Denialism is destructive

First, let’s work from the same page and establish what ‘denialism’ means.

Rational Wiki says: “Denialism is the refusal to accept well-established theory, law, fact or evidence.”

Wikipedia says: “In human behavior, denialism is exhibited by individuals choosing to deny reality as a way to avoid dealing with an uncomfortable truth… It is the refusal to accept an empirically verifiable reality. It is an essentially irrational action that withholds validation of a historical experience or event."

Those definitions are unambiguous.

We see denialism in many arenas. Perhaps the most notable contemporary example in science is denial of anthropogenic global warming. What we are seeing from our federal government during these past weeks is denial of the catastrophic situation it faces in its leadership, stewardship and governance. The level of denial has reached pathological proportions. It has sown the seeds of its own destruction, and now the bitter harvest is about to be reaped.

It is common practice for politicians to make light of the problems they face, the mistakes they make, and the flaws in their number. Reasonable people expect that. So long as the magnitude of their denial sits comfortably around the middle of the bell-shaped curve, they can accept it as ‘normal’ for politicians. But when denialism becomes an outlier on the curve, when it exceeds the bounds of credibility, reasonable people become skeptical, cynical and disbelieving. This is the electorate’s view of our federal government right now.

It’s hard to know where to start, but let’s focus first on our prime minister, temporary though he clearly is.

Voters elect the PM!
In the face of recent leadership tensions, our PM insisted that it was the voters who selected the prime minister, and only they could, and should, remove him. This is not so. The Westminster system delegates this responsibility to the party room of the elected party. How many times did John Howard say that leadership is the gift of the party room? There is no room for argument about it. Yet Abbott denies this, repeatedly. He is either in perpetual denial, or is simply lying.

Once again, this week we had Joe Hockey lecturing his radio host and audience that it is only the people who can remove a PM. But on another station on the same day Scott Morrison insisted that it is only the party room that can, adding: “those who believe otherwise are kidding themselves.” When the PM and his senior ministers cannot agree on such a basic principle, and when after all the discussion that has taken place about the matter, some are still spouting the ‘voters are the only people who can decide’ mantra, such denial of reality has reached dangerous levels, and is destructive for the government as its credibility sinks out of sight.

It’s only a flesh wound
When the call for a leadership spill first surfaced a couple of weeks ago, Abbott passed it off as inconsequential. He insisted that he had the full support of his ministry and the overwhelming support of his backbench. Ministers joined the chorus. History has shown how delusional that assumption was. Thirty-nine of his party room indicated that they would prefer an empty chair. Even among the 61 who supported him, it was known that some were very unhappy with Abbott’s performance. He was put on notice.

Once the spill motion was defeated, Abbott tossed it off. It’s over he insisted, but he was chastened and would change. Although he conceded that he had had a ‘near death’ experience, he wallowed in denial when he indicated that the vote was behind him and that was that! As his denials of the new reality reached new heights, he resembled the dismembered Black Knight, blood spurting from his severed limbs, denying his dilapidated state.

Arising from his fall from grace was the imperative that he do something about his authoritarian PMO and chief of staff. This was ignored, and his confidence in them was restated. Since then, nothing has changed.

Libspill 2 – ‘Just insider Canberra gossip’
Leadership uncertainty emerged once more this week as backbenchers told ABC journalists that Malcolm Turnbull now had enough support to mount a challenge to Abbott, and he should.

Slipping instantly into denial mode, Abbott declared: “This is just speculation”, just “Canberra insider gossip”. He insisted “he and his government were undistracted”, that he was ”getting on with the job as the people expected”, and that he ”enjoyed the full confidence of his colleagues” and indeed “his party room”. Julie Bishop affirmed that what Liberals were telling journalists was “just speculation”, and that she ”hadn’t heard any rumours”. Scott Morrison said that a few backbenchers were doing ”a bit of political bedwetting”, presumably over nothing. On The Drum though, Liberal Kate Carnell, ACCI CEO, was realistic enough to admit that it was "a disaster for everyone".

On ABC radio Greg Hunt enthusiastically embraced Abbott’s denialism when he maintained that all was well. Every question that probed the Abbott leadership was met with denial that anything was wrong. In fact he detailed all the government’s amazing achievements.

