Collaborative spirit: how political consensus supports VicHealth’s long-term vision

Collaborative spirit: how political consensus supports VicHealth’s long-term vision

The support of MPs from three different parties on the VicHealth board is a unique factor in the organisation’s long-term success.

(At the time of writing, three MPs on the VicHealth Board are: Natalie Suleyman, Wendy Lovell and Colleen Hartland)

One innovation has run like a ribbon through VicHealth’s 30-year history – the multipartisan representation of MPs on the VicHealth Board.

It has not only given VicHealth continuity but also captured the collaborative spirit at the heart of its work.

Only one other organisation in Victoria – the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation – has a board that includes state MPs from across party lines. The Foundation, established in 2011 and based on the VicHealth model, requires three members of parliament, representing different political parties.

Mark Birrell – former VicHealth chair and Liberal health spokesperson when the Cain government created VicHealth in 1987 – was instrumental in helping to establish the board structure.

“I was looking for a structure that met the goal of ensuring VicHealth outlived the inevitable challenges and threats that reforming agencies face,” Birrell said in 2007. “We needed VicHealth to have a governance structure that was balanced and representative. We found a precedent in the councils that oversaw universities, which enshrined representations from all shades of politics. It was the perfect model.”

Victoria’s Health Minister in 1987, Labor’s David White, also championed the VicHealth governance model, saying “it needed to be tripartisan because no one stays in government forever.”

The end result is that VicHealth is able to reflect the Parliament, not just the government of the day, and go about its work with the long-term view that is vital for partnership-building and community engagement.

Up until 2016, the usual representation on the board was a Labor, Liberal and National Party MP. But with the rise of the Greens as a major party in Parliament, Greens MP Colleen Hartland took the National Party’s place on the board, along with Labor’s Natalie Suleyman and regional Liberal Wendy Lovell.


(Colleen Hartland left the Victorian Parliament in February 2018. The term for Natalie Suleyman and Wendy Lovell will end at the next state election, in November 2018.)


Natalie Suleyman, Australian Labor Party

Labor’s Natalie Suleyman represents a Melbourne western suburbs electorate where the social determinants of health are a powerful consideration.

Suleyman was mayor of Brimbank City Council, a municipality where 58 per cent of residents speak a language other than English at home (ABS Census, 2016).

She now represents the lower house seat of St Albans – an electorate that includes her former council area – in Victoria’s Legislative Assembly. “It’s a diverse, multicultural electorate [and there are] some poor lifestyle choices in terms of healthy eating,” she says.

VicHealth has rolled out a number of programs in the area, dating back to the Food For All initiative in Brimbank. This established a fresh food delivery service for elderly residents as well as developing community gardens to bolster local fruit and vegetable supply.

Suleyman says her time on the board has exposed her to a range of VicHealth activities that she was unaware of and given her a deeper appreciation of how the organisation works.

“I had exposure when I was on council to the various health promotion initiatives that local government has with VicHealth. But for me this is about gaining a much broader understanding because there is so much that VicHealth does,” Suleyman says.

The VicHealth campaigns that have targeted children have been really, really critical because that’s the beginning of everything.

The closer involvement has given Suleyman an appreciation of VicHealth’s policy framework, the amount of work that goes into making policy and the extensive efforts to test, trial and then apply it.

“A lot of policy takes more than four years (of the electoral cycle), so it’s very important that policy is not affected and that policy is driven long-term,” she says.

Even allowing for that, VicHealth’s capacity to facilitate, engage and implement programs hinges on its reputation.

“There’s goodwill and there’s trust out there for VicHealth,” Suleyman says. “And it’s about that trust – and that evidence base.

“The VicHealth campaigns that have targeted children have been really, really critical because that’s the beginning of everything,” she says.

For Suleyman though, the priority is ensuring the messages behind the VicHealth programs reach the multicultural communities who need it.

Are the political affiliations of the MPs on the board evident?

“I don’t feel that way. It’s a reflection and understanding of what VicHealth represents – it is a bipartisan, legislated entity and we’re all there for the same reasons and that is to create a better, healthier way forward for Victoria, and for access to health, education, [and] prevention. It doesn’t cross any party lines.”


Wendy Lovell, Liberal Party

Wendy Lovell is the only one of the three current MPs on the board with ministerial experience: she was Minister for Housing and Minister for Children and Early Childhood Development in the previous Coalition government, from 2010 until 2014.

Wendy says those roles not only gave her some exposure to VicHealth’s work, but also meant she could bring governance and policy writing skills to the board. “I’ve always been interested in what VicHealth has done,” Lovell explains.

