip in a tweet that his choice of setting was “the campaign equivalent of walking into Scott Morrison’s house and grabbing a beer from the fridge”.  

A central plank of the policy platform Labor is counting on to win the votes of ordinary households – just like the one which hosted Shorten in Mitcham – is the health care package unveiled during his Budget reply speech.

Safeguarding healthcare, a promise that resounds intimately with so many voters, has been Labor’s ace in the hole before. In its 2016 campaign, the party very nearly sneaked over the line with what the Liberals and media dubbed its Mediscare” campaign. 

This time around, Labor is targeting the human factor once again with a $2.3 billion pledge for a cancer care plan designed to drive down or eliminate patients’ out-of-pocket costs. 

The question is whether Labor’s targeting of healthcare will tip the scales in a seat like Deakin. Despite being historically marginal, it has almost always been in the hands of the Liberal Party. 

At Ringwood Lake Park, a popular local spot with families, questions from The Junction about the specifics of the Budget and the Budget reply drew blank stares.  

But mention healthcare – or Medicare – and there’s no shortage of  strong opinions. 

Ringwood residents Beck and Phil Fowler said out-of-pocket expenses for health were “known to be really terrible”. 

“You’re more likely to pay for it [medical care] than not,” said Beck. 

This refers to the Medicare rebate freezea legacy of both the Labor Party and the Coalition, with the former enacting the freeze in 2013 and the latter announcing it would continue the policy from 2016 through to 2020.  

As the decade has drawn on, the freeze may have gradually thawed, but Deakin residents remain frustrated with healthcare in general.  

But how are these Budget-related promises being seen by health policy experts?  

One senior executive from the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services shared her disappointment at the Government’s policies. Speaking on condition of anonymity, she said the Coalition had “failed to grab the imagination that the Labor Opposition did with their Budget reply. 

“[Canberra] did not replace what a Liberal Coalition Government took out of healthcare years ago.” 

Labor has long accused the Coalition of “cutting” large amounts of money from healthcare and education but although according to a 2016 Election FactCheck, Coalition healthcare funding since 2016 has continued to increase, albeit very sluggishly.  

But this has meant that the healthcare system – particularly public hospitals – has been lacking various technology updates and healthcare reforms. 

Stephen Duckett, a leading health economist from the Grattan Institute, has written in The Conversation that since 2016 the Coalition has a mixed record, at best, on health”. 

He says the 2019-20 Budget shows some improvements with respect to Medicare and he also gives a “strong pass” to pharmaceutical benefits and reforms he says have occurred. But Duckett gives the Government a fail when it comes to public hospital funding over the past four years. There is no significant Budget increase for public hospitals this year, although some are predicted in later years. 

In the 2016 census, Deakin residents’ responses revealed that hospitals were the leading employer in the electorate. So Deakin certainly has a community concerned about healthcare, not least the hospital professionals and patients themselves.  

Anthea van den Bergh is a student in the Master of Journalism program at the University of Melbourne.