Nicola Roxon, who (in her own words) has recently swapped the Cabinet table for the kitchen table, dished up a feast of political insight, analysis and ruthlessly candid commentary of Labor’s years in power in her John Button Memorial Lecture tonight. The full text is worth a read at ABC’s The Drum but the following offers a brief summary on the health-related content of the speech.
The former Health Minister and Attorney General offered 10 housekeeping tips for members of a future Labor Government – although they could just as easily apply to the current Coalition administration.
These include focussing on people’s lives as the end point of good policy and maintaining a high level view – spending time and energy on the things that really matter. She criticised former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd for his excessive focus on policy minutiae saying “If you can’t describe what you are doing in general terms, and its purpose, then either the policy isn’t right, or you’ve descended into detail most people don’t need and probably don’t want to know”.
Roxon cited as examples in the health portfolio where she felt this was achieved as the regional cancer centres and plain packaging of cigarettes.
However, she provided a robust criticism of the political processes driving the development and implementation of the health reform agenda. According to Roxon, Kevin Rudd was interested in health reform and wanted to be involved. However, his inability to delegate and lack of organisation, resulted in poor decisions being made and communicated.
In her speech Roxon argued that “good leaders are good delegators – If they don’t delegate, they and their governments ultimately drown in less important matters.” She said that Rudd was unable to effectively delegate to his Ministers and that “over six years some big political problems could’ve been stemmed earlier if this approach had been taken…There was no avenue for ministers to bring genuinely difficult issues, where there were legitimately tricky calls to be made, to Cabinet for a real discussion. Health and climate change were the two longest running “non-discussions” for the first term of Government, with some other contentious policies getting only cursory cabinet approval at the last minute. There was a reticence by the Prime Minister for big strategic calls to be made by Cabinet, or sufficiently in advance to prepare properly.”
The poor organisation of Rudd’s Office during his time as Prime Minister was also nominated by Roxon as key problem in the effective implementation of the health reform agenda. She reports that ongoing problems with disorganisation, last minute schedule changes and lack of focus which gradually eroded the goodwill within the health sector towards the Government for its commitment to improving the health system.
“Doctors and nurses also adored having the PM at their hospital and swelled with pride at the interest he showed. I suspect this is why none of them complained about late notice, constantly changing days to visit and being chronically late. Once the hospital we were scheduled to visit the following day was changed en route in the PM’s plane. We went instead to a city hundreds of kilometres away, and had to pay for over 20 hotel rooms near the original hospital as we cancelled too late for a refund,” she said.
This failure to resolve key issues and to develop and stick to a workable reform plan was identified by Roxon as hampering the successful implementation of the reforms. The former Health Minister expressed her frustration that valuable opportunities had been lost to capitalise on the groundswell of support for Labor after the 2007 election by working with the sector to implement much-needed reforms.
Roxon vividly described the chaos surrounding the Rudd regime and the ‘implementation paralysis’ that seemed to set in around major issues. If her description of the dysfunctional nature of the Prime Minister’s Office under Rudd is correct – and she has little to gain now by attacking Rudd frivolously – it is a miracle that anything progressed at all during this period.
The challenge for Labor now is to listen to Roxon carefully and seriously address the issues she raises as they seek to redesign and rebuild their party. If Peter Dutton has any sense, he should also file her ‘10 housekeeping tips’ along with his incoming Minister’s briefs, and use them as he leads the development of his Government’s health agenda.