Calvary Hospital acquisition may open new horizonsJun 23, 2023
How different it might have been if the Catholic Church had kept out of it. If, instead of clergy expressing institutional male outrage, it had been Little Company of Mary Sisters (LCM), in the sensible attire of modern nuns, with SRN, and perhaps even, MBA and MBBS, after their names, saying, “This is our hospital. We have dedicated our lives to caring for our patients here, and we will not let you take it from us.” What would public opinion have said then?
But it was never going to be like that. After reading the ACT Auditor General’s Performance Audit Report, Management of Calvary Hospital Agreements, May 2008, both the LCM and the ACT government agreed that the hospital should be exchanged for the only recently opened (2000) Canberra hospice, Clare Holland House, plus $68 million in compensation, so that the government could restructure Canberra’s hospital services, and the LCM could return to where their essential charism lay – in the care of the dying.
But the ACT public would not agree to the privatisation of Canberra’s unique community hospice, and the Vatican would not countenance the loss of an important asset from its religious portfolio. Nevertheless, the fact remains that in 2008-2009 the LCM, a tiny Order of ageing nuns, wanted out of the public hospital business and into the public hospice business. Dedicated young Catholic women were unlikely to join the LCM merely for the professional fulfilment available as nurses in any number of public hospitals. But a life exclusively dedicated to palliative care and care of the dying would be an inspiring mission of an altogether different dimension.
After the 2008 deal collapsed, the Vatican, in 2009, made arrangements to place any future sale of Calvary beyond reach. The LCM’s Calvary Public Hospital became a Catholic Church asset, a religious presence in the public square.
Instead of LCM sisters fronting the media saying this is our hospital, how dare you, we have the Catholic Church telling us, this is our Catholic hospital. Peter Dutton gave the game away when he condemned the ACT government for “little consultation or contact with the Catholic Archdiocese of Canberra Goulburn who have successfully operated this facility for decades…” (Canberra Times, May 31, 6)
Australian States and Territories, as well as other countries, are watching the unfolding drama of the compulsory acquisition of Calvary with great interest, and are likely coming to firm conclusions about the risks and benefits of being shackled to the Catholic Church in the delivery of essential services of any kind, let alone something as vital as hospital health care.
Some might wonder how it was possible for the ACT government to offer Calvary Health Care a lease and agreement to run Calvary for 25 years, quite possibly with monetary compensation included for loss of the 99 year lease. Some might also wonder how it was possible for CHC and the LCM to refuse such an offer in this day and age.
CHC went to court to test the ACT government’s powers of compulsory acquisition. The ACT Legislative Assembly has wide powers to legislate for the “peace, order and good government“ of the ACT, but it “has no power to make laws with respect to the acquisition of property otherwise than on just terms”. An argument might have been that the just terms must have been proposed and agreed before the acquisition could occur so that, until then, the Assembly had no power to pass the legislation. That unrealistic argument would always be likely to fail, though once negotiation on actual compensation begins, the final figure could go to the ACT Supreme Court for determination if CHC rejects the ACT government’s offer as insufficient and therefore not a reflection of “just terms”.
This will be a sad ending for the LCM’s involvement in Calvary Public Hospital, and it didn’t need to be this way. But there still remains one powerful potential consolation if the LCM have the courage of their charism. Canberra has one small hospice for people needing end of life care – as distinct from end of life assisted dying. In recent years, this hospice which serves the ACT and a huge swath of southern NSW, required the generosity of the Snow Family to help fund a small extension. But in a few months, the LCM will be presented with the opportunity to use many millions of dollars that independent valuers expect must be given in just terms compensation, to build their own hospice in Canberra, and reassert their most valuable mission. To what better end could they put the money? But will the institutional Catholic Church take that from them?