Former state health chief warns of Young’s ‘unfettered powers’

Emeritus Professor Robert Stable AM says he respects Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young but her unchecked power could be a problem.

Jan 20, 2021, updated Jan 20, 2021
Former Queensland Health director-general Robert Stable. (Photo: AAP Image/Tony Phillips)

Former Queensland Health director-general Robert Stable. (Photo: AAP Image/Tony Phillips)

Stable was director-general of Queensland Health for eight years, under both Labor and Coalition governments, and held senior national roles before becoming vice-chancellor of Bond University. He was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia in 2013 for “innovative and strategic management” in health and education.

In a submission to a parliamentary inquiry, Stable said that when he was director-general there was controversy over legislation being amended to allow “more forceful contact tracing”. At the time, the potential breach of civil liberties was overridden by the need, in certain circumstances, to take action to protect Queenslanders.

“However, following an extensive clinical and administrative career at all levels of the health system and with experience in public administration at the highest level, I have reservations regarding the current approach,” Stable wrote.

“In my opinion, unelected officials in a democratic system should not have unfettered powers. There are grave risks associated with this approach.”

The inquiry is examining the powers given to the Chief Health Officer, and exercised since a public health emergency was declared on January 29 last year, and how they should be utilised in future.

Under the arrangements, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has repeatedly said that her government would act on the advice of the Chief Health Officer, adding another dimension to the public debate over the need for lockdowns, border restrictions and masks.

“In the current situation, it has also led to confusion as to who is ‘in charge’ – the elected Government (Premier) or an unelected official,” Stable wrote.

“One consequence of this has been the totally unacceptable personal threats made against the Chief Health Officer as she has been seen to have made decisions contrary to Chief Health / Medical Officers in other jurisdictions.”

Stable said that while Young might consult the experts, and offer alternatives to the Premier, along with any contrary views, there was no requirement for her or any future appointee to do so.

He recommended changes that would require the Chief Health Officer to establish and chair an expert committee in the event of a public health emergency, consider advice from that committee when making recommendations to the premier or health minister, and all advice to be made public.

Stable reiterated, in his submission to the parliamentary committee conducting the inquiry, that he held Young “in the highest regard for her knowledge, expertise and professionalism” and helped appoint her to a previous role.

The Australian Medical Association Queensland, in its submission, supported Young and the continued use of public health emergency powers to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.


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