Who will be Federal Health Minister?

Jolyon Attwooll

23/05/2022 4:36:42 PM

Australia has a new Prime Minister, but several frontbench positions – including the health portfolio – are yet to be confirmed.

Anthony Albanese with allies
Mark Butler (left) has long been a close ally of incoming Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. (Image: AAP Photos)

It is all over bar the final counting. While a few details are yet to trickle through for the last places in the House of Representatives – 12 seats are still in doubt at the time of publication – the broader balance of power is clear.
The Coalition’s defeat at the ballot box on Saturday means there is now no chance departing Minister for Health and Aged Care Greg Hunt will give way to senator Anne Ruston as the Liberal/ National Party had planned.
So who will take up the most influential role in shaping GPs’ workplace in the new government?
It is not yet set in stone.
The most obvious option is Mark Butler, who has held the Shadow Minister for Health and Ageing portfolio since January 2021, having moved there from a climate spokesperson role which he had held since July 2016.
Known as one of Prime Minister Albanese’s closest allies, Mr Butler was also the inaugural minister for mental health and ageing under the Julia Gillard Government – a seemingly natural choice to slot into the portfolio.
In the run-up to the election, Mr Butler’s name was also attached to the most prominent healthcare announcements, including the most substantial of all – the plan to allocate $750 million over the next three years to a ‘Strengthening Medicare Fund’.
It was a move welcomed by the college, which has long advocated for genuine funding for the Government’s 10-year primary care plan, with the caveat that more detail is required.
‘Labor understands the crucial importance of primary healthcare provided by GPs and will make it easier for Australians to see a doctor,’ Mr Butler said as part of an announcement a week ahead of polling day.
The Labor Party stated the funding would improve access to general practice including after-hours treatment, bolster nursing and allied health involvement, and increase affordability.
The incoming Minister for Health will be responsible for taking the helm of a ‘Strengthening Medicare Taskforce’, which will help flesh out the detail and shape the way the funding is spent.
The taskforce will include the RACGP, along with the Australian Medical Association, the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine, Consumer Health Forum, and the National Aboriginal Controlled Community Health Organisation.
‘Labor will finalise the full membership of the taskforce in government, including representatives from nursing and allied health,’ a release from Prime Minister Albanese’s team, with comments from Mr Butler, stated.
However, in part due to the unpredictable voting patterns emerging from the election, Mr Butler’s position on the frontbench and on the taskforce is perhaps not yet as clear-cut as his shadow portfolio role would suggest.
With the surprise loss of frontbencher Kristina Kenneally in the Fowler electorate in south-west Sydney, as well as the defeat of environment spokesperson Terri Butler in the Brisbane seat of Griffith, the shadow cabinet will not transfer en masse to government.  
John Warhurst, an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University, says sweeping adjustments to the frontbench are not the usual practice of incoming federal governments.
‘I expect few changes in the new Cabinet from the Shadow Cabinet,’ he told newsGP. ‘That rarely happens. Albanese will stick to his team.’
However, Professor Warhurst acknowledges the results at the ballot box will force some movement – it will just be a question of how much shuffling will be done.
He points out that it is the Labor Caucus, involving all elected Labor members from both Federal houses of parliament, that will confirm the cabinet positions.
‘The Caucus does elect the ministry and at least one senior change will be necessary after Keneally’s defeat,’ he said.
‘Andrew Charlton [the newly elected member for Parramatta] is a high-profile newcomer and Albanese must not neglect women. He also has to find a speaker.’
Other high-profile frontbench politicians have long-standing connections to the Health portfolio, perhaps most notably the current Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development Spokesperson Catherine King. Following a role as Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Ageing from 2010–2013, Ms King was the Opposition Health Spokesperson for six years until the defeat of Bill Shorten in 2019.
Another with historic and substantial associations with the health portfolio is Tanya Plibersek, who held the shadow portfolio for Education and Women ahead of the election and was Federal Health Minister from 2011–2013.
Chris Bowen also has strong links to the department, having preceded Mr Butler as the party’s Health spokesperson.
If Mr Butler is ultimately selected by the Caucus next week and transfers from the shadow Cabinet to government on the same Health beat, those engaging with him can expect him to have a very close working relationship with the new Prime Minister.
A recent in-depth profile of Prime Minister Albanese ahead of polling day described Mr Butler as part of a two-person so-called ‘praetorian guard’ around the Labor leader, including himself and Penny Wong, the newly named Foreign Affairs Minister.
The two men’s friendship stretches back to 1990s, according to the AFR, which reports that both were involved in rival union factions they worked together to unify.
While known for his involvement in Labor Party powerbroking, Mr Butler is described by those who have had direct dealings with him as personable and constructive.  
The remaining places in the new government cabinet will be voted on by the Labor Party caucus next Tuesday (31 May) and will be sworn in the following day.
The Strengthening Medicare Taskforce is due to report by July next year.
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Dr Mark Raines   24/05/2022 10:28:59 AM

Was Kristina Keneally really a surprise loss?