When Katy Gallagher was officially cleared by the ACT Auditor-General of wrongdoing in the Canberra Hospital data tampering scandal last month, the relief she and her colleagues may have felt was short-lived. Two days later, the ACT Liberals revealed in the Legislative Assembly that the Chief Minister’s personal link to the hospital executive who had claimed responsibility for manipulating emergency department performance figures was more substantial than Ms Gallagher had originally indicated.
Days after the scandal first become public in April, Ms Gallagher (as Minister for Health) excused herself from oversight of any official investigation into the matter, saying the executive, since identified as former executive director of critical care Kate Jackson, had a ”personal connection with a family member of mine”.
Last month the opposition revealed the family member in question was Ms Gallagher’s sister, that she was a senior nurse at the hospital’s medical assessment and planning unit who worked indirectly below Ms Jackson, and that the two were friends. Ms Gallagher fended off opposition accusations of a conflict of interest by pointing out that both she and her sister had been cleared by the Auditor-General of any involvement in data tampering.
Though perfectly proper and true, the Chief Minister’s explanations have allowed her political opponents to suggest that she was not as plain and unambiguous with the public as the situation had demanded – or as commonsense would have dictated. Admissions by Ms Gallagher this week that she had spent time with Ms Jackson socially on at least two occasions, including during a family holiday in France, have again fuelled those questions about her political judgment and acumen.
Ms Gallagher has reacted to the opposition’s latest revelations by pointing out that the ACT Solicitor-General – from whom she had sought guidance after the tampering became public knowledge – advised her not to say anything that might publicly identify her sister or Ms Jackson. That view, coincidentally, accorded with Ms Gallagher’s own strong desire to protect her privacy and that of her family, a point she has made throughout this episode. She has also asked rhetorically why there should be any public interest in her dealings with Ms Jackson given that she (Ms Gallagher) has been cleared of any wrong-doing.
All right-thinking people would respect Ms Gallagher’s desire for privacy for herself and her family, but they would also recognise that as a holder of high public office she cannot necessarily insist on the same level of privacy as an ordinary citizen. Certainly she had a duty to keep the identity of Ms Jackson private, if only to afford her a ”presumption of innocence” while the tampering episode was being investigated.
But another school of thought contends that as Chief Minister, Ms Gallagher could (and should) have been more explicit about the nature and extent of her connections, however casual, with Ms Jackson – and that this could have been achieved without necessarily identifying anyone. More transparency about her own personal contact with Ms Jackson and the circumstances in which it occurred would have lessened the potential for political allegations of deception.
Keeping even innocent secrets in a relatively small city such as Canberra (especially those with the potential to be used for political gain) is next to impossible, and Ms Gallagher was perhaps naive to think otherwise. Whether she herself decided on this strategy or was advised to do so is immaterial, but it underlines again the absolute necessity of politicians offering full and frank public disclosures whenever an event or an incident occurs with the potential to embarrass them or their office, as this clearly has.
The ACT Liberals’ acute embarrassment earlier this year at revelations of administrative bungling in the office of Opposition Leader Zed Seselja demonstrates that neither side of politics is immune to missteps.
But in describing Ms Gallagher’s failure to immediately reveal the full extent of her links with Ms Jackson as a public deception, opposition health spokesman Jeremy Hanson would seem to be over-egging the pudding. Ms Gallagher’s meetings with Ms Jackson appear to have occurred by happenstance rather than by design, and the Liberals have presented no evidence of anything sinister in them to support their claims of a conflict of interest.
Nevertheless, the Chief Minister’s seeming naivety in the handling of her disclosures is puzzling in someone with her political experience. It may be nothing other than an uncharacteristic slip, but having occurred so close to the election it will undoubtedly put a spring in the step of her political opponents.