Moore / All good when good politics meets good policy

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ALIGNING good politics and good policy provides positive outcomes for the community. The announcement by Greens Minister Shane Rattenbury that the ACT would have an Office of Mental Health and Wellbeing will be welcomed by the sector and will assist in consolidating Rattenbury and the Greens party in the ACT.

Michael Moore.

It is not just the Greens. This outcome is also good politics for Health Minister Meegan Fitzharris. The Office of Mental Health and Wellbeing will be located within the Health Directorate. As such Ms Fitzharris is not completely surrendering control over mental health issues and can buy in as she deems appropriate.

The Office of Mental Health and Wellbeing has been launched at a time that the ACT Health Directorate is going through a major restructure. The government has opted to move from a traditional departmental style arrangement to a “purchaser/provider” model. There is a recruitment process underway for the head of the Health Directorate, as purchaser, and the head of the hospital and community sector, as provider. The new mental health position fits into this restructure.

The Office of Mental Health and Wellbeing according to Minister Rattenbury is a “territory-wide vision for mental health and suicide prevention in the ACT through a process of collaboration and co-design”. To ensure much better co-ordination of mental health services across government, the concept builds on a “health in all” policy approach that was adopted a couple of decades ago in SA.

The challenge for mental health policy is dealing with a myriad of issues including housing, employment, primary health care, hospital, the justice system, police and education. It is in this context that the Greens secured a commitment in the “Parliamentary Agreement” that was signed by Labor and the Greens following the last election.

For the Greens mental health issues were good politics then and remain good politics now. Rattenbury’s office was effusive in its announcements pointing out the government’s commitment to “an integrated approach to promoting mental wellbeing and suicide and self-harm prevention”.

This is also good politics for Chief Minister Andrew Barr and his government. Consultation with the sector, a report produced for government and a government response may have taken some time. However, the government has worked hard to meet sector concerns demonstrating willingness to carefully consider and tackle issues for this vulnerable part of the community.

This announcement also demonstrates that the Labor-Greens government is working in a co-ordinated and co-operative way to deliver better outcomes for people of the ACT.

Challenging for all Ministers within the ACT government will be the role of the co-ordinator-general. The person appointed will answer to the Minister for Mental Health but will also be able to independently initiate reports and reviews or do so at the request of the minister. This should, as the Minister claims, “guarantee a level of independence”. Recruitment for the position is currently underway in a nationwide process. The right person will be a key to the success of the office.

The person appointed to this position will be able to tap senior bureaucrats and ministers from right across government on the shoulder to highlight the needs of the mentally ill. This will include the Chief Minister. The very existence of the office will challenge the business-as-usual approach. The goal will be difficult to achieve. However, it is conceptually as simple as ensuring “people experiencing poor mental health can access the most appropriate services and supports at the right place and the right time”.

In addition to the role of the co-ordinator-general, Minister Rattenbury has established a “Stewardship Group”. This group is to “support a whole-of-government focus for the office and facilitate opportunities to address the social determinants of mental health and promote an integrated and coordinated response by ACT government-funded services”.

This office is a good start. It provides an exemplar. What the ACT needs now is more examples of proactive, cross-government policies and actions that will deliver better outcomes for the people of the ACT. Such an approach will deliver both good politics and good policy.

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Michael Moore
Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health in the Carnell government. He has been a political columnist with "CityNews" since 2006.

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