Josh Frydenberg extolled Abbott on ABC radio, saying he’s had a lot of ”great achievements”, and has “a plan for the future”. Barnaby Joyce spluttered that he was sure that ”the matter had been dealt with”, and that he had ”complete confidence in Tony Abbott”. Today, Andrew Robb labeled the leadership speculation as ”confected by malcontents”. Confected? Denialism writ large.

No matter who the journalists asked, Abbott’s men all certified that Abbott is doing a great job and has their full support. They are either lying or deluded.

The adults are back – good government has started
Voters, businesspeople and industrialists, all of whom have been waiting for the Abbott government to do what it said it would, must have been relieved to hear from Abbott that 16 months into his first term, good government had at last begun. He did not elaborate on what his government had been doing all this time except to reiterate that it had ‘stopped the boats’, ‘axed the taxes’ and was ‘building the roads of the 21st century’.

For a grown up government of well over a year, it is astonishing to reflect on its progress. Economic growth is sluggish, needing interest rate cuts to get it going; consumer and business confidence are low; as the mining boom subsides, one alternative, manufacturing, is faltering, and manufacturing jobs are being lost; revenue is down and debt is rising; deficits are forecast for ‘as far as the eye can see’; and unemployment is rising inexorably. In 2015, 780,000 are officially unemployed and many more are underemployed. 175,200 are long term unemployed, up from 154,900 last year. In January, there were 533,00 people on Newstart. Where are the 2 million jobs promised over the next decade? We should have seen at least a quarter of a million so far.

Despite such a cluster of failures, government commentators insist that much has been achieved; the economy is doing fine; the future is in good hands. Denial of the stark reality of economic torpor is rife. There is denial of the fact that the hugely unpopular and unfair 2014 budget remains in limbo. But as the gifted economic managers are in charge again, all must be well.

The most realistic comment came today from John Hewson, who asserted that ”changing the jockey won’t help if the horse is crook”. And everyone can see that the horse really is crook. Hewson indulged in no denialism; he simply laid bare the facts.

Denialism is dangerous and destructive, especially in matters economic.

Pesky polls
The polls have been awful for Abbott and the LNP for well over a year. A fortnight ago, the LNP was 14 points behind Labor in Newspoll, a result that sent shivers through those in marginal electorates. This week it was 6 points behind, as it is in most other polls, still a disastrous position. Abbott’s men were enthused though with this magnificent boost in the polls. However, they failed to mention that Abbott’s popularity rating was virtually unchanged: minus 44 had become minus 43! Instead, they focused on the fact that Shorten’s rating had slipped from plus 2 to minus14!

The way LNP ministers and supporters presented these numerical facts was yet another example of denialism of gross proportions.

‘A storm in a teacup’
Rumbles about the Prime Minister’s Office and his chief of staff Peta Credlin have been around since the government was elected. Abbott was supposed to attend to this, but once more this week it flared again. An email from the party honorary treasurer bitterly complaining of the dysfunction of the PMO was leaked to the media. Abbott’s reaction was classic denialism – it was, he said, simply ”a storm in a teacup”; he stood by his staff absolutely. Nothing will change. Abbott, out of loyalty, or simply because of his denialism, will not move against his office, from which he receives his daily marching orders.

The MSM is in denial too
With all the renewed talk of another leadership spill, it would not be unreasonable to expect our media to reflect that. I had to leaf through 38 pages of Friday’s Herald-Sun, the largest selling Murdoch tabloid in this country, to find any reference to federal politics, and that story was about Bill Shorten, ‘the hollow man’! At least the front page of The Age was devoted to politics, but to the Gillian Triggs story, not Libspill 2.

It seems that much of the mainstream print media is also steeped in denialism, ignoring completely the emerging stories of the push for another leadership spill. Perhaps they needed a day to catch breath!

It came as a surprise then to read on Friday evening that John Hartigan, former News Corporation chief, had called for Tony Abbott ”to step aside in the nation's best interest.” Asked if the Prime Minister could turn around his political fortunes he said: “No. I think his opportunity is gone. Even his strongest supporters are now detractors.” A dose of reality, but from one no longer in the Murdoch camp.

At last The Age has caught up with the story in its Saturday edition with a front page splash by Mark Kenny: Big end of town turns on PM, and his page four 'Analysis' that pulls no punches. It simply states that Abbott's position is terminal; it is only a question of when he will be replaced, and of course by whom.

