Calls for full inquiry as minister's review labelled 'half-baked'
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Calls for full inquiry as minister's review labelled 'half-baked'

Health Minister Meegan Fitzharris says she rejected calls for a judicial inquiry into ACT Health due to its potential to turn into a "witch hunt",  as some health groups label her alternative proposal "half baked".

Ms Fitzharris announced an independent review into ACT Health's culture on Monday, after months of escalating concerns around governance and bullying.

Health Minister Meegan Fitzharris announced the independent review on Monday.

Health Minister Meegan Fitzharris announced the independent review on Monday.

Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

But she fell short of announcing a judicial inquiry - called for by the AMA on Monday - which would have had similar powers and witness protections of a royal commission.

Some health groups are concerned the government's proposal for an independent review into ACT Health is "half baked" and won't get to the heart of issues within the system.

Ms Fitzharris told The Canberra Times an inquiry with the powers of a royal commission would have the potential to turn into a "witch hunt" and cause emotional distress to staff.

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"This must be a safe process for everyone so people are encouraged and feel safe to come forward to be heard," she said.

"Turning this into the equivalent of a royal commission has the potential to cause personal and professional harm and emotional distress to people who work in our health system, including those on the frontline."

In an opinion piece ACT AMA president Antonio Di Dio maintained the review must have the powers of a judicial inquiry, including public hearings, the ability to call witnesses and the ability for staff to tell their stories while being legally protected from reprisals.

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"Our patients, our colleagues and our members are telling us that they’re losing confidence in the ACT Health care system and the AMA believes it’s time for the local medical profession to play a leading role in changing the workplace culture," he said.

"The driving force of our intervention is to ensure that the community can continue to have confidence in the ACT healthcare system."

Australian Salaried Medical Officers' Federation ACT secretary Stephen Crook said the government's "half baked" proposal was designed to avoid public scrutiny.

He said the real issue was poor governance within ACT Health which was affecting how people were being treated in the workplace.

"It needs to be a full judicial inquiry and it needs to be played out in public," Mr Crook said.

"They've had these bullying and harassment reviews before and nothing has really changed.

"This type of review would allow [the government] full control about what comes out.

"They're going to pay for it and whoever's doing it will give them the answers they want.

"They're afraid of what will come out in a proper inquiry."

Nursing and Midwifery Union ACT secretary Matthew Daniel said he did not think a full judicial inquiry was warranted but said the government needed to ensure people were legally protected.

"We welcome the inquiry, the concerns are around will people [giving evidence] be protected properly?" he said.

"My concern about a more high level inquiry is it could cost a lot of money which could have an impact on the health budget.

"I'm not keen on a judicial inquiry, it could take a lot longer to achieve ... while the issue remains a political football."

Former independent Health Minister Michael Moore said the announcement of a review was a political and practical necessity, but said there would need to be real evidence of systemic issues throughout the whole hospital to warrant a judicial inquiry.

"You've got to be careful you're not just giving a voice to people who are not comfortable with change," he said.

Ms Fitzharris told The Canberra Times the mechanisms of the inquiry were still being considered including whether it would include public hearings.

"This is still under consideration, and there are serious issues to weigh up regarding the privacy of individuals," she said.

"This will be about learning and healing and uncovering the workplace culture issues across our public health system, and giving people a mechanism to share their stories safely and privately and for ACT Health to learn from these."

Ms Fitzharris rejected suggestions the review was no different from others in previous years.

"It will be independent," she said.

"We have never had a review as broad as this. The review will also consider other inquiries that have been done.

"This review is about a shared commitment by government and stakeholders to address issues of workplace culture and set in place clear processes – as a result of the review’s recommendations – that lead to best practice workplace culture in the delivery of public healthcare to Canberrans.

"It must also lead to lasting change."

She said it was clear that things had greatly improved under the leadership of director general Michael De'Ath, who was appointed after former director general Nicole Feely left the organisation in March.

Daniella White is a reporter for The Canberra Times with a special focus on health issues