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Health key in knife-edge election

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The Coalition is likely to win the Federal Election but it could well find itself having to form a minority government, a panel of the nation’s leading political journalists told the AMA National Conference.

The journalists, Channel Ten political editor Paul Bongiorno, Australian Financial Review political editor Laura Tingle, News.com national political editor Malcolm Farr, news.com health reporter Sue Dunlevy, and West Australian political editor Andrew Probyn, said that after going through five Prime Ministers in little more than three years, the electorate was hankering for stability.

“It doesn’t feel like a shift is on,” Ms Tingle said. “There is a lack of enthusiasm for change.”

Mr Probyn said he expected the Coalition would win by a narrow three-seat margin at the 2 July poll, but others thought there was a strong chance Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would fall short of an absolute majority and have to negotiate with minor parties and independent MPs to form government.

Ms Tingle said in Queensland it was unclear which way the voters who supported the Palmer United Party at the last election would go, and the absence of Campbell Newman from the political scene added to the uncertainty, while in South Australia the Nick Xenophon Team was polling very strongly.

“It makes it very difficult to tell what is going to happen,” she said.

Mr Farr said the fact it was a double dissolution election added to the uncertainty, and warned that changes to Senate voting rules would help some independent candidates with a well-established profile, like Pauline Hanson.

Labor and the Greens have campaigned hard on health – both have made a $2.4 billion commitment to end the Medicare rebate freeze, and Greens have promised an extra $4 billion for public hospitals.

The AMA and other medical groups are pushing hard for the Coalition to match the other parties and ditch the rebate freeze.

But Mr Probyn said the Government was “utterly intent on locking in savings”.

Ms Dunlevy warned the Government was unlikely to announce any big health reforms ahead of the election, and the best that health groups could hope for was to stem the flow of cuts.

She said the campaign being waged against the rebate freeze by the AMA, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and others was unlikely to bite politically while bulk billing rates remained at or near record levels.

“Bulk billing is at its highest level ever, which is why the freeze is not becoming a big election issue,” she said. “So far you have got threats to ending bulk billing, but voters are not seeing it yet.”

In recent years the AMA has been successful in lobbying against several government measures, including twice forcing the Abbott Government to ditch plans for a patient co-payment.

The panel said the AMA’s effectiveness stemmed from the way it had positioned itself as a forceful advocate for the interests of patients.

“People are now saying that doctors are not only on their own side, but also on the side of patients,” Mr Bongiorno said. “The way doctors have stood up to politicians, particularly on asylum seekers, has won them a lot of respect.”

Ms Dunlevy said the lesson was that “it is not about your profession, it is about the patient”.

“If what you are asking for is going to benefit patients, you are on the right track,” she said.

Adrian Rollins

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