Rudd Takes an Election Gamble

by on 11 March, 2010

Andrew-Lewis Rudd’s hospital gamble has made this election year a whole lot more interesting, writes Andrew Lewis.

Kevin Rudd recently announced a major reform to the way public hospitals are funded, in an attempt to fulfil his election promise that if the states continued to underperform in the administration of public hospitals, then he would take over the public hospital system.
Rudd needs the states to cede control over public hospitals, because under the Constitution of Australia, states retain control of hospitals. Mr Rudd will move this reform at the April 11 COAG meeting, in the hope that the State Premiers will agree to his request.

If they don’t, Rudd has stated that the Government will take the funding takeover of public hospitals to the people at a referendum. This would likely take place alongside the Federal Election later this year, to save on costs and prevent election fatigue.

The task in front of the Rudd Government is a tall one. Currently two of the six State Premiers are suggesting they will not agree to this power grab. With good reason too, as any move to remove responsibility for public hospital funding from the states would be the beginning of the end for state government and Australian Federalism.

If Mr Rudd wanted to lean on his ALP buddies in the states, that may be less likely by April 11. With already one ALP Premier telling Rudd to nick off (Victorian Premier John Brumby), he needs friends, but with two ALP Premiers facing tough elections before the end of March (David Bartlett in Tasmania and Mike Rann in South Australia), he may see fewer friendly faces in April than he has seen previously.

If the COAG meeting does not provide Rudd with the results he seeks, then it’s off to the polls – a referendum to alter the Constitution of Australia so the Federal Government would have responsibility for funding public hospitals.

This could be even more problematic for Rudd than convincing the six State Premiers. As a rule, referenda in Australia fail, with only 8 out of 44 succeeding in 109 years of Federation. This is in part due to referenda needing an overall majority of voters voting in the affirmative, as well as a majority of voters in a majority of states.

Further to that, no referendum has ever succeeded in Australia without having the support of the two main political parties of the time. With the Coalition opposing the federal takeover, you can see that any referendum on public hospitals would have to make Australian electoral history in just succeeding.

Now, if Rudd held the referendum at the same time as a Federal Election in order to save money, then he takes on an added risk of both votes becoming referenda on his leadership. It would be a groundbreaking situation; a referendum on a key area of government policy being held at the same time as a Federal Election. Previous referenda held concurrently with Federal Elections have generally been related to areas of electoral housekeeping.

Three things can occur if Rudd holds an election and a referendum at the same time, as there is no chance that Rudd loses the election but wins the referendum.

Firstly, Rudd could win both the election and the referendum. Mr Rudd comes out with a stronger mandate than any Prime Minister in living memory, a ringing endorsement of his leadership, and a separate endorsement of a key election platform.

Secondly, Rudd could win the election but lose the referendum. This seems the most likely given Australian electoral history (Australia does not have one term federal governments, or pass referenda without bipartisan support). This would leave Mr Rudd as an impotent Prime Minister, without a mandate to implement policy in a vital area of government administration. It wouldn’t be long before Rudd was replaced with Julia Gillard, and the government moved on without implementing its plan for funding public hospitals.

Finally, Rudd could lose both the election and the referendum. The real kick in the guts would be that the defeat of the referendum would probably be a major contributory factor in his losing the election, and he would break new ground in leading the first one-term Australian federal government since the great depression.

It’s a massive risk for Rudd to take, and it’s hard to see why he is taking it. Despite the Coalition’s improved showing in the polls, the Rudd Government is still most likely to be returned. He’s staking his political career on either the states commencing their own demise by signing away their most important area of responsibility, or the Australian public doing something it hasn’t done in 109 years: endorsing a change to the Constitution of Australia without the support of both the Government and the Opposition.

The 2010 election year just became a lot more interesting.

Andrew is a Melbourne writer, and writes on politics and sport. He is a featured writer on the AFL site, and also has his own blog, which can be found here.

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