It’s 7pm on a midwinter’s evening and deep silence hangs over the darkened hallways of the grand old Commonwealth parliamentary offices in Melbourne. Suddenly the doors of a ground-floor committee room fly open and out bursts Greg Hunt, a human cannonball in full running gear, thighs pumping as he disappears into the gloom.
The federal Health Minister looks slightly harried and I wonder if some crisis has erupted. But no. He’s been in back-to-back Zoom meetings and an online Q&A session with regional voters on the COVID-19 crisis, after squeezing in a short run earlier in the day. Now he’s dashing to change into a suit, before heading across town for a medical charity funding announcement at Fox Sports with former AFL great Nick Riewoldt. The sprint down the corridors, it seems, is a merciful moment of release.
For Hunt, running is “like oxygen” – a fundamental necessity along with family and work. “If I have running and family … then I can cope with everything else,” he tells me.
In normal times he’ll pound the scenic bayside tracks of the Mornington Peninsula around his Mount Martha home – about six kilometres a day – or wherever else ministerial duties take him. “He’s always been like that,” says long-time friend Professor Rufus Black, vice-chancellor of the University of Tasmania. “It’s a lifetime propensity for hard work and self-care.”
That drive to physically push himself nearly brought Hunt undone in 1995, during a visit to Kigali, Rwanda, where a friend was working for medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The city was still volatile after the previous year’s genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 people had died. Hunt set out for his standard workout one morning, only to run into a gang of drunken youths still carousing from the night before. When they turned on him with broken bottles, his dash back to the MSF compound was “the fastest I had ever run in my life”.
It takes something momentous, then, to strip running from Hunt’s routine. But that something came along this year when he found himself at the vortex of the greatest health crisis to hit the globe since the Spanish flu of a century ago. SARS-CoV-2 had been bubbling away for weeks in China’s Hubei province when the first case outside the country was recorded on January 13. By the end of that month, the viral invader had established a beachhead in 18 other countries, including Australia.
Uncannily, Hunt’s wife Paula Lindsey, a former nurse educator whose specialist training was in operating theatres, had long been alert to the possibility of such a threat. Ever since Hunt had taken on the federal health portfolio, she’d kept a copy of American writer Laurie Garrett’s 1994 book The Coming Plague by their bedside. One of her “all-time favourite books”, it was a stark warning against human complacency in the face of what the biological world was capable of cooking up.
Hunt had skimmed a few chapters of the 750-page tome. Yet nothing could have prepared him for the intensity of what was to come.
“February, March, April – they were pretty much 18 hours a day, you know, every waking moment,” he says, recalling the frantic effort to bolster the nation’s health defences against what advisers feared could be tens of thousands of cases.
“Some of those days were closer to 20 hours. I had to drop the running for a while. At the height of it, in March and over the first two weeks of April, by my rough calculation I was getting about 1000 texts, calls and emails a day, processing over one or often two a minute.”
In the three years since he’d taken over the health portfolio, Hunt had become adept at juggling the demands of myriad organisations and lobby groups which inhabit the health ecosystem. But it was never going to bring him much profile outside the confines of government. The existential threat of a looming pandemic transformed that overnight.
On January 21, as health experts were seeing evidence of the virus’s ability to transmit between humans, Hunt had a seminal conversation with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whom he describes as one of his “closest friends in life – not just in Parliament”.
“I remembered saying to him, ‘The medical advice that we are getting is this is really serious. Every fibre of my being says we are going to have to follow that advice, take the decisions and work out how to implement this.’ The PM just thought it through and said, ‘I hear you. I get it. Our guiding light will be the medical advice.’ ” Hunt insists Morrison “has never deviated since”, though others note the initial resistance from Canberra in March, when NSW and Victoria wanted partial lockdowns.
But there was unanimity on one of the most critical early decisions, which came on February 1. That morning, Hunt had been running laps around the peninsula’s Balnarring oval, where son James was playing cricket, when he took a call from the country’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy.
Only a few days earlier, Australia’s first cases of COVID-19 had been detected in travellers coming from China. The expert advice was clear and urgent, Murphy told Hunt. It was time to close the borders to passenger flights from that country. Hunt called Morrison, kick-starting a phone marathon that would end several hours later with cabinet’s national security committee endorsing the recommendation.