The Herald-Sun has now joined in with an article by Ellen Whinnett: Ministers hold nerve amid pressure from backbenchers to oust the Prime Minister, which is generally sympathetic to Abbott. It begins with words of support from Andrew Robb: “Speaking this morning to Sky News, trade minister Andrew Robb backed Mr Abbott to lead the government at the next election." "He has earned the right to take us to the next election… That is usually the disposition of people when they vote a government in, that they would expect the prime minister to be given the opportunity to play out his program.” Same old denialism about who selects the PM!

So there you have it – rampant denialism from every quarter. What good does it do? It may give some temporary comfort to the perpetrators, but if the people don’t believe what the denialists say, they have forfeited their credibility. The people have seen though them. They are seen as deluded fools, who believe their own rhetoric. They destroy their integrity, their standing, and their authority.

Denialism is destructive. Those who deny reality destroy themselves and all they claim to stand for.

Why do they let denialism swallow them and their party with them?

Ad astra is a retired medical academic who is dismayed at the continuing leadership chaos and the ineffectual governance it is promoting. More about Ad astra here.

Abbott’s master class on political pugilism

When a doyen of political journalism, not given to extravagant language, described Tony Abbott as ‘programmed for aggression’, we knew that at last mainstream journalists have tagged him for what he is – a political pugilist.

Round 1
Writing in The Conversation about the day-long battering of Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs at a Senate Estimates Committee hearing about her Forgotten Children report, Michelle Grattan assessed the Coalition’s approach thus: “It looks to be persecuting the woman who’s stood up for the children. It flaunts its prejudice. Liberal senator Ian Macdonald, chair of the estimates committee, said he hadn’t even read the report. “I don’t waste my time reading documents I am going to take no notice of”!”

Abbott had already condemned the report and accused Professor Triggs of writing a blatantly partisan document, said it was a ‘political stitch up’, that he had no confidence in her, and that the HRC should be ‘ashamed of itself’.

Needing little provocation to unleash his belligerence, George Brandis was soon in full flight at the hearing: “The political impartiality of the commission had been fatally compromised”, he bellowed. She has “lost the confidence of one side of politics”. The Liberal senators echoed his views, while Labor and Greens senators, astonished by the ferocity of the assault, called it for what it was, a shameful attack on a respected messenger.

When it became apparent that Brandis had asked his secretary, Chris Moraitis to seek Triggs’ resignation and offer her another government job if she did resign, non-government committee members were incensed. That matter is now in the hands of the Australian Federal Police to see if Brandis has acted criminally by offering ‘an inducement’.

Not satisfied with the damage he had already done to Professor Triggs and the Commission, attack dog Abbott launched into a full-blown assault in parliament the same day in response to a Shorten question. Incredibly, he insisted he knew nothing of the Brandis ‘offer’, a sign of gross negligence or straight out lying – take your pick. He reiterated that his government had lost confidence in Triggs and the Commission. His anger was visible and palpable, as was the dismay on the faces of his colleagues behind him, some of who later described Abbott’s performance as ‘the last straw’. He was trying to land punches but his ‘whirling dervisher’ routine fooled no one. He looked to be just what he has become – a pathetic punch-drunk pugilist trying for one more knock out blow.

Wisely, Malcolm Turnbull distanced himself from Abbott’s condemnation, instead praising Professor Triggs, and pointing out that the focus should be not on her, but on the children in detention that the Forgotten Children report addressed. His approach was statesman like; Abbott’s was pugilistic.

Ringside Judge's Verdict:
Abbott’s pugilism was starkly on display. What he achieved with his attack on a highly qualified and respected professional lawyer and law academic was an own goal of huge proportions. He managed to alienate not only innumerable women and men who saw his attack as misogynist, but also the countless number who saw him attacking her for defending the very children that were the subject of her report. Soon the Twitter hashtag #istandwithGillianTriggs began trending. Our pugilist thought his bullying had won the bout, but the public knows he lost it badly. Like a brain-damaged boxer, when he comes to and sees the public reaction, he will find himself lying stunned on the canvass still wondering what hit him.

Round 2
As if that was not enough damage for one week, he set about alienating the entire Muslim community with his speech at AFP headquarters in front of six Australian flags where he gave a nationalistic message to ‘newcomers who do not share our values’.

