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“It’s time the truth was told” – Gordon Gregory on lies, politics and missed opportunities

Peak bodies have many advantages – they help to unite the diversity of competing interests in the health sector, and thus can be helpful in providing consensus advice and policies to inform decision-making.

But there can also be drawbacks. If the diversity of interests cannot unite to provide honest and unambiguous advice in the public interest, then our health can suffer.

See Exhibit One below, in which Gordon Gregory, former CEO of the National Rural Health Alliance (NRHA), shares an article he wrote in 2012 in an effort to correct the public record about the nature of Julia Gillard’s statements on a carbon tax.

If public debate about climate policy had been more informed at the time, would we now find ourselves in a healthier policy space in relation to climate and health?


Gordon Gregory writes:

When I was Executive Director and then CEO of the National Rural Health Alliance (NRHA), I took very seriously the challenge of representing only the shared views of the member bodies. This imposed limits on the subjects on which I spoke or wrote, and in effect provided prescriptive guidelines for the positions taken on the subjects that were ‘within scope’.

GordonPic
Gordon Gregory: speaking out

Protocols were developed for involving all member bodies, usually through their delegate to the NRHA Council, in work to agree what was on the organisation’s agenda and what the organisation’s position was on each item.

Given the scope of the NRHA’s interests and the large number of public statements of one sort or another, I was occasionally taken to task by one or more of the member bodies for views I had expressed. However, in general, mutual trust was developed so that a large volume of public activity was maintained.

The areas in which the greatest care needed to be taken to avoid the risk of saying something that could not be supported by a member body were matters relating to the practice of particular health professionals and the relationship between them (scopes of practice, for example), and anything which could be construed as being politically partisan.

It was this latter constraint that led me to conclude that I should not publish a piece that I wrote in April 2012 in defence of Julia Gillard.

Every time I heard a reference to what became known as Julia Gillard’s ‘lie’ about a carbon tax, I felt outrage. No one – not even her own office – was able to see that statement the way I did: as something that would apply if the ALP won the election and there was a Gillard Government.

Once she failed in that endeavour, a new circumstance existed. Bets were off. A different arrangement for government had to be made.

Not only was I outraged, but also I could sense the political capital that would be made for her opponents. (What I didn’t pick, of course, was the fact that the negative capital was the reason why her stocks fell so far that it was Kevin Rudd who defeated her, not Tony Abbott.)

So here is that article, exactly as I wrote it in April 2012. It is not the clearest or simplest piece I have ever written, but it is very important to me and I am grateful to be relieved of the constraints there used to be on its public release.

Successful prosecution of the view that Gillard had lied – in which success her Party seemed curiously complicit – and the impact this had on Federal politics, set back the debate in Australia on climate policy by perhaps a decade. Because those political effects are still with us today.

Julia Gillard is not a liar

(Written in April 2012)

It’s time the truth was told. Julia Gillard is neither a liar nor the sort of person predisposed to lying.

Someone has to make this point or else the lead-up to the election due 18 months from now, and the election itself, will be dominated by just one thing: the assertion that Julia Gillard lied and cannot be trusted.

On 16 August 2010 Julia Gillard said: “There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.”

During the same election campaign it was clear that the Labor Party wanted to legislate for an emissions trading scheme – meaning that, if in government, it would fix the quantity and allow the market to determine the price. And this was certainly not a small part of their agenda for, in calling the August 2010 election, Julia Gillard nominated economic strength, education and climate change as the three priorities for a re-elected government.

However, it was not a Labor Government that was elected but a combined Labor/Greens/rural independent Government. And that Government has been effective in passing legislation, including through the Senate where the Greens hold the balance of power, and in giving much-needed and well-deserved emphasis to the well-being of people in rural and remote Australia.

In 1987, the number of Australian children living in poverty was estimated at 580,000. Opening Labor’s election campaign on June 23, 1987, Bob Hawke said: “We set ourselves this first goal: by 1990 no Australian child will be living in poverty”.

Twenty years later he described the comment as one of the biggest regrets of his career – that it was “a silly shorthand thing”. “I should have just said what was in the distributed speech,” he later said. But it was not suggested as a result that Bob Hawke was a liar. After all, he could drink a yard of ale in no time at all and wished us all a day off after we won the America’s Cup.

On 2 May 1995 John Howard (the first to enunciate the difference between ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ promises) said: “There’s no way that a GST will ever be part of our policy”. By “our policy”, he meant the Coalition’s: assuming that the Coalition was elected, there would be no GST in the new term. And, true to his word, the Coalition Government did not introduce a GST during that term.

In August 1997, John Howard announced that the Coalition would contest the next election, in 1998, with a plan to introduce a GST. The voters elected a Coalition Government again and the GST was introduced on 1 July 2000. With the support of the Democrats in the Senate. Who never recovered.

After the election of 21 August 2010, neither side of politics had a clear mandate. The voters were not persuaded by the campaign promises of either. Julia Gillard had campaigned on action on climate change – but no carbon tax. That proposal was in effect rejected. But it is drawing a very long bow to suggest that action on climate change was rejected.

If ‘a Gillard Government’ had been elected in 2010 – meaning one with untrammelled authority in both houses – an emissions trading scheme would no doubt have been introduced.

But the people, in their wisdom, elected neither a Gillard nor an Abbott Government: they elected a hung Parliament with the balance of power held by one Green and five independents.

