Updated 30/05/2023 – Marilyn Rodrigues
Calvary Health has committed to mounting a legal challenge to the ACT Government’s compulsory acquisition of Calvary Public Hospital if debate on the bill, slated for 31 May, cannot be “adjourned to make room for genuine discourse.”
The announcement from Calvary National CEO Martin Bowles came as The Catholic Weekly went to print, amidst a sharp disagreement between the Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher OP, and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who has indicated his support for the hospital takeover.
A legal challenge was “the only response left available” Calvary national chief executive Martin Bowles wrote in a statement published on 30 May.
“Calvary continues to be frustrated by the ACT Government’s delays to consider any meaningful options for resolving the negotiations since introduction of [the bill] on 11 May, 2023, and has now been forced to take this step,” he wrote.
“Our review of the proposed legislation and associated regulation indicates that just terms are simply not available and outside of this there is no indication that commercial terms are available to resolve this matter.
“The proposed legislation was created for the ACT Government to compulsorily acquire the whole of Calvary’s public hospital enterprise including its land, the public hospital assets and other rights which Calvary has under the existing lease and Network Agreements.
“All we have is an announcement and an imposed unrealistic timeline that has distressed our people and could ultimately put clinical safety at risk.”
Archbishop Fisher has also issued his own statement calling on the community to write to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese about the “egregious” compulsory acquisition, after the prime minister told The Canberra Times he supported the ACT Government’s decision.
In a 30 May statement, Archbishop Fisher asked supporters to join him in writing to Mr Albanese to “ensure that that other governments around Australia who might feel emboldened by what the ACT Government is doing will not be able to just tear contracts up and remove faith-based operators from public institutions.”
“The Canberra Times reported that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has echoed the ACT Government’s line that the takeover was about expanding public hospital service and not about setting a precedent for governments to force faith-based institutions they don’t agree with out of business,” Archbishop Fisher wrote.
“[Mr Albanese] went on to say [to The Australian] that ‘the provision of services by Catholic and other faith-based entities in health, aged care, education, childcare, welfare and other areas is an important part of Australia’s social infrastructure.’
“It absolutely is, and we need to protect it.
“Unfortunately, successive governments, state and federal, have failed to provide meaningful protections for people of faith and religious institutions in this country.
“Even though numerous inquiries have acknowledged that Australia’s religious freedom laws are not up to the standard expected in international human rights instruments, there has been no action to protect them.
“Indeed, every time a government does act, it seems to be to further restrict religious freedoms, rather than safeguard them.
“While the Prime Minister’s words of support are helpful, they’re insufficient to alleviate concerns that religious freedom will continue to be eroded by the states and undefended by the Commonwealth.”
Archbishop Fisher said that former prime minister Tony Abbott, opposition leader Peter Dutton, former ACT chief ministers Jon Stanhope and Katy Gallagher and federal ACT MP David Smith have all offered criticisms of compulsory acquisition.
“It is an action so egregious that even secular organisations such as the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation have condemned it, saying the hard-working and dedicated staff at Calvary ‘deserved better’.”
The archbishop’s call follows an earlier letter to the prime minister from the Australian Catholic bishops asking him to intervene in the matter.
The letter, signed by Archbishops Fisher, Timothy Costelloe SDB of Perth, and Christopher Prowse of Canberra-Goulburn, said that although the ACT government had failed to provide a plausible rationale for the takeover it was hard not to see an anti-religious motivation.
They said it set a “dangerous precedent” for compulsory acquisition of faith-based health and aged care, schools and welfare organisations by governments around the country.
“Legislation was drafted without appropriate forewarning, and the government is seemingly dispensing itself from the requirements of the Land Acquisitions Act 1994 and parliamentary standing orders,” the bishops said.
“This is not an acceptable way for a democratically elected government to proceed.
“The ACT government has denied this takeover is religiously motivated.
“However, it is difficult to ignore criticisms of Calvary’s ‘overriding religious ethos’ in the recent Inquiry into Abortion and Reproductive Choice in the ACT and by some government members, and the imminent introduction of euthanasia and assisted suicide laws into the territory.
