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“The Labor Party does things and the Liberals clean up the mess. Repeat.”

This pithy description of Australian politics since World War 2 has arguably stood the test of time. Under the last Coalition government which came to power in 2013 there was a gradual reduction in the national deficit that had arisen from the 2008 global financial crisis. In 2019 Treasurer Josh Frydenberg proudly announced we were “back in the black”. The coffee mugs bearing that slogan have rocketed in value, unlike the Aussie dollar.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, with major restrictions on individuals’ movements and on commerce. Once again the Treasury coffers were opened to avoid widespread business failures, unemployment and major recession - the ‘R’ word  that so far is barely spoken. 

Now the pandemic is coming to an end and the economy is bouncing back, as is inflation. It was low throughout the Coalition years at less than 2.3% but the Medicare rebate increase rarely reached half this level. 

Greg Hunt, the Health Minister from 2017 to 2022, and now out of politics, kept a low profile during the early phase of his tenure but surged to prominence in the pandemic. He had a testy relationship with his first Departmental head, Martin Bowles, who resigned after 12 months. After his departure the Minister became more active in Medicare reform. 

The Robinson Review ran from 2015 to 2020 and identified multiple items in the Medicare Benefits Scheme that could be added, removed, updated or deleted. To date little of this has been enacted. However, in General Practice restrictions on prescriptions and the ordering of investigations have been extended. 

The removal of the ECG reporting item by GPs was seen as petty and unjustified by the profession and typified the Minister’s approach, “Here a little slice. There a little cut.”.  Les Misérables’ Monsieur Thénardier would be proud of him. 

Also gone were the Collaboratives and other quality improvement activities in general practice. The NPS MedicineWise program, aimed at enhancing quality prescribing in general practice, was defunded in the May Coalition budget. The Minister’s goal was to make Medicare lean and mean.

Medicare Locals were replaced by Primary Health Networks (PHNs), whose focus changed from fostering relationships and coordinating activities between all health sectors to that of commissioning health services in a competitive market. In reality the PHNs became little more than a privatised extension of the Department of Health. What will be their next fate?

The Morrison government has been accused of promising much but delivering little. After its defeat in 2018 the Labor Party ran a small target campaign for the 2022 election. Like many of its policies its goals in health were not spelled out in detail. 

Mark Butler is the new Minister of Health and has promised reform in primary care but alas - so far - this does not involve any significant increase in the Medicare rebate

The Labor health package includes funding elements of the 10-year Primary Healthcare Plan that finalised its report in 2021 but was not released by Minister Hunt until Budget night. The Labor plan for general practice includes grants to practices to improve IT infrastructure and upskilling, and a scheme for voluntary patient enrolment with a practitioner for patients with chronic disease. 

Following the fragmented approach across the country to the COVID-19 pandemic the Labor plan includes the establishment of an Australian Centre for Disease Control to better manage, amongst other things, any future infectious disease outbreaks. 

A change of government has brought an extra spring in the step of public servants in Canberra. Labor plans to end the consultocracy that flourished under the Coalition government. The Thodey review of the public service was commissioned by Malcolm Turnbull but shelved by the Morrison government in 2019. 

The thrust of its recommendations were to restore competencies and incentives in the public service to stop the drift of expertise from the public sector to the big four consultancy firms where the same work would be outsourced at several times the cost of doing it in house. 

The report acknowledged that reversing this loss of talent and raising the proficiency of the public service to higher levels would take years to accomplish. 

Former Australian Public Service Commissioner Andrew Podger, now of the Crawford School of Public Policy at ANU, believes reform will be aided by removing the public service staffing cap established under the Coalition and giving departmental bosses autonomy to administer their own budgets. We await the new government’s actions on this recommendation. 

With advances in technology, Ministers of the Crown are under much greater scrutiny than in the past. “Gotcha” moments figured prominently in the recent election and now come from both traditional and social media.

To counter this, Ministers take advice from media consultants as well as their political advisers. Their policy advisers, traditionally drawn from the public service, do not have the same access and influence. Restoring the role of public servants and allowing them to give “frank and fearless advice” should lead to better procedures and policies in the future.

But it won’t be easy, as Don Russell, Paul Keating’s former chief of staff, noted last year

“... when things go wrong, they can go wrong in an unconscionable way that brings a firestorm of public scrutiny.

“Ministers, ministerial offices and public servants get caught in an ugly melee involving royal commissions, corruption commissions and maladministration cases, processes that can be very damaging to them – to say nothing of the vulnerable members of the public who find that the system has failed them at a moment of great need.

“I suspect that Commonwealth ministers today are in the process of entering a world of pain, already familiar to state ministers, for which they are not well prepared.” 

At least one thing will stay the same. A change in government requires a change in the name of the Department and new stationery. 

The “Department of Health and Aged Care” is back. We will see where it takes us. 

 

Name changes for the Department of Health (DOH) since its inception.

  1. Department of Health (1921-1987) 
  2. Department of Community Services and Health (1987-1991) 
  3. Department of Health, Housing and Community Services (1991-1993)
  4. Department of Health, Housing, Local Government and Community Services (1993)
  5. Department of Human Services and Health (1993-1996)
  6. Department of Health and Family Services (1996-1998)
  7. Department of Health and Aged Care (1998-2001)
  8. Department of Health and Ageing (2001-2013)
  9. Department of Health (2013-2022)
  10. Department of Health and Aged Care (2022-?)