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Government announces plan to nationalize Catholic hospital in Australian capital

The government of the Australian Capital Territory has announced plans to forcibly nationalize a Catholic hospital after the trust that owns it said the Vatican would have to approve a sale.

Calvary Public Hospital, Bruce, ACT. Credit: Dfadden, (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The ACT government, the regional government of the Australian capital city of Canberra, announced Wednesday the plan to pass legislation to take over Calvary Public Hospital, a Catholic owned hospital in the Canberra suburb of Bruce.

Under the terms of the plan, the local government will force the compulsory acquisition of the hospital and its assets, folding them into the state-run health network, Canberra Health Services. Staff at Calvary, the government announced, will become public employees.


The ACT government and the hospital’s Catholic owners, the Little Company of Mary Health Care, had been in talks to sell the hospital to the government in 2010 for a price of AU$77 million, but those talks broke down when the LCMHC said any sale would be approved by the Vatican as an extraordinary act of administration, a process which could take years.

Calvary hospital has been owned and operated by LCMHC since 1979 but is funded by ACT to provide public healthcare services. The forced acquisition is part of a broader restructuring of Canberra Health Services which, the ACT government says, will see AU$1 billion invested in a new hospital at the Calvary site.

Martin Bowles, chief executive of Calvary, called the announcement “unexpected and unilateral” and expressed concern for the 1,800 staff at the hospital “who have not been consulted at all about the potential ramifications of this decision.”

“I'm not exaggerating by saying these people are absolutely devastated,” Bowles told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Wednesday.

Archbishop Christopher Prowse of Canberra and Goulburn also issued a statement in response to the announcement Wednesday, calling the government plans “deeply concerning.”

The government plans to annex the hospital were announced “without warning or discussion,” the archbishop said, and left him “totally stunned and shocked.”

“There has been no formal contact with the Archdiocese, nor has any reason been given,” said Prowse on May 10. “We are utterly astounded.”

“It is a very sad day when governments can simply decide to mount a take-over of any enterprise they like without any justification,” the archbishop said, calling the announcement “a very worrying precedent.”

John Watkins, the chairman of Catholic Health Australia, the umbrella group for Catholic hospitals and care providers in the country, called the move “alarming to not just Catholics, but all communities of faith,” and “a worrying rejection of a system that has served millions and millions of Australians well.”

Watkins said that the plans would “compromise distinctive institutional values and culture” at Cavalry, and called the precedent “disturbing.”

“Our immediate concern lies with the 1800 employees at the hospital who have not been consulted about the potential ramifications of this decision,” said Watkins.

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The ACT health minister for the Labour government, Rachel Stephen-Smith, called the consolidation plan a “big decision” for the future of healthcare in the region which would “better coordinate health services, distribute resources effectively.”

Stephen-Smith also said she wished to “thank all Calvary Public Hospital staff, past and present, for their dedication to helping Canberrans in times of need,” and said the “vast majority” would continue in their current roles under government control.

"We know this will be a stressful time for Calvary staff,” she said, “and we are committed to supporting them through this transition and providing as much certainty as possible.”

Stephen-Smith said Wednesday that while it was “no secret” that relations between the government and the Catholic owners of Cavalry had been “strained” over the years, that was not the reason for the forced takeover.

Jeremy Hanson, leader of the opposition Liberal party in ACT called the plan “outrageous thuggery by the chief minister and health minister.”

Hanson said Calvary managers and staff are “rightly angry” that “the government have decided to forcibly acquire the best-performing part of ACT Health,” in a move he called “outrageous.”

The Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn said that it would be meeting with Calvary to evaluate their options in the light of the news. No details of a compensation package for the forced acquisition have been announced.

According to Catholic Health Australia, Catholic hospitals account for around 10 percent of total hospital services in the country and treat more than 1.5 million patients annually.

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