Each Wednesday during the election campaign, Croakey is publishing a rolling wrap of health and election news. We welcome submissions and suggestions.
In this wrap, Jennifer Doggett, covers the second leaders’ debate, housing issues, mental health and media bias. She also reports on questions from experts and commentators about the invisibility of COVID-19 and health inequality in the campaign.
Don’t miss our selection of tweets-not-to-miss, campaign shockers, and listings of health and community stakeholder election policies, as well as upcoming events.
ICYMI, here are part one (13 April), part two (20 April), part three (27 April) and part four (4 May) of this series. Also see the latest edition of the #AusVotesHealth2022 election report card and The Accountability Report.
Jennifer Doggett writes:
As the campaign begins its final countdown and pre-polling opens, reports of dirty tricks, dog whistles and media bias are increasing, reducing the focus on the issues that matter to the electorate in what was already a “policy-lite” campaign.
Week three of the campaign kicked off with an unedifying second leaders’ debate which was hosted by the Nine Network, and described by the ABC as “full of accusations and acrimony”.
Both leaders appeared to mislead the audience on aged care, the Prime Minister by claiming credit for exposing the problems within the sector, and the Opposition Leader by confusing Labor’s position on the Royal Commission into Aged Care with the earlier banking royal commission.
In response to Mr Morrison’s claim during the debate that he ‘blew the whistle’ on aged care, Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation Federal Secretary Annie Butler released a statement saying, “the Prime Minister’s claim is not only astonishing, it’s offensive.”
“Aged care nurses and workers have been campaigning to fix the crisis in aged care for years. In 2016 the ANMF presented comprehensive research, which outlined what was needed to fix chronic understaffing in the sector, to the Government – this was ignored. We conducted a cost-benefit analysis, which outlined the costs of implementing safe staffing ratios with increased wages and the benefits that would be gained, and developed an implementation plan to guide the process of addressing the core problems in the sector, which were, again, ignored,” she said.
On Twitter, many journalists joined the criticism of the second’s debate’s conduct (as per below), with some lamenting that ABC had been excluded from hosting any of the three election debates; the final one was hosted on 11 May by Channel Seven.
In an effort to reduce any daylight between it and the Government on health, Labor has raced to match the Coalition’s spending commitments in a range of areas, including assisted reproductive technology services, embryo storage and rural and regional doctors. Labor also committed to deliver additional perinatal mental health and wellbeing services.
The LNP made a raft of commitments on cancer, including funding for a pilot program and linear accelerator in Northern Tasmania and a new comprehensive cancer centre in South Australia. It also committed $16.6m (already announced as part of the 2022-23 Budget) to establish a National Allergy Council and $24m for a geriatric urgent care centre at Flinders University.
Housing affordability was in the news this week with the Reserve Bank’s announcement of a 0.25 point increase in interest rates which could lead many Australians into mortgage stress.
Labor’s proposed shared equity housing scheme, which would provide people on low incomes with a commonwealth equity contribution of up to 40% of the purchase price of a new home, received some support this week from NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet.
At a joint press conference with the Prime Minister, the Premier appeared to reject Morrison’s criticism of the scheme and indicated that his Government would consider supporting it.
“I’m open to all ideas in relation to how we can drive home ownership. We cannot have an Australia that can’t house its children,” he said.
Greens leader Adam Bandt entered the debate promoting his party’s commitment to build one million homes, including affordable $300,000 homes for people locked out of the housing market, low-income housing with rent capped at 25 percent of people’s income, and new rentals.
The LNP targeted rural and regional mental health last week, with announcements of a new Headspace centre for North Geelong and Bannockburn and Head to Health centres for Armadale, Reid, Canterbury, Maranoa, Onkaparinga, Burnie, Devonport and Burt. Tasmania also received commitments of $5.2m for suicide prevention and mental health services.
Both Adelaide and Sydney received funding for $14m for a new mental health centre in Liverpool and South Australia received $12.6m for a new child mental health service in Adelaide and $13.7m for suicide prevention activities.
