The leaders of Australia’s main political parties locked horns on healthcare reform in a televised debate on Tuesday that established hospital funding and doctor and nurse shortages as battleground issues ahead of an election due later this year.

Kevin Rudd, prime minister, last week challenged his opposition counterpart to a rare pre-campaign debate after his diary was unexpectedly freed up when Barack Obama, US president, postponed his visit to Australia as he battled for his own healthcare reforms, which finally passed by a narrow margin on Sunday.

Australia’s ruling Labor party suffered large losses during two state elections at the weekend and polls measuring the level of satisfaction with Mr Rudd have registered a drop of 10 percentage points to 48 per cent since Tony Abbott took over as opposition leader late last year.

As with his American counterpart, Mr Rudd’s legislative agenda has been frustrated by Senate opposition. Labor lacks a majority in the upper house, which has rejected a series of big bills, including a carbon trading plan and, earlier this month, a proposal to reduce rebates paid to those with higher incomes to buy private health insurance.

Mr Rudd this month announced plans for Canberra to replace state governments as the primary source of funding for the country’s hospital system and to take complete control of primary care and care of the aged. There are also plans to train more doctors and nurses and to cut waiting lists for elective surgery.

Over the first five years of the reforms, an estimated A$90bn would be spent by Canberra on health and hospital funding.

However, the planned overhauls have been rejected by some state governments which want to maintain control of funding and local hospitals.

During Tuesday’s debate, Mr Rudd stepped up the pressure when he said he would seek a mandate from the public if his healthcare reforms were blocked.

“It’s time that as leaders, we stopped pointing fingers at one another and started to point for the way ahead,” Mr Rudd said. “I believe we can reach agreement across the state and the political divide because working families, pensioners and carers right across Australia are demanding that we do so.”

Mr Abbott, who served as health minister in the previous government which was led by John Howard, has yet to announce his health policies. However, he has already promised to establish local hospital boards in parts of Australia if he wins the next election.

He said Mr Rudd’s plans amounted to a “great big new bureaucracy that will muck up public hospitals”.

“The prime minister doesn’t really have a policy. He has a series of platitudes and he has a wish list. What he’s really been doing today is asking us to trust him, trust him to work it out on the run,” Mr Abbott said.

The leaders’ debate was the first of at least three to be held before the election which is to take place sometime this year.

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