Ryall's blunder

Health Minister Tony Ryall has erred over the the chairmanship of the Otago District Health Board.

He has sacked an experienced, capable, respected and popular chairman in Richard Thomson, and caused widespread upset and concern.

While Mr Ryall's demands for accountability are understandable, he picked the wrong scapegoat.

It is a foolish start for the National Government in Otago, and particularly Dunedin, and leaves list National MP Michael Woodhouse, of Dunedin, on the back foot.

One wonders what advice he gave Mr Ryall given his local knowledge, especially in the health sector as a former chief executive of Mercy Hospital.

Most Otago health board members, as well as several senior staff, all publicly backed Mr Thomson after this newspaper reported strong rumours of Mr Thomson's imminent sacking and, subsequently, Mr Thomson's refusal to resign when asked.

Mr Ryall, it appears, backed off precipitous action to go through the proper procedures before the axe came down this week.

Not surprisingly, the common reaction about Mr Ryall's motives and about the reasons for Mr Thomson's dismissal is cynicism.

Justifications that he was taking an "opportunity to draw the line under this [the $16.9 million fraud] problem" and that "action needed to be taken" are feeble given the circumstances.

Of course, it was the minister's right to sack Mr Thomson, but it was not the right decision.

The fraud, after all, began before Mr Thomson took over.

From a governance point of view, changes in the information technology budget that could have alerted board members were absent.

And when the possibility of large-scale fraud emerged, it was under Mr Thomson's watch that things were pursued and Michael Swann and Kerry Harford were brought to justice.

It was other executives and senior staff who, surely, carried far more responsibility, particularly because warnings about Swann were not passed on.

Even after news of the fraud was out and the people of Otago were frustrated and disappointed that it had happened and no-one was accountable, Mr Thomson was elected to the board as the second highest polling candidate.

Tellingly, new chairman Errol Millar, who wants Mr Thomson to continue to chair a key board committee, has said that he would have done the same as Mr Thomson over the fraud. How then can Mr Ryall have confidence in Mr Millar?

And given the goodwill towards Mr Thomson and the problems the board confronts, has Mr Ryall given his new chairman what might be described in sport as a hospital pass?

Although Mr Thomson was originally a Labour Party appointee, he had a lot more to worry about in the well-nigh impossible job of chairing the health board than any possible personal agenda.

His job, basically, like the other board members and senior executives, was scrambling, fighting and working on strategies to help provide the best possible public health services while constantly tackling funding difficulties and the threat of large deficits.

Just as Labour occasionally ditched its political favouritism on appointments when the need arose - with former National prime minister Jim Bolger placed in important roles, for example - so should Mr Ryall and National have been big enough to accept the best person for the chairman's job no matter his political stripes.

Mr Ryall may well have backed himself into a corner and felt he had to carry on and dismiss Mr Thomson, but he would have been much wiser to have lost a little face and backed down.

Mr Thomson could have maintained a professional relationship with his minister where both parties strived their best for health services. Now, of course, that chance is blown - although it must be hoped that Mr Thomson will continue to use his expertise as a board member.

The massive and diverse challenges facing Otago and Southland health will not go away, and board members, staff and the community will have to quickly put Mr Ryall's blunder behind them and support Mr Millar.

Everyone will have to do their best in interests of the southern region's public health because that, in the end, matters far more than politics and personalities.

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