Threatening a referendum on anything is a big deal. So why is it that our risk-averse Federal Government has this week ratcheted up the rhetoric that it will do just that?
On the face of it the announcement that the Government is prepared to put its health reform package directly to the people looks like a bold attempt to push the premiers into line and get a deal done. Undoubtedly that is a strong motivation, and observers of US politics will have noticed the boost a struggling administration gets from pushing through a key health reform. Health is a particularly vital issue for all centre-left parties, and in this country it’s certainly been a big one for Labor in just about every poll and focus group ever conducted.
Not only that, the Opposition is missing in action in this area. Iron Man Abbott followed up a disastrous performance in his "debate" with Rudd at the National Press Club with the concession that the Libs are quite close to the Government on health reform and unlikely to kick up much of a fuss. The Opposition looks like it doesn’t want a fight, preferring instead to concentrate its fire on pink batts, border protection, climate, and some smoke and mirrors about public spending leading to higher interest rates.
That disappearing act by Abbott could have neutralised the issue: there is nothing less interesting than a broadly uncontested federal policy, and keeping health on the front page won’t happen unless there is a fight. The Government needs to beat up on someone.
Enter the state premiers — a bunch of the least popular, inertia-ridden malcontents in Australian political history — and they’re acting exactly as you’d expect. Labor premiers continue to run a vague line about an obscure funding formula and the carve-up of GST revenue — not the sort of thing that’s ever going to be the lead yarn on Today Tonight. That argument sounds bureaucratic, and no one understands it, but meanwhile people know they want their hospitals to work better and the feds look to be doing something.
Dare I suggest therefore that it is very much in the interest of the Federal Government not just to threaten a referendum on health but actually go ahead and hold one. Think about this from the perspective of the hardheads in ALP campaign central. In this election year they have a real problem with the states. Labor is a rancid brand in NSW. Queensland has a tired state government seeping poison into the polling of key federal marginals. There is a similar situation with the Lazarus-like government of Mike Rann in South Australia. God knows what’s going on in Tasmania. Federal Labor gets this. There is a need to put a lot of distance between state Labor and the Rudd Government. What better way of doing that than pitched battle with the states timed perfectly to fit in with the federal electoral cycle?
Referendums are often held at the same time as federal elections. The reason for this is simple: the vast cost involved in holding a national plebiscite is greatly reduced by simply handing voters an extra ballot paper when they are required to vote anyway at a normal federal election. Reminding the voters that the Federal Government is fighting a pitched battle with unpopular state governments on a popular Labor issue on the same day they cast their vote for the treasury benches is smart politics. Pushing the issue out to the election also ensures that health remains a story. Wielding a constitutional big stick, Rudd looks strong, active and committed to his agenda.
Given the Opposition has vacated the stage on health why not have a very public fight within the Labor family? If the referendum is just a threat to gain leverage in negotiations it could work — but if the Government really intends to push ahead with it, they may well reap electoral dividends. Either way, it’s difficult to see how Rudd loses on health reform.
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