13/03/2015 - 05:46

Labor must get priorities right

13/03/2015 - 05:46


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While acknowledging the issue of patient safety, Labor’s attack on delays at Fiona Stanley Hospital are equally concerned with the privatisation of services.

QUESTIONS: Serco’s performance at the new Fiona Stanley Hospital has come under fire. Photo: Attila Csaszar

While acknowledging the issue of patient safety, Labor’s attack on delays at Fiona Stanley Hospital are equally concerned with the privatisation of services. 

The row over the problems that have surfaced during the commissioning of the Fiona Stanley Hospital at Murdoch involves more than just patient welfare; at its heart is a major ideological battle between the Liberal and Labor parties.

But it also raises a serious question about Labor’s priorities in opposition.

The hospital’s problems have included shortcomings linked with sterilisation services, the cancellation of some operations, ‘dead’ spots for mobile phone services, and doctors pushing patient trolleys when porters have failed to turn up.

It goes without saying that none of these failings should be acceptable in Western Australia’s $2 billion-plus showpiece hospital. But the issue has added focus because Colin Barnett’s government has contracted out many services – normally carried out by public sector employees – to a private operator, the British-owned service provider Serco. The Labor Party is not happy, and the relevant unions are furious.

Labor recently zeroed in on Serco’s involvement, and the initial problems, through an urgency motion in the Legislative Assembly. Opposition leader Mark McGowan condemned Health Minister Kim Hames for the ‘privatisation of facilities management … and the subsequent failures and mismanagement’.

Rejecting contracting out of government services is an act of faith within Labor ranks, but there was an exception during the previous Gallop-Carpenter governments with expansion at the Joondalup Health Campus, to which Dr Hames alluded during debate.

Mr McGowan rightly questioned whether patient safety had been compromised, and asked what costs were involved in compensating for the system failures that had occurred. He also noted the damaging fact that $136 million had been paid to Serco as compensation for the lengthy delay in getting key support services up to scratch, resulting in the acceptance of patients being way behind schedule.

Dr Hames said farming out activities that were not direct patient services would save $500 million over the 20-year life of the contract, presumably because public sector employment conditions would not apply. Patient services would not be compromised.

It was the debate that had to happen. The cash-strapped government is desperate to save money, and has keenly promoted private sector involvement, especially in costly health services.

But the question has to be asked whether Labor would be making such a fuss if the problems encountered at the hospital had occurred with all staff employed by the public sector? It’s a hypothetical question, of course, but the answer would probably be ‘no’.

There are signs that the contracting out issue is distracting Labor MPs from the more significant matters concerning traditional party voters in the suburbs, who don’t greatly care who delivers the services as long as they are reliable.

The voters also want efficient public transport and road networks. In a recent question time, Labor’s initial attack was on the contracting out issue, before moving attention to the government’s backsliding over its promised light rail services between Mirrabooka and the city.

Labor MPs would be well advised to reassess their priorities. Contracting out might be a cause celebre for a couple of unions that call the shots within the party and influence the endorsements of candidates, but public transport and traffic congestion affect everybody.

No prize for guessing which issue has the greater vote-winning potential.

Dear Dorothy …

STATE parliament should follow the lead provided by its Victorian counterpart and end Dorothy Dixers, where government MPs present planted queries to their ministers during question time.

The new Victorian Labor government has decided to act on the issue to improve the functioning of the parliament; such a move would be welcomed in Western Australia.

The term ‘Dorothy Dix’ was the name given to advice columns, initially in American women’s magazines, in which questions were manufactured in an attempt make the pages more attractive to readers. In the case of parliament, however, the goal is to reduce the scrutiny the ministers are placed under.

For example on one recent sitting day in Perth, government backbenchers asked four questions. While the opposition was hammering Police Minister Liza Harvey on crime statistics and Transport Minister Dean Nalder on late night trains, Liberal MPs quizzed ministers on: progress on the redevelopment of the former Esplanade Hotel site in Albany; how the government has ‘strengthened’ the WA economy; the row over the operation of Healthway; and the delivering of infrastructure projects ‘on time and on budget’.

Often these questions are written by the ministers or their staff, and handed to backbenchers, presumably to help improve their profile. For well-qualified MPs who want to be taken seriously, the whole process is demeaning.

Labor in government was just as guilty. The sooner government backbenchers get the green light to pursue genuine issues in the best interests of their electorates, the better all round. That would seem to be a more constructive and relevant role for local members.


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