…that Tony Abbott has recently mused about a Federal Government take-over of public hospitals? When Federal Governments have toyed with the idea of nationalising funding for hospital and medical services in the past, however, it has ended in bitter disputes with organised medicine – in particular, the Australian Medical Association (AMA). The issue is contentious partly because many doctors operate as private practitioners within the public hospital system.
The Chifley Labor government came into conflict with doctors when they tried to introduce a comprehensive medical service in Australia in 1948. The Bill was enabling legislation, and because it lacked details on how the service would operate, organised medicine mounted a public campaign claiming the ALP was turning Australia into a socialist state that ‘differed only in degree from a Communist dictatorship’. More detailed plans to regulate medical services were tabled in 1949, but were scrapped when Menzies won the election later that year.
Gough Whitlam resurrected the idea of nationalising health as opposition leader in 1967. He promoted national health insurance (Medibank) instead of nationalising hospitals, but this proposal also raised the ire of many doctors. In an attempt to kerb growing public support for Medibank, the AMA mounted a campaign that urged people to ‘fight socialised medicine and protect the freedom of doctors and patients’. On this occasion, the AMA was beaten but only after a long and acrimonious battle.
Some may think today’s health policy environment is less ideologically charged. The AMA’s response to the ALP’s Medicare Gold proposal in 2004 – described as an attempt to introduce ‘a health scheme that would nationalise the private sector’ – indicates that the AMA are still wary.
Abbott should take heed of history and prepare himself well if he wants to nationalise Australia’s hospitals.
Australian Health Policy Institute
at The University of Sydney