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, Associate Professor Lesley Russell digs into the latest news in pork barrelling, what public servants do behind-the-scenes during election campaigns, and the impact of the Independents.
This wrap also updates the detailed #AusVotesHealth2022 Election Report Card, which now includes the Independents’ policies.
Don’t miss our selection of tweets-not-to-miss, and the listing of health and community stakeholder election policies. Meanwhile, the upcoming events section shows how very hard some in the health sector are working to put climate action on the election agenda.
Lesley Russell writes:
At almost the halfway point in this election campaign, it’s playing out in a very predictable way.
Labor Leader Albanese is in isolation with COVID-19, but the upside of this is that the excellent capabilities of his front bench have been on display.
There’s not been much focus on health and healthcare, but Labor’s announcement that it will look to bring in overseas doctors and nurses to meet the workforce needs of its health and aged care initiatives seems to have annoyed Health Minister Greg Hunt, who has yet to deliver on his October 2021 pledge to bring in 2,000 healthcare professionals.
Clive Palmer is spending big to dominate certain media markets, but his agenda, beyond a profusion of yellow and black advertisements, remains unknown.
And the Independents continue their charge to polling day, with the very real likelihood of upset wins in several seats.
Despite the frenzy, nothing much seems to have changed in the polling.
There’s lots of information about election issues on the Croakey Health Media website (access the articles here) and the #AusVotesHealth2022 Scorecard is being updated regularly.
Liberal and Labor leaders make their pitches to voters
The first Leaders Debate on April 20 was, in my judgement, better than expected, but I doubt it will change many minds.
There were some problems with the way the debate was set up: for whatever undemocratic reason, it was run on Sky News, so was not accessible to many Australians, and Sky News chose an audience of undecided voters who were overwhelmingly white, despite being from the multicultural Brisbane area.
But the debate was civil and more substantive than expected, probably because the questions asked by the audience – about housing affordability, the NDIS, nursing shortages, flood-proofing and the National Integrity Commission – were practical concerns on voters’ minds.
The issues that make up political scare campaigns – who knew the unemployment rate, threatened new taxes, and turning back refugees who arrive by boat – were raised by the politicians, not the audience.
The audience (and me) gave the debate to Albanese over Morrison by five percentage points, but 25 percent of these undecided voters left the debate still undecided, unimpressed or both.
Here are some links into how the pundits saw the debate:
Katherine Murphy at The Guardian: Amid sharp questions in leaders’ debate, Morrison stayed relentlessly on message while Albanese showed he was listening.
Experts for The Conversation: No magic moments: 3 Australian politics experts on Morrison and Albanese’s first election debate.
And there’s a fact check of the debate from RMIT / ABC Fact check here.
If the results from the first Leaders’ Debate are a gauge for the nation, there are some 4.6 million people among Australia’s 17.2 million voters yet to decide who they will vote for and / or which political party deserves their support.
That helps explain the significant number of seats still in play. These include Reid, Gilmore and Parramatta in NSW; Corangamite, McEwen and Chisholm in Victoria; Swan, Pearce and Hasluck in WA; Longman, Leichhardt and Brisbane in Queensland; and Bass, Braddon and Lyons in Tasmania.
And then there’s the push by the “Teal Independents” into formerly safe Liberal-held seats such as North Sydney, Wentworth, Goldstein and Kooyong. The attention given to these independents and their policies has probably come at the expense of the Greens.
Since the debate, the The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age commissioned an opinion piece from both Morrison and Albanese, asking them to specifically address undecided voters and to lay out their visions for Australia’s future. Of course neither could avoid emphasising the risks presented by their opponents.
You can read Morrison’s article here.
And Albanese’s article here.
Do you find these persuasive?
As journalist Laura Tingle recently pointed out in an article for ABC News, without a vision for the future and substantive policy debates about how to get there, dog whistling politics takes over. And I fear that is where we are headed.
The very pertinent and much needed policies put forward by Labor this past week – training more Aboriginal Health Workers, addressing the crisis situation at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in the management of veterans’ needs, and revitalising and rebuilding the NDIS have not received the attention they deserve (see Croakey’s #AusVotesHealth2022 Scorecard).
