This is not good timing for Chief Minister and Health Minister, Katy Gallagher. It is not surprising that Opposition Leader Zed Seselja hascome out baying for blood, demanding an external independent investigation.
Why wouldn’t he in an election year? He is hoping to more closely align the Government with what appears to be the actions of a misdirected public servant. He is desperate to make the issue appear in the worst possible light – just as the Government did to his office a few weeks ago over failures regarding staffing.
There is some grist to his mill with the Chief Minister standing aside on the basis of a possible conflict (the public servant stood down over the data manipulation issue has a relationship with a member of Gallagher’s family) to allow her deputy to manage the situation.
In reality, this is an appropriate investigation for the office of the ACT auditor-general, which has the runs on the board as a fierce and independent body managing the checks and balances that are appropriate for government. It has wide experience in examining figures and data while looking for discrepancies and systemic errors, making it the right organisation to interrogate the issue.
However, it will need to provide the community with confidence that the information hospital director-general Peggy Brown sent to all Health Directorate staff tells the full story.
Dr Brown’s letter identified that “the Directorate will also be commissioning a full external review across data collection and reporting systems at the hospital. This will ensure that we can be confident with the accuracy of other data reported and will also assist us to identify how we can strengthen our overall data integrity processes”.
The review is also necessary and this is appropriate action from Brown, provided the information is fully available to the auditor-general.
The challenge is to be confident this discrepancy is based on the appalling action of a rogue public servant rather than a systemic problem that requires a dramatic and sustained response.
There is also a political dimension. This is why Seselja wants an inquiry that is even further distanced from the Government than the Auditor-General. A minister does not have to give written or specific directions for things to be done. Tony Fitzgerald’s Royal Commission that identified widespread corruption in Queensland a couple of decades ago provided an insight into how governments can create an atmosphere where public servants work in an inappropriate way to achieve the goals that are set from the top.
Identifying such widespread systemic malpractice would effectively guarantee Seselja government. However, in my view, the chances of this incident being in any way comparable to the Queensland situation are minuscule. My observation, from my own experience, is that public servants within the Health Directorate are willing to give frank and fiercely independent advice. The difficulty for them is that they feel the pressure to deliver the best possible health system for the community.
While it is unacceptable that figures are manipulated, it is in the context of huge pressure to meet the demands of the Federal Government’s reform process or be deprived of substantial federal funds that can be used to improve our hospital system.
Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health. He is a member of the ACT Local Hospital Network Council.