Rudd's COAG reforms run out of gas

We’ve all done it. We ignore that rattling noise coming from the car engine and neglect to book the car in for a service. “It’ll be alright,” we assure ourselves, “it’s only a few thousand more kilometres”.

Then the mechanic hits us with the bad news. A small problem that should have been fixed much earlier has blown up and will cost a small fortune to repair.

Kevin Rudd confronted this nasty reality last week with the revelation that the COAG Reform Council is labouring under a heavy workload with limited and out of date statistics.

The COAG Reform Council – the vehicle charged with implementing Mr Rudd’s ambitious reform agenda in areas like health, Indigenous affairs, housing and disabilities – has blown a gasket and is badly overdue for a service.

But it’s much worse than that. The lack of accurate data in these four areas means that Rudd has asked the Council to do the equivalent of driving across the Nullabor in a clapped-out East-German Trabant, a car that was infamous for its lack of such basic equipment as a fuel gauge.

And just as Trabant customers in the failed state had to wait up to 15 years for their new car to be delivered, voters will probably be waiting just as long for Mr Rudd to achieve any meaningful reforms at this rate.

The recently released performance reports on these vitally important reform areas demonstrate the Rudd Government’s failure in this area, with the performance indicators for the National Disability Agreement relying on Australian Bureau of Statistics figures from as far back as 2003.

Similarly, the National Health Care Agreement Baseline performance report for 2008-09 relies on cancer incidence rates from 2006, while the Labor state governments have been dragging the chain for 18 months for figures on hospital infection rates.

And in Indigenous affairs, Mr Rudd’s promise to halve the gap in infant mortality and employment within a decade means nothing because the government has set no performance targets against which it can measure progress.

This is reminiscent of the Seamless National Economy Report from March this year where ‘milestones to develop milestones’ in transport policy and road reform had not been met. 

It is now clear to see why Mr Rudd failed to keep his promise of taking over our health and hospital system from the states by June 2009 if they didn’t lift their game – he was too powerless to compel his state Labor mates to cough up the necessary statistics so he had no idea how bad the situation actually was.

As a result, the COAG Reform Council has had to put the dipstick in the tank to check how much fuel is left, just as long-suffering Trabant drivers did. 

He was finally able to cobble together a clunky arrangement on health funding, but only after throwing billions of dollars at the states to entice them to sign up.   

Mr Rudd promised a new era of co-operative federalism but all we have received so far are photo opportunities and ‘in-principle’ agreements with the State Labor premiers with little or no detail on how the reforms will actually be achieved.

For a self-confessed policy wonk and stat-man who is fond of corporate clichés like ‘road maps’ and ‘rubber hitting the road’, his principle reform vehicle could certainly do with an oil change and a set of new tyres.

Mr Rudd’s COAG reform Trabant certainly makes the Leyland P76 look like a Rolls Royce by comparison.