When John Cornwall reunited with many of his former Bannon Labor Government colleagues in Adelaide this month – a reunion some 29 years in the making – it was a more convivial occasion than the last time they were all together.
Cornwall left the cabinet in 1988 with no little rancour towards the colleagues he felt had not supported him after a defamation case successfully brought against him by orthopaedic surgeon Dr Peter Humble.
This time, says Cornwall, “it was a different atmosphere”.
“A lot of people, a lot of backslapping – which is pleasing for an old fella,” he tells InDaily.
“It was nice to be able to reflect on where we were in the ’80s… they were pretty good times. There was a real spirit of generosity still abroad in the community – and in politics. It all seems to have dissipated substantially these days.”
Cornwall describes Bannon’s demand for his resignation – later backed by cabinet – as “a classical overreaction to a judgment which, when it’s read in the cold light of day, [had] many plain errors of fact in it”.
His new book, After work, after play, after all, describes the defamation judgment as one of “malign ferocity”.
“I think the rush to judgment and [for Bannon] to ask for my resignation within 24 hours of the judgment was premature, to say the least,” he says now.
“But those days have passed… I’ve no point at all in bearing grudges.”
Nonetheless, his book is not flattering of his late leader Bannon, who died in 2015, of whom he writes that “he consistently displayed what Mike Rann, his press secretary and spinmeister… called the ‘courage to be cautious’”.
Cornwall notes that Judge Peter Bowen Pain “described me as a ‘most unimpressive witness’ and the manner in which I had given evidence as ‘unsatisfactory’, evasive’, ‘non-responsive’ and ‘defensive’”, and argues it was “clear from the judgment that the acting judge had taken it upon himself to rectify what he considered to be the low quantum of damages awarded in defamation cases in SA compared to the rest of the country”.
But he clearly remains aggrieved by Bannon’s response: “When we met he offered no words of commiseration or otherwise – he simply asked for my resignation [and] gave me no undertakings about my political future.”
When Cornwall refused, “Bannon agreed to defer the matter to cabinet… but insisted that I should absent myself”.
He said this denied him “the opportunity to canvass options with my colleagues and seek their support… virtually ensuring that [Bannon’s] opinion would prevail”.
Cornwall left the ministry, and quit parliament altogether two months later. He writes in his book: “I decided I had had enough.”
He was also subsequently sued over a 1987 report into women’s shelters in SA, which made unsubstantiated allegations about a particular operator.
This is the second political memoir Cornwall has penned. In the past 30 years there have been only four autobiographical books published by former SA state ministers; notably, three of them are by former health ministers, and Cornwall has written two of them.
“Perhaps retired Health Ministers have got a lot more to talk about,” he muses.
“Health is consistently, I think, one of the most difficult portfolios – and a very complex portfolio… I don’t think there are very many health ministers who really understand just how complex it is.
“It’s not the same as simply running administrative portfolios, [and] I do think overall in the last decade SA has tended to go back to looking at health as being something that’s more treatment of sickness than getting a sense of wellbeing.
“That was the philosophy underlying the six years I was minister – it wasn’t just the absence of illness, sickness and infirmity, but a whole sense of social and economic wellbeing, incorporating things like adequate housing and access to good education.”
These days, he says, “we tend to be very hard-nosed… on cold economic reform”.
“It’s more about the wealth of the nation – but not necessarily about the health of the nation.”
So why the need to revisit the era, having already given his perspective on events in his 1989 book of political recollections, Just for the Record?
“There was an element of loyalty there that made it prudent that I shouldn’t go over the top,” he concedes.
“In writing this book, I was long since retired and I had time on my hands, so I was able to approach it in a far more diligent way and make sure of my research.”
The book is also a chance for the outspoken former MP to reflect on contemporary politics.
He notes that “there are two qualities above all others that distinguishes great Labor leaders – conviction and courage”.
They are qualities he believes SA Premier Jay Weatherill has demonstrated in standing up to Malcolm Turnbull over energy policy.
