A consistent approach to developing public policy is required

Australia is a Federation of States.  This does not just mean that each State is a different colour of the schoolroom map.  Each State has its own duties to its citizens from within the overall scheme of running a country.

There has always been a tension between the two levels of government and currently the management of health care facilities is the cause of friction, as reported, for instance, in The Age newspaper on 23 October 2009.   The current tension in this sector illustrates a trend that extends beyond health and into workplace safety legislation, human resources and social policy.

The Victorian Health Minister, Daniel Andrews,  is reported to have said that Canberra’s “health bureaucrats [are] remote and incapable of understanding the day-to-day needs of patients.”

“”You can never take it as a given that decision makers and policy makers at the bureaucratic level in Canberra understand how you deliver care in a bed, in a ward or in a country town, because they don’t do that: it’s not their world.”

This argument echoes some of the concerns being raised over the national harmonisation of OHS laws. In such a large country as Australia there are going to be cultural, demographic and geographical variations that a centralised system cannot service.  The Federal Government is hoping to harmonise workplace safety but it has already taken over industrial relations and is strongly threatening a takeover of health.  Why the inconsistency?

On 22 October 2009 at the HR Leadership Awards ceremony in Melbourne, the CEO of Carnival, Ann Sherry, said that centralised policy makers in Canberra are making important decisions from within a rarified world.  Sherry is a member of a review panel into the Australian Public Service (APS) and she identified several features of the APS, and shortcomings, as the service aims to become “world’s best practice in public administration”.  Amongst them:

  • 42% of public servants are younger than 45 years;
  • a highly educated workforce;
  • senior public service positions are centered in Canberra.

The last characteristic Sherry said has led to a disconnection between service design and delivery, echoing, to some extent, the concerns of Daniel Andrews on health policy.

It seems that there are many reviews and investigations occurring into how various industries and sectors in Australian business and government should be structured for the future, a future that is likely to be very different, climatically, economically and demographically.  But there is not a consistency in approaches, or at least one that is readily understood, even though the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, talks repeatedly about “nation building“.

The Australian Government has the best chance in a long time to set the country on a path of sustainable growth.  The United States, under President Barack Obama, has a similar opportunity.  Governments have an obligation to plan for the long-term benefit of their countries ands citizens, not the short-term gains of their political donors, political parties and lobbyists.  This obligation  is as relevant in occupational health and safety as it is anywhere.

Kevin Jones

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