Moore / Chance for a fresh start in Health

“Top bureaucrats play a significant role in protecting ministers. Although ultimately the minister is responsible – having a well thought through suggestion is invaluable to the success of a government,” writes political commentator MICHAEL MOORE

dr peggy brown

ACT Health director-general Dr Peggy Brown… retiring. Photo by Silas Brown

IT’S easy to knock high-level bureaucrats. In the past it has been fair game to be pejorative about the ACT bureaucracy.

However, people of Dr Peggy Brown’s calibre epitomise the work that is done by so many competent people who work on our behalf.

Dr Brown is to retire after a decade as director general of Health some time this year and her departure will provide a fresh start in the directorate.

Michael Moore.

Michael Moore.

Health Minister Simon Corbell announced that a recruitment process was underway for a new director general of ACT Health and, with Dr Brown expected to finish later this year, there is ample time for a thoughtful decision and a thorough process.

The criteria for the suitable person should include an ability to take a long-term view, to be a strong negotiator with the Commonwealth, to be able to engage effectively with other directorates and stakeholders and to have the knowledge and understanding to provide sound short and long-term advice to ministers.

An in-depth understanding of the social and ecological determinants of health, prevention and primary health care are as important as an understanding of hospitals.

Top bureaucrats play a significant role in protecting ministers. Good advice, carefully prepared strategies and a long-term vision may appear to come from the minister. Although ultimately the minister is responsible – having a well thought through suggestion is invaluable to the success of a government.

On the announcement of her retirement, the recently appointed Minister Corbell praised her contribution, saying: “Dr Brown has been a tremendous servant for the people of Canberra and she should be congratulated for the important work she has done as both director of Mental Health and as director general of ACT Health.”

He reflected on her decade of leadership, which included the opening of the Centenary Hospital for Women and Children, the Canberra Region Cancer Centre and the introduction of nurse-led walk-in centres.

He omitted to mention her significant role in long-term strategic planning

and negotiating with changes of federal government and a number of health ministers, albeit all Labor ministers.

It has not been all plain sailing. Hospital waiting lists and the waiting times in the emergency departments of both the ACT’s hospitals have been issues throughout the period where Dr Brown has been the mandarin. There has been a huge increase in the health budget over the period, but it is hard to see a commensurate improvement in the healthcare system.

At the last Territory Budget, funding was provided for the “Healthy Weight Plan”. At a time when the Federal government had announced vicious slashing of its share of health funding, the ACT was putting in place an attempt to wrestle with “the most significant health challenge of our time”.

Corbell’s selection of the next director general of Health will have a major impact on one of the most important areas of the government. It is also one of the most politically sensitive and one in which the minister should play a direct and leading role.

Mandarins in the ACT across all the directorates need to have a “hands-on approach” in dealing with the community.

In the past, there has been some significantly limited bureaucratic leadership that has been unaware of the depth of feeling on issues within the ACT. The resultant crises and embarrassment ought to be a warning. However, in the end the minister must be responsible for who is selected and the performance of that person.

Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health.


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