These days, Cornwall laments, “people go out with their talking points and don’t get off message… there’s nothing really spontaneous”.
“Malcolm is a case par excellence – he’s dictated to by the lesser mortals on his backbench, but leaders are supposed to lead – not to be led.”
He also rails against “Government by focus group”.
“If you look at many of the policy speeches these days, they’re clearly led by what’s being fed back… whereas in the days of yore leaders like Whitlam and Dunstan used to put up an innovative idea and convince people who may have been sceptical of the merits of what they were proposing,” he says.
Cornwall lays claim to an era of major reform in the health portfolio, with an expansion of spending on primary health care and community healthcare centres, while devolving responsibility for Aboriginal health services to local or regional indigenous communities.
His tenure saw the decriminalisation of marijuana for personal use, a clamp-down on tobacco companies sponsoring sporting events and moves to ameliorate the effects of lead pollution in Port Pirie.
“In SA, we effectively rewrote the rules, adopting a social health infrastructure based on the social determinants of health as an integral part of the Government’s social justice strategy,” he told those gathered for his book launch.
He tells InDaily: “Everybody now seems to be realising neoliberalism wasn’t the right way to go… the idea of permanent employment is almost out the window – everyone’s working on contract or casual, and there are many areas where there’s been displacement of people in their 40s and early 50s.”
Cornwall’s new book was launched a week ago by Fran Baum, a Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor of Public Health and director of the Southgate Institute of Health, Society and Equity at Flinders University.
It was launched at an informal meeting of the “Hagar Club” – a little-known collection of mostly male former ALP MPs, formed by onetime deputy Labor leader Ralph Clark as a sort of masculine retort to Emily’s List.
The club – named after the cartoon Viking Hagar the Horrible – generally meets on the third Friday of every month in the back room of T-Chow, where its members dine, swap war stories and share critiques of contemporary policy and preselection decisions.
They chip in $5 each over the cost of the event, which is collected over the course of each election cycle and doled out as contributions to Labor candidates deemed worthy of the club’s assistance. InDaily has been told that over the years, the likes of Tony Zappia, Steve Georganas and Leon Bignell have all received declared Hagar Club donations, along with 2007 Sturt candidate Mia Handshin, whom the club magnanimously and jocularly declared an “honorary male” in order to extend its largesse.
According to her speech notes, Baum told the gathering that “John was morally and ethically on the side of the light on the hill”. But, she added, “verbalising his outraged response” to the dispute with Dr Humble “saw him on the wrong side of a dubious law”. She and Cornwall both cite noted human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robinson QC’s historic criticism of the case as evidence of Australia’s “outdated” defamation laws, which have been since overhauled.
“It’s not perfect, but for anyone who’s interested in freedom of speech… it’s a lot better than it was in the ’80s,” Cornwall says now.
Baum said Cornwall’s book demonstrates his “self-confessed impatience, impetuousness and irascibility, combined with a passion for the values of fairness and social democracy” – the basis, she argued, for “one of the most impressive terms of a health minister globally in the last 100 years”.
But it’s not an appraisal shared by all of Cornwall’s former colleagues.
Former Attorney-General Chris Sumner appeared to take exception to the self-congratulatory blurb that accompanied the emailed invitation to the book launch.
He responded to all invitees that while he hoped the event went well, “I am concerned that the statements in the promotion… are not accurate”.
“It can readily be accepted that John was a very effective shadow minister of health and contributed to the return of a Labor Government under John Bannon after only three years in Opposition.
“It can also be accepted that in policy terms he had a number of significant achievements as minister for health in the Bannon Government to his credit. However things go awry when it is said that: ‘ Cornwall’s unapologetic championing of the public health system would ultimately cost him his political career’. This is not accurate.
“All of the Cornwall initiatives in the area of public health for which he rightly claims credit were supported by Bannon and his cabinet,” he writes.
“They would not have happened otherwise.”
