Ben Eltham | The Best Ministers Come In Plain Packaging



Gillard’s front bench is looking more and more vulnerable. A key exception is Nicola Roxon who continues to push through important reforms. Ben Eltham on Labor’s most effective operator.

First published by New Matlida here.

It’s been a long cold winter for Julia Gillard’s Government. Labor is behind in the polls and has been for months — if an election had been held this weekend, Tony Abbott and the Coalition would have romped home in a 1996-style landslide.

On issue after issue, the Government has struggled to attract swinging voters, or even shore up its crumbling base. Possum Comitatus wrote last week about an interesting pattern that has emerged this year. He pointed out that “the Coalition has increased their lead over the ALP in relatively short bursts, followed by a small contraction or consolidation in the Coalition vote, before going on to enjoy another burst of support.”

Labor’s inability to win even a small victory here or there has reinforced a general feeling of malaise about the Gillard Government, with many backbenchers now resigned to a long hard slog towards a likely election defeat sometime in the next three years.

Meanwhile, the tireless Tony Abbott continues to revel in his role as the Government’s chief tormentor. Every day he seems to appear before the TV cameras with new variation on his simple messages: this is a bad government; big new tax; stop the boats; pick up the phone to Nauru. Labor constantly struggles to combat Abbott’s ruthless simplicity.

The Government’s only glimmer of hope right now is the electoral timetable. If a week is a long time in politics, then the two years to 2013, when the next election is scheduled to be held, is an eternity. In the last Parliament, we saw three opposition leaders and two prime ministers in one term of office. Who knows what the next 24 months might bring?

Julia Gillard and her dwindling band of supporters therefore insist that Labor’s only option is to keep going, plodding forward with its signature policies like the carbon tax, and focusing on the long game.

Paradoxically, when Labor does focus on the long game and simply gets on with governing, it often performs much better than it is generally given credit for. An example over recent weeks has been the plain packaging debate concerning cigarettes.

Plain packaging is a debate most would expect the government to be able to win. Cigarettes kill. It seems obvious that making cigarettes less attractive will save lives. There’s plenty of peer-reviewed research to support this case.

Know of any other issues where the Government enjoyed an intuitive advantage, backed up by plenty of evidence? Climate change springs to mind. So does the economic stimulus. On both of these issues, the Government comprehensively failed to frame the debate to its advantage, allowing its opponents to dominate the way the public understood the issues. Labor’s parlous position in the opinion polls is in many ways a direct result.

But with plain packaging, Labor seems to be winning the debate. Despite a vigorous PR campaign from the big tobacco companies and even threats of World Trade Organisation lawsuits, polls suggest that the public supports the move, and the Government has even been able to exert some pressure on the Opposition over the issue of tobacco donations to the Liberal Party.

The credit for the Government’s efforts on plain packaging must largely be given to Health Minister Nicola Roxon. She may not have the electoral appeal of Kevin Rudd or Penny Wong’s ability to stay calm under pressure, but Roxon seems to possess a quality enjoyed by few in this Labor government: tenacity.

Health is one of toughest portfolios in any government. One of the biggest areas of federal government spending, it also involves matters of life and death. Bedevilled by complex Commonwealth-state relationships, powerful industry lobby groups and worsening long-term trends for diseases like dementia, diabetes and obesity, health has more than its fair share of “wicked problems”.

But in nearly four years in office as Federal Health Minister, Roxon has slowly and methodically delivered on some significant policy reforms. The health and hospitals reform package — which was in reality a federal-state hospitals funding reform — may not have been the kind of sweeping sector-wide policy reform that many were hoping for, but it was certainly a step in the right direction, promising to deliver nearly $20 billion in new funding for public hospitals over the next four years. Nor was it an easy deal to get state premiers to sign up to — particularly after the election of conservative state governments in Western Australia and Victoria. But Roxon has stuck to her guns and recently inked a deal on a key plank in the new policy framework: a national deal to set up a new hospital watchdog called the National Health Performance Authority.

This is no small achievement: hospital errors kill thousands of Australians every year, so lifting national standards up to the levels of our best-performing hospitals has the potential to save many lives.

Likewise, in public and primary health, Roxon has patiently worked through Sisyphean difficulties to deliver some significant achievements, including more funding for mental health in the recent budget, and more funding for primary health. This year, the first Medicare Locals are finally rolling out, a belated achievement for a government that promised them in the 2007 election campaign, but a political plus none-the-less.

Again, it can be argued that Medicare Locals fall short of the best-practice policy — and some health policy experts such as Tim Woodruff and Jennifer Doggett have indeed argued that Medicare Locals could go much further in terms of their commitment to integrating allied health in the community. But there is no doubt that Medicare Locals represent the potential for real improvement in the way primary care is delivered, particularly in comparison with the current situation, which is splintered and GP-centric.

But it is on issues such as alcohol and tobacco where Roxon has been at her best. Despite strong pressure from deep-pocketed industry lobby groups, Roxon has stood firm on steep increases to tobacco and alcohol taxes and on tougher packaging laws for cigarettes. Throughout, she has maintained a simple and credible message about minimising harm. Roxon has won these arguments, delivering better outcomes for the Australian community.

Another way of assessing Roxon’s peformance is to judge her against her shadow spokesperson. Does anyone even know Peter Dutton is the Liberal spokesman on Health? In contrast, Scott Morrison is well on his way to ruining Chris Bowen’s career.

At a time when the Government struggles to maintain a coherent line on issues like live cattle exports or whether children will be sent to Malaysia, the rest of the government could do a lot worse than take heed of Nicola Roxon. The Member for Gellibrand can comfortably lay claim to being Labor’s most effective front-bencher.

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