THE HERALD'S OPINION: NSW government must now move quickly on new Maitland hospital

BOTH sides of politics have flirted with public-private partnerships, or PPPs, when it comes to building hospitals.

The Coalition kicked things off in the 1990s with its privatisation of Port Macquarie Hospital. Labor argued a decade later that Calvary Mater Newcastle hospital would be rebuilt more quickly with private money. After sweeping back into power in 2011 with a swag of Hunter seats (if only for a term), the Coalition’s promise to build a new Maitland hospital also turned out to be a pledge it preferred to keep by PPP.

But as the intervening years have shown, PPPs have not necessarily been the budget fix that optimistic politicians were hoping for. Audits have found taxpayers carrying most of the risk for little return, and governments have been forced to resume control of some PPP hospitals, including Port Macquarie.

From the start, the Coalition was noncommittal about the construction and operation of the new Maitland hospital. As late as 2014 it was still saying that “all procurement methods” were on the table, but the cat was finally let out of the bag in 2016 when the Coalition’s long-serving health minister, Jillian Skinner, announced that Maitland would be one of five regional hospitals to be rebuilt or upgraded as PPPs.

But things have changed dramatically under current Health Minister Brad Hazzard, who stepped into the portfolio a year ago.

In July, Mr Hazzard announced the government would no longer seek a for-profit operator for Maitland, and was turning to the not-for-profit sector for help. Now, just six months later, it has given up on that idea and confirmed that Maitland and its four regional counterparts – Wyong, Goulburn, Shellharbour and Bowral – will be built and operated with the government purse.

Labor is declaring this to be a great victory for the people but it will only be this if the new Maitland hospital is delivered to the same schedule that would have been achieved under a PPP. Maitland MP Jenny Aitchison says the government has promised the hospital will be finished in 2021. 

Given the amount of work that will go into building a $450-million hospital, this would be a remarkably tight time-frame. With the budget more than $5 billion in surplus, the government is not short of money. Even if the Hunter is again “tiger country” for the Coalition, it must meet the community’s hospital needs, and quickly.

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