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Chief medical officer Brendan Murphy. (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Brendan Murphy is the best-known chief medical officer (CMO) Australia has ever had. But it’s not a tough contest, given most people didn’t even know the role existed.

So who is the man with the bushy eyebrows who has stepped out of the bureaucratic shadows?

Those who know him have painted a picture of a fiercely intelligent, cheery man with no time for small talk (but also so uncoordinated, he once got kicked out from a research lab because his tie kept falling in the experiments).

Others say he’s well matched for his up-and-coming bureaucratic role as secretary of the Health Department, having spent years rubbing shoulders with politicians to secure funding for hospital wards.

But he’s not infallible: Murphy has this week had to retract a comment he made about staff from a Tasmanian hospital, who are at the centre of a coronavirus hotspot, having an “illegal dinner party” together. While Murphy was commenting on social media tittle-tattle, the police will investigate the allegations.

Murphy is a private man, with little personal information available online. A spokesperson for the Health Department told Inq Murphy “wasn’t keen for profile” pieces, and declined an interview.

So just who is this well-connected, clumsy and complex chief medical officer?

Born into prestige 

Murphy was born in 1955 to an eminent psychiatrist and pioneer of modern education for deaf children, Leo John Murphy, and teacher for the blind, Betty De Hugard. His father was awarded the Order of Australia for his service to community health in 1989. 

Despite his name, he is neither Catholic nor Irish.

Murphy attended Melbourne Church of England Grammar School (now, known just as Melbourne Grammar School), a prestigious private school for boys in South Yarra.

There, he was in the school orchestra, played hockey and joined the school’s cadet corps, where he was promoted to cadet under officer rank.

Murphy is the only one who followed in his dad’s steps down the medical route: His brother Liam is a law professor at New York University, while his other brother Fintan is a violinist and music director of the Melbourne String Ensemble, while his sister Kerry is head of musicology at the Melbourne Conservatorium. 

A love of classical music runs in the family: Murphy keeps a CD of Gustav Mahler in his car to switch to when the radio gets dull. He enjoys the opera, and went back to Italian lessons when he moved away from his researching role.

Murphy has good taste in red wine, and ends his day with a chapter of a crime novel and a shot of neat single malt.

A supportive, uncoordinated PhD supervisor 

Murphy studied medicine at the University of Melbourne and was a resident of the Royal Melbourne Hospital, completing a fellowship at The Royal Australasian College of Physicians in 1984. 

Moira O’Bryan, now head of the School of Biological Sciences at Monash University, worked with Murphy as her honours and PhD supervisor across five years in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. 

“I laughed when I saw him on TV recently — he looks exactly the same, just a little bit older. That same floppy hair, eyebrows that stand up,” she told Inq.

The pair worked together studying how a protein, clusterin, interacted with the immune system.

O’Bryan remembers the time fondly, saying Murphy was supportive and cheerful with a good sense of humour. He liked to drop in at the research lab for a chat.

But, she said, “he’s a little bit uncoordinated, a bit clumsy. I remember on more than one occasion his tie falling into an experiment”.  

O’Bryan’s research assistant booted Murphy out of the lab on at least one occasion for messing up an experiment.

An ambitious career-climber

During the ’90s, Murphy worked his way through the ranks at St Vincent’s Hospital in Fitzroy — he was promoted from renal physician, to renal dialysis service director, to clinical services director, to the chief medical officer.

He transitioned to the health bureaucracy in 2005 when he was appointed to run Melbourne’s Austin Hospital, a large public hospital north-east of the city.

Chris O’Gorman worked at both the Austin and St Vincent’s in corporate development, and first met Murphy when he was a physician.

“He was always interested in the mechanics of hospital management. I recall him sitting in my office chatting about different hospital processes I looked after,” O’Gorman told Inq, adding Murphy prided himself on securing research grants every year for his renal work.

He’s not surprised Murphy has been so successful in his career. “He’s extremely ambitious … He made himself well-connected with the health department.”

Nick Miller was health editor at The Age during Murphy’s time at Austin Health and said Murphy helped make the hospital media-friendly.

“Murphy knew what was a good story for the hospital and the best way to get it out there,” he told Inq. “He was smart and I got the impression he knew how to work the system for the hospital’s benefit.”

In 2008, Murphy went on a highly-publicised walk along the Great Wall of China, flanked by Olivia Newton-John, Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe and Grease star Didi Conn to raise money for the hospital’s cancer centre.

Miller said Murphy also knew sometimes it was better to talk to journalists than not: in 2009, Victorian hospitals were accused of misrepresenting hospital waiting times by admitting patients to ghost wards. (An audit was later launched, with hospitals directed to change their administration procedures.)

Murphy, Miller said, was cooperative. “He knew sometimes you get better results by building relationships with the media rather than putting up a brick wall.”

The greasy political pole

In 2005, a refurbished and extended Austin Hospital was reopened with a vibrant open day hosted by the Victorian then-Labor Government, which the Herald Sun reported was attended by 20,000 people and cost taxpayers nearly half a million dollars, the opposition was quick to point out.

It was an odd cost blowout given just weeks before the launch party, Murphy had sent out a letter to thousands of households pleading for fundraising dollars.

