Flat White

The new COVID crisis shows Victoria’s public health administration is in deadly decline

4 January 2021

1:45 PM

4 January 2021

1:45 PM

With the Victorian-New South Wales border shut again and the holiday plans of tens of thousands thrown into chaos it’s not politics or even covid that dominate their thoughts — but the reality that the State they call home appears to have a barely functioning health system. 

Just ‘getting by’ between crises is hardly a basis upon which to enter 2021 — and yet it’s precisely how 2020 began for Victorians who need to rely on the public health system.

Despite all the disruption and sacrifices of last year again we have draconian regulations reimposed upon us, closed interstate highways and the young and old among thousands queuing for hours at testing stations. 

What passes for the soon to be split Department of Health and Human Services is a crumbling, leaderless edifice teetering on the edge of collapse and relying on processes and practices more relevant to the 1970s.

It’s a self-serving department in which ‘left-leaning‘ political ideology predominates at all levels, evidence of one’s loyalty to the Labor government is a precondition for advancement and the interests of ill and ageing taxpayers take second place to the self-interest of bureaucrats. In other words, the health of the public is not the main game. 

Former Health Minister, now Premier, Daniel Andrews, seems conveniently to have reached the view that intervention is needed with a substantial — and long overdue — restructure of health now ‘in play.’

Whether it makes a jot of difference to public health outcomes remains to be seen, but what is clear is the blinding recognition by Andrews of his government’s failure in health.

Without diminishing the ongoing heroic work of medical and paramedical staff within the system, alarm felt by sick and older Victorians’ about the system they pay for, appears to be entirely justified. 

They, and millions of others, have lost trust in the system supposed to keep them well. 

The official inquiry by Jennifer Coate into the catastrophic Victorian Covid-19 hotel quarantining program confirms beyond doubt the breakdown, in mid-2020, of public health administration at the point it was most needed. Chaos prevailed when steady leadership was needed. 

The truth of this bumbling, shambolic administration was a truly appalling loss of life, from an ‘orphan’ decision by government, the life and death consequences of which are unmatched in the history of Victoria.

The full dispiriting reality of Victoria as it limps through this first week of January is the systemic failure of public administration and its cost in human lives. Also true is that the decay in the massively costly and failing public health system may well be emblematic of trouble elsewhere in government. 

Infrastructure delays and cost blowouts across the board, debt and deficit budgets for decades to come, education facilities and processes inadequate for the times and public transport policy built on decades-long promises are just some of the issues confronting taxpayers.

But back to what happened this past 12 months and the deadly consequences which followed.

Indecision, panic, incompetence were the hallmarks of the Andrews’ government at the very moment the community had an expectation of calm, measured, planned, decision making from those occupying chairs within the grandly titled State Control Centre.

The Premier’s response was to talk his way through the nightmare. Andrews believed if he could talk a lot, while saying nothing, he could transfix the electorate with his rehearsed and feigned sentiments.  Disturbingly, large numbers of voters and most of the media appeared to fall for the con.

By Premier Andrews’ own confirmation the government was “under pressure.” It did not have the luxury of time nor did it have the experience in managing anything remotely on the scale of the pandemic. In short, nobody, it seems from evidence to the Coate Inquiry, knew where or when decisions were being made, by whom, or the likely consequences of them.

The scandal of this episode is that more than 70,000 documents produced could not demonstrate how the fateful decision to engage untrained, inexperienced private contractors was made or by whom. 

This was decision making by text and social media — nothing more, nothing less.

The result, as we know, was that millions of taxpayers dollars were spent which, rather than saving lives, led directly and unequivocally to the deaths of 801 people, 642 of them in aged care facilities.   The resulting four-month lockdown caused untold suffering for millions of Victorians, economic ruin and a likely spike in mental related illnesses for young and old alike.

Leaving aside the insulting inadequacy of Premier Andrews’ remarks when the Coate Report was released — and his crass attempt to again cast blame in every direction but his own — it’s clear that public administration faulted when all of us needed it to function.

It’s long been known that the leaden structures, bureaucracy and ideologically riven systems inside the byzantine DHHS were hopelessly outmoded for contemporary requirements.  It struggled to ‘get by’ in non-critical periods, but collapsed in the crisis that mattered.

Blame does not lie with medical or paramedical staff attached to the department. They did all they could within the utterly inadequate political constraints under which they were forced to operate.   

Serious fault does, however, lie with those purporting to run the state. Andrews’ dictatorial management style, coupled with the now obvious and manifest incompetence of those at the State Crisis Centre table, compel us to the view that accountability rests with the person who claimed mid-year he would shoulder it.

Whatever happens to this flawed Premier is a sideshow compared with the absolute imperative of rebuilding Victoria’s public administration and bringing even a veneer of relevance to the century in which we are living.  Leftist ideological zealots and political operatives have no place in the system taxpayers expect. 

Keeping uppermost in our minds as 2021 approaches those who lost their lives through the government’s astounding incompetence let us not forget that billions of our dollars are propping up a defective, inefficient and profoundly ideological public sector — when all we want is one that actually works.

John Simpson is a Melbourne company director and governance adviser. 

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments