Saturday, May 17, 2014

Don't let “universal services” be turned into “safety nets”

One of the ways the political right beats the left is by being more effective at choosing the battleground of debate – by getting others to adopt their definition of what the debate is actually about.

When it comes to Medicare, unless the ALP, Greens and other centerists claim back the language, their defeat is inevitable: it may come in this budget (I hope not – I hope the ALP finds its courage down the back of the lounge), or in ten years, but it will come.

Here are a few articles written by relatively well-heeled journalists on all sides of the political spectrum.

What these articles all have in common is that they cheerfully describe Medicare as a safety net – and many, many on the left also do so when they're defending it.

My cluestick: “universal” and “safety net” aren't the same thing.

Safety net” means “we reserve a minimum and usually inadequate standard of care for the poor”.

Universal” means “everybody”.

Two things happen when “universal” is ghettoed into “safety net”:

  1. The definition of what should actually exist inside the safety net is in the gift of the powerful.
  1. Because of (1), people will be marginalised.

The marginalisation won't, however, be the careless marginalisation that happens when lawyers define the mission of a charity (I've written about this here). It'll be a matter of deliberate policy: the government will pick winners and demonise losers as an exercise of power.

It's already on the agenda. If you don't believe me, read through the Commission of Audit report. It's all about picking winners and demonising losers.

There's another point to be made: narrowing what Medicare actually offers is also deliberately destructive: “this service is accessed by too few people, and is becoming expensive to deliver, so we are going to pass it over to the private sector”. The previous blog post I linked above provides an example of this in action.

By reducing the mission of Medicare, you reduce its efficiency and effectiveness at the edges. The edges get trimmed away – only to reveal the next edge, the next target. This isn't accident, it's strategy, with its aim being the dismantling of the public healthcare system.

Characterising Medicare as a “safety net” is an exercise in propaganda. It redefines the mission of Medicare in a way that is exclusively to the benefit of the radical right, because “safety net” and “universality” are exclusive. The same goes for things education, unemployment support, pensions and disability services.

Mainstream journalists – who approach the medicare debate from a standpoint of being well-paid and well-insured – adopt the language of “safety net” because they lack personal experience at the margins. Politicians of the right do so out of strategy; and politicians of the left do so because they feel powerless to drag the debate back onto their own battleground.

Often, battles of language are trivial, but the confinement of social rights into the “safety net” ghetto is an important battle that has to be fought, or the left will lose. 

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