Randa Abdel-Fattah, an award-winning author and lawyer writing in Aljazeera in Tony Abbott's unambiguous anti-Muslim bigotry exposed, had this to say about his speech: “The message was unequivocal and unapologetic. The rhetoric, totalising and dehumanising. Australian Muslims were invested with meanings that positioned them as the antagonists of "Australian values", as exploitative, duplicitous and problematic "guests".

She concluded: “Out of 400,000 Australian Muslims, 110 are known to have joined ISIL. And yet, despite this minuscule ratio, Muslims and their faith are being held to account, clearly framed as the enemy in the ‘war on terror’. Abbott's opinion of Islam and Muslims was laid bare yesterday. Revealing the contempt with which he holds both makes it very clear that relations between this government and the Muslim community have been irreparably damaged.”

Quite apart from angering every Muslim in the country, Abbott dismayed the entire electorate with his scare tactics. Instead of making us feel ‘relaxed and comfortable’ John Howard style, he did his best to scare us witless, unconvincingly reassuring us that he would protect us from the imminent invasion of jihadists who were up to no good, intent on doing us harm. At a cost of $400 million he would collect metadata about their evil intentions, and abort their dastardly actions.

Judge's Verdict:
Abbott thinks he landed another knockout blow that would bolster his popularity, but all he knocked out is the support of the Muslim community, upon whose votes many of his parliamentarians rely for their election. They will be furious as they contemplate loss of their Western Sydney seats. Abbott has scored a double whammy against himself! When the reaction sets in, he will see stars as he looks skyward; he will scarcely know what’s hit him.

Round 3
As if it was not sufficient to alienate large chunks of the community, the previous week he decided to alienate a large chunk of his party room by sacking Philip Ruddock, highly regarded by his colleagues for his long service to the party. Astonished and upset, they wondered if their pugilist leader had taken leave of his senses. Paul Bongiorno, writing in The Saturday Paper in an article: Tony Abbott’s foul-mouthed fury at whip Philip Ruddock, gave us the background: an earlier clash between Abbott and Ruddock about Ruddock’s future had ended in an expletive embellished rejection. In an angry exchange after the spill motion, Abbott accused Ruddock of running dead on him, a proposition Ruddock vehemently rejected. Apart from a few and diminishing number of Abbott sycophants, the rest of the party was appalled and angry.

Judge's Verdict:
Many of his own people now despise him, not publically, but in a more destructive way. They have banked their anger and resentment for another day – the day of retribution.

Round 4
Abbott found himself in yet another stoush after a leak was publicized in the Coalition organ, The Weekend Australian, namely that Abbott had contemplated unilaterally sending 3,500 Australian soldiers to Iraq to fight the IS ‘death cult’ and had approached military leaders to this end. He vehemently discounted the story as ‘false and fanciful’, as did several of his ministers. The story was just as vehemently defended by its author, John Lyons: “On two occasions – once verbally and once by email – we put the question to the Prime Minister’s office and we ran in full their response,” he said. “There’s absolutely no doubt that Tony Abbott made this proposal.” Believe whomever you like, but it does seem incredible that a paper as pro-government as The Australian would fabricate such a story. Knowing Abbott’s propensity to lie, who will the voters believe?

Judge's Verdict:
There was no knockout blow, but the electorate is likely to give The Australian a points decision, leaving Abbott with his arms still flailing.

Round 5
Last week, seeking to save two Australian citizens from an Indonesian firing squad, our diplomacy-challenged PM embarked on what the Indonesians saw as a threat when he tried to barter Australia’s aid at the time of the Aceh tsunami for the Australian lives. The deputy president promptly rejected Abbott’s approach as inappropriate and Julie Bishop was left to mop up the diplomatic mess Abbott had created. Social media in Indonesia set up a coin collection to repay Australia the aid money, and yesterday a protest gathered outside the Australian embassy in Jakarta to express its disdain. Abbott hopes his phone call to Joko Widodo last night might bear fruit. Time will tell.

Judge's Verdict:
Strong man Abbott thought his ‘macho’ stance would bring the Indonesians to their senses, but found himself in a diplomatic brawl, and so far is on the losing side.

Round 6
As if Abbott was not in enough fights already, along comes the leaked email written by Phil Higginson, honorary party treasurer, indicating he will resign because he can no longer tolerate the conflict of interest resulting from Peta Credlin being Abbott’s chief of staff while her husband Brian Loughnane is party director.

