Health Department secretary Brendan Murphy (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Professor Brendan Murphy is emerging as a frontrunner in next week’s Australian of the Year awards. But there are doubts about whether the secretary of the health department and former chief medical officer (CMO) should be in contention.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison personally recommended Murphy for the health department role in January last year following his stint as CMO.

As a government appointed senior bureaucrat, Murphy has a range of potential conflicts that some say should exclude him from winning the national award.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet also directly funds the awards, stumping up $14.6 million in grant funding last financial year — up from $3.8 million the year before.

And Murphy’s own department, the Department of Health, has contributed $253,000 and $1.1 million respectively towards this year’s young and senior Australian of the Year portion of the awards as a partner organisation.

In a year that was defined by panic and uncertainty, it’s easy to see why the avuncular Murphy would seem like an obvious choice for the award. Known as a modest man, it’s possible that giving Murphy the award would be seen as a way of recognising all front line health workers.

But critics have also painted Murphy as a political operator, pointing to his refusal to cooperate with the Senate last year over questions about medical advice given to the government. This culminated in Murphy refusing to release a list of aged care facilities in Victoria that were battling outbreaks of coronavirus, citing potential “reputational issues” for the centres.

Murphy was named the ACT’s Australian of the Year by the National Australia Day Council’s ACT division — separate from the ACT government — putting him in the running for the national Australian of the Year award.

If he wins the national award it will be a resounding validation of the Morrison government’s handling of the pandemic, as well as its decision to appoint Murphy as secretary of the health department.

But it would also be a departure from previous Australian of the Year awards, which typically acknowledge the work of community leaders rather than public servants.

Murphy would be the first currently serving public servant to win the award since it was awarded to Peter Cosgrove in 2001 while he was chief of the army.

Independent Senator Rex Patrick said while Murphy had shown leadership during the pandemic, his refusal to answer questions in the Senate made him undeserving of the award.

“Professor Murphy has performed valuable public service throughout the pandemic. I cannot question his commitment and tenacity,” he said.

“However there are elements of Professor Murphy’s professional conduct which, in my view, have not met public expectations and would disqualify him from such a prestigious award.”

“The professor refused to be open and transparent with the public he serves and did so at the behest of his political masters.”

“In that sense he has been politically cowardly. He is undeserving of an extraordinary public award.”

Patrick said it was also inappropriate for a public servant to be rewarded simply for doing their job.

“Only in the most extraordinary of circumstances would it be appropriate to name a public servant as Australian of the Year for doing what is expected of them and for which they receive a public salary.”

Mark McKenna, an associate professor of history at the University of Sydney, said while there was some precedent for current public servants being recognised as Australian of the Year, it exposed the awards to political self-interest.

“You couldn’t divorce political self-interest on the government’s part from that decision. You’d really have to be willfully looking in the opposite direction to ignore that,” he said.

“It’s important to ask the question, how independent is this process? We should be more proactive in seeking the independence of these decisions.”