Having now had a quick read of Podger’s book (following on from the previous post), I recommend it strongly as an eminently readable and quite fascinating insight into the workings of the upper echelons of the public service and government.
It also includes many revealing anecdotes and observations about key events in the health portfolio – and more than a few entertaining vignettes. It’s also worth noting that it includes quite a deal of self-critical reflection.
Some quick snippets:
• There is quite a bit of discussion about the pressures created by the 24/7 media cycle and how it has made it more difficult for departmental chiefs “to devote personal time and departmental resources to longer-term policy research and analysis”.
• Perhaps Tony Abbott was not the obstacle to health reform that he is so often portrayed as having been: “Abbott also was more willing than his colleagues to address structural reform in health when I was advising the Prime Minister on health services delivery in 2005”.
• Former Health Minister Dr Michael Wooldridge gets many favourable mentions (and a few not so favourable), including “Minister Wooldridge should be given great credit for successfully addressing the alarming drop in child immunisation rates in the period to 1996. Through careful highlighting of individual cases of deaths from failure to immunise children against measles in particular, he turned our bland statistics of falling immunisation rates into headline stories of personal tragedies and a sense of crisis that had to be addressed…The political crisis fostered by Wooldridge made the Prime Minister and other ministers sympathetic to the measures proposed, which were agreed to by cabinet in early 1997.”
• We also learn that Wooldridge tried hard to win extra funding for Indigenous health “but his attempts to lock in more substantial increases every year for 10 years received no support from his ministerial colleagues”. And while Wooldridge had Prime Minister Howard’s “full confidence” in many areas of his portfolio, this was not so much the case in public health policy, such as illicit drugs, and in the relationship between private health insurance and Medicare (“it was widely known within the government that the department had not supported the 30 per cent rebate initiative at the time”).
• The federal health department can’t claim that it hasn’t had plenty of time to prepare for some of the recommendations in the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission report, many of which were being discussed by senior departmental officers while Wooldridge was Minister. Options they canvassed included “increasing Commonwealth leadership in health, including possible full financial takeover, restructuring the regulation of private health insurance, broadening the base of primary health care and strengthening cost-effectiveness criteria for government health benefits”.
• The NHMRC cops a caning: “In Health, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) ostensibly provided the umbrella for linking with the research community, but its emphasis was on medical research and I struggled for six years to get the council to focus seriously on public health, health services delivery or health economics (despite two review reports, endorsed by the government, giving them extra resources precisely for these purposes). I tended to look elsewhere, attending seminars and conferences of experts from various universities. Professor Stephen Leeder at Sydney University was particularly helpful in the early days, hosting a regular private forum attended mostly by NSW health officials and Sydney University academics, which I participated in whenever I could.”
Some of the more humorous/revealing anecdotes
• “Twice during the kerosene baths crisis, while in difficult meetings with Bishop and her advisers, I was called away to answer an urgent phone call from the portfolio minister, Wooldridge. While each time there was some point of substance to the call, the main purpose was: ‘I thought you might need a break, Andrew.’”
• Any tips on who this could be, Croakey readers? “At one state dinner, my wife and I were seated at a table with a prominent shadow minister, who proceeded to lead the conversation in berating the Public Service. I tried to respond diplomatically. It was to no avail. Moreover, I felt we were being treated as ‘servants’ rather than as fellow guests (and fellow hosts) at the dinner. This became particularly clear at the end of the evening when the MP asked my wife and me to arrange more red wine; when I explained that the wine service had stopped, she readily accepted my wife’s offer of her full glass! It was a useful tip for when the MP later became a senior minister.
• And who was this Minister, doodling during Senate hearings? “To the occasional chagrin of the minister sitting beside me, I did not always stick to the rule of answering only the question asked, even if that rule is generally a good one…I can recall on one occasion a minister doodling rather ostentatiously and constantly on a pad beside me as my officers and Health Insurance Commission officers answered questions on Medicare, the doodling being in the form of a schoolchild’s 50 lines, each stating something like ‘Why don’t they just answer the question. Why don’t they just answer the question’.
• And this quite astounding account of a retreat for senior departmental executives after the 1996 election “There was unease about the new government, particularly after the dismissal of a number of secretaries (including the husband of one of my division heads), the culture among senior executives was more akin to that of robber barons than united leadership and there was unease about me as the new secretary. I engaged one of the best facilitators in Canberra, Lynette Glendinning, to assist me. She has told me often in the years since that it was the toughest assignment she ever faced. One division head sat in the centre, arms folded and legs outstretched, making it abundantly clear he was there under sufferance….Two other division heads sat to one side, crocheting a tea cosy…”
Podger’s book will be useful for many – gossips, students of history, political science and policy, scriptwriters for The Hollowmen, and also for researchers wanting to understand or influence the policy process.
This may be particularly relevant for the latter: “Much has been written about ‘policy cycles’, from decisions to implementation to evaluation and advice, contributing to new decisions. That is a useful normative approach emphasising the importance of systematic review and evaluation, but it is not an accurate description of real practice. Political decisions are taken when opportunities arise. Departments and secretaries need to have a store of good policy ideas to put to ministers at opportune times.”
It is clear from Podger’s book that governments and bureaucracies these days put much more effort and resources into “media management”, making it very difficult for journalists to gain useful information from insiders. We rely instead on people like Podger keeping detailed diaries. Will we be reading Jane Halton’s one day?