“Conflict of interest is a serious problem between the Federal Secretariat ... and the PMO ... and I find the situation, if it weren’t so serious, almost amusing,.. Higginson wrote in a letter that also went to Abbott. “How this party ever let a husband-and-wife team into those two key roles where collegiate competitive tension is mandatory and private consultations between colleagues to see each side is served well, is a complete mystery.”

He said the “persons in our party’s history who had allowed the situation to occur should hang their collective heads in shame. It immediately brings about the cessation of open communications to the federal director, contributes to wooden and unreliable communication and a reluctance towards open and trusting lines of communication, and, dare I say it, retribution."

There is no point in trying to untangle this web of intrigue. Suffice it is to say that it was yet another bout in which Abbott found himself, albeit inadvertently, one he lamely brushed off as ‘a storm in a teacup’, insisting that he had ‘complete faith in his ministers, his colleagues and his staff’, and that was that!

The problem Higginson described was but part of the problem for Abbott; the central problem was the fact that the email was leaked. It is a foretaste of the disaster that awaits Abbott the next time his backbench engages him in a fight.

Judge's Verdict:
Abbott has been bruised and battered by the leak, but not knocked out. He may find the knockout blow is awaiting him down the line, who knows when? Tonight's news suggests it may be quite soon.

This morning Peter Hartcher has joined the chorus. Writing in The Canberra Times, he begins his article Tony Abbott clutching at straws in attempt to protect remaining support base with: “Tony Abbott has taken on the character of a punchdrunk right-wing pugilist…". Expect other journalists to soon sing from the same song sheet.

In the course of just a few days Abbott has managed to get himself into numerous scraps, just as we would expect from a longtime pugilist. But have no doubt; Abbott’s master class on pugilism has many more bouts to come in his always-busy fighting calendar, but only as long as he hangs on as PM.

So far, he has struggled through: bruised, battered and dazed. But he has not yet received a knockout blow. That is coming, but his punch-drunk brain will tell him he can still win. A washed-up pugilist is a sad sight.

If I were Bill Shorten – on healthcare

This is the first in a series on policy, policy that might improve this nation’s situation, policy that Bill Shorten and Labor ought to consider. This time it’s healthcare policy.

While it’s easy for Bill Shorten to sit back and watch Tony Abbott and his government self-destruct, he could accelerate that process by presenting the electorate with alternative policies, visionary policies, policies that had more appeal than the Coalition’s, more inherent merit, more chance of solving our nation’s problems.

As yet, Labor has not provided a convenient forum for those who have a view on policy to contribute to its policy formulation. This is my way of having my say.

I begin with healthcare, an area with which I am familiar.

Australia has an excellent healthcare system, not perfect, but one of the best in the world, and one of the most cost effective. Here we spend about 9.5% of GDP on healthcare; the US spends 17.7%, yet has much inferior heath outcomes.

Its backbone is its primary care services, provided by well-trained general practitioners, or family doctors, as we prefer to call them. To provide specialist services we have some of the most expert consultants in the world. They work in hospitals and in private practice. They are equipped with the highly sophisticated technology. We have a splendid hospital system, a network of nursing home facilities, and a sterling coterie of allied health professionals: nurses, therapists of many kinds, and paramedic personnel.

The pressing question is what will we need in healthcare in the years ahead, and how we might pay for it.

Everyone knows that our population is ageing. Life expectancy at birth is now over eighty-four for women, and over eighty for men. We have a lot of living to do.

Ageing brings in its wake physical and mental illness, dementia and disability. Obesity has become a national epidemic, even among the young. It predisposes to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and even some cancers. Dementia is on the increase, filling our aged care facilities and using more and more healthcare resources. Mental illness and disability are becoming increasingly prevalent.

Medical science and therapeutics are advancing rapidly. They offer more and more sophisticated therapy every year, but at a cost. Telemedicine is coming into its own, offering as it does many benefits, but again at a cost.

Ask people in the street if they believe we deserve the sophisticated healthcare system we have, and see how many say ‘no’. We all want the very best for ourselves, and for our own when they are ill, disabled and demented. Ask how we might pay for it, and wait patiently for the answers.

