On Wednesday, The New York Times reported how former Surgeon General Dr Richard H. Carmona, who held the peak health advisory position from 2002-06, had told a US Congressional panel on Tuesday “that top Bush administration officials repeatedly tried to weaken or suppress important public health reports because of political considerations.”

He listed a Niagara of verboten topics that he was told he was not to speak or write about, including stem cells, emergency contraception, s-x education, and prison, mental and global health issues. He described how a major report on environmental tobacco smoke had been delayed for years with attempts made to dilute its findings. He claimed he was “ordered to mention President Bush three times on every page of his speeches”. Administration officials even discouraged him from attending the Special Olympics for the disabled being told ‘Why would you want to help those people?’

The new appointee, James Holsinger, is now in damage control overdrive swearing to uphold the independence of the office.

Today it is taken for granted in the Australian health and medical community that governments are increasingly sweeping aside any tired old notions of respect for independent expertise when it comes to anything they don’t like. NGOs and university researchers are treated like branch offices of government waiting sheepishly to be brought into line with latent and sometimes overt threats of withdrawn support. A few examples:

  • In 1999, the Public Health Association, which had been funded continuously since the time of Neal Blewett’s term as health minister in 1987, lost its grant because it had the temerity to launch a Friends of Medicare campaign. Its then president was told point blank by a Howard staffer to drop the campaign or face the consequences.
  • In 1998, the Australian Cancer Society had a major grant withdrawn to develop a National Cancer Control Initiative, after joining with the National Heart Foundation in a pre-election campaign to see all parties commit to allocating all tobacco tax received from sales to children – then estimated at $65m – spent on anti-smoking campaigns. Australian Cancer Society minutes from the time record the then head of the Anti Cancer Council of Victoria saying “He reported that actions … had antagonised the Government and the contract with the ACS for a further three years of NCCI Secretariat funding had been withdrawn before signing. The Minister [Michael Wooldridge] has stated that the ACS would not receive the contract and an alternative solution was being sought.”
  • Brendan Nelson’s vetoing of 10 Australian Research Council grants in two years while Minister for Education is constantly brought up by researchers in all fields as evidence of a sword of Damocles awaiting research that might offend the eye of anyone with access to the federal Cabinet.

If you know of examples of overt government punishment of health and medical research and policy advocacy – state or federal – send your evidence to [email protected]

Peter Fray

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