9 February 2020

ACT Government's malady of constantly playing catch-up is worth remedying

| Ian Bushnell
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Rachel-Stephen Smith and Chris Steel

Health Minister Rachel-Stephen Smith and Transport Minister Chris Steel have both had to take action on issues that should have been foreseen. Photo: File.

From light rail to bus routes to the hospital system, it seems the ACT Government just can’t seem to get its forecasts right.

Last week, Transport Minister Chris ‘Mr Fixit’ Steel announced extra light rail services on top of sweeping changes to the hardly broken-in bus network, while Health Minister Rachel Stephen Smith tipped $60 million into the hospital system to keep EDs staffed and elective surgeries happening due to “unforeseen” demand.

Surprise, surprise, commuters love travelling on a direct mass transit system that is new, shiny, clean and efficient, particularly when it has replaced bus services. And while Mr Steel says the network changes are based on six months of feedback and data, an extensive consultation before its launch last April produced many of the same concerns that eventually forced the minister’s hand.

Even the extra funding for more drivers was something the Transport Workers Union had predicted would be necessary.

In short, one didn’t need a crystal ball to see the government would have to backtrack on Network 19 and boost light rail services.

The ACT hospital system has been the sick ward of the nation in terms of performance for years, whether that be for poor ED waiting times or how much it costs to treat patients.

Doctors believe Canberra Hospital simply does not have enough beds for it to operate efficiently.

Ms Stephen-Smith argues the ACT’s circumstances are exceptional, with more complex cases and higher population pressures than those in other jurisdictions, although there is little evidence that we are so different to produce the parlous performance results that dog the ACT health system and Canberra Hospital in particular.

As soon as the Centenary Hospital for Women and Children opened in 2012 it became apparent that it was not able to meet demand, with new mums bundled out the door as soon as possible.

It has been a work in progress ever since and the latest $50 million expansion is under way, symbolic of how things appear to be done in the ACT.

Arriving back from Brisbane last weekend at the Canberra Airport, I noted its spacious halls and the ease with which travellers pass through. The architecture helps but the owners have obviously factored in expected growth in population and travellers so the facility can cope well into the future.

If only governments were so practical.

Canberra Hospital

Canberra Hospital continues to dogged by performance issues. Photo: George Tsotsos.

Crystal ball gazing is always a risky business but the government has some tools at its disposal to ensure reasonable predictions that allow it to plan properly for services and infrastructure, and hopefully build in capacity for growth.

It seems the bureaucrats either can’t crunch the data properly or the government feels it has to cut its cloth according to what’s in hand, resulting in projects and services that fall short and require subsequent stages, retrofitting or boosts as pressures become apparent.

For former Labor chief minister Jon Stanhope, a constant critic of the Barr Government, and University of Canberra colleague Dr Khalid Ahmed, our hospitals predicament was all too predictable.

In their recent blog at the UC Policy Space, they argue the current levels of demand for hospital services in the ACT and its rate of growth were both anticipated and planned for as early as 2008, with former health and chief minister Katy Gallagher steering a $1 billion expansion that would have provided a further 400 beds.

But when Ms Gallagher left for the Senate in 2015, the government under new Chief Minister Andrew Barr dumped the plan in favour of the watered down Surgical Procedures, Interventional Radiology and Emergency Centre (SPIRE) proposal for the Canberra Hospital, which will still fall short of what is required.

Mr Stanhope and Dr Ahmed say that a withdrawal of funding in real terms forced bed closures, causing a shortfall in 2017-18 of 126 beds.

They say SPIRE, due to be completed in 2024, will only deliver 148 beds, about a third of the number originally planned, and almost a decade late, “by which time it is estimated an additional 400 beds will be required over the 2017-18 bed numbers based on the current growth estimates.”

“In short, if SPIRE was operational today it would be fully utilised and a further two similarly sized hospital bed supply projects would still need to be delivered by 2024 in order to meet currently estimated growth in demand for hospital beds.”

The bureaucrats did their job but political priorities changed.

It may be that the ACT simply can’t afford it all, all at once, but surely it is folly to ignore the forecasts that public servants produce and instead underestimate demand in the hope that inadequate budgets can be met. And it’s false economy to build infrastructure and develop services that will not do the job they were meant to, and then have to fix a self-created problem.

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Why not fund it out of the people sponging off ratepayers by registering their cars for 15 years+ while ownig and living in a house in the ACT. Top that with negating of their 3rd party insurance the ACT government could start catch-up on that, the way all states do.

Remember too, not only are rates higher because of it, you or one of your kids might be the one’s run down by an uninsured driver the ACT government deliberately turns a blind eye too.

Oops – living permanently in ACT but register their vehicle in country NSW that is.

HiddenDragon9:06 pm 10 Feb 20

Enlightening as the piece on health funding is, it may be that Mr Stanhope is seeing things a little differently now that he is no longer weighed down by the burdens of office – let us not forget this (including the admirably plucky spin from John Hargreaves) –


Getting back to the question of health funding, it’s worth remembering all those roadside signs during the 2016 ACT election campaign which told us that we could have light rail, and a new hospital – there must have been some (very) fine print at the bottom of those signs about exactly what was meant by a “new hospital”.

The article and comments below highlight what a parlous state the ACT Liberal party is in.

Years of ACT Government mistakes and mishaps. Years of budget errors and electoral based project funding manipulation, yet Jon Stanhope provides the clearest and best articulated opposition view of the government.

I do agree with with other respondents that Stanhope needs to be taken with a grain of salt, but he and his excellently skilled and experienced comrades have things right around things like the tax system changes and real estate development problems, but other canberra issues are part of multiple previous Chief Minister and Fed Government makings.

Come back Jon Stanhope and Gary Humphries. All is forgiven. We need you.
If Jon and Gary launched a new party led by themselves, what a team that would be.

Doubt it would last long.

Excellent article. I think we can all except that unexpected events happen which mean the government will have to change course sometimes.

The problems with the Bus network changes and the pressures on the ACT health system were absolutely obvious to many with even just a passing interest or a need for buses and hospitals.

If Minister Steele needed six months to work out the new Bus network was broken, I presume it’s taken 3 hours of standing in the rain this morning for him to decide to open up his umbrella?

The changes here have almost zero to do with poor planning and everything to do with trying to minimise costs.

But it is an election year, so let’s ring in the changes, “improvements” and pork barrels.

But particularly with the commentary about the upgrades to the hospital, where is the additional funding coming from to provide these extra hundreds and hundreds of beds that are apparently needed? Has anyone read the budget lately?

I would also read anything that John Stanhope writes with a massive grain of salt these days, a large number of “problems” that he identifies actually either existed when he was chief minister or were actually exacerbated through the policies of his own government. Someone seems to have a massive chip on his shoulder.

Stanhope is a massive grain of salt.

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