Issue 7 / 16 August 2010

It could have been a suburban school hall circa 1985 rather than Canberra’s National Press Club in the middle of an election campaign.

Health Minister Nicola Roxon was every inch the school prefect, earnest and sincere when presenting her own arguments, deeply concerned when listening to opponent Peter Dutton’s.

I’d swear she’d been practising that worried look in front of the mirror for the past week.

It wasn’t that Dutton was one of the naughty boys who’d been caught smoking behind the toilets – though Prefect Roxon did accuse him and his party of being in bed with big tobacco over plain packaging for cigarettes – more that he’d been up all night struggling with his maths homework and still hadn’t got it right.

The remarkably expressionless Dutton ploughed on in the face of his opponent’s disappointment, diligently repeating the party line on Labor waste.

As the pair tussled over hospital funding, general practice infrastructure, and which side had done more to increase numbers of doctors and nurses, there were no major gaffes, no personal insults, no fiery moments.

It was all a bit boring really.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking wistfully of the 2007 election health debate when then minister Tony Abbott arrived half an hour late and proceeded to swear at Roxon for noticing.

The stand-out health policy this time around has to be the Coalition’s bucketload of cash for mental health.

With Labor’s vague promise to make mental health a priority in its second term remarkable only for its lack of detail, even Roxon acknowledged the Opposition plan had garnered strong support.

Maybe she had a point when she accused the other side of “cherry picking” – making a few dramatic announcements in areas designed to get attention, rather than coming up with a coherent plan for the entire system – though cherry picking is pretty much what oppositions do.

The real test always comes if a party is lucky enough to get the chance to implement its promises (or come up with creative explanations for why it can’t).

The Coalition’s $1.5 billion for mental health is supposed to come from cost savings elsewhere in the health system: cuts to “bureaucracy”, which always sound good until you get down to the nitty gritty of deciding exactly which programs you’re going to scrap.

As Dutton will swiftly discover if his lot wins Saturday’s election, there are never any easy cuts in health.

… And the election tweet of the week comes from The Chaser’s Chas Licciardello: “I would have thought Gillard would be more open to mental health funding after the Latham episode.”

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer. She has worked for Melbourne’s The Age and contributed to publications including the BMJ, The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald. She is also a former news and features editor with Australian Doctor magazine. Her book, The sex factory, on the science of sex and gender will be published by UNSW Press later this year.

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