The China flight ban was a risky decision, coming as it did weeks before the World Health Organisation would formally label the outbreak a pandemic. Canberra was slower to close off against other countries. But microbiologist Professor Brendan Crabb, head of Melbourne’s prestigious Burnet Institute, says that early move was critically important, and testament to the trust that existed between Murphy and Hunt, and between Hunt and Morrison.
“The important thing was that Hunt was listening and he was then listened to,” says Crabb, who has dealt with him extensively over medical research funding. “It’s what differentiated us from the countries that didn’t act fast enough – that we had a health minister who backed the science.”
Politically and personally, Hunt had more than a bit at stake. Known as a prodigious worker, he’d never been broadly popular inside the parliamentary Liberal party. The nadir of his political life had come in August 2018 when his bid for its deputy leadership ended in humiliation. His record in his previous long-held portfolio of environment had been tarnished by his enthusiastic part in axing the Gillard government’s carbon pricing scheme.
He’d once hankered to be foreign minister, following in the footsteps of one of his former bosses, Liberal grandee Alexander Downer. Now he was being set a challenge on the global stage of an entirely different kind: to help steer the country through an existential crisis, while bringing science and good policy together, and, perhaps, consolidating his own political resurrection. Hunt was conscious that how he and other senior members of the government performed at this moment “could almost be the defining moment of our political lives”.
At 54, Hunt still looks disconcertingly boyish, which sits somewhat at odds with his invariably earnest public demeanour. He was born and raised on the Mornington Peninsula, the scenic playground to the south-east of Melbourne which forms the heart of his electorate of Flinders, and grew up idolising his father, Alan, a state upper house MP who was the planning minister in Rupert Hamer’s Victorian Liberal government.
Mum was loving, but she had some very dark challenges along the way, and you learn to live with it and navigate it.
Hunt senior had four sons by his first marriage but the older boys lived interstate, leaving young Greg effectively an only child. He once described accompanying his father around the regions on ministerial business during school holidays, acquiring an unlikely expertise in “urban planning and the size of towns” by the time he was eight.
At school Hunt excelled at his books, cricket and debating. But those years were also shadowed by the erratic behaviour of his mother Kathinka (or Tinka, as they called her), who was later diagnosed with a form of bipolar disorder. Hunt startled readers of the Courier Mail earlier this year with a graphic description of how Tinka once chased him as a boy around the kitchen table wielding a carving knife (partly in jest it seems, though he wasn’t sure at the time).
“Mum was loving, but she had some very dark challenges along the way, and you learn to live with it and navigate it,” he says when I query him about that episode.
Tinka died young at 58, not long after leaving a mental health institution in Goulburn. Hunt, studying overseas at the time, was left “gutted”.
He insists his childhood was in fact “very happy” despite its ups and downs. Yet the armchair psychologist has to wonder whether his seeming fixation with order and control is not partly rooted in having to deal with his mother’s unpredictability from such a young age.
Take for example the grand life plan he devised for himself as a youngster leaving school – a scheme he revealed to a surprised journalist some years ago by sketching it out on a sheet of paper. The years between 18 and 35 would be devoted to accumulating life experience (including travel, manual labour, academic work, policy, business and writing). From 35 to 60 Hunt foresaw himself pursuing parliamentary and “representative” work. From 60 to 70 he would take to the international stage, perhaps in a human rights or an environmental role.
But first he would allow himself a gap year in Europe, gradually developing what would become an austere personal credo. “My sense of self is, my challenge is, probably threefold,” he explains to me one afternoon, as a Commonwealth car ferries us between official engagements in the Melbourne CBD. “One is to try to make sure that you are always contributing; two, try to make sure that in some way you are improving or maintaining yourself; and the third one is that the competition is against yourself.”
So he ran with the bulls in the Spanish town of Pamplona, rode a bike solo over the arduous Grossglockner pass high in the Austrian alps, and spent days at sea on an Irish fishing boat off the coast of Killybegs, in County Donegal, relying throughout on the hospitality of strangers.