Flashback to the NRHA's Dr Jenny May and the independent MPs, Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott & Bob Katter
Flashback to the NRHA’s Dr Jenny May and the independent MPs, Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott & Bob Katter

As far as Gillard and Abbott governments were concerned, all bets were off. Yet a government had to be formed. And it had to be soon, without the luxury of years to allow people to accommodate to new policy positions.

Deals were done – and good ones, too, because – thanks to the deals done by two rural independents – the Government is providing the opportunity for the people of rural and remote areas to catch up in health, infrastructure and regional development.

Julia Gillard might have tried the George Washington defence and hoped for the same boost in admiration:

“I cannot tell a lie, father, you know I cannot tell a lie! I did cut it with my little hatchet.”

“My son, that you should not be afraid to tell the truth is more to me than a thousand trees!”

But she had not told a lie in the sense of seeking to mislead people. What happened was a new political necessity: the nation must have a government, and whether it took a billion dollars for the Hobart hospital, the dumping of a Citizens Assembly on climate change or a carbon tax was for the moment in the hands of those elected who were not affiliated with the major parties.

She might have varied (‘broken’) that particular ALP commitment by fiddling with the fine print, as many had done before her, for instance by narrowing eligibility for a program or delaying its introduction to a later financial year. Perhaps due to the negotiating skill of the Greens and independents, or to her own determination, Gillard chose to go for a carbon tax after all.

And ever since, the complex realities surrounding her statement have been corrupted by even the most reliable sources.

For reasons I can’t understand, no one is challenging the view that Julia Gillard is a person who lied and who is a habitual liar.

The term ‘broken promise’ has become a key element of the current affairs lexicon. It is claimed without challenge that this is a government that lies, even though at the time of that statement there was no government in office.

The accusations reach a pitch in March 2011 with the demonstration at Parliament House featuring the infamous placards in front of which Tony Abbott was pictured.

One of those reliable sources, Radio National’s Fran Kelly, is speaking with Morris Iemma and Geoff Gallop in late March 2012 about the implications of the Queensland election results, particularly as they relate to “how much the trust thing is an issue” for Julia Gillard:

– the promise just days before the 2010 election, “No carbon tax under a government I lead”, and then minority government;… has to negotiate with the Greens to form a government and that negotiation means bringing in a carbon tax.”

This is as full and accurate a summary of the circumstances as has been suggested by anyone. But Fran’s next question is as follows:

Can she [Julia Gillard] win back the trust of voters – has she in fact lost it because of that broken promise?” (Emphasis added) (Radio National’s Breakfast, Tuesday 27 March 2012)

The demands the public seems to make of its media to simplify and abbreviate complex issues often support the political imperative of the Opposition – any Opposition – to destroy the credibility of the Prime Minister of the day.

This would be less critical if it were not for the extent to which Australia now has a so-called presidential style of government, particularly when it comes to elections. The personae of the leaders are all-embracing. This is for both good reasons and bad.

The bad reasons are related to the demand for simplicity and to common acceptance of the cult of personality. It’s far easier to sum up a complex choice between parties by reference to two individuals who are seen and heard nightly on television, than to undertake a detailed analysis and comparison of those policies.

The good reason for distinguishing in Australia between the major parties mainly on the basis of their leaders is that we are very fortunate country when it comes to politics and public governance. There are differences of emphasis and degree, but both sides of politics support the notion of a safety net for those who are on low income, have a disability, have chronic illness or are out of work.

Both of them will support continued investment in better roads, schools and tertiary educational institutions, public utilities and the arts. Both of them no doubt would like to solve the problems of the Murray Darling basin, save the Barrier Reef, close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous life expectancy, support peace in our region and provide some overseas aid.

Many of the good things we expect of our governments are agreed – which is why, to succeed electorally, both sides of politics must win the middle ground.

The greater the challenge for voters to distinguish between the major parties on the basis of their nuanced approach to broadly agreed policies, the more will the political system become ‘Presidential’. It’s easier; for Gillard we know, Abbott we know.

On the morning of Saturday 17 July 2010, with the Prime Minister widely tipped to call an election, the media was staking out Government House in anticipation of her passing through the gates to ask the Queen’s representative to prorogue Parliament.

The matter was being covered by ABC News 24 and, just as I left home for the NRHA office, it was reported that Julia Gillard was on her way from Parliament House. My workplace is close to where Kent Street passes over Adelaide Avenue and she would have to come this way en route to Government House.

So on a whim I stood on the bridge over Adelaide Avenue, half expecting it to be cluttered with people wanting to view this historic occasion. But I was there alone as a single black car appeared from the direction of Parliament House – no police escort, no cavalcade, just a single vehicle.

Looking down, I see in the front and on the left is the driver and on the right is the Prime Minister. In the front. Clearly visible. I lean forward and give a cheerful wave. The Prime Minister looks up at the bridge and gives a cheerful wave in return.

I have never met the Prime Minister; but she waved at me from her car.

What a wonderful open, trusting country. What a wonderful freedom to speculate on political personalities and motives and decisions made and never made. What an important and decent thing is politics, that must make daily decisions that will affect the lives of all of us. And how poorly understood.

So this is me waving back.

Comments 1

  1. Anne Cahill Lambert says:

    I’m glad this has been published, gg. Thank you.

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