Australian Labor ‘will always be better’ than Coalition on health, Anthony Albanese says

Anthony Albanese has said Labor “will always be better” on health and education than the Coalition, in a signal the opposition will outbid the Morrison government on health funding leading into the 2022 federal election.

© Provided by The Guardian
Photograph: Rohan Thomson/Getty Images

The Labor leader made the comments at the National Press Club on Tuesday after a speech committing to a “strong, properly funded public health system, with Medicare as its backbone”.


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Scott Morrison has urged Australians to “push through” the Omicron wave, but with a surge of cases over summer and new records set for hospitalisations and deaths, health has emerged as a weak spot for the Coalition despite lower Covid mortality in Australia than internationally.

In October the Morrison government rejected a united call from all states and territories for an immediate funding boost to help them manage the “unrelenting strain” on health and hospital systems from the pandemic, labelling it “shakedown politics”.

Related: Labor promises $440m to help students and teachers manage challenges of pandemic

On Tuesday Albanese argued that the greatest lesson from the Covid-19 pandemic was “what a grave mistake it would be to take our public health system and Medicare for granted”.

“Right now, our health workers are paying the price for some of the most serious public policy failures our country has seen,” he said. “They are overworked. They are exhausted.”

Albanese said Australians “owe it to them to study what the pandemic has revealed about the vulnerabilities of our public health system – and strengthen it for the future”.

“Right now, we could strengthen both the safety net and our sense that we are all in this together by making rapid antigen tests available free to every Australian through Medicare.”

“Labor will always strengthen Medicare … a Labor government will deal with the damage inflicted by nine long years of neglect from this Liberal government.

“Protecting the health of Australians will be a defining issue in the upcoming election. And a critical choice will be this: who do you trust to keep Medicare safe?”

The comments raise the spectre of another election fought on trust over health funding, after Labor’s controversial claim the Coalition intended to privatise Medicare helped achieve an against-the-odds swing to the opposition. The Coalition labelled the claim a “cold-blooded lie”.

Asked if Labor will provide more funding to hospitals, Albanese said: “Labor will always be better on health and education than our opponent.

“We’ve already announced a range of policies out there. And there will be more to come.”

Albanese said Labor saw the need for “an assessment” of the Covid response, but it would be appropriate to determine its form after “the heat of the pandemic” had passed.

“Whether that be a royal commission or some form of inquiry, that will need to happen.”

Albanese suggested another priority, if elected, would be “federation reform,” but declined to give specifics because “you can’t say that you want to work with the states and territories and then impose things from the commonwealth”.

“We need a clearer delineation of who is responsible for what,” he said, arguing that despite funding and regulating aged care, the commonwealth still sought to blame states for outcomes in aged care.

Although no progress has been made at national cabinet since the commonwealth rejected the hospital funding call, states including Victoria and Queensland will continue to press the issue.

Related: Slo-Mo’s summer of missteps means Australian politics has ceased to be a game | Peter Lewis

Stephen Duckett, director of the health and aged care program at the Grattan Institute, recommended a new long-term hospital funding agreement with state governments.

He decried what he called “patch-up jobs” of short-term funding arrangements in recent years under the Coalition, saying the health system needed certainty into the future.

“The Covid partnership agreement for 50% funding was a time-limited, narrowly defined agreement,” Duckett told Guardian Australia.

“It doesn’t apply to 2022, when there will be a care deficit to deal with: of people who had their care deferred, elective procedures cancelled, or not fronted up to a GP because of Covid.

“The underlying problems we’re seeing in front of us are the states don’t think the commonwealth is being fair to them. They’re having to shoulder more of the burden and think it should be 50-50.”

Tim Woodruff, chair of the Australian Health Care Reform Alliance, called the previous funding arrangement “grossly inadequate” and suggested the 50-50 funding split be maintained.

“[The hospital system] was struggling before Covid hit. We had long waiting lists if you had Medicare, and short waiting lists if you had private health insurance. The pressure with Covid has become immense,” he said.

But Duckett warned that Labor “needs to be really careful” about their promises because “anything in hospitals, it costs a lot of money”.

While states will push for more hospital funding, federal Labor is expected to announce measures to reduce out-of-pocket costs to attend the GP.

Labor MP and former GP Mike Freelander told Guardian Australia he “strongly believes” the three areas of greatest priority are poor access and long wait lists for dental care, the gap costs of specialist care, and “making sure people can access GPs at a reasonable cost”.

“People are losing their access to affordable care in outer metropolitan areas of Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne, and rural and regional areas,” he said.

Freelander noted increased access to GPs would take pressure off hospitals, while more funding for hospital outpatient clinics would help reduce costs of specialist care.

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