The dangerous intransigence of Gladys Berejiklian

Jan 8, 2021

Intransigence is too seldom called out. It should never be mistaken for strength. Nor is it an admirable quality in anyone who wishes to lead effectively. Yet is something felt by many of us daily; and may even dominate our own emotional repertoire.

Intransigence comes from – and leads to – a depth of satisfaction with your own perceptions that shuts you off from new or potentially more persuasive information. It’s a version of stonewalling, perhaps one of the greatest harms we can bring to any interpersonal relationship.

An aggressive/defensive insistence on our own perspective crushes the most reasonable of differences. “It’s my way or the highway,” is how stonewalling cuts off all parties from consensus – or a simple mutuality based on empathy, interest and respect.

In the year that’s just ended, we have seen the extreme illogic that intransigence fosters (and festers) in some of our least adroit politicians, especially those federally supporting narrow vested rather than national, global or plain common-sense interests.

Barely more surprisingly, we see endangering examples of intransigence in state politicians, such as Michael O’Brien, the Liberal Opposition Leader in Victoria, whose behaviour during the painful but resoundingly successful Victorian lockdown was worse than undermining, particularly when it was raucously amplified by the Sky-after-dark crowd and print journalists who favoured propaganda over inquiry.

More worrying, because she has far more power, the Premier of New South Wales also demonstrates patterns of strikingly unhelpful intransigence.

Gladys Berejiklian’s embrace of science and medical evidence has long been subjective and conditional. The prolonged grief and frustration of those who begged her to shift on pill testing to save the lives of young Australians is on the public record. Yet in October 2019, Berejiklian dismissed a coronial investigation urging pill testing at music festivals and the like on the basis that it “gives people a false sense of security”.

That’s her opinion and she’s entitled to it. However, dangers multiply when she extrapolates from her limited expertise and, as the most powerful person in the most populated state in Australia, imposes that on the rest of us.

She has displayed intransigence, too, in other areas of her private thinking and public performance. Keeping on a dodgy visa-salesman lover after he was already politically compromised and publicly disgraced seems odd, particularly when she would later claim he was no one important to her.

Pulling down a serviceable multi-million-dollar stadium when it can’t be rebuilt without unaffordable cost; turning much of Greater Sydney into Road Toll Central thereby benefitting private capital; defending indefensible vote-buying to the tune of quarter of a billion dollars; destroying not just evidence of that but also, and far worse, precious native habitat even while her state remains socially and environmentally scarred from bushfires; failing repeatedly on addressing the iCare scandals; or tackling or reducing homelessness and food and housing insecurity. This all shows an unwillingness to interrogate her own assumptions.

Is such intransigence driven by ideology? Perhaps. And perhaps primarily. But it is also a character weakness. Or perhaps a failing of emotional literacy.

Berejiklian’s body language seems to show she does allow herself a degree of uncertainty that many of her federal colleagues do not. Bathed in self-righteousness, they evade accountability, even scrutiny, and invariably find someone else to blame. Berejiklian’s behaviour is generally less aggressively defensive, and that’s relieving.

However, when it comes to her latest displays of intransigence – around the handling of NSW’s latest, largest Covid-19 outbreak – the consequences have been significant nationally. Her cries of working from the “best health advice available” while ignoring the pleas of Australia’s leading epidemiologists to mandate masks and end all large public events without exception, were worse than frustrating. They were and are dangerous.

A day or so before Berejiklian “pivoted” on the masks issue (but not wholly, at the time of writing, on the cricket), Melbourne medical specialist and former Australian Medical Association vice-president Dr Stephen Parnis surely spoke for many Victorians when he wrote on Twitter: “Three new cases in Melbourne, which aren’t in one place. Reportedly linked to the Sydney outbreak. It beggars belief after all we have learned & endured that NSW is still not going harder in suppressing the current outbreak. You don’t play games with #COVID19Aus.”

While suggesting her own NSW health minister is “almost a doctor”, Berejiklian chose to ignore for three weeks the urgent pleas of actual doctors, scientists and the evidence on mask-wearing that 12 months of painful Covid-19 experience has given the rest of us.
Political veteran Bruce Hawker commented, again on Twitter: “The slow moving @GladysB mob have allowed this virus to spread from quarantine to Avalon to Wollongong to Croydon to Berala to Queensland and Victoria. And next week it’s the SCG. Masks have been mandated 3 weeks after the outbreak. Too little too late.”

When Premier Daniel Andrews mandated masks in Victoria, their use went up from 43 per cent to almost 97 per cent. Berejiklian spoke repeatedly of not “adding a burden” by mandating masks, yet the burden was felt nationally as hard borders returned, as family plans fell apart, as front-line health workers were again at greater risk, and as the misery of grave uncertainty was spun out rather than faced honestly and dealt with. For all our sakes.

The NSW Premier was keen to conflate mask mandating with job losses, a logic I couldn’t follow. What I could see was that if we had adequate federal leadership, solely informed by non-partisan epidemiological evidence and advice, such serious State and Territory differences in handling Covid-19 outbreaks would be less blatant. And we would all be safer.

I write this from the Northern Territory. Here, strong, informed Indigenous leadership, including from Patricia Turner of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, has seen the nation’s most vulnerable so successfully protected that life can seem confusingly “normal”, other than a credible fear of what might still come from the only state where the Premier remained “unconvinced” for far too long about benefits of the least “burdensome”, most basic protections, plus the openness of mind and heart it takes to follow a braver direction.

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