In his recent Wonky Health column, Dr Tim Senior reviewed a new book by former MP Rob Oakeshott, The Independent Member for Lyne.
The review noted that “health as a topic is notable for its absence”, and also suggested the book would have benefited from a deeper analysis of the root causes of inequalities and power imbalances.
Below is the author’s response, in which he explains why rural heath did not feature as prominently in the book as many would have liked, and also reflects upon the challenges of seeking a fairer distribution of power.
Rob Oakeshott writes:
It was with surprise that I awoke this morning to find an article from Dr Tim online that undertook a review of my book, The Independent Member for Lyne, through the specific lense of rural health advocacy.
Despite years of public criticism about many things, one never quite gets comfortable with the nakedness of being ‘reviewed’ and ‘critiqued’. So, once again, as I sat down to read, I felt myself putting the battle-suit of democratic participation back on, in preparation for emotional scars to be picked. It was time to read what the thoughtful Dr Tim had to say.
He doesn’t actually score me out of ten, but I am left thinking I got about a six – maybe a six and a half at best!
He is right to pick up that rural health as a standalone topic doesn’t exist – well, it does – but not in the book. It died a death in the editing process, and sits in a red folder in my garage. I look at it now and think I should give it to Dr Tim. He could review the ‘uncut’ version.
As a revealing joke on myself, when I was tasked by the publisher to write 80,000 words on my time in politics, I got a bit carried away and gave them 200,000 words. My great life challenge of ‘wordiness’ reared its head, and more than half a book lies dormant amongst kids’ bikes, a lawnmower, and the home of a visiting dog.
So I can only apologise to Dr Tim, as in my world, rural health does matter, and did matter greatly when in office. It just ended up as off-cuts for the prime beef story of raw politics in the minority government of the 43rd Parliament.
That it was rural health that was cut is the valid conclusion that Dr Tim himself concludes.
Therefore, fair criticism 1. I concede.
There is another really important point that Dr Tim makes as part-critique. He comments on the social networks that I own and expose throughout the book – friends from university, from school, and family.
He describes them as examples of access to power that I don’t reflect on at a deeper level. He seems to want a demonstration that I have thought about this, and is disappointed I don’t articulate my views on this if I have.
Can I assure Dr Tim and readers of his article that this exact point is a life’s work in politics for me, and is at the heart of my political journey. I thought it was obvious through my actions how I dealt with existing power structures, but obviously not.
So two points on this.
Firstly, the broad point for all of us to think on. Social learning theory is critical to where our politics in Australia has landed.
How we all perceive what power is, and who should hold it, was tested like never before when Australia had its first female Prime Minister, and she emerged from, a somewhat ironically named, ‘hung’ Parliament. This challenged a lot of Australia’s social learning structures – what we are all bought up to believe and are ‘culturally comfortable’ with.
I discussed this last Saturday night with Mary Delahunty as I interviewed her for an audience interested in her new book ‘Gravity’, which looks at this in relation to Julia Gillard, from a specifically gender politics perspective.
Gender and sexualisation in politics was never something I placed much weight on until the 43rd Parliament, and it was only then that I heard so many men, and women, describe their politics in raw sexual terms:
“Grow some balls and call an election” was what I was repeatedly told.
“I mightn’t agree with Gillard, but gee she’s got some balls”, was how she was described when she kept smiling and working through the most vicious attacks.
Balls = Power?
So yes, Dr Tim, you are right. Social learning theory, and what we have all learnt to accept as ‘cultural norms’ played an enormous part in the noise of the recent Parliament, and we all have some reflecting to do on this.
And then secondly, there is the personal response to these power networks that I have been bought up with, and have used, and have challenged.
What I often think about today, in private, is if I had just ‘shut up’ and played the game as a good political party boy, I would have had a successful career in the traditional sense of power in Australia. My ‘old school tie’ network would have assured this. My access to power was strong, and my path to more power was clear.
It was through my own belligerent actions that I disrupted this.
My journey is a lived example of not just the strength, but also the pitfalls, of standing up to power.
I was once a ‘golden boy’ of those power structures, with lots of excitement about a bright future. I was ‘going places’.
Because I chose my own way, and chose to actually stand up for some values and some people without power, I am less ‘going places’, and now more ‘tolerated’ by this same network. I am now positioned as a ‘good fellow who lost his way’. A black sheep of Australia’s power elite.
There is no question I had power at a very young age. But my choice was to try to distribute this power to others – like rural health networks – and to embolden them and give them access to real power in our country.
And while this may have worked for three years at the sharp end of power in the 43rd Parliament, and while this may have been a political model that I promoted for my entire 17 years in public life, it is a model not without pitfalls.
Because the more I tried to distribute power the more I personally fell away from real power. This remains an unresolved issue in my own mind.
I inadvertently ‘cashed my political chips’ on you, Dr Tim, and others like you.
In a way, I handed in my old school tie, and the access to power that comes with it. Even today, I am not sure I did the right thing in doing so, but I did so because I do think the accumulation of power in the hands of a few is an enormous problem in modern politics – and frankly, I did enjoy challenging this, and trying to reverse this, while I had the chance.
No matter how big the punch in the nose in reply, it was fun to poke power in the eye.
So again Dr Tim, it is very astute of you to pick this up, and I was remiss not to reflect on this in more detail in my own words.
Therefore, fair criticism 2. I concede again.
Finally, in stating the obvious, I remain a lover of all things rural and regional health. The Port Macquarie Base Hospital extension opens shortly, and there is great excitement about this $110 million upgrade.
Kempsey Hospital begins soon, and there is similar delight in this $80 million upgrade. These were just two of the 105 regional and rural hospital upgrades negotiated by Julia Gillard, Tony Windsor, and I in those heady 17 days in 2010.
Likewise, the $20 million Joint Health Education campus, a first of its kind in Australia, is about three-quarters complete, and is a very exciting model to be looked at by other regional communities.
I am looking forward to sitting up the back at a few of these ribbon-cutting ceremonies soon, and doing nothing other than smiling.
Thanks Dr Tim for taking the time to read my book, to reflect on it, and to expose holes through thoughtful review. I give your article an eight out of ten.