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Finance could give Halton whip hand on Health

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Jane Halton may have officially left the Health Department, but in her new role as Secretary of Finance, her influence on the direction and implementation of health policy will be virtually undiminished.

That is the assessment of seasoned Canberra observers following Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s decision to appoint Ms Halton to the pivotal Finance role following a 12-year stint at Health.

Ms Halton, who shot to national prominence early last decade when she was appointed by the Howard Government to head its people smuggling taskforce before assuming the top position at Health in 2002, has been appointed to a five-year term as Finance Secretary.

The promotion means Ms Halton will have a central role in helping develop and execute the Federal Government’s Budget strategy, which has the containment of health spending as one of its central goals.

It means that although Ms Halton is no longer formally tied to the Health Department, her influence on the direction and implementation of health policy will continue to be substantial.

Senior Health official David Learmonth, who has served as Deputy Secretary in the Department for the past eight years, has been appointed acting Secretary following Ms Halton’s departure.

Mr Learmonth, who has been a key lieutenant for Ms Halton, has since mid-2006 had oversight of the Department’s work regarding medical and pharmaceutical benefits, as well as audit and fraud functions.

The former Defence official has also assumed responsibility for sport functions, including the operation of the Office for Sport and the National Integrity of Sport Unit after responsibility for sport was transferred to Health following the Federal election.

In a statement late last month detailing these and other changes in the senior ranks of the public service, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he would make an announcement about a permanent replacement for Ms Halton at the Department of Health “in the near future”.

Adrian Rollins