“I was in social portfolios and always had a strong interest in health promotion and when you see kids making those healthy choices, it’s fantastic to know that work has that kind of effect.”

Health promotion and prevention are critical to ensuring we maintain a healthy community.

Lovell came to politics after working as a newsagent in Shepparton. She represents the Northern Victoria region in the Legislative Council, but is quick to stress that she represents all Victorians in her role on the VicHealth board, not just those in her constituency.

“You’re there [on the board] to make sure we have the best programs for the whole of Victoria,” she says, and that means casting aside politics or partisanship.

“Politics doesn’t come into it. Politics are not discussed. Health should be above party politics … and health promotion and prevention are critical to ensuring we maintain a healthy community,” Lovell says. “And that saves governments millions, if not billions of dollars over the years.”

Lovell cautions observers not to be misled by the theatre of Parliament and the partisan exchanges between MPs that often find their way to the evening news.

“What a lot of people don’t understand about politics is a lot of work we do is collaborative … we sit on committees together, we’re in the dining room together. Politicians become friends,” Lovell says, “and that collaboration helps to drive the spirit of co-operation on the board.”

There is a growing list of MPs who have been part of the VicHealth journey during the past three decades and, for Lovell, that has only strengthened VicHealth.

“It’s great that more MPs are exposed to it and get that knowledge of what VicHealth actually is. The more of us who are exposed to it and participate in it, the stronger the bipartisan support will be,” she says.

The relationship, though, goes both ways. “VicHealth as an organisation knows [that] to remain a valued part of government health policy it needs to have the support of all parties,” she says.

That means VicHealth is less buffeted by the winds of political changes as they blow through Spring Street. It also translates into a practical body of knowledge that becomes available to MPs, their parties and the parliament, over time.

“You don’t only have a stake in it but also a better understanding of the work of VicHealth and the opportunities it presents,” Lovell says of her time on the board.


Will you miss VicHealth when your term expires?

“I’m sure I will … it’s a passion of mine. I want to see young kids out running around, playing sport, eating healthily and having a better future than perhaps they might have had if VicHealth hadn’t been there.”


Colleen Hartland, Australian Greens

Colleen Hartland

Colleen Hartland’s first step on learning she was to be appointed to the VicHealth board was to seek out the Act that established the organisation 30 years ago.

“It was actually quite a radical move by [then Labor premier] John Cain back then to actually use tobacco tax to wean the community – especially sporting clubs – off tobacco. It was really quite ahead of its time,” Hartland says.

Hartland has a strong interest in public health: she has been the Greens’ health spokesperson since she entered Parliament’s Legislative Council in 2006 as the representative for Melbourne’s Western Metropolitan Region. Before her parliamentary career, she worked for five years at the Western Region Health Centre, supporting older residents of a Williamstown high-rise housing estate.

I live in the western suburbs. The social determinants of health for working people – diabetes, heart disease, all of those things – I know it. I live it.

Hartland found herself in tune with VicHealth’s priorities around recognising the social determinants of health. “I grew up in Morwell. I live in the western suburbs. The social determinants of health for working people – diabetes, heart disease, all of those things – I know it. I live it,” she says.

She finds some of VicHealth’s new programs strike a deep personal chord. “The This Girl Can campaign – I cried the first time I saw that. I’m a big woman … if I’d had that when I was a teenager, that kind of positive ‘you can do anything you want, no matter what shape or size’... it’s amazing,” she says.

Sport has not been as central to Hartland’s life as it is for thousands of Victorians but that hasn’t stopped her making a contribution to boardroom debates about the role sport plays in getting people active.

“I understand the politics and power of sport, especially in terms of turning around young people’s lives who are in trouble,” Hartland says. Her capacity to contribute to discussions around grassroots sport programs in part reflects how the VicHealth board aims to capture a range of views, not just the experts.

“It’s a very functional board,” Hartland says. “There are no egomaniacs.

“How well those [board] models work depends on who the MPs are and how they behave. If you’ve got someone who just goes in there and wants to push the party line, it’s not going to work. It’s entirely around personalities and how engaged they are with the issues and whether they’re there just to reflect the party line or talk about the [VicHealth] work. I prefer to think I’m there to talk about the work.

“MPs can go back to their parties and talk about the good work that VicHealth does and talk about how it happened, why it happened, because one voice in a party room caucus can make a difference if there’s a personal experience of what’s going on,” she says.


What have you learned from your time on the VicHealth board?

“Having been involved with several dysfunctional boards and community groups, I’ve learnt that you can have intense debate about an issue but you can come to a position that everyone can accept. This has been done because of its skilful and collaborative style of leadership.”


(Hartland retired from Parliament in February 2018.)

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