For months he lived on an Israeli kibbutz 90 kilometres east of Haifa, learning the language and Jewish culture in the mornings, spending afternoons working in the metal workshop. He’s not Jewish, so why a kibbutz? “I was just intrigued by this communal lifestyle,” he says. (He can still speak some Hebrew.)
On his return to Australia, Hunt had a place guaranteed at Melbourne University to study arts and law. Living at Ormond College, he became head of the university’s debating society and together with Rufus Black was runner-up at the world debating championships in Edinburgh. But he stayed aloof from student politics, where most would-be politicians cut their teeth.
Black says political ambitions were on Hunt’s radar but “it was something he wrestled with rather than committed to. I think he could see that in his future.” Another friend from those years, Mary Wooldridge, who would become a state Liberal MP, recalls him “always wanting to … have a big platform and make a big impact”.
Hunt graduated with first-class honours, smoothing the way to a plum position with law firm Mallesons Stephen Jaques and then a prestige appointment as a judge’s associate. A Fulbright scholarship later took him to Yale University, and he also squeezed in an internship with the United Nations Centre for Human Rights in Geneva, researching atrocities in the former Yugoslavia.
In 1994, by now in his late 20s, he finally joined the Liberal Party, working for four years for Alexander Downer, before capping off his CV with a two-year stint at global consultancy giant, McKinsey & Co, where Black and Wooldridge would also hone their talents. In 2001, just a week out from his 36th birthday, Hunt became the federal MP for Flinders, following the retirement of sitting member and party warhorse Peter Reith. Life was unfurling with uncanny adherence to the grand plan.
At his victory party on the night of the poll, fortune smiled on him again when he reconnected with Paula, the sister of an old school friend. The pair had known each other “from a distance” for years, she says. She found him good company and “pretty handsome … I felt we had similar values and interests, although back then politics was not one of mine.”
Their marriage would be his second. (His first, to a university sweetheart, ended amicably during his 20s.) He and Paula now share their home with children Poppy, 15, and James, 11, as well as Paula’s 88-year-old Italian mother Elsa (or Nonna, as they call her) and Charlie the cavoodle.
Hunt went into Parliament labelled a party “moderate” and remains so on social issues such as same-sex marriage, which he supported. But his true ideological affinity lies closer to libertarianism, or what he calls “realist liberalism”, which puts individual choice at a premium and is hostile to what, in his first parliamentary speech, he referred to as “enforced equality”.
His friend Black says “he’s always had a sense that government shouldn’t over-reach” – ironic in 2020, given how intrinsic lockdowns have been to slowing the pandemic.
The then PM John Howard gave Hunt his first political promotion, making him parliamentary secretary for the environment in 2004. Apart from a brief stint as parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs, Hunt’s stretch on the front bench in environment would last more than a decade, through four changes of Liberal leadership, until mid-2016.
He and the portfolio at first seemed well matched. A keen bushwalker and qualified recreational diver who had explored reefs and marine waters around south-east Asia, he had – by his own account – been “deeply engaged in climate change as a concern” as far back as 1990.
As undergraduates he and Black had co-authored a thesis for their course in natural resources law, which they titled A Tax to Make the Polluter Pay. The paper, which made a strong case for taxing companies on the industrial waste they produced, rested on similar economic principles to those that underpinned the Gillard government’s carbon tax years later. As Black recalls, “We said, ‘We have got to determine what kind of environment we want and then make the economics work to deliver that, not the other way around.’ ”
In December 2007, Hunt was sufficiently engaged with the threat of global warming to travel under his own steam to a key United Nations climate change conference in Bali as the opposition’s representative, bunking down on the floor of a hotel room booked by the Humane Society. Don Henry, then head of the Australian Conservation Foundation, recalls finding Hunt “accessible and smart – he knew climate and knew the issues”.
But whatever the environmental movement’s hopes for Hunt, they weren’t to survive Tony Abbott’s ascendancy to the Liberal leadership, and his and Hunt’s subsequent demolition of Labor’s carbon tax. In its place, Hunt and Abbott set up the Emissions Reduction Fund which, instead of making polluters pay, draws on taxpayers’ funds to encourage business and farmers to reduce their carbon footprint. Hunt says he always preferred this “carrot” to the “stick” approach to driving down emissions, but Malcolm Turnbull later dubbed it a “fig leaf” of a policy – a judgment broadly shared across the renewable energy industry.
