Will someone wake me from this nightmare?


Just when it seemed the orgy of spending excess on both sides of politics in election 2004 couldn’t get any worse, Latham Labor announces a blank cheque for private health operators to keep old Australians on life support in private hospital beds for ever more. It’s odds on the private health industry’s next push will be for universal, publicly-paid cryogenic suspension technology, handily available to extend the twilight of grateful grey voters forever.

Medicare Gold prioritises age over need. It will inevitably redistribute public health dollars to the wealthy, directly contradicting Labor’s schools policy which so successfully does the reverse. The Labor leader seems conflicted about whether he’s the Sheriff of Nottingham or Robin Hood.

One thing is certain, however, about Medicare Gold. It’s gold all right: rivers of gold for the private health industry.

What is Mark Latham doing? Medicare Gold is policy straight from the Labor twilight zone, way back before the Hawke and Keating governments glommed onto the crucial social justice principle that, given public dollars are not infinite, public spending should be focussed on those who need it most.

If Latham wins on Saturday, you and I will be picking up the tab for Kerry Packer’s stays at St Vincent’s Private once he hits the magical 75. The policy may even persuade Rupert Murdoch to repatriate: Murdoch qualifies for Mark’s Medicare Gold giveaway in 2006.

Call me old fashioned but shouldn’t Labor insist that the well-heeled pay their own private health care bills so government can provide more and better help to those who really need it?

Medicare Gold is an open-ended public financial promise for the hospital costs of one of the fastest growing proportions of the Australian population – rocket fuel to the intergenerational equity problems previously identified by Treasury and others.

Health costs are practitioner-driven. Without the discipline of a dominant public sector offering in each part of the health system, spiralling costs are inevitable. Private hospitals booming as the elderly take up Latham’s guarantee to pick up their tab will make overall health costs much harder to rein in.

Everyone’s got their blind spots; god knows I’ve got mine. But if Latham was going to have a Whitlam flashback this election, why couldn’t it have been to restore one degree’s worth of universal free tertiary education to all Australians, instead of open-ended private hospital care for the burgeoning 75 years-plus age band?

That would have delivered life long benefits to Australians as well as major productivity benefits to the nation. Beleaguered tertiary institutions would bloom with the infusion of money that Latham’s promising to spend smoothing the pillow of old, ailing rich people. Hell, academics might even have ended up being properly paid for the first time in decades.

Election 2004 has been to fiscal rectitude what Fellini films are to celibacy: foreign concepts. This is no surprise from John Howard whom we all expect to lie, cheat and (figuratively) steal his way toward maintaining office. But from Labor, the party people expect to husband public resources carefully in a way that ensures just social outcomes, Medicare Gold is an embarrassing and inexplicable lapse. Politically Latham’s gone for the doctor. Personally I think someone should call in the stewards.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.