Who is Nicola Roxon? No one knows. Even a seasoned political journalist may struggle to tell you that the new Minister for Health and Ageing has been the Member for Gellibrand since 1998, and loves a verbal scrap in Question Time. This rising star within the Australian Labor Party seems to have come from nowhere.
Nicola Roxon's official website does tell us something of where she has come from. Educated at Methodist Ladies' College and the University of Melbourne. A successful student and winner of the Supreme Court Prize for the top law graduate of 1990. Her list of previous Parliamentary Positions is formidable She was elected to the House of Representatives in 1998 and served as Shadow Minister for Children and Youth, and for Population and Immigration, Shadow Attorney-General, Shadow Minister assisting the Leader on the Status of Women. In December 2006 she replaced Julia Gillard as the Shadow Minister for Health. Then Kevin Rudd won the election.
Her website tells something of her life outside politics. There's a small picture gallery with no captions. But you won't find her beliefs, values or views on any of the pages. Follow the link to her MySpace page and you won't find much more. Ms Roxon is “in a relationship” and a “proud parent”. And she is an Aries. She tells us she is passionate about health and that many of the Howard Government's policies are having a detrimental effect on working families. Standard stuff really. Personality excluded.
It is likely that Ms Roxon will have a difficult time raising her public profile, if that is what she sets out to do. It seems like a long time since Australians have been seriously talking about health and hospitals. The utterly dominant issue of the last two election campaigns has been money. Specifically, how to get it, and how to stop losing it.
It was a strong economy that saw the Howard Government re-elected in 2004, and job security (and entitlements) that saw a change of Federal Government in favour of a non-offensive alternative. In fact, 2004 marks the last time that a truly significant health policy was created: Gillard's ill-fated Medicare Gold. Since then, very little. Health has been put on the backburner.
How Ms Roxon will attempt to give this portfolio the status it deserves is anybody's guess. We've seen a new Sun Smart campaign launch recently, with a promise of spending. And funding for youth mental health.
But it is unlikely that Labor will be able to get away with the line many politicians used on health during the last election campaign. A strong economy - in other words, high spending on health - will not necessarily ensure a quality healthcare system. How funding is spent is, obviously, the critical issue.
In the United States, more money is spent on health per capita than anywhere else in the world. Yet the health outcomes achieved are comparable to those achieved by Costa Rica. What makes a healthcare system great is, generally, equity and fairness. That's why the life-expectancy of a Cuban is the same as that of an American. In Cuba, healthcare is practised at the community level and is readily available.
In addition, a strong emphasis on medical research, and effective public health campaigns, are very important. If Ms Roxon is not committed to widespread reform, it is measures like these that she must promote. First, however, she must address Australia's single greatest health policy failure: Indigenous health. While non-Indigenous Australians are as healthy as anyone else in the first-world, Indigenous health is comparable to Ethiopia and Zimbabwe in some key indicators. There's no excuse for this. It must cease, if not for ethical reasons, for the fact that it is holding back Australia's healthcare system.
Nicola Roxon must put health back on the national agenda. She might start by letting us know who she really is. Importantly, she must tell us why health deserves to be the number one issue in all political and social discussion.
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