Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Health Minister Greg Hunt are oh so sensitive to any suggestion that they are anything but the best friends Medicare ever had.
Still reeling from Labor’s “Medi-scare” campaign which they credit for their near death experience at last year’s election, they are desperate to prevent a relapse.
But the scare is proving very resistant to their treatment.
Claims by Mr Hunt that he has ended Labor’s freeze on Medicare rebates are simply dismissed by Labor as too little, too slowly.
Mr Hunt boasts that he has invested $ 1 billion in Medicare indexation. But information from the Parliamentary Budget Office shows the full impact of the freeze is $3.2 billion – that still leaves $2.2 billion worth of cuts in place over four years.
This was a point Labor’s Bill Shorten made at the Australian Medical Association’s national conference on Friday.
Mr Shorten likened the four-year slow thaw as an attempt to buy the doctors’ silence. “Cash for No Comment,” he called it.
In parliament Mr Hunt lashed out at the Labor leader for “a politically low and vile comment. An insult to doctors.”
But not all the doctors at the conference saw it that way. Some privately thanked Mr Shorten for belling the cat and weren’t afraid to share their views with journalists.
AMA president Dr Michael Gannon is certainly more accommodating than his recent predecessors. He makes no apologies for not taking a harder line. He sees welcoming the government’s rebate slow thaw as being better than leaving it in the freezer.
Unbowed, Mr Shorten asked the PM if keeping the freeze on 113 different types of Medicare services till 2020 only proved “the Liberal government can’t be trusted with Medicare.”
An indignant Mr Turnbull reeled off figures to show more investment in pharmaceuticals and research. He trumpeted signed formal agreements with separate medical bodies that “guarantee” Medicare.
“We are defending the health of Australians, Labor is abusing it.” He railed.
Why then, Labor asked, after a strategic leak timed to coincide with senate estimates has the government set up a secret taskforce to cut funding to public hospitals?
The Fairfax papers carried the story of high powered departmental group giving consideration to a new “Commonwealth Hospital Benefit” payment system. It would abolish the private health insurance rebate.
The Health Minister and the Prime Minster categorically rejected the idea. It will never become their government’s policy.
Fine, Labor retorted, why was it still being discussed by senior bureaucrats?
Secretary of the Department of Health, Martin Bowls told senate estimates, he would not walk away from his bureaucrats working for the future of Medicare.
Of course that’s what departments do. Work up policy ideas. But the fact that Labor got wind of this one, was potent political ammunition.
The Liberals are fighting on Labor’s turf and the latest Newspoll shows as a result it is very hard to close the Opposition’s entrenched six-point lead.
While Malcolm Turnbull has raised his personal approval by ten points over the past two months, he is still deep in negative territory. His net approval is minus 19. Statistically in lockstep with an improving Bill Shorten on minus 20.
While the prime minister remains in negative territory he will struggle to lift his party, according to polling analyst Andrew Catsaras. The trend, at least, will give him some encouragement.
But Bill Shorten’s ability to pick the winning side of an argument is demonstrated in the poll.
His preferred method of repairing the budget by increasing the Medicare levy only on those earning above $87,000 is supported by 56 percent of voters.
Tony Abbott, on Radio 2GB noted that the polls haven’t shifted. “So look, I guess there’s been nothing to shift them.”
Indeed, and that’s got to be a worry.