Clearly the cost of healthcare will rise and rise and rise because excellent healthcare is what the people want and feel they deserve. There is no value in thinking about rationing healthcare – the people simply will not buy it.

Given that our nation, through its governing bodies, has an obligation to provide healthcare to all who need it, how might they pay for it, as indeed they must?

The Abbott government acknowledges the problem, but unsurprisingly has taken its own idiosyncratic approach to financing it. As with so many other areas of government, austerity is its focus. Spending less is seen as the answer; raising more revenue seems to be off the agenda.

Without consulting stakeholders: the AMA, doctors, healthcare workers, patients, or anyone who might have had a worthwhile opinion, then Health Minister Peter Dutton, rated overwhelmingly by over a thousand doctors surveyed by Australian Doctor magazine as ‘the worst health minister in living memory’, thrust his $7 co-payment for GP consultations on an unprepared audience. It was to give them a ‘price signal’, one designed to discourage patients making ‘unnecessary’ visits to their GP.

The reaction was predictable. The AMA, doctors, the public, and most notably the Senate, rejected the idea as poorly thought-through, impractical, and perhaps most importantly, poorly directed. GPs, the core of the healthcare system, became the main target; they were the ones put under the pump. After the patients, the group that would lose the most would be general practitioners, who provide most of the preventive care and chronic disease management and thereby contribute most to keeping people in optimal health and out of the very expensive hospital system. Laudably, the AMA was strident in its resistance to measures that targeted GPs, and insistent that general practice must be supported. It insisted that rather than directing the proceeds of the co-payment to a medical research fund, it should be directed into general practice.

When the Senate rejected this proposal, Abbott ditched the $7 co-payment scheme and unveiled another policy that would see a co-payment of up to $5 levied against patients over the age of 16 who did not have a concession card. Doctors would have the ‘discretion’ to raise prices by up to $5 to cover the reduced rebate. Thereby, costs would be guaranteed to rise. Next, Dutton proposed that there be a lower rebate paid to GPs for consultations under 10 minutes, resulting in less income for short consultations; the $37.05 rebate currently claimed for 6 - 19 minute consultations would be changed so that for consultations under 10 minutes doctors would receive only $16.95 for concessional patients and $11.95 for other patients, an unacceptable and arbitrary reduction of GP income for short consultations, which comprise a substantial proportion of their income.

These proposals cascaded one on top of the other, leaving those affected angry, and the public bewildered. It was a disastrous comedy of errors.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, who train and certify GPs, made its position quite clear in a considered statement: “Many patients are in a position to make a contribution to the cost of their healthcare, and the RACGP believes general practitioners should be able to determine a fair and equitable fee for their services.

“The RACGP therefore supports the right of GPs to set fees that ensure the viability of their practices whilst acknowledging the Government’s right to set the patient rebate for medical services.

“The Government should not determine fees, or mandate out-of-pocket costs, for patient services.”

So where are we at?

Many practices set their fees at a level above the Medicare rebate, and patients attending those practices pay the gap between the fee and the Medicare rebate or what they might receive from their health insurer. Why the government sought to interfere with this system, which has been in place for years, could be attributed to the government’s ideological position of user-pays, ‘price signals’, and of course saving money. The fact that, as with the 2014 budget, those least able to pay the co-payment were the most heavily penalised seemed quite acceptable to this government.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a co-payment, provided it targets those who can afford to pay and are willing to do so. The existing system was working; why change it?

There is a cogent argument that millionaires ought not to be able to avoid paying for medical services simply by attending a practice that bulk-bills every patient. Such a practice seems unfair. Yet such millionaires might claim that since Medicare is at least partly funded from the Medicare levy, and since the levy is a progressive tax that penalises most heavily the higher earners, they are entitled to free healthcare as they have paid for it via their Medicare levy payments. That seems like a good topic for a debate on ethics!

So where is the solution?

In my view, what is needed is increased revenue to fund healthcare, not punitive cuts to GP payments (specialists were not affected at all), not ‘price signals’ to patients to inhibit visits to their GPs. Sussan Ley the new Health Minister has now ‘solved’ the awkward notion of ‘price signals’; they are now ‘value signals’, which she hopes will immediately shift public opinion in their favour!