“There isn’t a department in the entire hospital that doesn’t need some major equipment replaced or updated,” he wrote.

A spokesman for Health Minister Bronwyn Pike said at the time the letter “use[d] emotional language to present a distorted picture of the quality of the facilities at the Austin, which is one of our best hospitals”.

Murphy conceded the letter was “a bit emotive,” stressing the hospital was grateful to the government. He sent out a similar letter again in 2007, prompting the Herald Sun to publish the headline: “Despite the Brumby Government’s $842m surplus, thanks to stamp duty and pokie taxes … Our hospitals still have to beg.”

It didn’t dampen relationships, however: John Brumby, who was the Victorian premier when Murphy was Austin Health chief executive and later was the chair of the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute, told Inq Murphy had bureaucratic skills. 

“He’s adept at working with government at all levels and of different persuasions … [Murphy] proved very adept at winning funding from Federal, State and philanthropic sources.” 

Brumby added Murphy knew the health system “inside and out”: “There are very, very few people with his depth and breadth of understanding of the public health system,” he said.

In 2011, Austin — along with other Victorian hospitals — went to war with Victoria’s powerful nurse’s union, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF).

Murphy had been pushing for nurses to take on extra responsibilities after completing training courses, as “nurse practitioners”. The move would free up doctors and save the hospital money, with Murphy arguing anaesthetists were “bored”.

He later apologised, saying the comments were taken out of context. At the time his health minister was Victorian Liberal MP David Davis. The Austin Hospital chair was another well-known Victorian Liberal figure, Judith Troeth. 

That same year, in response to a two-year trial of a nurses’ assistant scheme, nurses went on a state-wide strike wanting an 18.5% pay rise.

Victoria’s ANMF secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick told Inq the union was “vehemently opposed” to the scheme. “He was a very hands-on CEO,” she said.

Crises continued: in 2013 waiting lists grew, with bed closures and cuts to surgery in Victoria’s public health system following the Baillieu government’s $616 million cuts.

Murphy took the diplomatic route and wouldn’t apportion blame for the funding cuts: “There are always adjustments to Commonwealth state funding and they happen every year, but I think the size of this has passed on to the health services has been quite difficult to cope with because it was so quick,” he said.

Diplomacy was the right tack to take: In 2013, the Liberal state government gave Austin Health grants to train nurses to carry out cystoscopies as part of his nurse practitioners program.

Medico-legal-political power couple

With credentials established as a bureaucrat able to navigate the political waters, Murphy was appointed as the federal Health Department’s CMO in 2016.

Murphy is married to emeritus professor and lawyer Sally Walker. The pair tied the knot in 1979, and have two children together — Ben and Alex Murphy, who are both in their 30s.

Walker has an impressive CV: she has served as secretary-general of the Law Council of Australia, was the vice-chancellor and president of Deakin University and is currently a non-executive director on the board of SBS, an appointment made by the Turnbull government.

Murphy has been known to do most of the cooking in the relationship.

As vice-chancellor of Deakin University in 2005, Walker put in a bid to then-federal health minister Tony Abbott and then-federal education minister Brendan Nelson to establish a medical school in Geelong, which proved successful. Walker has also consulted with Gareth Evans for a review into the Australian National University (ANU) Act. 

What does he do now?

The CMO is a medical appointment, working under the secretary of Health. A spokesperson for the Health Department told Inq the CMO “carries responsibility for the Office of Health Protection”, which covers biosecurity, immunisation, and disease surveillance.

The CMO is also responsible for “maintaining high-quality relationships between the department, the medical profession, medical colleges, universities and other key stakeholders”.

What this means, according to Stephen Duckett, the Grattan Institute’s health program director, is that Murphy is the principal medical advisor to the government. 

“The specific role varies according to who the medical officer is … depending on their background, they might take stronger responsibilities in public health or clinical health” he said. “The role in part depends on the views of the secretary and in part on the interests of the CMO.” 

Murphy gets advice from his four deputy CMOs, along with the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), made up of state and territory chief medical officers and invited experts, which he presents to the National Cabinet.

Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) president Dr Harry Nespolon told Inq so far, Murphy had been taking a holistic approach to the crisis. “He’s done a good job trying to match the needs of sick people and of that with the economy and doing our best to try to keep society going. That’s always going to be a difficult decision.” 

With Greg Hunt, another moderate Victorian Liberal at the helm, Murphy was made the Department of Health’s secretary in January this year — the first doctor to hold the position for more than three decades. He’s set to take up the role once the coronavirus crisis subsides. 

While journalists have said Murphy looks tired, O’Gorman stressed Murphy is suited for the role: “He’s very good at drawing disparate talents together and getting the best out of all of them. He’s a good deliberator.”

Though he might find the banality of politics frustrating, Murphy “doesn’t suffer fools,” O’Gorman said. “He wants the conversation to be intellectually driven, not small talk driven.”

Allen Cheng, an infectious diseases physician who sits on the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), which advises Murphy, told Inq the doctor was dealing with a lot of media attention.

“I don’t think anyone would expect this amount of scrutiny,” he said. As for the Tasmanian dinner party rumour, “he’d be the first to say there’s been a few slip-ups.”

Next, Inq takes a look inside Murphy’s advisory committee.

Peter Fray

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