It’s no coincidence that Victoria’s premier, Daniel Andrews, has been standing alongside his health minister Mary-Anne Thomas at 12 of the 13 press conferences he’s held in the past six weeks. Andrews wants health to be – quite literally – front and centre as the state heads to the polls in November.
This is not unusual for the Labor party heading to an election, but unlike previous campaigns, the Victorian Coalition is also pledging to spend billions on the health system, which their leader, Matthew Guy, has described as “sick” prior to the pandemic.
“It’s about the healthcare system, stupid,” he told a Liberal party event last week, echoing Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign strategy about the economy.
In recent months in parliament, Guy has routinely detailed triple-zero delays, ambulance ramping, overcrowding in emergency departments and lengthy elective surgery waitlists – blaming it all on “mismanagement and neglect” by Andrews, who has been premier or health minister for 12 of the past 16 years.
Andrews has instead blamed the pandemic for the system’s woes. Indeed, Victoria is not the only state battling these problems.
But while both parties are making a lot of noise spruiking their relative cures for the health system’s ailments, not everyone is convinced by the details that trail in the wake of each press conference.
On Sunday, standing beside health minister Mary-Anne Thomas, Andrews announced the locations of five new “GP-led, priority primary-care centres” to alleviate the stress on emergency department.
These centres, Andrews said, would operate seven days a week, 16 hours a day, handling conditions such as mild infections, fractures and burns.
But further inspection reveals that the clinics are not new. Rather, they are existing GP clinics that have signed up to be remodelled into primary-care centres.
Rural Doctors Association of Victoria president Rob Phair said with the exception of one centre in Ballarat, all are located in Melbourne. All but one is in safe Labor territory.
“It’s not five new centres; it’s existing practices. The press release bears no resemblance to what’s actually happening and it remains a mystery how they’ll staff them,” he told Guardian Australia.
“It does nothing for those in regional and rural Victoria, for the 15,000 people in Mildura who have lost their GP clinic, who are left without any primary care at all.”
On Tuesday, Andrews and Thomas were at the Austin hospital announcing $105m for new equipment, including CT scanners, MRIs and X-ray units.
Two days later, at the Royal Children’s hospital, they spruiked previously announced GP respiratory clinics designed specifically for children (two of them are about to open). A baby named Angus stole the show – although thankfully no politicians attempted to kiss him.
Less than an hour later, Victorian Opposition leader Guy held a press conference in the exact spot and vowed to build a new $900m children’s hospital in Melbourne’s rapidly expanding west.
The proposed 275-bed facility in Werribee would include an emergency department and be run by the Royal Children’s hospital. It was undeniably the more exciting announcement of the day – baby Angus aside – scoring a splash on the front page of the Herald Sun (the party’s fourth in nine days).
What remains to be seen is how the Coalition will find the health workers required to staff the site. It’s also unclear how building the hospital and others will address the immediate concerns Guy has raised in parliament.
Funding, too, is vague. The hospital is one of several recent election pledges the Coalition says will be funded by shelving the first stage of the government’s Suburban Rail Loop project. Others pledges include: $750m for a new hospital in the marginal seat of Mildura; a new hospital in Albury Wodonga, where the incumbent Liberal MP Bill Tilley faces a challenge from an independent; hospital upgrades in Caulfield, Sandringham and Rosebud, all in marginal seats; $400m for a new infectious diseases response centre; and free public transport for healthcare workers.
To Phair, the announcements by both parties are missing the point. The problems in the health system, he says, require structural change at a state and federal level, and coordination between the two tiers of government, that could take decades to complete.
“It’s not a game. There’s no quick and easy solution before the election that they’re going to be able to come up with,” he said.
But it won’t stop them trying.