At present the 1.5% Medicare levy on income covers 55% of healthcare costs. It could cover more; even all costs were it to be increased. The public seems less averse to paying a higher levy or more tax when what it is delivering is apparent. If the public wants the sort of healthcare system we have and will need in the years ahead, are advised what it will cost, are asked to contribute via a higher Medicare levy, and are shown where their money is being spent and on what, in my view the majority would be amenable to such a change.

Of course income tax could be increased to cover the cost of healthcare, but taxpayers resent seeing their taxes disappear out of sight into a black hole; on the other hand, so-called ‘hypothecated’ taxes, where their purpose is clear, such as the Medicare levy, are much more acceptable to them.

They would realise that because the Medicare levy is a progressive tax based on income, it takes more from higher income earners than the lower, and the very lowest earners are exempt. It is a fair tax, as is our progressive income tax system.

Were the levy to be increased gradually, say by one quarter of one per cent per year or two until it reached a level that could properly fund healthcare, which by the way is estimated to climb from $19 billion per year today to $34 billion a year in the next decade to 2024, it might not be felt too acutely by the taxpayer. Most of us can adapt to gradual changes; it is the sudden, unexpected, excessive and unfair changes that people resent and reject.

Do glance through Robyn Oyeniyi’s comprehensive article in the AIMN: Medicare is the wrong target particularly the revealing graphs, one of which shows that GP consultations account for only 10% of healthcare expenditure, yet this sector is what our government targeted! She suggests the Medicare levy be doubled from 1.5% to 3%: “…the easiest solution would be to increase the Medicare levy to 3%...

So if I were Bill Shorten, I would completely abandon the Coalition ploy of penalising patients and their doctors to save money. I would put aside all the apprehension about tax increases that so scare politicians, firmly grasp this prickly nettle, lay out the case for properly funding healthcare to meet our needs, needs that will magnify as we age, explain carefully what benefits will be offered to all who live in this country, then with the help of actuaries spell out what it will cost now and in the years ahead, and finally make clear how gradual increases to the Medicare levy would cover that cost. That would take courage, but the people just might buy it.

But I’m not Bill Shorten; I’m not up for election in 2016; I haven’t got a vindictive opponent waiting to stoke up his ‘Great Big New Tax’ manta to tear Labor down.

Have you got the courage Bill?

Ad astra is a retired medical academic who despairs about the future of our nation under such leadership. More about Ad astra here.

Awaiting Hockey’s Awakening

The electorate is entitled to expect that the nation’s treasurer has a grasp of economics and how to manage our 1.5 trillion dollar economy, but it is left disappointed with our Treasurer-for-the-time-being, Joe Hockey.

Why is he so inept? Why is he taking so long to awaken to the true situation this nation faces? Why has he not awoken to his own limitations? The diagnosis of his disorder is multifaceted; there are several co-morbidities. This piece attempts to describe them.

First, Hockey has an ideological obsession. It may be all his own, but more likely his leader and his hard right colleagues, once labelled ‘dries’, have forced their ideology down his throat.

As far as we can see, the ideology Hockey espouses is a neoliberal one that sees merit in small government, light regulation, low taxes, limited government spending, even austerity, free markets, self-sufficiency and enterprise. It fosters the top end of town and small business, believing that this is where the jobs are created, with benefits trickling down to the middle and lower income earners through job creation, just as described in the song book of the Institute of Public Affairs and the even more radical US Tea Party.

Hockey has not accepted the critique of thoughtful economists such as Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty that the trickle down ideology is flawed. Where applied, it leads to increasing inequality, discord, unrest, and in extreme cases, revolt. The political behaviour of the US Republican Party and its radical offshoot the Tea Party in opposing the progressive policies President Obama has attempted to legislate, has resulted in the hollowing out of the middle class, crippling inequality, and in some areas poor healthcare and stark poverty. A similar result can be expected here if we follow the same ideology, which seems to be the intent of Hockey, Abbott and Cormann.

Hockey divides our world into ‘lifters’, the big end of town and the small business people who mortgage their home to set up modest enterprises, and the ‘leaners’ who sponge on the taxpayer by soaking up welfare entitlements. Some time ago he announced we had reached ‘the end of the age of entitlement’. His 2014 budgetary moves that hit hard those on the lowest incomes and those receiving entitlements, are consistent with that belief.

