Choosing their villains
State premiers and big business have a lot in common these days. Neither is much liked at the moment. State governments, especially Labor ones (which is all of them except Western Australia), are regarded as incompetent. Big business isn't believed to be incompetent - just selfish. For most people, "big business" means either the Big Four banks that price gouge their customers, or mining companies that have got lucky on the China boom.
Anyone foolish enough to try to defend state governments or big business has a hard time of it. Of course Kristina Keneally and Anna Bligh will say they're doing a good job running their hospitals. And of course chief executives will say their companies should not be regulated or taxed more than they already are.
The Prime Minister wants to take control of public hospitals from the states and the Opposition Leader wants to increase taxes on big business to fund a paid parental leave scheme.
Although their proposals are quite different in their nature and scope, they bear a striking similarity. Each is a policy in search of a villain. It looks as though Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott started by calculating who it was they wanted to criticise and then made up a policy to justify their attack.
The evidence for such a suspicion isn't hard to find, at least as it applies to Rudd Since his health announcement, he has spent at least as much time complaining about how badly state governments run their hospitals as he has explaining the virtues of his alternative.
In addition to the Labor and coalition plans being aimed at soft targets, both Rudd and Abbott are taking on those who, in normal circumstances, would be thought of as their allies.
Early in his term, Rudd made much of "a new era in co-operative federal-state relations". It was an era lasting all of 18 months. Attacking the premiers from his own side shows the PM is willing to put the health of the nation ahead of Labor Party politics. If voters in NSW and Queensland are frustrated that they can't change their state governments because the next state elections are too distant, Rudd will do the next best thing. He'll take power over hospitals away from the premiers and give it to Canberra.
For Abbott, forcing big business to pay more taxes to fund a seemingly popular policy would have appeared an attractive move politically. It shows that the coalition is not in thrall to big business lobby groups. And it satisfies the call for revenge from a number of coalition members of parliament in the wake of the perception that too many business leaders are in lockstep with the Labor government on industrial relations, emissions trading and the stimulus package.
Another similarity between the plans is that both leaders have made promises they claim taxpayers won't have to pay for. According to Rudd, the problems in national health policy will be fixed by having Canberra bureaucrats instead of state government bureaucrats manage hospital budgets. Apparently health reform can be achieved without pain to the taxpayer.
And Abbott suggests parents will get the benefit of paid parental leave without taxpayers footing the bill Instead, big business will cover the costs of the scheme.
If the Rudd and Abbott plans sound too easy, that's because they are.
Additional taxes on business - regardless of the size of the business - are ultimately paid for by employees and consumers. Contrary to popular belief, not all the profits made by big business go to paying million-dollar bonuses to executives.
In the absence of structural reform that gives incentives for individuals to manage their own health care, rearranging the funding arrangements for hospitals will amount to little more than changing who it is that fills in the paperwork.
Perhaps the most positive thing to say about it is that at least a federal takeover of hospitals is consistent with Labor policy. Centralising practically every function of state governments is an ambition of Labor prime ministers that long predates Rudd In 1944, John Curtin lost a referendum to give the commonwealth control over health. It's no coincidence that Rudd's health announcement came in the same week that he revealed his national schools curriculum.
There aren't many easier targets than state premiers and big business. Which is part of the reason why Rudd went after one last week, and Abbott after the other this week.