There’s been much more media focus on regrettable tweets about transgender athletes and the politicisation of trans women in sport. This at a time when the mental health needs of young people of all genders and sexuality should be at the forefront of political agendas.
Tingle accurately assessed the situation: “[undecided voters] just want governments to do things. And to do them competently.”
Is this the Independents’ election?
Unless you are an avid reader of ballot papers, you are likely unaware of the huge numbers of Australians who, every election cycle, put themselves forward as candidates of very minor parties you have probably never heard of or as independents, with no party affiliations.
This election the Independents really stand out, for several reasons, not least because they could hold the balance of power in the next government. Polls suggest it may be difficult for Labor or the Coalition to form a government in their own right, meaning they may have to bargain with increasingly popular minor parties and independents.
This year there is a plethora of choices – on the populist right (Pauline Hanson’s One Nation (PHON) and Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party (UAP); on the left (the Greens; the centrist Central Alliance; the civil libertarian Reason Party); and those with no party affiliations. Of these, the so-called Teal (and many other colours) Independents stand out.
This latter group – composed largely of professional women running against more moderate Liberal men in well-to-do, inner-city electorates (but see also the profiles of candidates such as Kate Hook in Calare, Carolyn Heise in Cowper, Alex Dyson in Wannon, Rob Priestly in Nicholls) – is particularly threatening for the Coalition.
The agendas of these Independents share many common elements, including climate change action, addressing the impacts of the pandemic, the need for a formal mechanism to investigate and deal with corruption at the federal level, and a more compassionate and inclusive approach to government and government programs.
These are increasingly the issues that voters say matter, and failure to address them, along with Morrison’s low standing with female voters, could cost him the election. But we should recognise that these progressive candidates are also shaking things up for Labor and the Greens.
In tight election races, even the ballot draw matters. If people simply vote 1, 2, 3, … down the ballot paper, then it matters whether you are the first or the last candidate.
So Treasury Frydenberg, already in a tight race in Kooyong, would be disappointed that he drew #7 position on the ballot, and his Independent challenger Dr Monique Ryan won the first slot.
At this point you would need to be very brave to predict the election night results. The betting sites are probably as accurate as the polls.
But I think one thing is certain – and here I am agreeing with former Queensland Premier, Peter Beattie – unless the major parties change, Independent candidates will be increasingly part of government in the future.
Handover of government mechanisms
The election of a new government and the appointment of new ministers (even when there is no change in political parties) requires efficient and effective handover mechanisms. Incoming ministers are immediately responsible for their portfolios and need comprehensive and frank briefings.
With the current government formally in caretaker mode (this began when the House of Representatives was dissolved), departmental officials are busy with the triennial task of preparing an incoming government brief (IGB). These are usually referred to as the “red” (for Labor) and “blue” (for the Coalition) books.
There are in fact three briefing books, and they don’t necessarily have colours. One is for a returned government, with the same minister. A second is for a returned government, but with a new portfolio minister. The third is for a new government. The briefing requirements are necessarily different for each. Only one book will reach its intended destination.
The information provided will be crafted around a narrative of continuity, incremental improvements, election commitments and fresh opportunities.
The information provided for a new government is more comprehensive – it will also include an instruction manual for a novice prime minister who will be facing the most daunting learning curve of his career.
You can read more about this process and what is included in this article from Crikey in 2016.
It would be intriguing to know the content of these briefings and their differences, but they are generally regarded as Cabinet documents and not publicly available.
However, in 2010 the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet partly released the content of its briefings to Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Treasury also released its 2010 incoming government briefing. (I have not been able to determine if Gillard made that decision.)
You can read Treasury’s 2013 response to an FOI request for these briefings, making the case for why they should not be released, here.
Treasury did release some 2019 information in response to an FOI request, but you will see that so much material has been redacted as to make it un-useful.
The other responsibility of a new government is to be across all the details of the budget and the economic environment.
The Charter of Budget Honesty Act 1998 requires Treasury and Finance to release publicly a Pre‑election Economic and Fiscal Outlook report (PEFO) within 10 days of the issue of the writs for a general election.
