Adverse Communication

| July 27, 2009

After the Labor Party and the electorate had combined together to conclude my political career I took a job as Executive Director of the Health Benefits Council. This was an organisation which had been established by the health insurance funds operating or having their head offices in Victoria and the intention was to have a stronger voice in the creation of health policy as it concerned the health insurance industry. It was also intended to liaise with and influence the private hospitals, the department of Human Services and the various professional bodies.

I resigned my position as Ombudsman for Tasmania to take this role. I was heavily influenced in that decision by my wife who had taken a position lecturing in philosophy at Monash University and told me that since she was much younger and more attractive than me (which was true) I would be wise to get a job in Melbourne.
I had been with the health insurance industry only a little while when the Macklin report was released. This was a report on the future of the health insurance industry produced by the traditional left wing orientated Jenny Macklin who was on the staff of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Health who was also a member of the left.
The Report was a bombshell because in essence it proposed the abolition of the health insurance industry and its replacement by one single national insurer much like the British National health system. It proposed that the people employed in the health insurance industry could be employed by the various state Health Departments. This seemed unrealistic.
Not surprisingly I was much disturbed. On a personal level I had just settled into my role with the health insurance industry and was not attracted to being abolished. In addition in the relatively short time I had been in the industry I had formed a very real affection for some of the delightful people I worked with and believed that having taken the job I had an obligation to protect them. They were much nicer than the political types I had spent my time with in my political days. There was another vital factor in my response. My experience as a Tasmanian Minister in almost every role had taught me that the path to equity and efficiency did not lie along the path of public service control. That was a recipe for disaster, for decline in service standards and for excessive bureaucratic control. I was concerned that the very nature of Australia would change and that the elimination of the private sector from such a large section of the Australian economy would damage the very nature of Australia.
I wished to communicate my concerns to people of significance in the Labor Government. I had been National President of the ALP and Deputy Premier of Tasmania and Tasmanian Leader of the Opposition and thought I would be able to present my view to my friends.
I proved to be remarkably difficult. A meeting with Jenny Macklin and representatives of the health insurance industry led to an angry demand that we leave. Obviously that was not productive. I next sought a meeting with Brian Howe. I tried both his Ministerial Office and his Electoral Office but was simply refused. Not even politely deferred but refused. I was not communicating. An election was in the offing so I insisted on communicating with Brian. I took a team of people including the then head of the AMA, Bruce Shepherd and with the aid of a loud hailer communicated with the Minister. I am not sure we had his full attention but some of his supporters seemed likely to communicate with us by violence so we didn’t stay long.
I next tried to communicate with John Dawkins, Treasurer and a previously good contact. Again, a blank refusal. I went to a meeting of the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia (CEDA), a business group with which I had long been associated. John Dawkins was the guest speaker. I sat at the front and asked the first question.
"John. Why won’t you agree to meet with me."  He was somewhat embarrassed and agreed to meet me at the conclusion of the meeting. I later put to him my concerns and we had a useful exchange of opinions. I did say to him that it was odd and unnecessary that I had to go to such trouble to have a conversation.
I met Barry Jones, then National President, of the ALP in the street and started to tell him of my concerns about the health policy. Barry is the kindest and most friendly of people but he waved me aside and disappeared into the crowd. Perhaps I had lost the power to communicate or perhaps my message was unpalatable.
Communication can take many forms. A Federal Election had been called. I wanted to get my opposition to the nationalisation of the health system made clear and communicated to the government. The electorate of Jaga-gaga was sufficiently marginal to be thought vunerable. I put a team of one hundred and twenty doorknockers into the electorate on two successive Saturday mornings to campaign for the retention of private health. A similar effort was made in the seat of Melbourne Ports. The member for Jaga-Jaga was Staples who was also assistant Health Minister. He advertised that he would be handing out electoral leaflets at a major shopping centre in his electorate. I set up next to him to hand out our pamphlets in favour of preserving private health. I enjoyed that more than he did..
We also established the Victorian Health Co-alition. John Rashleigh who was chief executive of a private hospital group became the Chairman and spokesman and was assisted by surgeon and activist John Buntine and by Brian Buckley. That small group had a large impact. John was adept a presenting a public face and we received substantial press and media coverage.
The final achievement came with the bi-election for the seat of Wills vacated by Bob Hawke when replaced by Keating as Prime Minister. As part of that election campaign the Government announced that it would not nationalise the private health insurance industry. A little time later I watched with some fascination as the National Conference without dissent supported the continuation of private health insurance as part of the mixed system of Australia’s health arrangements. Perhaps I had not forgotten to communicate after all.
The Hon. Neil Batt AO had a substantial career in politics, having been variously Tasmanian Minister for Transport, Education, Economic Development and Forestry and concluding his political career as Tasmanian Deputy Premier and Treasurer. In addition, he was the National President of the Australian Labor Party. He is currently the Executive Director of the Australian Centre for Health Research, a Consultant to Australian Unity and Chairman of Residential Aged Services.