Tuesday, March 25, 2008

What I was about to ask the Health Minister

Meet The Press on Channel Ten is a very fast affair. At a certain point (shortly before each commercial break) the presenter Paul Bongiorno raises his hand (in a way that can't be seen on the TV) and the questions have to stop.

My co-panelist Emily Rice had just asked this question of the Minister Nicola Roxon:

EMILY RICE: Minister, just on another issue - the baby bonus is set to rise to $5,000 coming in June. In the past, some women have delayed the birth of their children to ensure they get the full financial windfall. Two economists have written to you, I understand, asking you to phase in the next bonus so we don’t have this occurring again. Are you considering a phase-in of the baby bonus next month?

I was gobsmacked by the Minister's reply...

NICOLA ROXON: No. Look, we’re not. The dates are fixed for when that change occurs on July 1. I must say, I think this is a little bit overstated. I would be absolutely confident that doctors will be giving their patients the best clinical advice. It’s obviously not sensible for people to make decisions based on financial arrangements rather than what’s in the best interests of the child. But I really think that this is around the margins, probably a matter of a day or two, rather than there being some serious issues of doctors advising women to wait an extra month. This is just - nature doesn’t allow it, and it would of course be a risky thing to do for the purposes of an adjustment just in the baby bonus.

I didn't get to ask the follow up questions, which would have been:

1. That's what your predecessors said! But we now know that that changes to the bonus do not just delay births by few days. In 2004, more than 300 births were delayed by more than a week. 150 were delayed by more than two weeks. You are right about that being risky. Will you act to stop it?

2. Maternity wards are not designed to cope with sudden surges in traffic. You have it in your power to prevent the next surge. Why not exercise it?

Beats me, and the economists Andrew Leigh and Joshua Gans.

Maybe the Minister knows something we don't. Or, more disturbingly, perhaps she doesn't.