The ACT Government’s Calvary Public Hospital takeover will be “rammed” through the territory’s legislative assembly in just three weeks, after the government voted to suspend normal procedures amid accusations of “quasi-dictatorship” from the territory’s Liberals.
Claiming that a swift transition would reduce uncertainty for staff and patients of Calvary, the ACT government has signalled a formal transition from 31 May and acquisition date of 3 July.
The standing orders of the ACT legislative assembly, which has no upper house, require bills to be referred to a committee inquiry. Only after a report is issued can the bill be debated and voted on.
But the government has moved to waive these usual requirements, meaning while an inquiry could be held the ACT government can push ahead with the acquisition without waiting for its report and recommendations.
Acting opposition leader Jeremy Hanson said the government was trying to ram through the legislation to keep the content of negotiations with Calvary Public Hospital management, which reportedly broke down six months ago, from being exposed.
Mr Hanson also said the government did not want to have the previous ACT chief minister, now-Senator Katy Gallagher, summoned to explain remarks made in 2010, when she said, “compulsory acquisition could also be a disaster that would cause a lot of conflict and would put the system into disarray.”
“Now this is legislation which in its effect is probably the most significant piece of legislation in this term of government. And the decision not to follow due process and have an inquiry and examine these issues is simply undemocratic,” Mr Hanson said.
Citing the Archbishop of Canberra-Goulburn, Christopher Prowse, who has expressed shock at the takeover, Mr Hanson said, “People are genuinely frightened by this.”
“You are going into a respected organisation in Canberra, without any warning, and you are ending them. You are ending them.”
“A lot of people in this town are saying, ‘Who’s next?’ Look at the way they behave like bullies, like dictators, a quasi-dictatorship here in the ACT.”
Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said that by 2041 the demand for hospital services on Canberra’s north side would be double the capacity of the existing Calvary Public Hospital.
After a 2016 scoping study and 2020 condition assessment the decision to remediate the old hospital, built in 1971, was taken off the table.
Instead a new hospital would be built at a cost of $1bn, with construction starting in 2025.
Ms Stephen-Smith told the legislative assembly that the decision to acquire the hospital and its land was to integrate the Canberra health system under a single publicly-owned operator.
Among the advantages of doing so was the removal of “ambiguities in clinical governance,” she said.
“While this decision is a difficult one for Calvary, and has not been an easy one for the government to make, this is not a decision about Calvary as an organisation. It is a decision about providing the best public health system and infrastructure for Canberra.
“There are some who will want to take this as an attack on the Catholic Church, and on faith-based care.
“I want to assure members that is no such thing. The government partners with many faith-based and Catholic organisations in the delivery of services, and we will continue to do so.
“Indeed, we will continue to partner with Calvary’s private hospitals in the delivery of healthcare, and I am pleased that Calvary has indicated it intends to remain part of the territory’s healthcare system.”
Mr Hanson said the ACT government was disrespecting staff by mounting a hostile takeover and suspending normal processes, saying some had contacted him describing scenes of distress and tears at Calvary.
“You are disrespecting the staff, and it is egregious that you are hiding behind those very same staff who are in tears,” he said.
The ACT government will compulsorily acquire Calvary Public Hospital, operated by the Little Company of Mary, less than a month after a government inquiry into abortion and reproductive choice described Calvary as “problematic … due to an overriding religious ethos.”
ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith will introduce laws to acquire the hospital into the ACT Legislative Assembly on Thursday 11 May, and will rapidly take control and ownership, with a transition team delivering the facility over to Canberra Health Services from 3 July.
The hospital will be acquired on “just terms” and its 1800 staff will be retained, but will ultimately be demolished and replaced by a new $1 billion hospital on the existing site.
The Archbishop of Canberra-Goulburn, Christopher Prowse, said he was “totally stunned and shocked” by the decision, “which came without warning or discussion.”
“We are utterly astounded. There has been no formal contact with the Archdiocese, nor has any reason been given,” Archbishop Prowse said.
“The lack of transparency of the ACT Government raises several questions and concerns. It is a very sad day when governments can simply decide to mount a take-over of any enterprise they like without any justification.
“This is certainly a worrying precedent.”
It is understood that after several months of dialogue, the government ceased participating in good faith negotiations with Calvary Hospital and prepared this decision without warning or consultation.
The Archdiocese is meeting with Calvary Health Care to discuss these developments.
Catholic Health Australia said the move would be “alarming to not just Catholics, but all communities of faith.”
“Our immediate concern lies with the 1800 employees at the hospital who have not been consulted about the potential ramifications of this decision. But longer term this is a distributing precedent for any government to set,” said CHA Chairman John Watkins AM.
“Catholic hospitals account for around 10 per cent of the country’s total hospital services and treat more than 1.5 million patients annually. If they are to continue to provide their vital role they need to know their long-term arrangements will not be unilterally terminated on a whim.”
Calvary National CEO Martin Bowles said staff had not been consulted at all about the government’s decision to acquire the hospital.
“Calvary is extremely disappointed in the ACT Government’s unexpected and unilateral decision to introduce legislation that effectively dissolves our partnership on public health delivery in the territory,” Mr Bowles said in a statement.
But in their joint media release Ms Stephen-Smith and Chief Minister Andrew Barr said they had negotiated with Calvary for “many months.”
“However, these negotiations were not successful in delivering an outcome consistent with the evolving needs of the ACT community,” the release said.
Mr Barr and Ms Stephen-Smith’s announcement made no mention of the recent abortion and reproductive choice inquiry.
Nevertheless the inquiry’s report was withering in its assessment of the hospital, raising a case study of a patient who told the committee she had suffered an incomplete miscarriage and was denied a dilation and curettage treatment, on the grounds that it could also be used to perform abortions.
“This incident parallels, locally, the international concerns at governments’ outsourcing public health care to Catholic organisations,” the report read.
“It is the view of the Committee that the aforementioned patient’s experience is unacceptable and that the ACT Government needs to address what the Committee perceives as an ethically fraught dependence on the Sisters of the Little Company of Mary for provision of health services.
“At a minimum, Calvary Public Hospital needs to … refer the patient to another publicly funded facility.”
Calvary chief medical advisor Dr Tracey Tay said in response to the report that Calvary took its responsibilities as a public health provider “very seriously” despite conscientiously objecting to the provision of elective terminations.
“Canberra women can be assured Calvary Public Hospital Bruce absolutely does and will continue to care for them and provide immediate emergency treatment when experiencing miscarriage,” she said.
The Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn’s chancellor, Patrick McArdle, said at the time that requiring a Catholic hospital to perform elective terminations was a breach of conscience and human rights.
“People are entitled to know there are services we don’t offer. We are committed to life in all its forms, from conception to natural death. That’s part and parcel of our commitment to being compassionate and merciful.
“First and foremost, we are required to be compassionate. And for us, that means enhancing life, not seeking to end life.”
Calvary also opposed the introduction of voluntary assisted dying (euthanasia) in the ACT and refused to implement the scheme if legalised, putting the hospital at further odds with the ACT government, which was a dogged supporter of the Restoring Territory Rights Bill passed in November last year.
“Calvary’s position on voluntary assisted dying is well-known and well-documented. If a voluntary assisted dying bill is passed in the ACT, Calvary will not participate in its implementation or delivery,” Calvary wrote in a submission on voluntary assisted dying last month.
MORE TO COME