According to Hunt now, he warned Abbott he would only continue serving as environment minister if the Coalition government did not publicly reject the science of global warming. He got his side to agree to take a modest emissions target to the 2015 Paris climate conference, and worked to strike a deal with Labor on preserving the Renewable Energy Target. Federal Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman argues that “Greg was an enormously moderating influence during the Abbott government on climate and environment policy.”
But John Connor, chief executive officer of the Carbon Market Institute, says while Hunt “may have been playing the long game and did some positive things”, he nonetheless “wears the stain” of dismantling a mechanism which was the most effective brake on the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Looking back on the climate battles inside the Coalition, Hunt portrays himself as caught between implacable forces. “There were irreconcilable differences between two former leaders [Turnbull and Abbott]. You would wish you could bridge those, but in the end none of us were able to do that.”
By midway through 2016, Hunt was desperate for a change of portfolio. Turnbull, who’d deposed Abbott the year before, moved him to Industry and Innovation. But “Greg was not a natural front man for Turnbull’s whole innovation strategy,” says one senior insider. “He was not a salesman, couldn’t stand up in a room of fin-tech types or entrepreneurs and sell the idea of why it was so great for them.”
Hunt served six months in Industry before Turnbull moved him to Health – in January 2017 – deciding it was a better fit for his technocratic skills. In political terms, Hunt’s task was to neutralise Labor’s long-standing advantage in health, a job he threw himself into with gusto.
His McKinsey years stood him in good stead, though that training appears to have amplified an idiosyncratic propensity for thinking and talking in bullet points. At one stage he presents me with a copy of Australia 2030, a glossy brochure containing five headland speeches he delivered in 2011, using homilies from family life to illuminate his economic thinking (sample: incentivising his then six-year-old daughter to clear millipedes from the house by offering her 5¢ per insect).
Each speech is divided with military precision into subheadings, points and sub-points, which is also how he likes his departmental briefs: on a single page with what he calls a “three-by-three structure” – three themes, three points in each. It became an inside joke among some colleagues.
“Whenever it was Greg’s time to speak, people would look at each other and whisper, ‘Okay, here come the three points,’ ” says one former cabinet insider.
Predecessor Sussan Ley’s tenure in the health portfolio had been rocky. Hunt procured a significant boost in funding and set about negotiating what one senior industry source characterises as a series of “peace deals” with the most powerful lobby groups in the sector. He struck agreements with the makers of therapeutic devices aimed at bringing down the cost of those devices in return for faster approvals, and mollified the big pharmaceutical manufacturers with smoother access to the government-subsidised Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
His approach was to make himself incredibly accessible,” recalls one industry source. “Everyone got his phone number.
He began a marathon overhaul of state hospital funding agreements, introduced “gold, silver and bronze” rankings in private health insurance to make it easier for consumers to compare policies, soothed the pharmacy sector and placated GPs by gradually lifting the freeze which the Abbott government had placed on Medicare rebates. “His approach was to make himself incredibly accessible,” recalls one industry source. “Everyone got his phone number.”
It was what Hunt called “high-touch, multiple-engagement stakeholder work”. “There was a lot of just quietening things down and getting them off the front page,” says an industry analyst who requests anonymity. “He was highly skilled at that. None of it involved fundamental reform of the system, though.”
It paid off when Scott Morrison led the Coalition to unexpected victory in May 2019. While Morrison fronted the campaign almost single-handedly, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg maintains that “Greg played an absolutely critical role in that election result because health is one of the most contested policy spaces … and he was across the detail more than anyone.”
Once the pandemic hit, Hunt’s groundwork paid further dividends, according to another senior government insider. “He had already done masterful stakeholder management, and had presided over a bump in funding – that was very advantageous for us going into a health crisis.”
