6 July 2023

He did it his way, Murphy reflects on tenure at Health Department

| Chris Johnson
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Retiring Health Department Secretary Brendan Murphy Photo: Supplied.

Brendan Murphy leaves the Health Department’s top job this week knowing that his successor will likely take a very different leadership approach.

But he is happy that his own tenure focussed more on the department than on the wider Australian Public Service (APS) as a whole.

“Having built, I think, now a strong culture in the department, my successor may say it’s timely to rebalance this,” Professor Murphy told an Institute of Public Administration Australia audience.

“It’s certainly true that collaboration across the APS is now very strong. It was definitely enhanced by the necessities of the pandemic.”

Ahead of retirement on Thursday (6 July), Professor Murphy delivered a valedictory address that both praised Australia’s response to the pandemic and suggested areas where a review might be appropriate.

He was at the helm of steering the nation through the pandemic initially as the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) then as the department’s secretary.

His appointment to secretary was even put on hold for a period to allow him to continue advising the government as the CMO.

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“I think most would say that on balance, Australia did pretty well compared to other similar high-income countries,” Professor Murphy said.

“… when we realised the virus in Wuhan readily transmitted from human to human and was causing severe illness – a pandemic was then inevitable and we called it early, much earlier than the WHO [World Health Organisation], knowing there was little hope of containment…

“There are people who believe we did go too hard with public health and social measures.

“There are also people who even today say we should be doing much more, walking around with personal HEPA filters and wearing masks.

“The truth as always, is somewhere in the middle. But the proportionality of the response at each stage is likely to be a major issue for any future inquiry.”

Professor Murphy said while hotel quarantines and international border closures were necessary, and saved lives, some of the state border closures warranted reviews.

The outgoing secretary was critical of parts of the media and some of the public discourse around the pandemic. But he wasn’t at all critical of former prime minister Scott Morrison who he worked closely with during much of the pandemic and Australia’s response to it.

Professor Murphy said criticism “post-facto” of the former PM was unfair because he found Mr Morrison to be effective and respectful, and showing leadership through the crisis.

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“None of us were perfect. But I genuinely enjoyed working with him and I was particularly struck how in the early stages of the pandemic, he achieved a solidarity, a national sense of purpose in national cabinet that hopefully will endure,” he said.

A nephrologist (kidney health specialist) by profession, Professor Murphy was appointed CMO in 2016, a role he maintained until mid 2020 when he took up the post of Health Department secretary and his deputy Paul Kelly moved into the CMO job.

Widely regarded as the public face of Australia’s fight against COVID-19, Professor Kelly was named the ACT’s Australian of the Year in November 2020 and appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2022.

Blair Comley replaces Professor Murphy as Health Department secretary.

Original Article published by Chris Johnson on Riotact.

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