Retiring health chief executive eyes future
AFTER 28 years as a public health servant, including 15 years at the helm of the Northern NSW Local Health District, chief executive Chris Crawford will retire at the end of the year.
The at-times controversial bureaucrat, who oversees 14 hospitals from the Tweed to Grafton, sat down with the Tweed Daily News this week, revealing for the first time that after a gap year to travel, he will pursue a doctorate in philosophy, in policy and health.
There’s a possibility Mr Crawford will return to the University of New South Wales, where in his 20s he completed his studies in Arts, with honours in political science and graduate law.
“I want to look at the effect of politics on government decision-making,” Mr Crawford said.
“I hope to add to the knowledge base in politics and government and stimulate debate, and the other thing I’m thinking about is writing a blog.”
Before launching into a career in the health sector, Mr Crawford was a lawyer for five years at Allen Allen & Hemsley – one of the prestigious ‘Big Six’ firms.
He then made the move into politics, where, while working under NSW Liberal Senator Dr Peter Erne Baume, his interest diverted to health.
“What spurred me on into health was that it is so complex, and requires a lot of good thinking,” Mr Crawford said.
“It has the private element, it has the public element, the Commonwealth Government, the State Government, it’s got a very educated workforce, and I love the fact that it has so much interaction with the community.”
In 1988, when the Nick Greiner Government came into power, Mr Crawford became the chief of staff for then Health Minister Peter Collins, until 1991 when Mr Collins became Attorney General.
Mr Crawford then worked for six years at the Southern Sydney Area Health Service under chief executive Dr John Cambell, who Mr Crawford still counts as one of his biggest influences.
“He was a very serious health manager and he guided me, and he was the one who appointed me to then become the executive of the St George Hospital, which I think really was a springboard for the rest of my career.
“He was an innovator and he was fearless, he wasn’t afraid to make radical or difficult decisions.
“But he was successful in following them through and making sure they were effective.”
From 1993 to 1996 Mr Crawford completed an MBA, part-time and via correspondence, through Macquarie University.
“Sometimes I joke that I make more use of my honours degree in politics than my MBA, because they’re just so many political issues in health.”
Mr Crawford then moved to Northern NSW where he covered a district from the Queensland–NSW border to Port Macquarie for the first six years – finding this the most “challenging” time of his career.
He was later tasked with slashing budgets and retrenching 400 staff during the financial crisis between 2007 and 2009.
“There I was, sort of alone, at the top,” he said.
“I had my executive team, but no board to support me; having to run these services all the way from the border down to Port Macquarie.”
He said the last five years working with the re-instated boards on a smaller scale, had been the most successful of his career.
He counts redevelopments at Lismore Base Hospital and Tweed Hospital, the Multi Purpose Service at Bonalbo, and the re-opening of the Murwillumbah birth ward among his career highlights.
However, transferring the 14-bed Coraki Hospital to a HealthOne outpatient unit, and moving rehab health services from Lismore to Ballina were the most controversial decisions he had made.
“My argument was that the modern health setting, a 14-bed hospitals don’t really offer anything, and cost a lot of money and it was only 25 minutes from Lismore base hospital.
“I had to move the rehab services, which caused a lot of angst, and there were public marches in the street, but now it’s been so successful, you can’t find anyone who opposed it and everyone claims they were a supporter of it,” he said.
Mr Crawford said Northern Rivers now boasted more projects than anywhere else in NSW, with the successful 15-year plan to construct Byron Bay Hospital another of his major achievements.
“In my first month on the job I had for the first time got the north of the Shire around Mullumbimby and Brunswick Heads and the south of the Shire - Byron Bay - communities to meet together.
“What we eventually agreed on was we would have this one central hospital and it’s taken us 15 years to get there.
“It does show that in health you need to be a bit of a stayer because you need to see things realised.”
Mr Crawford plans to indulge in camping, reading – he is midway through a Justin Trudeau biography – and spending time with his wife Catherine Cusack, who is a NSW Liberal MP.
“We have extended periods where we’re apart and we keep in touch over the phone, so it’s dislocating,” he said.
“But, because we both understand each other’s career, I think its easier than for someone who didn’t.
“She was very happy, I’m ‘retiring’, because we can be together more often.”