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24 Aug 2018

Scott Morrison is the new Prime Minister, Peter Dutton’s ambitions have been put on hold (for now), Malcolm Turnbull will leave politics, and it is highly unlikely that Greg Hunt will be back as Health Minister (having run as Deputy to Peter Dutton).

Over the coming hours, days, and weeks, there will be resignations, recriminations, a new front bench, and a new direction for the Coalition Government under Scott Morrison.

But through the murkiness of the Government’s leadership crisis this week one thing is starkly clear – the Coalition has scored a massive own goal on health policy with a Federal election just months away.

To continue the football analogy, the Government has gone into a penalty shootout to decide the World Cup final without a goalkeeper.

Come election day, Labor could well have free shots at goal on public hospital funding, private health insurance, the MBS review, primary care reform, and prevention – just for starters. And that is before Mediscare Mark 2 kicks in.

Yes, Labor is well prepared to repeat the tactics of 2016 to undermine the Coalition’s credibility on health. And the polls provide further ammunition.

With Greg Hunt’s resignation ahead of the leadership spill, the Government lost its third Health Minister since its election win in 2013.

After the co-payment disaster under Peter Dutton and the loss of Sussan Ley after her promising start in the key but complex health portfolio, things were looking pretty good for the Government and the sector with Greg Hunt at the helm.

Minister Hunt had won the trust and confidence of the profession, and had quickly developed a solid knowledge across the breadth and depth of health policy and the major players in the sector.

He was also a master at the PR side of health – lots of new drug announcements, photo ops with kids in hospitals, and a Ministerial office with an open door for advocates, lobbyists, and campaigners, including successive AMA Presidents.

He oversaw the gradual lifting of the Medicare freeze.

He was managing the MBS Review and the PHI Review with end dates in sight for reporting and implementing outcomes.

There was even talk of the Coalition matching Labor’s promise on public hospital funding.

He was fixing the My Health Record legislation to give greater confidence on security and confidentiality – and pledging a big education campaign to convince the Australian people to stay opted-in.

And he was working with the AMA and others to develop a bold new vision for general practice and primary care.

Greg Hunt was across his brief and had strong and friendly working relationships with most of the major health sector players.

The failed Health Care Homes trial and the botched launch of the My Health Record opt-out phase are negatives, however.

Now he is gone, and with him a lot of the hope that genuine meaningful health reform was within reach.

With the Federal election due in the first half of 2019 – but now possibly much earlier – the Coalition must go back to square one to rebuild its health policy credentials.

Sure, the bureaucratic machinery will continue behind the scenes with the various reviews, but there is no longer a credible messenger or an experienced tactician to craft the strategic political health messages that are needed to win votes in the limited time available.

With no obvious strong candidate on the horizon to take over Health, there is an outside chance that new PM Scott Morrison might try to make peace with the warring factions and keep Hunt in the portfolio. We will see.

You need a good spinner to be a winner. It is indeed an own goal.

Published: 24 Aug 2018