Premiers’ Hall at Parliament House was filled to capacity last week for the inaugural Health Media Club lunch and on the menu was Health Minister Lawrence Springborg outlining the new government’s approach to preventive health in Queensland.

In his opening remarks, Mr Springborg said he didn’t hesitate for a second when asked to be Minister for Health in a late evening phone call on April Fools’ Day from newly minted Premier Campbell Newman.

“In my years of experience, the quality of our healthcare and education are the top two community concerns that I encounter,” Mr Springborg said. “There is a lot of work to be done in the health portfolio and I like the opportunity posed by a challenge.”

A challenge is most certainly what Minister Springborg has taken on, in a portfolio that was rocked by several public scandals during the previous administration. The minister has been given a first-term directive to identify wasteful expenditure that can be redirected to frontline services and to address current budget deficits – no small task.

“Last year Treasury tipped in an additional $300 million, to meet the spending needs of the Health Department,” said Minister Springborg. “They cannot afford to do that this year. At the rate of current spending, the expenditure on would consumer the entire Queensland budget in the year 2030.”

It appears that preventative health is clearly in the budgetary firing line, with the Minister bluntly informing the attendees that there was a clear need for demonstrable outcomes in the area of preventative health.

“What we are spending is taxpayer money and I am the custodian of that,” he said. “There is not a limitless amount of money provided by taxpayers and we need to be getting better outcomes for our investments; better bang for our buck.”

According to Minister Springborg, getting a better bang means finding more opportunities to leverage funds from the private sector and opening up more facility construction and service delivery roles for tender.

It also involves removing any duplication of services and putting in place strict Key Performance Indicators as well as outcomes that will be measured against those KPIs. The minister warned that organisations shouldn’t show up with a ‘portfolio of love letters’ to demonstrate their importance: demonstrable results were what mattered.

In a sense Minister Springborg was putting every organisation in the room on notice: shape up or ship out.

The minister cited obesity and mental health as areas where results were not forthcoming. “Currently we’re not managing to significantly change the behaviour and habits of the public. As such we’re not getting the outcomes we should expect for the amount of investment we’re putting in.”

While the mood in the room was animated, there was an undercurrent of unease that the government, in their eagerness to make swift and sweeping improvement, might be in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This was articulated in a number of the questions to the Minister, with one nutritionist pointing out that the government had in fact cut funding to the area which assesses the effectiveness of anti-obesity campaigns.

Overall it was an excellent event with plenty of opportunity for debate. And if there is one thing to be certain of, with a portfolio such as health, Minister Springborg can expect plenty more animated discussions in the months to come.

The Health Media Club is an initiative of the Queensland non-government organisations’ Swap It program. In thanking the Minister on behalf of Swap It partners, Diabetes Queensland CEO Michelle Trute said Diabetes Queensland, Cancer Council Queensland, Heart Foundation and Nutrition Australia Qld represented the powerhouse of prevention.

By Justine Davies