Federal leaders weigh in on Calvary dispute

4 minute read

The controversial ACT hospital takeover has sparked talk of a ‘religious turf war’.

The separation of territory and federal health roles is blurring as Australia’s Prime Minister and Opposition Leader both weigh in on the forced takeover of Calvary Public Hospital Bruce by the ACT government. 

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese joined the debate just days before the legislation to compulsorily acquire the hospital and land was due to go before the ACT Parliament. 

He told the Canberra Times that he supported the ACT government’s move. 

“The ACT government are expanding their public hospital service delivery and restructuring healthcare provision as a result. It is not seen as providing any precedent by the ACT government and should not be by anyone else,” he said. 

Mr Albanese’s comments follow concerns raised by Opposition Leader Peter Dutton who said that he was “shocked’ by the decision and labelled it an “attack on religion”.  

The Calvary Public Hospital Bruce is run by Calvary, a not-for-profit Catholic health care organisation (founders pictured above). 

Calvary had been in talks with the ACT Government for a year in relation to the hospital’s future, with the government wanting to take ownership of the site and redevelop the hospital. 

Earlier this month, negotiations between Calvary and the ACT Health Department broke down, and the government moved to introduce new legislation to compulsorily acquire the site and transition staff to Canberra Health Services. 

The controversial move effectively terminates the agreement between the government and Calvary 76 years early. 

The government’s decision to enact special legislation to take over operations of the hospital and acquire the land had “worrying” implications, according to one expert. 

Adjunct Professor Robert McMahon, a researcher in public administration with the school of politics and international relations at the University of Canberra, told TMR last week that the move could have important consequences for the future of contracts that govern the running of private hospitals. 

“I’d really like to think that the government has thought this through very carefully because I would have thought that it creates pause for the part of potential commercial partners who might think to themselves, ‘well, why should we negotiate with the government if this is the way they act if they don’t get their way?’” he said. 

Calvary National CEO Martin Bowles said it was “concerning” and “alarming” that the government would “legislate to terminate contracts or default on their obligations to a long-term business partner without consultation”. 

“Anyone with long-term arrangements with the government should be concerned,” he said. 

“This rushed proposal will create uncertainty and could lead to attrition. This will have a direct impact on Calvary’s ability to care for people safely.” 

Mr Bowles slammed the government’s “unrealistic timeline” and a lack of consultation with Calvary. 

But the Community and Public Sector Union has welcomed the move, saying it would ensure “stability for workers, with no significant changes expected in terms of management, pay and conditions”. 

The decision is playing out in some media as a religious turf war, with the Vatican reportedly briefed by the pope’s ambassador to Australia Archbishop Charles Balvo.  

Rob Norman, ACT director of the Australian Christian Lobby called the decision “a “Soviet-style” takeover of non-government assets.  

“Clearly, the ACT government has no tolerance for religious convictions that oppose the will of the state,” he said. 

Despite the attention Calvary Hospital is currently receiving, it’s not the first time the health service has made headlines.  

A 2018 coronial inquiry into the suicide of a Calvary Hospital nurse prompted WorkSafe ACT to demand changes to staff protection and culture. 

Another inquest in 2017 criticised Calvary Hospital for the death of 32-year-old Corrina Medway while giving birth to twins.  

Earlier this year a coroner also said Calvary Hospital provided sub-optimal care after the death of Canberra man Maarouf El-Cheikh. 

In December 2022, Calvary and Canberra Public Hospitals were the subjects of a Federal Court lawsuit launched by junior doctors who claimed they were systemically underpaid for unrostered overtime. 

The legislation to take over Calvary Hospital is expected to pass tomorrow (Wednesday) with the Labor-Greens majority government in power. 

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