While the Coalition attracted criticism from advocates for transgender equality and continued playing to its conservative Christian constituency, it also announced $4.2 million (over three years) for services to support the mental health and wellbeing of LGBTIQ+ Australians.
Labor also focussed on mental health this week, announcing that it would reverse recent cuts to telehealth psychiatric consultations for people living in regional and rural Australia.
Climate and health
The health sector continued vigorous advocacy for climate action, often in collaboration with other stakeholders.
Preference deals came under scrutiny this week when Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party (UAP) accidently published its how-to-vote cards which will encourage supporters to preference the Liberals ahead of Labor in 30 of 34 marginal seats, including Chisholm, Reid and Bass.
This contradicts previous promises from Palmer that his party would put all incumbents last and will give the Coalition a boost in these seats, particularly in Queensland where support for the UAP is stronger than in the southern states.
The “curious case” of the missing COVID-19 policies in the election campaign was raised by a number of public health experts and commentators, in particular in response to data showing that Australia currently has one of the highest numbers of cases per capita in the world.
Speaking on the ABC, immunologist Professor Peter Doherty, biostatistician Professor Adrian Estermann and Adjunct Professor Terry Slevin, CEO of the Public Health Association, discussed why neither major party appears to want to talk about their COVID plans.
Estermann said the vast majority of the Australian population are “over it” and that therefore the government has to devolve the risk to individuals.
Slevin said it was “genuine madness” that the pandemic was not front and centre of the election debate.
“I’m thoroughly mystified. COVID-19 was the defining issue of the 46th parliament and those aspiring to run the 47th parliament need to put forward ideas how to deal with this pandemic and any in the future,” he said.
Doherty said that the government has decided the pandemic is over but “forgot to tell the virus”, he rejected the idea that Australians have decided just to live with the virus, “we simply have not thought it through,” he said.
The need for greater policy attention on COVID-19 was highlighted by research from the Centre for Social Impact which argued that the pandemic provides the opportunity for bold policy reform to address existing which exclude marginalised groups.
Public Health Association of Australia Election scorecard
The Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) released its election scorecard, reporting on how each party’s policies align with the PHAA Federal Election Campaign seven key focus areas.
The scorecard puts the Greens just in front of Labor, with the Coalition a long way behind, mostly due to its lack of policy commitments on climate, preventive health and political donation reform.
On the Health Report last week, Dr Norman Swan, highlighted that, like COVID, health inequality was an important health issue that appeared to be off the agenda in the election campaign.
Swan discussed an analysis of premature mortality mapped onto federal electorates showing that there’s great disparity between the risk of dying early most and least advantaged areas.
Professor John Glover, from the Public Health Information Development Unit at Torrens University, said that there has been a drop in premature death over past 30 years of 50 percent but that over this time the gap between the risk of premature death between most and least advantaged areas has doubled.
His research shows that Australia’s wealthiest electorate, Bradfield on Sydney’s North Shore, has a premature mortality rate of 44 percent less than national average. This contrasts with the rate in Lingiari in the Northern Territory, Australia’s most disadvantaged electorate, which was 2.1 times the national average. Even within Sydney there are electorates, such as Lindsay, with a premature mortality rate 20 percent above national average.
Glover contrasted Australia’s lack of action on this issue with a concerted effort being made in the UK where the Conservative government has taken steps to address disparities in health outcomes between regions.
Health economist, Professor Philip Clarke, from Oxford University, said that health inequality had been on the agenda of UK governments since the Blair government of the 1990s. The current conservative government has been focussed on this issue since winning
Previously Labor “red wall” seats and adopting a “levelling up” agenda.
He noted that the areas where Donald Trump did best in 2016 were those with highest mortality rate but which were trending upwards and suggested that political parties should take note of this as it suggests that inequality is an issue that can impact voters and change the political geography.
