Peanut farmers, rocks, and hard places

It’s becoming clear that the Rudd Government never expected the strong level of opposition to its health funding reforms that John Brumby and the Victorian Government have served up over the course of the last couple of weeks. As Michelle Grattan and David Rood reported in yesterday’s Age, the relationship is quickly becoming toxic. Premier Brumby stepped up and addressed the National Press Club on the topic yesterday, and on Tuesday, even drew parallels with the behaviour of the Prime Minister and the behaviour of Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen in the 1970’s. This was an extraordinary contribution to the debate, considering that Brumby and Rudd are supposedly from the same political party and that Brumby could hardly have cast a greater slur on his northern colleague. The germination of the Prime Minister’s political career in Queensland was arguably in no small part driven by the vulgar excess of the Bjelke-Petersen years.

The Prime Minister seems determined to win the day on health reform, and is prepared to continue upping the ante with more funding and incentives until he gets it, whilst refusing to fundamentally alter the underlying structure of the deal. Whether the Federal Government’s approach in a policy sense is correct seems, sadly, to have degenerated into a second order issue, at least when compared to the political shit fight for ownership over health reform.

This puts Premier Brumby in an invidious position, given the staunchness and nature of his opposition thus far. Brumby has already proposed an alternative plan (e.g. a 50/50 funding split without the 30% loss of GST implied by the Rudd/Roxon plan) that he holds to be a considerably better agreement for all parties. But as the offer on the table from Canberra gets bigger and more attractive, the pressure on the Victorian Premier to bite the bullet increases. The overwhelming majority of the shot in this war is in the Federal Government’s locker. The fraternal politics of the situation for the Labor Party are diabolical. No Labor Premier would want to be remembered as the person responsible for critically undermining a Federal Labor Government about to wage its first election campaign after over a decade of conservative hegemony. Sooner or later, the Victorian Premier will be coerced into caving in by the sheer force of the taxpayer dime on offer, and the broader ramifications of not signing up.

In the next couple of weeks, Brumby is going to have to find a way to be a good little Labor Premier and acquiesce, whilst at least appearing to have won some concessions from those bovver boys and bovver girls from the nation’s capital.

5 thoughts on “Peanut farmers, rocks, and hard places

  1. I’m not so sure.

    It isn’t Brumby’s fault that Rudd is on a searing bender to take almost every area of policy responsibility and put it in the hands of 300,000 landlocked bureaucrats. There are plenty of other, less high profile areas, where this anti-Federation push is also underway, and this comes on top of Howard’s work in the field and the astonishing work choices decision by the High Court.

    I lack the expertise to judge what is most needed in health- money or structural reform. However I have seen plenty of other policy issues where a clear need for funds is smoked over by demands for ‘efficiency reform’ or the like. For example, aren’t hospital beds one of the single starkest needs, and if so isn’t the solution to pay for more hospital beds?

    I wouldn’t be confident that he will bend without some further changes to Rudd’s proposal. I’m not even confident that this is a brinkmanship exercise (to get a better deal then agree), as opposed to a straight out decision to draw the line and tell the Feds to back off.

  2. I don’t necessarily view Brumby as being in the wrong – its just that I think politically speaking, he is running out of legs to stand on if the Feds keep adding zeroes to what they are offering in terms of funding. There’s a very good chance that the bureaucracy within the Victorian Government has a better feel for what represents good health reform policy than those in Canberra. Unfortunately Brumby is still in a weaker bargaining position than Rudd & Roxon.

    I think he will bend – though I agree, I do think there will be further minor changes to the Rudd Government’s proposals.

  3. If Brumby’s utopia is such a wonder, was does he need even more funds, stolen like wheat from a blind fowl, from other states?
    As for Brumby worrying about denting fed Labor, forget it…as someone above said, after Keating, “Never get between a state premier and a bucket of money”.
    Never forget the treachary of 2004 from Lennon and the ra’adnacks down South.
    btw, where are folk like Conroy, Tanner, Gillard, etc fit into all this?
    Of course, if there is a funding imbalance between the feds and the states biased against the states it is wrong for Rudd to withold, unless he is trying to get the minds of some state governments back onto the job using that as atactic.

  4. Paul, yeah I agree, everyone’s playing politics on this. Brumby’s claim that he wants to protect the Victorian health system from the Federal Government because it is probably the best in the country is entirely debatable. Firstly, it’s not entirely conclusive to say that Victoria has the country’s best health system. Secondly, if Victoria’s health system is so good, why they do they need more money from the Federal Government?

    It will be very interesting to see how the COAG meeting plays out today.

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