Hunt had proven adept at leveraging the popular Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, or PBS, for maximum political advantage. Whereas predecessors in the portfolio had released new listings of subsidised medicines by way of administrative fiat with little hoopla, Hunt elevated each with an individual press release and a patient-centred narrative to back it up. It was part of a conscious strategy to tilt the health debate away from Labor’s preferred territory of big-picture funding battles towards issues that would resonate personally in voters’ lives, particularly mental health, cutting-edge therapies, and medicines.
It maddened Labor, which claimed Hunt was politicising the voter-friendly PBS, a view shared by Stephen Duckett, one-time head of the federal health department who now works for the Grattan Institute. Therapeutic drugs have to be approved by an independent committee before listing on the PBS, but Duckett argues that Hunt’s showcasing of new listings has generated an impression that the minister calls the shots.
“If a listing decision is seen as a decision of a politician then a decision not to list will also be seen as a decision of a politician, which will expose Mr Hunt and his successors to intense lobbying by drug companies to list a drug that might not be effective,” Duckett warns.
A Labor frontbencher goes further: “There is not a thing Greg Hunt will do or say that isn’t focused on a political outcome.” Hunt’s own side has been delighted, though. “He’s had a meticulous handle on the PBS,” says former Liberal MP Craig Laundy, who befriended Hunt as his junior minister in the industry portfolio, and was struck by Hunt’s “work ethic and his ability to digest and understand quickly vast amounts of literature”.
Behind the scenes, Hunt has been willing to apply the screws to companies which won’t come to the table on pricing. At the height of one dispute with Boston-based giant Vertex, when negotiations stalled over listing of a cystic fibrosis medicine, Hunt’s tactics are understood to have included ringing senior US executives at 2am – their time – to keep the pressure up.
This June he clashed with pharma giant Eli Lilly over new migraine medications, accusing it of “astro-turfing” (mounting a fake grassroots campaign) in its bid to gain a PBS listing. That accusation backfired when Migraine Australia, the chief body representing migraine sufferers, demanded an apology, saying Hunt’s comments had insulted its grassroots members.
On the flipside, Hunt and his office have quietly stepped in – sometimes to an unusually personal extent – to help patients whose last resort in the face of life-threatening disease is an experimental drug or a treatment only available overseas. Hunt’s office puts me in touch with Mildura-based builder Peter Argiro, whose plight came to Hunt’s attention after a local Facebook campaign was amplified by high-profile Melbourne radio personality Neil Mitchell.
Every second or third day I would get a phone call from the minister’s assistant or a personal email from him asking how we were going.
In December 2018, doctors had told Argiro and his wife Gina De Angelis that nothing more could be done here to stop the progression of Gina’s aggressive lymphoma. Her only option was to travel to the US for a revolutionary treatment known as CAR-T therapy, at a cost of close to a million dollars. While federal funding can be made available for rare cases like this under the Medical Treatment Overseas Program, the approval process at that stage was six to eight weeks. Gina didn’t have that long.
Hunt arranged approval within six days and fast-tracked funding. Argiro was further astonished when the minister gave him his personal number. “Every second or third day I would get a phone call from the minister’s assistant or a personal email from him asking how we were going.”
Gina is now cancer-free, although facing a long period of rehabilitation. Stories like hers “are the reasons why I wouldn’t trade the job for something else”, Hunt says. This year CAR-T has become available free to some patients in Australia, yet such expensive new treatments throw up their own dilemmas. As one industry insider warns, “Skewing investment because of the needs of impassioned small groups may not always be best for the whole system.”
It’s late June, and Hunt is doing the rounds of leading medical research centres in Melbourne. COVID-19 case numbers are ticking up daily in Victoria, but at this stage they’re still only in double figures.
No one has yet foreseen how horrifying July’s statistics will become. Hunt has a slew of medical research grants to announce, fruit of the interest on a $20 billion investment by the federal government in the Medical Research Future Fund, set up under Abbott and consolidated under Hunt and Morrison.
Labor believes there’s insufficient transparency around how some of these grants are awarded. But Brendan Crabb, who lobbied hard for the fund’s establishment, says Hunt shows genuine “passion” for this side of the portfolio, which becomes clear as he quizzes researchers at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, and meets Dale, a pleasant middle-aged woman who’s lost her left arm to the disease. Through a brave smile, she tells him how “weird” it is to live with a phantom limb which the brain thinks is still there.
