“The Chief Minister has handed the poisoned chalice to Rachel Stephen-Smith. It would have been appropriate for Andrew Barr to show leadership and take responsibility for the Health portfolio himself,” writes JON STANHOPE
THE surprise resignation of Meegan Fitzharris as Minister for Health and Transport will leave a large hole in the ACT/Greens government.
In my “CityNews” column of March 20 I said: “The management of ACT Health is looking increasingly problematic and the constantly negative press it is receiving is almost certainly now seriously damaging the reputation and standing of the Minister, Meegan Fitzharris.
“She is clearly the government’s best asset and most capable minister and frankly she should have been rotated out of Health before it got to the stage where the AMA is effectively demanding a Royal Commission into her management of the hospital.
“Chief Minister and Treasurer Andrew Barr… having taken the decision to effectively deny the hospital any growth funding thereby guaranteeing the stream of negative publicity that has eventuated, really should have stumped up and taken on the health portfolio himself rather than throw his best minister, and only credible alternative chief minister, to the sharks.”
There is nothing that I said in that column three months ago from which I resile. Ms Fitzharris has clearly been the standout member of the current government in terms of her work ethic, grasp of the detail of her portfolios, communication skills and her ability to connect with the community. She should be content with what she has achieved.
Having said that, it is perhaps unfortunate that the extremely poor outcomes being achieved by our public hospitals will be an enduring part of Megan Fitzharris’ legacy.
At one level that is fair and reasonable. She was the responsible Minister and a senior member of a Cabinet that deliberately chose to postpone the redevelopment of Canberra Hospital for a decade and slash the health budget to fund, in part, what she and her colleagues determined was a higher priority than health, namely the tram; the construction of which she oversaw.
However the Chief Minister has now handed the poisoned chalice to Rachel Stephen-Smith. It would, as I have said previously, have been appropriate for Andrew Barr to show leadership and take responsibility for the Health portfolio himself.
Not only does he have a relatively light administrative workload as Chief Minister and Treasurer and should, in any event, be doing more of the heavy lifting but it would have shown that he was prepared to accept responsibility for the massive cuts that have been made to the health budget under his leadership and allowed him more scope to explain the cuts and accept responsibility for the impact they are having, particularly on low-income families without private health insurance.
The importance of Fitzharris to the government was emphasised following her resignation when the Chief Minister was moved to explain on ABC radio that had she not signalled her intention to resign that he may have done so himself.
By this admission the Chief Minister faces the very real risk of being seen as a lame duck leader occupying his place in the government not out of conviction or dedication or because he has a plan or a passion for reform or because he wants to be there but out of a sense of duty based on the apparent belief that with Meegan’s departure there is no one else in the government with the capacity to fill his shoes. One does wonder what his deputy Yvette Berry thinks about that.
I do hope, nevertheless, that Rachel Stephen-Smith is prepared for the shock she will receive when she sits down with the director-general of ACT Health and receives the incoming minister’s briefing on the true state of the health budget.
The implications for health care in the ACT of the continuing savage cuts being made to the budget of the Canberra and Calvary hospitals are deeply worrying. Just last week it was reported that there had been a further fall in the number of patients attending A&E and triaged as Category three (urgent) being seen in clinically approved times, from 37 per cent to 30 per cent. This is more than twice as bad, for example, as NSW.
Outcomes as poor as this are undoubtedly a reflection of the state of the health budget. What will be of particular concern to Ms Stephen-Smith as she absorbs the fact that the cuts to the health budget are unsustainable, is that the just released Budget and forecasts reveal that the health budget will be cut even more drastically over the next four years to levels that will not meet the increase in activity due to population growth and demographic change let alone increases in the cost of wages and medicine and new health technology.