7 August 2023

Battlelines drawn over whether Federal Bill will be about more than North Canberra Hospital's compulsory acquisition

| Claire Fenwicke
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North Canberra Hospital, formerly Calvary Public Hospital Bruce

The Calvary name may have been removed from the North Canberra Hospital, but concerns around its compulsory acquisition remain. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

As a Commonwealth inquiry considers passing a Bill that would force the ACT Government to hold an inquiry into the compulsory acquisition of North Canberra Hospital, several concerns have been raised that this is a threat to Territory rights.

ACT Independent Senator David Pocock has previously accused the Federal Coalition and Greens of setting up a Senate inquiry by “stealth” in order to meddle in Territory business.

It appears many agree with the stance the Commonwealth shouldn’t be interfering with Territory business – however, they’re also concerned proper processes still weren’t followed.

One such voice is former Australian Public Service Commissioner Andrew Podger AO.

The ANU Honorary Professor of Public Policy submitted he felt it wasn’t appropriate for the Commonwealth to get involved in this way.

However, he was concerned with how the entire acquisition process came about given it appeared consultation didn’t occur at a Federal level, despite health being a responsibility of both levels of government.

He questioned the ACT Government’s guarantees the acquisition would result in improved ambulance services and emergency department management, and warned the government’s treatment of its original contract with Calvary Health Care could lead to longer-term consequences.

“If ever there was an example of poor public policy processes, this would have to be it,” Hon Prof Podger submitted.

“One wonders whether the ACT Government’s longevity contributed to this abuse of good processes including proper evaluation and careful consideration.

“In the absence of due process, it is not possible to determine with certainty that the decision is justified, and there is every reason to suspect the risks of failing to achieve claimed benefits are high.”

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Calvary Health Care had launched a legal challenge against the acquisition legislation and regulation when it first passed.

The ACT Supreme Court found the legislation was valid, and Calvary later abandoned its case against the regulation.

In its submission to the Federal inquiry, Calvary stated it was concerned the Territory’s decision to abandon usual legislative processes gave rise to “broader sovereign risk issues”.

“Calvary considers the Territory’s conduct as grossly unfair and unprecedented,” it submitted.

“It is clear to Calvary that the acquisition and transition have proceeded under a cloud of manufactured agency … These events create a dangerous precedent for departure from usual parliamentary scrutiny and due process.”

That’s in contrast to the ACT Government’s submission, as it felt the Legislative Assembly had enough mechanisms in place to ensure scrutiny of both executive decisions and legislation.

“The Self-Government Amendment Bill ignores existing mechanisms for deliberation, accountability, transparency and debate that have operated as intended,” it submitted.

The ACT Government stated it felt the Federal Bill was an “inappropriate and unnecessary” attempt to interfere with Territory concerns.

“It sets a dangerous precedent in that it seeks to again interfere in the Legislative Assembly of the ACT’s democratic right to make laws appropriate for its community,” it stated.

“This is particularly egregious when it comes so soon after Territory rights were restored.”

The ACT Government attracted severe criticism for its decision to pass the Health Infrastructure Enabling Bill and its associated regulation without the usual debate processes.

The legislation did go before the Standing Committee on Justice and Community Safety, which has a legislative scrutiny role, while the Health and Community Wellbeing Committee chose to instead receive briefings rather than conduct its own inquiry.

The bill was referred to the Public Accounts Committee, which also chose not to undertake an inquiry – much to the disgust of its chair.

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Two advocacy groups have stated they believe the ACT has appropriate scrutiny mechanisms, and it’s now just time to get on with the job.

The Health Care Consumers’ Association (HCCA) noted while some of its members had issues with the acquisition, it was concerned the potential bill has not been designed to probe the appropriateness of the decision-making process around the acquisition.

“In any case, it is an ACT matter. Any inquiry should be initiated by the ACT,” it submitted.

“[The Bill] has the potential to set a precedent for interstate senators (not elected by the people of the ACT), or the Commonwealth more generally, to interfere in ACT Government issues.”

While the Australian Salaried Medical Officers Federation (ASMOF) said, if passed, the Federal Bill would place further strain on an “already fractured” healthcare workforce.

“The resources any ‘inquiry’ would require can be better allocated towards improving the working conditions and culture within Canberra’s public hospitals,” it submitted.

The Federal Senate inquiry is due to hand down its report on Wednesday (9 August).

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There was nothing more cringe worthy than watching deputy leader Jeremy Hanson on the news tonight up on the hill lobbying his out of town Liberal mates to interfere in the ACT government’s democratic processes. Standing beside his Liberal mate senator Matt Canavan with that loopy saccharine smile as Matt lectured Canberrans was simply too much.
Jeremy Hanson will be going into his 5th election loss for the party next year, once as leader and now deputy.
All this while waiting for that Brendan Smyth escape route I hear. Good luck with that Jeremy!

HiddenDragon9:24 pm 08 Aug 23

Rather than pursuing what looks like the dressed-up sectarian aspects of the Calvary takeover, the federal Coalition might get far more traction by joining the dots about the seemingly endless series of stuff ups, instances of gross waste, and findings of dysfunction in important services administered by the ACT government, and start asking serious questions about the model of self-government chosen by the then federal Labor government for the national capital.

This could be done as part of broader policy work focusing on the inconvenient truth that Australia is a seriously over-governed country – given our population, and even allowing for the fact that we occupy a continent.

With the federal and state/territory budgets all in structural trouble (albeit with some looking good at present due to precarious commodities revenues), it would be very timely to take a hard look at spending on governance and administration and the distribution of responsibilities. For a federal Opposition which is clearly struggling for a substantive economic narrative, there would be some very fertile soil to be tilled here.

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