No political party inspires such unity among doctors, consumers and health economists as the Liberal Party.
Around the country, we are again seeing a phenomenon created three decades ago, when most doctors transferred their allegiance to the policies of universal health care that they had once so vigorously opposed. They realised at last that Medicare, the PBS and free public hospitals were not socialism at all but ‒ if allowed to work properly ‒ the basic architecture of a system allowing doctors to make a very decent living while permitting them to treat their patients without interference.
Times changed. Everyone realised that except the Liberals.
These days, when doctors mount a political campaign, as they are again now, it is far more likely to target the conservative side of politics than Labor.
Doctors have marched before against conservative governments. At a national level, the most recent crisis was during the unquiet reigns of Michael Wooldridge and Kay Paterson, two of the most destructive and politically clumsy health ministers of modern times. Between them, these two ministers attempted to eviscerate Medicare, to make the PBS unaffordable to many patients, to reduce GPs’ incomes while greatly increasing their duties, and to make the patient pick up the tab. The called it Medicare Plus. They said it was said to be about making the PBS sustainable and strengthening Medicare.
Iniquities of government policy
Opposition came to a head with the first of the national summits on health policy, organised by Professor John Dwyer, then director of medicine at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney. As the health policy officer for the Australian Consumers’ Commission at the time, I was on the organising group.
The conference was attended by most of the key figures in Australian medicine and health policy, all discussing the iniquities of government policy and ways of doing the job better. After a couple of days of an intense conference at the Old Parliament House in Canberra, a march was organised up the hill to the new building to confront the minister and the government.
About three hundred of the country’s most eminent doctors, health economists, administrators and researchers marched ‒ well, sauntered in a determined manner ‒ behind a big banner. I was on one pole and Francis Sullivan, then the CEO of Catholic Health Australia, was on the other.
I was getting over-excited and kept having flashbacks to the anti-Vietnam demos of my faded youth. I tried to get the professors to chant ‘Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh!’ but they wouldn’t.
... but they felt they should ...
It was a quiet, rather dignified procession by people who felt a bit uncomfortable about doing such a thing but felt they should. When we got as close to the new parliament building as we were allowed to go, there were speeches by politicians, but nobody from the government showed up. Of Kay Paterson there was no sign, either now or at the conference to which she had been invited.
Paterson, by then, was not going to meetings at which she was likely to encounter opposition. She didn’t go the Health Ministers’ Council meetings either, because they were full of Labor state ministers who didn’t like her policies. People who disagreed with her face-to-face ‒ if they got that far ‒ were berated and belittled.
Then we all went home. The conference and its polite little march, though, left their mark. There had been massive media coverage and it helped to distil the public’s profound dissatisfaction with a government which was destroying universal health care ‒ a system which embodies so many of the values of a decent society that it has become one of the ways in which the state of that society is judged.
There had been scandal after scandal ‒ the mass resignation of the government’s key PBS committee (I was a member) and its drug and alcohol committee, the ‘MRI scan scam’, the involvement of Dr Wooldridge with the College of GPs which left the College fighting for its financial life, his brawl with the AMA president, the assault on medical students, the government-induced decline in doctor numbers.
Finally John Howard, who took little interest in health, was forced to do something. Kay Paterson was sacked and replaced as minister by … oh, that’s right. Tony Abbott.
• Dr Nicole Anderson, in Comments: I expect the changes proposed by the Liberals will die in the Senate, as they should. What angers me most is the likes of Brett Whiteley on the front page of yesterday’s Advocate spruiking the deluded benefits of these proposals to patients as if they were a given. It created great stress to reception staff trying to explain to extremely worried patients that we are not charging extra now! People were unnecessarily stressed by such media driven inaccuracies when in reality these threats made by the Liberals may well never materialise. If anything it plainly exposes the Liberals for having little idea how to run health policy, how out of touch they are with their previously adoring voters, and even less about the modern costs of running a quality GP practice.