Lap dog, show dog or leader of the pack?

5 minute read

Rarely do politicians get the opportunity that Greg Hunt has just been handed


Rarely do politicians get the opportunity that Greg Hunt has just been handed.

He has been put in charge of arguably the most important government portfolio in the country at a time when transformative change is still possible, and needed. If he does an even mildly good job, he would likely shore up his government for the next election and set himself up as a candidate for future prime minister.

But rarely does such a large opportunity present itself without corresponding risk. Health is a minefield of state-versus-federal structural dysfunction, heavy private-sector influence, legacy technology, red tape and public sensitivity and emotion.

There are also powerful lobby groups which have their hands up the backs of senior powerbrokers in both the Liberal and Labor parties waiting to strike down anyone who crosses their path.

Former health minister Sussan Ley was, in the end, a lapdog of the cabinet. She toed the line. The best that could be said is that performed that role competently. But health was going nowhere. Cabinet and the prime minster are lucky she tripped up. With failure comes opportunity.

Health needs a leader, not a lapdog. There is massive waste in the sector, being held in place by structural issues, private-sector self-interest, poor technology planning and a public-sector behemoth that you perturb at your peril.

Savings are the carrot for a government struggling to make ends meet.

But making savings without bringing about any serious structural and cultural change will just mean cuts to the income of hard-working and increasingly impatient healthcare professionals and cuts to public services.

There has never been a time when such an important portfolio needed a strong leader.

On paper, Hunt may well be the right person for the job. He is a skilled communicator and negotiator. He’s senior, has the confidence of his peers, the ear of the Prime Minister and he has some track record of leading, rather than following.

Most of the healthcare professional lobby groups have aimed surprisingly low in their initial statements around the choice of Hunt.

The “immediate” removal of the Medicare freeze and further changes to the MBS are important moves, but what, really, would those moves signal, given the current cabinet’s position on health? For the government’s inner sanctum, health is a major cost headache first, and all other things come after that.

What we need most at this juncture is a cohesive plan and a vision that puts health in the right context for politicians and the public alike. We need a narrative and we need a destination. And we need to believe we have someone who is truly committed to taking the sector on the journey to reach that destination.

If you had to describe the government’s idea of a destination today, you’d get a number, not a picture.

Everyone can be forgiven for being impatient and cynical. But the new minister needs at least some time. If he removed the Medicare freeze tomorrow, you could almost be sure it would be a case of “same dog, shiny new collar” with just one trick to get the show rolling.

How much time do we give Hunt? And when will we know if he’s the person?

The first question is easier to answer. Not long. Maybe four to six weeks and we will be able to judge if he is taking this opportunity seriously. We will see signs pretty quickly. One irony will be that if his travel bills don’t go through the roof we should all be suspicious.

He will need to work harder in this next month or two than he has ever worked in his life. We should be able to notice that.

He will need to spend equal time at the top, with the likes of Martin Bowles, the secretary of the Department of Health, who, by rights, is good at his job and should give him some sage advice. He will need also to spend time with the heads of departments, and with all the state health bodies, and at the coalface, with clinicians, including GPs, the PHNs and the administrators.

He will need listening superpowers. He needs to listen to more people than he has ever listened to and he needs to be seen to be doing it, and tell us why, and how, he is doing it.

Then he needs to act. We don’t expect huge and immediate change we and don’t expect miracles. We expect a plan, a vision, a map and then action with purpose and context.

Is this really that much to ask of a leader of the most important government portfolio?

Will Hunt be up to such a challenge? Will he take such a big risk with his, thus far, robust, but “nothing-out-of-the box” career? Let’s hope so.

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