Last Wednesday the Canberra community was blindsided when the ACT Greens-Labor coalition government announced they would be forcibly acquiring Calvary Hospital, its land and its assets, ripping up their 76-year contract and essentially forcing all of the Calvary staff to work for ACT Health.
The ACT government had clearly been plotting for months in secret to do this and excluded Calvary management and staff from any discussions. The legislation to make this happen was tabled in the Assembly without any notice and will be rammed through without proper scrutiny on the next sitting day, May 31.
This is being done despite the minister admitting that Calvary has been delivering good healthcare and is not in any breach of its contract.
Not surprisingly, Calvary and its owner the Little Company of Mary are devastated.
The chief executive officer Martin Bowles had been in discussions with the government about the provision of hospital services in the north of Canberra but had not heard from the government for six months, "I heard nothing effectively and then I got a call to say, 'Can you come in on Monday, the minister wants to talk'. I turn up and she says, 'I'm introducing legislation that will compulsorily acquire your land and buildings and will also terminate the contract you have in place'."
Many of the 1800 staff at Calvary are very upset. They have chosen to work at Calvary because of its good culture which stands in contrast to ACT Health, which is well known from numerous staff surveys to have a toxic workplace culture and poor management practices.
Calvary staff contacting the opposition have expressed their dismay with some not certain if they will transition to ACT Health. What impact this will have on ACT Health's ability to run clinical services at Calvary once the takeover is completed by July 3 is unclear.
What is also very unclear is whether ACT Health will be able to manage the hospital services as well as Calvary currently does. Staff have questioned why ACT Health would think it could do a better job than Calvary when it is itself plagued by so many problems.
Dr Paul Burt, former head of the anaesthetics departments at both Canberra Hospital and Calvary public hospital, is quoted of having "... accused the ACT government of 'dubious managerial competence' in its administration of the health service it currently runs.' "It's had problems in cardiology, obstetrics, intensive care, paediatrics, plastic surgery, just to name a few," he said.
If this forced acquisition proceeds, the question is also at what cost beyond the potential degradation of clinical services and staff culture. How many hundreds of millions of dollars is the taxpayer going to be required to spend to change from Calvary to ACT Health ownership without a single quantifiable benefit?
The ACT government's arguments about a single, integrated service being easier to run are hard to justify and are not accepted in other jurisdictions like Queensland, Victoria and NSW which work cooperatively and effectively with organisations like Mater and St Vincent's to deliver public hospital services.
This whole exercise appears more ideological than it does based on good policy. It is being viewed by many as an anti-faith agenda by a Greens-Labor Coalition and it is hard not to believe that at its heart, that's what's driving this whole saga.
Even senator Katy Gallagher warned of the folly of proceeding down the route of compulsory acquisition, saying back in 2010: "That would cause a lot of conflict, it would put the system into disarray."
It is clear now that in 2023, the ACT government wants this fight. It wants the conflict, and it is determined to win at any cost to the staff, to taxpayers and to the community.
The way they have plotted in secret and ambushed Calvary, the speed with which this is happening, and the circumvention of democratic process does not speak of a government acting in good faith. Rather it shows a government that is riding roughshod over an organisation that has provided a great service to Canberra for over 40 years.
The question on everyone's tongue is, who is next? Will it be Clare Holland House, also run by Calvary? Or maybe the racecourse, which the government has had its eyes on for a while now. Because once a government starts behaving like a dictatorship, history shows us, they seldom stop.
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