Political watch with Graham Richardson

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How I once underestimated this great Australian

Political Columnist

Neville Wran was the best politician I ever met. He knew Australians better than they knew themselves. The boy from Sydney’s Balmain, when it was more akin to a slum than a yuppie paradise, never forgot his roots.
He came to live in eastern suburbs mansions but he never stopped caring about the mob. If judging the mob correctly was his greatest strength, then perhaps his greatest weakness was to misjudge the surgeons who operated every day in NSW private and public hospitals.
Largely that error was caused by his failure to work out how powerful the surgeons’ leader, Bruce Shepherd, really was. From 1983, shortly after the Hawke government was elected, until 1985 Shepherd led the surgeons. They resigned their positions at NSW public hospitals and refused to budge.
Wran threatened to keep them out of the public system for the rest of their careers. The surgeons, though, had a leader who, as Maggie Thatcher had famously said, “was not for turning”.
Labor painted Shepherd as the face of medical greed. He was the man demanding that surgeons charge whatever they thought they were worth. This would shut the door on the poor getting new knees and hips. That was Labor’s narrative and it was wrong, as was the claim made by Shepherd, and my good friend Alan Jones, that the Hawke government was trying to nationalise medicine.
Labor, and in particular health minister Neal Blewett, were not going that far.
Wran, Bob Hawke and Blewett failed to understand a truly obvious fact. They viewed their power as such that they could somehow run the hospital system without doctors. It was obvious to me that this was one fight Labor was going to lose and one that could do the party considerable damage.
My doctor at the time, Frank Fisher, called to put to me the case that far from being a demon, Shepherd was a good man who would listen. I organised for Shepherd, Fisher and a few other of their colleagues to make an under-the-radar visit to Hawke.
We met at the Lodge on a sunny Canberra morning and the process of settling the dispute began to take shape.
After that, the unthinkable happened. I became a good friend of Shepherd. We had weekenders almost adjacent in Bowral and saw much of each other. He was a generous man, the antithesis of greedy. He regularly waived fees for patients who would have difficulty paying the bill.
Dr Bruce Shepherd.
He refused to be told what he should charge and instead believed it was far better to allow someone off when paying fees, rather than have a government that would mandate what the surgeons should charge.
Yesterday I attended a memorial service for Shepherd. The eulogies came thick and fast and they certainly resonated with the crowd at St Mary’s Church in North Sydney. A eulogy by Anne Fulcher was especially moving.
She touched on the real contribution of Shepherd. His two children were born profoundly deaf and Fulcher recounted meeting his daughter Penny, then just six, who was wearing an ear piece almost the size of her ear and attached by a cord to a box fixed to her chest.
Despite being told there was little that could be done for his kids, Bruce helped them learn to speak. Then he set up the Shepherd Foundation and he helped thousands of deaf children learn to speak, and more kids are being helped today. Fulcher did say he made at least one mistake. He told the bloke who kicked off cochlear implants that it would never work.
He taught young orthopaedic surgeons their craft and had his own practice, and still found time to fight for what he believed in and help those who could not hear.
In recent years, Parkinson’s disease made it difficult for him to speak and he rarely appeared in public. He tried through carers to conduct conversations with me in the past couple of years and it must have been so difficult for a man of such easy eloquence.
To think that I ever thought ill of this truly great Australian makes me sad. I wish him godspeed and I will miss him.
Meanwhile, I am increasingly annoyed about those jumping on the “Free Tommy” bandwagon. This is all about a man called Tommy Robinson, once a member of an organisation called the English Defence League.
His main claim to fame is that he hates Muslims and is continually campaigning for an end to Muslim migration and he would love the millions of Muslims in Britain to leave. He recently has been jailed for contempt of court for shouting through a megaphone at some Muslim men charged with off¬ences against an 11-year-old girl.
Tommy apparently should be freed because his prison sentence is pictured as a terrible blow to free speech. This despite the fact Tommy has form. He has been hauled over the coals for a similar offence and he continues to flout the law. When Derryn Hinch was a radio commentator before his ascension to the Senate, he was jailed for contempt of court. He had the courage of his convictions and he did the time. Not so Tommy, who hasn’t stopped whining and has small bands of supporters demonstrating outside No 10 Downing Street.
A cornerstone of British justice is a right to a fair trial before a jury of your peers. If we allow megaphone propaganda to be filmed and shared on social media, let alone national television, then we are throwing that right away.
It is a right to cherish, not jettison because of a noisy few. It is that same few who so often criticise the left when they go off half-cocked on crazy crusades.
Crusades can be crazy when they are on the right or the left. I hope I can choose not to join in these truly stupid public embarrassments. I note Paul Barry on Media Watch was speaking much more sensibly on this subject than some of my Sky News colleagues who tape their mouths shut to support Tommy. Gentlemen, he is not worthy of your support.

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