Sumner went on: “It somewhat sad that John cannot accept even after all this time that he was the author of his own demise.
“It is not part of the job description of a minister of health to abuse doctors… the causes of John’s demise have nothing to do with his support for the public health system (about which there was no argument) but his intemperate behaviour exemplified by the behaviour which gave rise to the defamation proceedings.”
Sumner also laments that Cornwall “seems incapable of giving credit to much else done by the Bannon Government when there was a solid record of reform”.
“Regrettably the State Bank has overshadowed much of this record,” he writes.
“I suspect we could have a reasonable discussion about poll-driven policy and the advent of economic rationalism [and] neoliberalism… but it is not relevant to the circumstances of John’s retirement from politics.
“He alone was responsible for the behaviour which led to the defamation proceedings and I respectfully suggest that he should be prepared to accept that behaviour like that was always going to have consequences which would not be happy.
“It is not acceptable to blame everyone else – Bannon and his cabinet, the medical profession, the court, his lawyers, the defamation laws, the media – for the consequences of his own actions.
“John’s championing of the public health system did not cost him his political career… it was other circumstances which it was well within his capacity to control.”
Sumner added: “I hope you all have a good lunch.”
In the event, the former Attorney attended the soiree, arriving late with former Premier Lynn Arnold, after another engagement.
He tells InDaily the reunion was “all very convivial”, and “I never had anything personally against John”.
“I didn’t have any disagreements with him that would mean I was never talking to him again,” he says, although he concedes that when Cornwall left SA for Sydney shortly after his resignation “I don’t think I ever saw him after that until this event”.
“But there was a general feeling of bonhomie… it wasn’t a deliberate attempt for a rapprochement, because there wasn’t a need for one.
“My beef with him is that somehow he thinks [his legacy in Health] didn’t have anything to do with the Bannon Government or John Bannon in particular, which is just nonsense.
“He couldn’t have done any of it without the support of Bannon and the cabinet… he overreaches with the claims of his own greatness [and] he’s borne a grudge against Bannon and others since that moment [of his sacking].”
Sumner reveals a twist in the tale – that, as he tells it, Cornwall’s relegation to the backbench was “more or less a ‘sin bin’ job”.
“There was an opportunity for him to return to the ministry after a certain period of time,” he says.
“There was no question about that, because the [ministerial] position in the upper house was kept vacant.
“[But] after two or three months he rang me and said he was leaving parliament altogether. He fudges over that in the book, as far as I’m concerned.”
Sumner regards Baum’s description of Cornwall’s achievements as “over the top, quite frankly”.
“There are some significant achievements, no question… for which he can take credit as part of the Bannon Government.
“But it wasn’t just him. If Bannon and the cabinet hadn’t wanted him to do any of this stuff it wouldn’t have got done.
“And he was the author of his demise.”
Former state ALP secretary and later senator Chris Schacht – who remains a friend of the Cornwall family – concedes he “could be, at times, a bit intemperate”.
“But there’s no doubt as a health minister he was very good,” he says.
“He was a reforming Health Minister in a very difficult portfolio.”
Schacht regards the 1975 upper house ticket which saw Cornwall and Sumner elected behind Norm Foster, Jim Dunford, Frank Blevinns and Anne Levy as the “best ticket the Labor Party ever had in the Legislative Council”.
It was the only time Labor ever won six of the 11 upper house seats up for grabs, and four of those six went on to become ministers.
At the launch, Cornwall revealed that after his book was finished he found a hand-written note from former premier Don Dunstan – too late to include in the publication.
It read: “I am very saddened by the events of this week and keenly regret your resignation.
“In a time when many people in our party treat keenness for reform as unfashionable, you have not lost your concern to make things better for ordinary people and have stood out as an effective and dedicated reformer and a man of compassion.”
Note: this article originally said there were three works of autobiography by SA ministers in recent years, neglecting a fourth, Roosters and Featherdusters, published by Brian Chatterton in 2003. The story has been updated.
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