He commends her courage in a speech announcing $35 million in fresh funds for clinical trials targeted at rare cancers such as hers.
At his next stop, the Orygen mental health research centre run by Professor Patrick McGorry, Hunt abandons his usual earnestness to crack a joke about social distancing as each guest moves obediently to a marked spot on the floor. “I feel like I’m about to lead a Pilates class – or perhaps a rendition of Nutbush City Limits,” he quips.
It’s hard to reconcile the public Hunt in moments like these with the altogether different portrait which emerges from Malcolm Turnbull’s recently published autobiography, A Bigger Picture.
“I wasn’t aware of it at this point, but Hunt all too often used abusive and vulgar language towards others, including to his department secretary, Martin Bowles and on another occasion, the 71-year-old mayor of Katherine, Fay Miller,” Turnbull writes.
Bowles, a long-standing and respected public servant, had complained internally in mid-2017 about a particularly vehement tirade he’d endured from Hunt over the department’s failure to meet a deadline on changes to the national cervical cancer register. After learning of the complaint, Turnbull called an urgent meeting with the head of his own department, Martin Parkinson, and Bowles to try to defuse the backroom crisis. Bowles quit soon afterwards, decamping to the private sector, and has never publicly discussed what occurred.
A senior health executive tells me he is “a brittle personality to deal with if things don’t go his way”.
The following year, Labor questioning in Parliament forced Hunt to admit he had indeed had what he termed a “strong discussion” with Bowles just prior to the latter’s departure. Meanwhile, Fay Miller had gone public with her damaging story about being belittled and sworn at by him during a December 2017 meeting in his office. Again, Hunt conceded using “strong language” and was forced into a (belated) apology.
Neither episode was a surprise to the press gallery, where stories had been circulating for some time about Hunt’s ability to fly off the handle. A senior health executive tells me he is “a brittle personality to deal with if things don’t go his way”.
When I put this history to the Health Minister, he’s noticeably discomfited. “Note to self – that’s probably high on the list of things to work on,” he says stiffly. “None of us is perfect.” He cites in mitigation the longevity of his personal staffing arrangements. “Generally we are regarded as the most stable office in terms of people staying for long, multi-year periods.” (His chief of staff, Wendy Black, former wife of radio shock jock Steve Price, has been with him for a decade.) Nor will Turnbull’s book be on his reading list any time soon: “I can’t see any circumstances under which I’ll have the time.”
Should Hunt ever dip into its pages he’ll also find a description of himself as “widely distrusted by his colleagues”, a view coloured by the events of August 2018, when Peter Dutton set out to unseat Turnbull but clumsily opened the way to the top for Scott Morrison instead. Hunt emerged as Dutton’s running mate in the days immediately preceding the final vote, and while he denies having had any hand in the destabilisation leading up to it, colleagues remain sceptical.
“There was a perception that he had been less than honest in his dealings, certainly with Malcolm,” says one senior MP. “He had been spending a lot of time denying that he had anything to do with Dutton or the push, and then he appears as effectively Dutton’s candidate for deputy.”
In those agonising four days that it took Dutton to unseat Turnbull, Hunt first offered his resignation, then pledged loyalty to Turnbull, then resigned to back Dutton in the final vote. He was not the only senior minister to do that. But many were stumped at the Dutton-Hunt pairing, not least because, as one colleague put it, “Dutton was radioactive down there in Victoria.”
Others were taken aback at the fact a contest had developed between Hunt and Frydenberg, a fellow Victorian and close friend five years his junior. The pair had long been assumed to have a mutual non-aggression pact, given their close personal ties. Both had worked for Downer; they were godfathers to each other’s daughters and had attended each other’s weddings as groomsmen. When the numbers for deputy were counted, Hunt came in third with 16 votes, Queensland frontbencher (now ex-MP) Steve Ciobo received 20 and Frydenberg a triumphant 46.
In a coda to the whole sorry mess, Turnbull wrote savagely: “Never liked, he [Hunt] had never been more despised than he was at that moment … He conspired to blow up the government for no reason other than his own advancement.”
