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January 19, 2022

NSW health minister on her way out

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NSW health minister Gillian Skinner is ultimately responsible for the systemic crisis facing hospitals throughout NSW.
NSW health minister Jillian Skinner is ultimately responsible for the systemic crisis facing hospitals throughout NSW.

By Alex Mitchell, political correspondent for Crikey.com.au

NSW Health Minister Jillian Skinner will be shuffled out of Premier Mike Baird’s cabinet: he knows it and she knows it. The only questions are: when, how and who will succeed her?

All the signs of her imminent execution were on display at question time in ‘The Bearpit’ when Parliament resumed this week and at her dispiriting press conferences.

With the Labor opposition and sections of the media howling for her resignation, 71-year-old Skinner put on her bravest face, but it was totally unconvincing.

In politics, when you’re on the way out, it can’t be disguised. Cabinet colleagues avert their eyes, the Premier stops calling, and the most junior media reporters become downright disrespectful.

Two scandals have brought Skinner down:

•    The death of a baby at Bankstown-Lidcombe Hospital after nitrous oxide instead of oxygen was hooked up in a post-natal ward; and
•    A doctor at St Vincent’s Hospital under-dosed 129 cancer patients with a chemotherapy drug over a 10-year period. Many of them died shockingly painful deaths.

Skinner herself could not have prevented the tragic events. She cannot be expected to know every operational detail from hospitals across NSW.

But her political career has crashed because she kept secret for months some Health Department events, and she has been accused of ‘verballing’ relatives saying that they didn’t want to her to go public with news of their tragedies.

Some relatives hit back saying there was no such agreement and they wanted their tragedy made public as a warning to other families.

When Skinner became health minister in 2011 she was the most experienced member of premier Barry O’Farrell’s team.

The MP for North Shore had been shadow health minister from 1995 to 2003 and from 2005 to 2011.

Re-elected five times and sitting on a two-party preferred margin of more than 70 per cent, she was recognised as one of the Coalition’s most able ministers.

In government, she hired 4,000 nurses and increased the number of doctors by an extra 400 and launched a $4.7 billion hospital-building program.

The former graduate of Melbourne’s Presbyterian Ladies’ College and journalist in Canberra and Hong Kong was encouraged to stand at last year’s state election to maintain continuity following the shock departure of O’Farrell in 2014 and the arrival of Premier Mike Baird.

It has taken just six months for Skinner’s status to fall from most popular to pariah.

With The Daily Telegraph and radio shock jocks Alan Jones and Ray Hadley demanding she be sacked, only Fairfax Media’s Sydney Morning Herald is remaining loyal.

‘Minister Skinner appeared rattled at her press conference. That does not mean she should fall on her sword.

‘But for now, there is a strong case for her to stay on to wield her long experience and to set things right.’

This is wishful thinking. Baird has already decided to remove her in a reshuffled cabinet. She can either resign gracefully or be dumped disgracefully.

Baird’s dilemma is finding a competent successor. In NSW politics the health portfolio can be a career-breaking appointment. Some recent failures have been Ron Phillips (Liberal) and Reba Meagher (Labor).

Only Pru Goward, Assistant Minister for Health, Mental Health, Medical Research, Prevention of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault and Women, has the seniority to step into the breach.

However, she does not enjoy Baird’s support, and other Liberals oppose her promotion.

Baird’s aim is to rebuild his cabinet for the Coalition’s re-election in March 2019.

His supporters told Crikey he not only wants to unload Skinner but persuade the Nationals to fix the retirement of Road Minister Duncan Gay, who has made such a shambles of Sydney’s WestConnex motorway.

He has no inclination to conduct a purge while parliament is sitting because it will simply give a free kick to Opposition Leader Luke Foley.

Ominously for Skinner, Parliament rises on August 11and does not resume until August 23, and the background noise from Baird’s office is a knife being sharpened.

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