Shock Tactics

Are the ads made by John Singleton attacking the ALP’s health record telling the whole story? Jennifer Doggett tunes in

Along with the ghosts of Labor leaders past, Julia Gillard now has to contend with ex-Labor supporter and adman John Singleton’s foray into the election campaign. Singleton’s agency Banjo has developed a series of advertisements attacking Labor’s health record on behalf of corporate medical outfit Primary Health Care.

The ads feature a woman dying of cervical cancer — allegedly because she could not afford to have a pap smear due to the Labor Government funding cuts for pathology services.

Of course the suggestion that the Labor (or any) government can be held responsible for an individual death from cancer is outrageous. The complex interplay of factors that result in the tragic situation depicted in the ads cannot be reduced to a single policy decision. It’s also unfair to imply that a Coalition government would have resulted in a better outcome for women at risk of cervical cancer.

The fact is, the Labor Government has done more in a single term to re-orient the health system around primary care and preventive health than the Coalition did in its entire term in office. While Labor’s health reform agenda certainly has significant gaps and limitations, it does at least involve a commitment to preventive health at its core.

The same cannot be said for the Coalition which has largely ignored preventive health in its election health policy and instead has directed resources into increasing the numbers of hospital beds.

Furthermore, the Coalition has said nothing in its health policy that would address the problem of affordability of health care raised in the ads engineered by Singleton. In fact, the Coalition’s policy of diverting funds from primary care programs to individual GPs is likely to increase out-of-pocket costs to consumers, rather than reduce them.

There is no question, given their respective records on health policy and their election platforms, that the Government should be comprehensively beating the Coalition on health.

However, ludicrous and distasteful as the ads are, they highlight why Labor is getting into difficulties in a policy area where it should have a home ground advantage.

A major area of oversight in Labor’s health reform agenda is the issue of patient co-payments for health services. We know from extensive research that co-payments are an issue for many consumers. In particular, they create difficulties for people with chronic conditions and families. The reforms address many of the structural problems within our health system but barely mention out-of-pocket costs for services — despite the powerful influence these have over how consumers access health care.

We know from extensive research that co-payments are an issue for many consumers. In particular, they create difficulties for people with chronic conditions and families with young children who use health services more frequently than average. This is why the Singleton ads may resonate with some sections of the community.

The irony of this is that co-payments are not a significant issue for pap smears, compared with other health care services. Pap smears generally attract only a small payment (and are often free) and are required (for most women) only once every two years. Even if the co-payment has increased over the last term of government, it is hard to see how this increase would create financial hardship for any woman.

People with chronic and complex conditions who require regular tests to monitor their conditions (for example those on anti-coagulant therapy) are much more likely to experience difficulties in affording any out-of-pocket costs associated with pathology services.

But when it comes to advertising, an overweight middle-aged man with heart disease isn’t as powerful as a young woman dying of cancer.

In the end, these ads are unlikely to change any voter’s mind about who should govern the country. But they will be an unnecessary – and largely undeserved – distraction for Labor as we enter the home stretch of the election campaign.