Bill Shorten's Medicare scare is working, and Tony Abbott can take some of the credit for it

Photo: Getty / File

The best and most elaborate lies, the wisdom goes, are constructed around an element of truth.

An exasperated Barnaby Joyce explained at the National Press Club this week: “I’ve seen some amazing things in politics but the discussion on the privatisation of Medicare takes the cake.”

He added: “Why don’t we say that the Labor Party will cut the Sydney Harbour Bridge in two and move it to Tamworth and we will stop it?”

The claims that the Coalition is planning to privatise Medicare may be based on absolutely nothing, but that doesn’t mean they’re ineffective. The risk that sick people will have to pay more money out of pocket to be treated is just one of the attack lines being used by Bill Shorten in Labor Party’s full-frontal scare campaign on healthcare.

After a long campaign which until now has failed to inspire the public, with 10 days to go Labor believes it has finally found a way to get people to think about their vote as about making a choice.

The ALP has dragged the Coalition onto Shorten’s preferred battleground. Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull is having to make pledges about the future of Medicare. And he’s had to fight back with more than just words; in anticipation of the “privatisation of Medicare” attack Turnbull took the decision to drop a planned outsourcing of the payments system. Even the head of the Australian Medical Association has been defending that plan, arguing that updating the Medicare payments system is “in no way” like a privatisation of the system that funds public health care.

“The current system is old and many elements of it date well back to the early 1980s. They’re antiquated, they’re rusty and the system needs substantial investment,” said Michael Gannon.

Turnbull on Wednesday worked to put the Coalition strongpoint of border security back at the top of the agenda. There’s now talk of people smugglers restarting their operations, ready to test the government’s resolve on border protection.

The Shorten attack has buoyed the Labor campaign. The reaction from Turnbull is being seen as proof that the healthcare attack is hurting the Coalition, and sources say the message is being well-received by voters in Western Australia and in outer metro areas, home to some of the most marginal seats in the fight.

Last night there were some surprise poll findings from ReachTEL on NSW swing seats, showing Labor well ahead in seats like Lindsay, Eden Monaro, and Macquarie.

With his new campaign vigour, Shorten is leaning heavily on the legacy of Tony Abbott, in two different ways.

First, he’s borrowing from Abbott’s devastatingly effective wrecking-ball approach to campaigning. “End the debt and deficit” and “stop the boats” were attack messages that put the spotlight on the Coalition’s strengths on the economy and national security.

‘A track record of trying something on’

But Shorten is also getting voters to recall some of the most unpopular policy proposals pursued by the Coalition under Abbott.

Shorten says the Coalition plans to dismantle Medicare “piece by piece, brick by brick”.

Now, put aside the reality that the Coalition has no policy proposal to privatise Medicare, a point of much derision in the media because Shorten is effectively attacking a policy that doesn’t exist.

Inside the Labor camp the thinking is this message resonates because the Coalition has “a track record of trying something on” with Medicare.

Bill Shorten, right, with Tony Abbott. Photo: Getty / File

The strength of the “healthcare will cost you more” attack is that the memory of the Abbott government’s 2014 budget is still fresh in people’s minds, including its abortive plan to introduce a GP co-payment.

Unfortunately, Medicare cannot stay untouched forever. As the population ages, Australia is going to need to re-think how it structures the funding of healthcare provision to avoid blowing out the budget deficit. This means changes to Medicare are an unavoidable reality at some point in the medium-term, regardless of who is in government.

When we get to that point both sides will be open to accusations of going back on their word and breaking promises.

Plus ça change. Election campaigns make politicians their own worst enemies.

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