“The compulsory acquisition of Calvary Hospital is not just a ‘domestic’ matter for the ACT: it has implications for respect for religious belief and practice throughout Australia, and offers a blueprint for governments who may, for ideological reasons, seek to acquire church assets or diminish or remove religious ministries from our society.”
Criticisms also continue to mount from within the healthcare sector, with senior nurses at Calvary Hospital blasting the Canberra Health Service in an open letter to ACT health minister Rachel Stephen-Smith.
The nurses’ open letter said the ACT Government was “making an absolute mockery of the democratic process”, disrespecting staff, and presenting “misinformation and mixed messages” about the takeover.
“The way in which this has been done reflects poorly on the highest levels of leadership within the territory,” reads the 27 May letter.
“Calvary has a long-standing record of providing excellent care to the community.
“The recent media focused on the religious debate has attempted to undermine this; however, as employees of this organisation, many of whom are not Catholic, we would like to advocate that our staff work incredibly hard to provide compassionate care to all patients who present to the service, and make appropriate referrals to other services when and where required.
“Catholic or not, the values of Calvary as an organisation do actually mean something to the leadership teams and staff employed here.
“This should be of concern to any employer, as values and the capacity to lead by them are what embeds authenticity.
“CHS have shown us neither kindness nor respect by their recent actions.
“This leaves many of us here at Calvary with the question: how do we trust you?
“All of this sets up the system for failure from the outset. A system that cannot withstand much more given what it has been through in recent years.”
It follows an earlier letter by Australian Medical Association ACT branch president, Dr Walter Abhayaratna, to Ms Stephen-Smith, that the takeover sets a “terrible precedent” and that senior Calvary doctors felt disrespected, shocked, dismayed and angry.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has backed the ACT Government takeover of Calvary Public Hospital, just two days before legislation is likely to pass the ACT Legislative Assembly.
“The ACT government are expanding their public hospital service delivery and restructuring healthcare provision as a result,” he told The Canberra Times in a short statement.
The prime minister also disagreed with claims from senior Catholic clergy, including Archbishops Christopher Prowse of Canberra, Anthony Fisher OP of Sydney, and Julian Porteous of Hobart, along with the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, that the decision should worry non-government and faith-based service providers.
“It is not seen as providing any precedent by the ACT government and should not be by anyone else,” the prime minister said.
Australian Medical Association ACT branch president, Dr Walter Abhayaratna, wrote in a recent letter to the ACT health minister, Rachel Stephen-Smith, that the takeover sets a “terrible precedent” and that senior doctors felt disrespected, shocked, dismayed and angry at the rapid takeover.
Legislation to compulsorily acquire the hospital and land was introduced into the ACT Legislative Assembly on 10 May, and will likely be passed by the Labor-Greens majority government this Wednesday, on 31 May.
The takeover of the hospital has been slated for completion in early July, with ACT Government figures saying speed was of the essence to ensure an orderly transition to the government-run health network.
Despite insisting the takeover was not prompted by the hospital’s Catholic ethos, the takeover came less than a month after a scathing ACT Government inquiry into reproductive choice that described Calvary as “problematic … due to an overriding religious ethos” due to its non-provision of elective terminations.
Current and former ACT and federal Liberal Party politicians have lined up to slam the decision, most recently former defence minister Kevin Andrews, who wrote in The Spectator that, “The belief that this proposal is about abortion and euthanasia, which the ACT plans to introduce, is well-founded.”
“Is the next institution to be acquired Clare Holland House, the praised palliative care service also operated by Calvary?” he asked.
While Mr Albanese supports the decision, federal Labor MP for Bean David Smith has raised concerns about the decision.
“My concern is with change of this nature it’s just critical to ensure you consult all the relevant stakeholders but particularly the workforce,” he said on 20 May.
“We know there’s been a significant impact on the workforce through COVID and what we don’t want to see is further unintended consequences by a lack of certainty.”