Rubbing salt in the wound, former Liberal staffer Nikki Savva’s book Plots and Prayers later quoted Dutton as saying it had been a “mistake” for him to have Hunt as a running mate, because it had probably cost him votes. Asked to comment on this, Dutton tells Good Weekend he’d asked Hunt – a “close friend for about 20 years” – to run because of his “intellect and capacity, which has been on display for all to see during COVID”.
Craig Laundy says Hunt and the others must now live with the abiding risk that the whole messy episode will “come back to bite them – a clever opposition will find ways to use it against you in months or years to come”.
In truth Hunt was never going to be a match in the popularity stakes against Frydenberg, a gregarious and skilful networker. Hunt readily admits he’s never been one for traditional Canberra schmoozing, preferring during Parliamentary sitting weeks to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at his desk.
“Canberra for me is exercise and work” is how he describes his sojourns in the national capital – hardly a winning formula for advancing himself with colleagues. Yet he volunteers now that Frydenberg’s win was the right result because the younger man is “more rounded and deeper in his relationships around the party”. Both are keen to play down rumours that the contest strained their relationship, telling me in almost identical words that they are “closer than ever”.
At the May 2019 election, Hunt managed to beat off a challenge from former Liberal MP Julia Banks, a Turnbull loyalist who’d run against him as an independent in Flinders. Morrison kept him on in Health but elevated him to cabinet’s powerful Expenditure Review Committee and made him Minister assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service and Cabinet, giving him a key strategic role well beyond his own portfolio.
Only Hunt, Morrison, Peter Dutton and the soon-to-retire Finance Minister Mathias Cormann now remain from the original Coalition cabinet of 2013, he says. On Hunt’s telling, he and Morrison josh each other about the August 2018 turmoil. “He will say, ‘Well, you didn’t vote for me.’ And I will say, ‘Well, you didn’t vote for me.’ ” But he hastily follows this with praise for Morrison’s leadership, insisting “the cabinet now is the most stable I have ever seen.”
March 2020 struck fear into even the most phlegmatic government advisers as all eyes turned to Italy. Hundreds were dying daily, hospitals were overwhelmed, and doctors ran out of ventilators, leaving them to make agonising choices about who to keep alive, and who to let die. A Darwinian struggle was breaking out between nations, even long-standing allies, over scarce supplies of ventilators, testing kits and protective equipment, particularly surgical masks, gloves and gowns. In Australia, demand for masks during the bushfires had helped run down stocks.
Hunt was spending up to six hours a day – on top of the other demands of the portfolio – trying to ensure that critical supply lines didn’t break down, checking in constantly with CEOs and airline chiefs where necessary. There was, he says, “huge global pressure coming out of Europe, North America and other parts of the world to divert test kits from Australia towards other countries”.
Fact-based, methodical, some would even say a little boring – I knew your style would come into vogue one day.
Outwardly, Hunt’s default mode was to stick as far as possible to a tone of steady calm. In the midst of a particularly intense week of media appearances, he got a text from an old university debating friend. “Well,” the message read. “Fact-based, methodical, some would even say a little boring – I knew your style would come into vogue one day.” Frydenberg saw something more in private. “He got emotional at times – he knew how much was at stake. It’s a source of his strength that he’s so committed.”
The crisis threatened to overwhelm the primary healthcare sector, where doctors and nurses were afraid for themselves, their families and their patients. The response was a rapid effort to put in place a tele-health scheme, allowing GPs to provide government-funded services to patients over the phone or by video link. “It brought forward a 10-year plan in 10 days,” Hunt says.
Another urgent task was reaching unprecedented agreement to integrate as far as possible the capacity of the public and private hospital systems, so that every bed, every facility, could be mobilised.
On March 13 came another critical decision by Morrison: to invite the state premiers and territory leaders to join him in forming a national cabinet to help fight the pandemic. That morning, Hunt had briefed the Prime Minister on a long conversation he’d had a few days before with Dr Julian Rait, the president of the Australian Medical Association Victoria, who was well versed in how the Spanish flu had nearly fractured the federation a century earlier.
Morrison thus “sensed the moment of risk”, says Hunt, and was “intensely aware of the need to have a single medical voice and intensely focused on the need to have unity with the states”. Yet national unity was elusive from the outset, becoming even more so as squabbles escalated over state border closures.