The lack of focus on health inequality is even more surprising given the attention to cost-of-living pressures during the campaign.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ health
The Teals and other Independents
Independents have been in the spotlight this election, in particular the group of “Teal” independents supported by the Climate 200 initiative.
These candidates are mostly targeting affluent inner city seats which have traditionally been held by Liberal candidates, with recent polling suggesting they have a real chance to knock of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in Kooyong and Tim Wilson in Goldstein.
If the Teals hold the balance of power after the election they could potentially have a significant influence over the next government.
It’s not clear exactly how this would play out in health, but clearly this would involve action on climate change (which would have widespread health benefits). Other priorities among the Teals who have released health policies include a focus on preventive health, workforce and mental health. Several also support a Royal Commission into Australia’s COVID response.
It’s also worth noting that two of the “Teal Independents” are doctors: Dr Monique Ryan, who is challenging Frydenberg in Kooyong and Dr Sophie Scamps, running against Jason Falinski in MacKellar (Croakey has covered Scamps’ campaign here).
Many of the Independents have a connection to health, in one way or another.
Calls to address media bias in the election campaign (and the Australian media landscape more generally) ramped up this week, and advocates for better funding and support for the ABC also hit the hustings.
Writing in the Guardian, Former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, criticised the Coalition for cutting the ABC’s Budget and outlined the direct and indirect ways in which the government has “domesticated” the national broadcaster.
A new app “Murdoch Watch” was launched by the Australians for a Murdoch Royal Commission. The app allows people to report factually incorrect or biased reporting in the Murdoch media in order to build a case for an investigation into the influence of the media giant.
CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD ON ANDROID DEVICES (Samsung Galaxy, Google Pixel, TCL, Huawei, Motorola and any device that uses the Google Play store)
CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD APPLE DEVICES (iPhone and iPad)
Rural and remote workforce
Australia’s health workforce crisis was under the spotlight as stakeholder groups responded to commitments from the major parties to address workforce shortages.
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians welcomed the Government’s commitment on GPs and allied healthcare workers in regional areas but said that increasing access to specialists through expanding specialist training programs is also important.
RACP President-elect Dr Jacqueline Small said “….there remains a significant shortage of non-GP specialists in many rural and regional areas, and we encourage the Government to expand the program to allow for more positions for specialists to be trained.”
Rural Doctors Association of Queensland supported a consumer, community and clinician collaboration to overcome barriers to care in rural areas, calling on federal politicians and candidates to ‘ensure investment in, and prioritisation of, our health system aligns with its value and importance to our society and takes into account the diverse needs of all people.’
A proposal from the Group of Eight to increase medical school places was supported by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (who also pointed out that more was needed) criticised by the Australian Medical Association (AMA) and the Australian Medical Students’ Association (AMSA) which called the proposal “premature” saying that more medical school places doesn’t necessarily mean more doctors where they are needed.
AMA President Dr Omar Khorshid said while medical workforce shortages, including of specialist and GP services, are having a real impact on patients in some parts of the country, Australia has a medical school graduation rate well above the OECD average and that “a return to a boom/bust approach to medical workforce decisions” was not the answer.
Meanwhile the Rural Doctors Association of Australia and the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine (ACRRM) welcomed the two major parties’ election commitment of an additional $146 million in funding to boost the number of doctors in rural, remote and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
ACRRM President, Dr Sarah Chalmers says the announcements acknowledge that access to high-quality healthcare for these communities is an important election issue.
“With more than one-third of Australians living in regional, rural and remote Australia, their healthcare needs must be high on the agenda of all political parties and candidates,” Dr Chalmers said.
The harm caused to trans and gender diverse people by the political strategies and statements of some politicians and candidates is disgraceful.
Links to election policies
Council on the Ageing (COTA) Australia agenda for the next Government and Parliament
Joint statement by Australia’s suicide prevention sector, representing 40-plus organisations
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Croakey thanks and acknowledges donors to our public interest journalism funding pool who have helped support this article.
We thank and acknowledge contributors to this compilation, including Dr Anny Huang and Alison Barrett.