When estimates go Pythonesque

By Stephen Easton

March 1, 2018

Sometimes, exchanges in Senate estimates start to sound like the Monty Python skit about the argument clinic.

The client complains that it’s not even a real argument. “Yes it is,” John Cleese fires back instantly, but the client insists it’s really just a series of contradictions.

Sometimes it’s easy to get the official terms mixed up. The semantics don’t really matter as much as the facts, but if that’s what you’re relying on in your answer to a senator’s questions, it’s important to be clear if you misspeak.

To get the facts out of the way first, there is no chief medical officer in the immigration and border protection bureaucracy that is the core of the nascent Department of Home Affairs.

There has not been since Dr John Brayley left the role in September. Secretary Michael Pezzullo said the process to find a replacement was “close to conclusion” in estimates on Monday. Deputy secretary Steven Groves said interviews had been conducted on February 20 and referees were being checked.

Brayley’s responsibilities have been fulfilled by first assistant secretary for health services and policy, Elizabeth Hampton, who is not a medical practitioner. The committee heard she takes advice from doctors, nurses, dieticians, exercise physiologists, occupational therapists and the like, both employed by the department and external service providers.

Here’s the Monty Python bit.

“Do we have a chief medical officer at the moment, Mr Pezzullo?” asked Greens senator Nick McKim.

“We have someone acting in the role and we are currently undertaking a recruitment process,” the secretary replied.

Minutes later, Pezzullo and Groves explained that actually, Hampton was not acting chief medical officer at all. Nobody is and she holds “a different band 2 role” in the department.

“We’ve never had anyone acting in the role of CMO who was not a doctor,” Pezzullo said, contradicting his previous remark.

“There is nobody acting in the CMO role at the moment,” said Groves.

“I’m sorry,” said McKim, “didn’t Mr Pezzullo give evidence a couple of minutes ago that there was?”

“No,” said Groves. “He said that there was a first assistant secretary who was heading up our health services and policy area, which is very closely aligned to and works closely with the CMO.”

Yes he did.

The facts still came out. But rather than quickly apologise and accept the secretary’s initial answer was not quite 100% accurate, the DHA executives elected to contradict themselves, and the senator, on the record.

McKim confirmed again that they were talking about two different roles.

“Correct,” said Groves.

“And you have no-one acting in the role of CMO?”

“Correct.”

Later, Pezzullo explained more about how Hampton has been holding the fort and why it won’t go on that way.

“She manages, for want of a better phrase, a collective of doctors. Let’s for the moment just call them a collective. Is that a sustainable position? No.

“She has a day job to do, which is to administer, like a hospital administrator, contracts and the rest of it that ensure meals are being provided and the linen is being changed in the hospitals.”

The secretary said his “personal preference” was to have “an enduring arrangement” where a dedicated chief medical officer was employed as a band 2 equivalent specialist, like Dr Brayley.

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