Who is Australia’s worst Health Minister?

In the past 50 years Australia has had 23 Health Ministers. But who is the worst?

Two of them, Lance Barnard and Arthur Sinodinos get passes, because Barnard and Whitlam were Ministers for everything in 1972 and Sinodinos merely filled in temporarily.

Neil Blewett, Brian Howe and Nicola Roxon would be among the best mainly because they focussed on major policy reform; expanded preventative medical programs; and tried to integrate health policy into broader policy perspectives.

The idea that it is better to keep people well rather than dealing with them after they get sick is widely accepted although LNP Governments strenuously resist attempts to include sugar and health labelling in the mix along with anything they dub as ‘nanny state stuff’.

Jim Forbes had the right academic background but was short tempered when Whitlam accused him of alcohol abuse – whether rightly or wrongly is still debated. Sussan Ley was, as in any of her portfolios, hopeless and out of her depth.

Tony Abbott was also out of his depth and in a portfolio which neither suited his pugilistic style and temperament let alone his religious and political leanings.

There have been many others.  Jim Carlton was a decent man who would be out of step with the modern Liberal Party; Graham Richardson was Graham Richardson; Peter Baume at least knew something about medicine; Kay Patterson was competent; and others – Don Chipp, Carmen Lawrence and Ralph Hunt for instance – are known less for holding the portfolio than for other reasons.

Michael Wooldridge was an interesting exception. A medico by training radicalised (on the conservative side) by the Victorian doctor’s strike he presided over fundamental reforms to private health – some of them increasing subsidies and some targeting pricing policies which reduced demographic anomalies in take up.

Whatever one thinks of the benefits or otherwise of the policy research showed they were popular among voters although the strain is showing on the system now.

In the context of Australia’s current situation Wooldridge’s greatest achievement was the 1997 new version of the NHMRC publication (The Australian Immunisation Handbook which gave practitioners clear guidance about immunisation and provided an accessible summary of the relevant data on vaccine-preventable diseases in Australia.

It wasn’t the first edition but Wooldridge launched at the same time a major multi-faceted public awareness which entrenched awareness in the community of the need for vaccination. If Scott Morrison was ever to take advice on vaccination from anyone other than market researchers, ad men and Pentecostals Wooldridge would be a good person to call.

Wooldridge is also the source of one of the best anecdotes about politics and positions. He once recounted how when first elected Deputy Leader to John Hewson he received thousands of letters and calls.

When he lost the position he got a handful. You can guess whose calls got to the front of his queue when he became a Minister.

So, while there are the good, the bad, the awful, the inept, the nonentities and the place keepers among the 23 who is the worst?

Back in August 2018 John Menadue wasn’t in any doubt writing: “And then there was Peter Dutton’s first ministerial performance as Minister for Health in the Abbott government.  As a result of his performance in Health, he had to be shifted to Immigration.

“As Minister for Health he was responsible for the $7 co-payment mess which he vigorously pursued for months.  He abolished the National Prevention Health Agency, an outcome which is disastrous for the long-term health of Australians.  He opposed the plain packaging of tobacco.

“The Australian Doctor magazine has a readership of around 20,000, mostly GPs and specialists.  In a survey of its readers, 46% out of 1,100 readers ranked him as ‘the worst health minister in 35 years’”, Menadue said.

His recent performance as Immigration Minister, given his priority of stopping the boats and inventing new forms of cruelty for refugees, didn’t extend to the Ruby Princess affair and its implications for the pandemic.

It is odds on that in a year or so will also be ranked as the worst Defence Minister yet but whether Menadue’s rating of him can stand up in the face of Greg Hunt’s performance is another matter altogether.

Greg Hunt is the son of a Victorian Hamer era Minister, Alan Hunt, whose planning policies were typical of the Hamer enlightened and competent approach to policy.

Now competent is not a word when Greg Hunt springs to mind. While it is also not woke to mention it – even though it is Morrison Government policy to oppose wokeness – his piping voice adds little to what little sense of authority he already projects.

He is of course the messenger for the Morrison mess but nevertheless he is the Minister during a pandemic and, in a world where Ministerial responsibility would still have some meaning, he would be regarded as a monumental failure and sacked.

The pandemic is the biggest health crisis we have faced since AIDS first appeared. It took a while but we started to get that rightm despite some abysmal starts such as the Grim Reaper ad campaign, when the policy response moved from scare advertising and fear to grass roots cooperation with affected groups and factual information about the practices which exacerbated the problem.

It has taken a while with COVID too but we don’t seem to have adapted as fast or as effectively as we did with AIDS.

Indeed, Minister Hunt has presided over the failure to co-ordinate with the States; constant blame shifting; lies and misleading claims about the Government’s vaccine procurement strategy; creating false hopes about the vaccine  roll out; and, a failure  in  the vaccine roll-out  which ranked us, a couple of weeks after we were allegedly going to have vaccinated four million Australians, either 76th or 104th out of 152 countries sitting alongside or behind (just for the B’s alone) Botswana and Bolivia.

The only thing to be said in his defence is that he is carrying the can for the real culprit – our Prime Minister.