For a while Hunt receded into the background as Morrison, flanked by Brendan Murphy (who has since been promoted to head Hunt’s department), took the dominant roles in the federal government’s health messaging. Yet Frydenberg says of his friend, “Nobody could have worked harder in a more important area than Greg through this pandemic. History will reveal just how much he has done, to get Australia through this.” NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard says “every health minister across the country has been critical – Greg included. We’ve had to meet unprecedented challenges with unprecedented co-operation.”
As the country sailed into winter in early June, it seemed the virus had been beaten back except for returning overseas travellers. There was pride in the fact that Australia’s position remained enviable by international standards, and the national mood was drifting dangerously close to self-congratulation.
Then came Victoria’s shocking relapse into escalating community transmission, and mounting carnage in the state’s residential aged-care facilities, for which the federal government holds regulatory and funding responsibility.
Although most of the heat has fallen on Morrison and his hapless Aged Care minister Richard Colbeck, the welfare of older Australians also comes within the health portfolio, and Hunt’s department is also in the firing line.
Counsel assisting the Royal Commission into Aged Care has savaged the Commonwealth’s lack of preparedness in this area, and the AMA has slammed the “needless” deaths of hundreds of elderly Australians. Perhaps surprisingly, given he’s the senior portfolio minister, Hunt has thus far escaped political damage over the issue, and shouldering more responsibility for the COVID-19 aged care crisis must now be among his key challenges. So too, the task of ensuring Australia can quickly tap into national supplies of a vaccine, should a successful candidate emerge from the pack.
In the latter part of August, Hunt got a taste of what so many other Australians have had to endure – two weeks in hotel quarantine, his in Canberra as a precondition for returning to Parliament. To keep fit, he borrowed sports equipment and a treadmill and told me by text that he was notching up “100 micro-sprints on the balcony” every day.
The semi-monastic existence suited him. He says he was too busy to be lonely, working a “fairly strict” 6am-to-midnight regime. He even built himself a media wall, handling his press conferences and videos remotely. The hardest part, he says, was having to watch the funeral of his 90-year-old uncle, Colin, his father’s younger brother, on livestream. “Watching a family funeral of 10 with guests in masks … It just emphasised the truth of what so many families are going through.”
Hunt disavows any interest in a change of portfolio, despite a cabinet reshuffle looming when Mathias Cormann leaves at year’s end. He’s worked tirelessly through this once-in-100-year crisis. His messaging throughout the pandemic has been consistently strong. Yet ensuring the health system is robust enough to withstand whatever new shocks the pandemic has in store is only part of how he’ll be ultimately judged as Health Minister. The need for fundamental reform will rear its head again soon enough.
Eventually, he’d like to work on global reef management – he finds coral bleaching “personally agonising”.
“Hunt has tried to keep everyone happy but he has not developed a strategy that holds all the interlocking parts [of the portfolio] together,” argues a senior industry analyst. “The private health industry is in a world of pain.”
Labor’s health spokesman Chris Bowen accuses Hunt of “kicking the can down the road” on serious reform, saying he’s good at “promising reviews, plans or inquiries to placate peak groups”. And Alison Verhoeven, the chief executive of the Australian Healthcare & Hospitals Association, warns “there is still a lot to do to improve our health system. That will require not just sweetheart deals but also, in some cases, making some stakeholders unhappy.”
Hunt insists he does have “waves of reform” to come: in private health insurance (which younger Australians are deserting), mental health, aged care, medical research and re-balancing the medical workforce. Pressed on his long-term aspirations, he says somewhat surprisingly that he’d like to work on global reef management – he finds coral bleaching “personally agonising”. If he sees any disconnect between that goal and the federal Coalition’s reluctance to seriously address that other great planetary crisis – climate change – he’s not acknowledging it.
But for now, “I’m not thinking beyond the current role at all. I’ve got two of my closest friends, in Josh and Scott, in their roles. I’m just very happy with where I’m at and deeply engaged in the work I am doing. Being Health Minister during the pandemic is probably as important as anything I can ever do.”