After six months of excuses, evasion and duck-shoving, NSW Premier Morris Iemma has been forced to bow to the public fury over the crisis in the public health system and establish a special committee of inquiry.

His reluctance has been understandable. Before becoming premier in August 2005, Iemma was Health Minister. Much of today’s dysfunctionality, mismanagement and cost-cutting in public hospitals can be traced to his stewardship of the portfolio. The Director-General of Health during his time as health minister was Robyn Kruk, formerly of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. She is now Director-General of the Premier’s Department and Cabinet Office, the State’s most powerful bureaucrat. And running the Health Department is Deb Picone, another Iemma lieutenant who first made her name as a nurses’ union official.

Add into the mix, Reba Meagher as Health Minister. When Iemma elevated her to the job after the March 2007 state election, Meagher moved from her south-west Sydney seat of Cabramatta to the beachside suburb of Bronte and then took a month-long safari around Africa. By comparison, the new federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon can’t get time off from her boss, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, so she can get married!

By calling yet another inquiry, Iemma has now broken records to become the king of special committees, inquiries and reviews.

At last count, he has ordered inquiries into the Department of Community Services, electricity prices, the impact of electricity privatisation, taxes, state property assets, Sydney Ferries, CityRail, the ambulance service, betting exchanges, the Casino Control Act, the Gaming Machine Act, the NSW registered club industry, Port Botany, graffiti legislation, cultural grants, library funding, funding of appliances for disabled people, local government investments, the NSW Heritage Act, periodic detention, plea bargaining, management of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the tenure of Crown Law Officers.

Some have been completed, some are on foot, some have yet to start and others seem to have fallen by the wayside. It’s no wonder that Iemma has earned the nickname “Morris Dilemma” among his Cabinet colleagues and the Sydney media.

Today’s Sydney Morning Herald publishes a full-length editorial, Government a failure at every level, which thunders:

If the Government of Morris Iemma had any decency it would resign in shame. It would spare us the evasions, the blame-shifting, the spin and just go.

What an astonishing turn-around. Less than 12 months ago in the run-up to the last election the SMH and its stable of public intellectuals assured readers that while the Labor Government had performed poorly it was still a better bet than the State Opposition. Does that proposition hold up now?

John Menadue, chairman of the Centre for Policy Development who conducted a health review for former NSW Health Minister Craig Knowles almost 10 years ago, told Crikey today the state’s public health crisis could be attributed largely to two things: micro-management and short-termism by successive ministers and an incompetent department.

“Australia’s so-called health system lacks clear underpinning values and direction,” he said.

“It lacks leadership – not money. Our health leaders lack the will for health reform because they are strongly influenced by the vested interests that abound in health – doctors (particularly specialists), state health bureaucracies, parochial political interests, private health insurance funds, pharmacies and the pharmaceutical companies. The health ‘debate’ is about placating these vested interests rather than listening to the community and patients.”

If Menadue is right, what NSW (and the Commonwealth) needs is a health leader. Anyone seen one around?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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