But he still fails to recognise that 'leaners' exist also in the upper echelons, as Adam Creighton, economics correspondent for The Australian pointed out this week under the headline: Not fair: welfare for the rich. If you can access The Australian online, take a minute or two to read the revelations in this Liberal supporter’s article.

Hockey has a blind spot. He avoids mentioning the perks the wealthy enjoy through generous superannuation taxation arrangements, negative gearing, capital gains tax concessions and fringe benefits tax concessions on novated car leases, concessions that cost the government an estimated $120 billion, projected to rise to $146 billion in 2016-17, equivalent to 8% of GDP or about a third of projected government revenue. In 2013-14 it is estimated that the concessional tax applying to superannuation alone cost the government $35 billion in revenue, projected to rise to $51 billion in 2016-17, or a total of $170 billion over the forward estimates. You can read much more about this forfeited revenue in Ken Wolff’s outstanding fact-packed piece this week on The Political Sword: Abbott continues to tell porkies.

Next, Hockey has a political obsession. It may have been forced on him though by his vindictive leader, hell-bent on demonizing Labor, demeaning its fiscal management, intent on ‘punishing’ this hated opposition, determined to extract maximum political capital.

So what have we heard endlessly out of the mouths of Hockey, Cormann and Abbott himself? ‘We have a financial crisis’, a ‘budget emergency’; we must fix ‘Labor’s debt and deficit disaster’, ‘we must repair the financial mess left by Labor’; ‘Labor always spends more that it earns’, ‘Labor always lives beyond its means; ‘we must live within our means and bring the budget back into balance’, ‘we must bring down surplus budgets’; and ‘Labor cannot manage money; only the Coalition can’, and so on and on. The LNP always paints Labor as fiscal miscreants, and itself as accomplished grown-up managers of the nation’s finances, a view now entrenched in the public’s mind as shown in the latest Essential Report.

Hockey might have had a chance of explaining to the electorate why his ideology was driving him to his punitive 2014 budget but for his messages, and those of Abbott and Cormann, which were always so contaminated with anti-Labor rhetoric that the reasoning behind the budget was obscured. Now the public is beginning to realize that there was no ‘financial crisis’, no ‘budget emergency’. This was simply political hogwash, as balanced economists and commentators testify in article after article. The whole electorate, and even the majority of LNP voters, now realize that they have been hoodwinked, and that the budget of 2014 that hit the less well off and let the wealthy off the hook, was punitive and unfair, and that it was imposed under false pretenses.

Hockey, Abbott and Cormann have been tripped up by their own bloated rhetoric, and have taken a damaging fall in the Senate, and more tellingly in the arena of public opinion.

Finally, Hockey has a problem with the discipline of economics. He seems to be unfamiliar even with Economics 101. One striking feature of this is his unwillingness to acknowledge that Australia currently has a revenue problem, and not exclusively a spending problem, which for years he has insisted has been the case. He exacerbated the problem by forfeiting revenue from the carbon and mining taxes, and now the fall in commodity prices has robbed him of the revenue that the Coalition enjoyed in the halcyon days of the Howard government when revenue poured into its coffers in torrents from the mining boom. So much was there that Howard and Costello were moved to give it to the people in tax breaks and welfare for both the middle and upper classes: the baby bonus, the first home buyers’ grant, superannuation tax breaks and many other perks enjoyed by the wealthy. They created some of the budgetary structural problems we now have to address.

All economists acknowledge that with our ageing population, structural changes must be made to the budget so that the long term needs of the Australian public can be met, particularly for comprehensive health, mental heath, disability and aged care. But they all say that this is a long term project, which does not have to be accomplished in one fell swoop as Hockey and Co. are telling us. Either Hockey doesn’t know this fundamental economic truth, or else he is deliberately setting out to deceive the electorate in the hope of damaging Labor, damaging those who are not traditionally Coalition voters, and gaining a political advantage.

The various political morbidities from which Hockey appears to suffer seem to be ideological, political and economic, a lethal triad from which recovery might not be possible.

When will Hockey wake up to the disabilities that afflict him, the serious limitations that impair his capacity to do his important job? Can there be a Hockey awakening? How long can we wait?

Given his flaws and his incompetent performance as Treasurer, how long can he last as our nation’s top financial and economic officer?

Ad astra is a retired medical academic who is dismayed with this Treasurer's ineffectual management of our faltering economy. More about Ad astra here.