Senate commitee into Community Affairs. Estimates hearings. Wednesday 22, October 2008, 10.20 am approximately.

Evidence of Ms Jane Halton, secretary of the Department of Health and Ageing, and fruit fancier.

HALTON: The other thing I would say about this, and I have experienced this over many years working in this field at varying levels, is that there is a real tendency particularly amongst the more junior officers sometimes to stand on their dignity a bit about what the definition of, say, an orange should be: “In Queensland an orange looks like this but in South Australia an orange looks like that and we’re just not going to agree on it.”

SENATOR BOYCE: Well, actually, ours would be the best!

HALTON: That is absolutely my point. Yours are the best, but regrettably someone else thinks theirs are the best, and you just have this absolute standoff about definitions. We are doing this in the e-health environment as well, and I actually recently said to a group of — and I am allowed to say this, with an apology — propeller heads…

SENATOR BOYCE: A group of?

HALTON: Propeller heads, the people who are down in the details. I said, “You’ve got two choices: you guys can come to an agreement about what an orange is or we are going to decide what an orange is; what would you rather?”

SENATOR BOYCE: Was there a specific orange in this case?

HALTON: Yes, there was a specific orange in this particular case.

SENATOR BOYCE: And it was?

HALTON: I would have to remind myself exactly what it was, but it was a particular definitional issue which we had not been able to get resolved among the junior technical officers, and so the senior officers had basically said: “We have to have a standard definition. We are going to decide this unless you give us a universal recommendation.” And then they did give us a recommendation. What the process we are going through at the moment has enabled us to do is effectively crash through some of that stuff, isn’t it, Penny?


HALTON: So what we have been able to do is say, “Here is a series of items; let’s talk about what these measures should be, let’s talk about what the definitions of these should be,” and they now form the recommended package that is coming into this HAWG process which will then go to COAG.

SENATOR CORMANN: Just quickly, I think these are different things. Whether it is a better orange is one thing, but it is still an orange. Whether it is a good or bad orange, it is still an orange. Now, surely a bed is a bed. How hard is it to define…

HALTON: It is no different. A mandarine or a clementine may be an orange, but are they a bed? Is a chair a bed? Is a bed a bed? It is exactly the same issue.

SENATOR CORMANN: But a chair is not a bed. The bed is a bed. A chair is not a bed. And that is my point. The reality is that you are making this comparison with oranges, and I can see an orange can be a good orange or a bad orange, but it is still an orange. If somebody asks the question ‘how many beds are there?’ it ought to be pretty straightforward: “That’s a bed. That’s not a bed; that’s a chair.”

DR ALLBON: Can I perhaps comment on that, because this is the arena that we work in all the time. The bottom line for us is: what is it that the policy people are actually trying to measure in this? And when…

SENATOR CORMANN: The number of beds!

DR ALLBON: You are trying to measure a bed, you are not actually trying to measure a bed; you are trying to measure the capacity of a system…

SENATOR CORMANN: Then you should call it that.

DR ALLBON: …and what the throughput is. I am not sure what the overall term is for something that is a bed and a couch and a chair.

HALTON: An orange, probably!

DR ALLBON: It is a space. It is a capacity, so…

SENATOR CORMANN: So you are saying the number of services rather than…

DR ALLBON: So what we have to do…

SENATOR CORMANN: Yes, but why don’t we call it that? Why do we call it a bed if we do not mean a bed?

DR ALLBON: We will leave it up to you to create a new term for the capacity. But we go back to tin tacks: what is it that is trying to be measured here, because jurisdictions know that///

SENATOR CORMANN: Obviously not beds, anyway.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey