Malcolm Turnbull has just seen off a spirited attempt to dethrone from Peter Dutton. He won 48-35, possibly because he declared the leadership contest before Dutton was ready. Health minister from September 2013-December 2014, his views and record on mental health could prove to be extremely important. He is looking to challenge again and could be our Prime Minister before the year is out.
So let’s have a look at his previous performance on the issue of mental health.
In 2010 it was Dutton who was in charge of releasing the Coalition’s Mental Health Policy. Experts called it a ‘game-changer’. The University of Gold Coast Professor John Mendoza was particularly impressed by the 1.5 billion dollar plan (ABC, 2010).
“People with mental illness deserve the same standards of access and treatment as those with a physical illness,” Mr Dutton said in 2013. When Tony Abbott was campaigning in 2013 one of his promises was to cut out red tape in mental health. He wanted to review the National Mental Health Commission (NMHC).
His creation of a comprehensive mental health plan has been lauded by critics which is a certainly a point in his favour, but Dutton was, in 2015, voted as the worst health minister in 35 years in a poll run by the Australian Doctor magazine.He responded, possibly unwisely, by dubbing the magazine an ‘online leftist publication that really carries no weight’.
Forty-six per cent of the nearly 1,100 survey respondents voted for Dutton in the poll. The magazine has a readership of around 20,000, mostly general practitioners and specialists.
His treatment of refugees and general disregard for their mental wellbeing is a worry too, but then he is on the right and their contempt for anybody they don’t feel is a ‘true-blue’ Aussie has been well recorded.
In 2015 a report was leaked, seen by Dutton that “the current system is poorly planned and integrated and is a “massive drain on people’s wellbeing”.
The report continues: “found major deficiencies in the response [received] by many of those seeking help for suicidal thinking, attempts or bereavement….a radical rethink of responses “to mentally ill people seeking help.”
The commission also found that there was considerable funding within the mental health system but that it was not dispensed efficiently, effectively or fairly. It recommended redistributing money and resources from hospital to community based care from 2017.
What we can conclude is that Dutton is no revolutionary. He may be better than the draconian Abbott, whose watch is still set for 1952, but he will not bring about any new advances. However he will not block them. He does not appear to be particularly good or bad. A note of caution however- Turnbull is certainly more moderate across the board and the company Dutton keeps could well cut back on mental health services.
Now we must sit back and watch Canberra with nervous anticipation, as you would firefighters putting out a burning building.