Labor does a burnout on its ramping promise

You can almost hear the screeching tyres as the Malinauskas Government attempts to change direction on its failing promise to fix ambulance ramping, writes Matthew Abraham.

Mar 24, 2023, updated Mar 24, 2023
Peter Malinauskas with now Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Labor candidates during a visit to a pre-polling booth ahead of last year's election. He's literally standing by his promise. Photo: AAP/Matt Turner

Peter Malinauskas with now Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Labor candidates during a visit to a pre-polling booth ahead of last year's election. He's literally standing by his promise. Photo: AAP/Matt Turner

The U-turn is one of the trickiest manoeuvres to pull off in politics.

It’s harder than learning to parallel park, a test I eventually passed to get my driver’s licence at the tender and ridiculous age of 16.

Back then, we had to park outside the old Unley Police Station, located in Edmund Avenue, with cement gutters about a metre high. They were murder on the hubcaps if you misjudged the angle when reversing between the broomsticks set in the two concrete-filled ice cream containers the fuzz used to mark out a car space.

This week, we witnessed the Malinauskas Government ripping on the handbrake, swinging the steering wheel, and attempting a sliding, 180-degree turn on its central promise to “fix ramping” – a simple pledge that underwrote Labor’s handsome election victory in March last year.

The air was heavy with the smell of burning rubber as Labor’s Health Minister, Chris Picton, argued that the government had never said it would “fix ramping”.

No, no, no, we all got that terribly wrong.

What it promised, he insisted, was that it would restore ambulance response waiting times to 2018 levels and that this would then flow on to reduce ramping to some mystical, undefined target.

In the same week that marked 12 months in government, Labor can’t wriggle out of the cold hard facts – not only isn’t it fixing ramping, it’s much worse now than it was under the Marshall Liberal Government.

A Labor poster for the 2022 state election. Note the caveat words are written in background red, unlike the main message.

The government may even have come to the conclusion that ambulance ramping – the practice that sees patients left sick, or dying, in ambulances idling outside emergency departments for hours at a time – might not be fixable.

It’s also dawned on the Labor brains trust that the government is taking water on the issue. Not enough, yet, to sink it at the next election still three years away, but it’s something that not even a string of good news will mop up.

Shadow Health Minister and first-term MP Ashton Hurn is prosecuting the government on ramping, and other health problems, like the bizarre “shortage” of hospital pillows, with ruthless efficiency.

Hurn punches through and it’s starting to leave bruises on the Malinauskas Government’s smiley face.

What to do? You have two clear choices, neither of them palatable. You either sit there and cop it on the chin every day for the next three years. Or you try to change the story.

This week, in what has the hallmarks of a deliberate strategy by the government, Health Minister Picton went for Option B. He set about trying to convince us the government never promised to do something it had promised to do.

In a brilliantly gruelling interview by Stacey Lee and David Bevan on ABC radio, Picton attempted to pivot the focus away from ramping and onto ambulance “response times”. This, he says, is what was really rattling the cage of South Australians.

“Let’s be very clear what we have said which was to fix the ramping crisis. We didn’t say and we were very clear, we weren’t saying what Steven Marshall repeatedly said, without any plan to do so, that he was going to completely eliminate ramping,” Picton said.

“What we said was that we wanted to get ramping to a point where we could get ambulance response times back to where they were in 2018.”

Here’s just one of many incredulous exchanges during the interview:

Lee: No, you didn’t say that, you didn’t say you would get ambulance response times, you said you would get ramping stats back down to 2018 levels, not ambulance response times.

PictonWell, I stood next to the Premier day after day at many, many press conferences where he was asked this question and that’s exactly what he said.

Hands up anyone who remembers a Labor election poster promising to “fix ambulance response times back to where they were in 2018 and that might possibly help but not eliminate ramping”?

No? Thought not.

This is a fabulous example of “the dog ate my homework” excuse.

Not even Robbie the Robot at the wheel of the Mars Explorer could have missed Labor’s clear message at the 2022 election that it would “fix ramping”.

The Opposition says a trawl through ALP media releases in the four months before the March 2022 election shows Labor mentions “fix ramping” 33 times, compared to just six mentions of “ambulance response times”.

It helpfully supplies copies of Labor’s official health policy that’s signed off by Peter Malinauskas with the promise: “Labor will fix the ramping crisis. For Jayden, for Michelle, and for all South Australians”.

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But you don’t need to be that forensic.

Labor blanket-bombed the simplistic “fix ramping” message – from thousands of corflutes cable-tied to Stobie poles to direct mail-outs, to saturation advertising online, on social media, and on television, radio and in print.

The government’s messaging now is that it was making what Picton calls a “double promise” – it has to “fix ramping to be able to get response times better”.

This is a flawed argument. The government can, and has, slightly improved ambulance response times by buying more ambulances, hiring more crews and building new ambulance stations.

It’s an expensive solution, but anything to keep Ash the Ambo, Jayden and Michelle happy.

Having more ambulances on the road doesn’t automatically flow through to reducing ramping times. It may even make it worse.

Ramping is a symptom of too many patients, not enough hospital beds and a seemingly intractable problem with managing patient flow through our emergency departments.

If that’s not fixed, getting more patients to your front door faster only adds to ramp-a-geddon.

One health professional told me that if you’re really crook the fastest way to get admitted to the RAH is to hop in your car, park outside the front doors of Emergency and lean on the horn. Please don’t try it, but it is tempting.

South Australian voters may decide that this is a load of codswallop…

While the Picton interview marks an audacious shift in government strategy, Premier Peter Malinauskas began flicking the indicators back in January.

Speaking with David Penberthy and Will Goodings on FIVEaa breakfast radio, he rolled out the “response times” line and the supposed 2018 “target”.

“The commitment that I made and deserve to be held to account over was to get ramping back down to 2018 levels and the objective there is so that we can start having ambulances roll up on time,” he said.

The key words here are that having ambulances roll up on time is the commitment he deserves “to be held to account over”.

Well, voters are the ones who get to decide what a Premier deserves to be held to account over.

South Australian voters may decide that this is a load of codswallop and that they wish to hold the ALP to account if it fails to “fix ramping”.

The Olsen Liberal Government found itself reduced to minority status after blatant backflips on its promises not to sell ETSA and not to introduce new taxes – it privatised ETSA and created the Emergency Services Levy, a tax on the family home.

It had convincing arguments for both decisions but voters chose to hold the Liberal Premier to account for breaking his promises.

Maybe the Liberals just needed more time behind the wheel.

That’s the funny thing with U-turns.

Depending on the skill level, and the political road conditions at the time, you’ll either find yourself heading merrily in the new direction, or end up in the gutter.

Matthew Abraham’s weekly analysis of local politics is published on Fridays.

Matthew can be found on Twitter as @kevcorduroy. It’s a long story.

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