The purpose of the PEFO is to provide updated information on the economic and fiscal outlook, based on current Government decisions and external issues. It does not include the impact of election commitments which are not decisions of Government and are costed separately during the election campaign.
Policy decisions taken since the budget have worsened the bottom line by $714 million over the four years to 2025-26. Much of this additional money is earmarked for Morrison Government election commitments to local infrastructure projects, with an emphasis on sporting facilities and roads. (More on this in the section on pork-barrelling.)
The PEFO identifies the pandemic in China, the war in Ukraine and higher global interest rates that have pushed up the cost of federal government debt as risks ahead.
These issues and others have led to commentary about the tough Budget issues that lie ahead for whichever party wins government.
It is increasingly obvious as I fill in the #AusVotesHealth2022 Scorecard that we are well and truly into the pork-barrelling/hoping to buy votes stage of the election.
That is reinforced by a slew of recent media articles.
See for example:
Sydney Morning Herald: Coalition has promised voters $833m a day as it outspends Labor in campaign mode
Jessica Irvine in the Sydney Morning Herald: A ‘cancer on our democracy’: How to fix Australia’s pork-barrelling crisis.
If you really want to see how the distribution of election goodies plays out at the local level, then follow the announcements that are made daily by the party leaders and ministers and then turn to the media outlets and Facebook pages of the backbenchers.
Be warned: it’s almost impossible to keep track of announcements and re-announcements, let alone determine what is justified spending and value for money.
Some recent announcements (eg Veterans Wellbeing Hubs for the Coalition and Urgent Care Clinics for Labor) are clearly designed so they can be allocated out during the campaign.
It should be recognised that not all of this apparent generosity is bad. As per a recent discussion on the ABC’s The Drum (you can watch it here), many of the initiatives that are funded are needed, and delivering for the electorate is what voters expect of their representatives. It’s a shame that the politicians wait until there’s an election to deliver.
The Australian National Audit Office’s report found that grants awarded under the fund were “not appropriately informed by departmental briefings”, with more than half delivered without a “clear basis for the decision”. A total of $1.12m in grant funding was paid out to five separate applicants despite them having projects deemed “ineligible” under the program’s guidelines.
Undeterred, the Morrison Government recently added $50 million to the fund and is now handing out larger than usual grants.
See, for example, this media release from Senator Sarah Henderson (Lib).
Such (apparent) pork barrelling delivers two problems: firstly, that other, more needed initiatives are not funded and secondly, that there is little evidence this actually delivers votes.
Fact check: COVID-19 deaths avoided
Among the spiel of numbers regularly reeled off by Prime Minister Morrison as supposed evidence of his Government’s achievements is that his pandemic policies have saved 40,000 lives (it’s been upped from the 30,000 he used to claim late last year).
This claim is based on applying the average OECD death rate to the Australian population. The OECD rate includes some very high rates from countries like the United States and middle-income countries like Mexico and Poland, so it may not be a good comparator.
There are two recent fact checks on this.
The Guardian, 12 April 2022: Factcheck: did Scott Morrison really save 40,000 lives from Covid? Verdict: Morrison’s figure is accurate but it obscures Australia’s more recent COVID-19 deaths.
AAP Fact check, 18 April 2022: Did the government’s COVID-19 policies really save 40,000 Australian lives?
Verdict: Misleading. Experts say Australia’s low death rate is due to a mixture of state and federal government policy and non-government factors.
There is now a new factor to consider – deaths from long-COVID. Mortality data from the ABS just released show that the number of Australian deaths attributed to long-COVID has doubled over the past two months, even as deaths from COVID-19 have begun to decline after the Omicron wave.
Modelling from the Institute for Health Information at Deakin University, done before the Omicron wave hit, estimated that Australia could expect between 17,377 and 22,559 long-COVID cases. The expected figures must now be much higher.
There is also some evidence that in the Omicron wave may result in an increase in deaths from all causes. Up until January 2022, Australia has not experienced the excess mortality seen in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom.
To date we have heard nothing in the election campaign about what could and should be done to research, manage and treat long-COVID.
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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We thank and acknowledge contributors to this compilation, including Charles Maskell-Knight and Dr Anny Huang.