by Alison McCulloch
Former National Party MP George Gair has died at the age of 88. Gair was key player in the abortion rights struggle in the 1970s that culminated in passage of the 1977 Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act, which we still have and under which abortion remains criminalised. Gair was the leader inside the governing National caucus of the liberal pro-choice faction, a role that ultimately led to his falling out with his leader, the then Prime Minister Rob Muldoon, a conservative on abortion rights. Although he didn’t take an unequivocal ‘woman’s right to choose’ position, Gair fought hard against the conservative factions in Parliament to try to liberalise the CS&A bill – a fight that was ultimately lost.
I interviewed George Gair for my book “Fighting to Choose: The Abortion Rights Struggle in New Zealand”, and exchanged correspondence with him as the book progressed. He was unfailingly kind and encouraging, and at the time I felt lucky to have been able to talk to him about just what had gone on inside the National Party caucus at such a pivotal time for abortion rights. I was very sad to hear of his death.
By way of tribute, or history, or something, I thought I’d post some excerpts from the interview I did, which was conducted on 12 March 2008 at Mr. Gair’s home north of Auckland.
In the National Party, how was it that you were – or ended up being – pro-choice, one of the few members of the party?
I had never had to address the question of abortion, certainly not seriously, in my family, to my best knowledge anyone in my family. The reason why I came to be interested in the first place is a rather unusual story. Let me tell you. Gerry Wall was the member of Parliament for Porirua, he was a Labour member, he was a doctor, but he was very pro-life – I don’t know if they called it that in those days – and I think probably a devout Catholic. He was also Speaker of the House at one stage. Now Gerry Wall introduced a bill, I’m sure it was in the form of a – inaudible – and he and some of those that were supporting him, this is in about 1974, referred to babies being murdered in Remuera. This was quite a serious allegation. Remuera wasn’t in my electorate but I had been deputy chairman for Remuera for quite some years before when I was chairman of the Greenlane branch of the party and I was deputy chairman at the time also. And I said to Alan Highet, who was the – my colleague – the member for Remuera, ‘Alan, this is a pretty serious sort of charge that’s being made, going on in your electorate, you and I should – do you mind if I look into it or would you look into it with me or could we do something together.’ So we arranged to visit the alleged place where these babies were being murdered together. It was quite a large, I think 3-storied building on the Old Great South Road in Remuera. The building had been loaned to a group of well-meaning and caring people, some of whom were medical I think, by a builder who owned the property. And they didn’t object to us going along there and having a look and talking to people who were there. And we found – or I found and I think Alan felt the same way but he didn’t go the same way afterwards, to quite the same measure anyway – I found I think some of the most compassionate people I think I’ve ever met in my life, working in that place. And I was moved to feel that they needed a voice, they – they were being maligned, abused, girls who got into trouble, if their families had money they were sent off to Sydney to have an abortion and well – and girls who were unintentionally pregnant were obviously placed – particularly if they no family resources behind them, no family support – they were in serious trouble. Very difficult decision. So I – to me it wasn’t a philosophical thing so much as a humanitarian thing.
Did you realise quite what you were getting yourself in for when you …?
Well, no I didn’t at the beginning then the local police commander at the time in Auckland was quite militant about it and they were going to break the place down and do all sorts of things. There were some pretty sort of reactionary things said in the papers. All I was, I was never a member of a particular organisation but I was a sympathetic ear in Parliament. Now I realised that I was probably at odds with almost all my colleagues. All my colleagues … on quite a number of occasions I was the only one who voted the liberal line on this issue. There was a not dissimilar development, but it didn’t reach quite the same tempo as it were, on the homosexual law reform initiatives. So I tried to represent a, or to be a more liberal or a balancing voice in this argument. Now it just so happened that there were more people in the Labour Party, though it was a conscience vote so you were free to do these things, there were more people in the Labour Party of this more liberal persuasion than I was so I appeared to be a bit of a traitor to my party’s cause although it was never part of the party’s philosophy.
Did you have any pressure from the party to change your line?
Oh yes, oh yes. Not from the party but I had some very very rough sessions with Muldoon.
Can you tell me about those?
They didn’t really become serious until after the middle of 1976 when the Gill Bill was being argued.
So the Royal Commission is still under way, it reported in 1977. In 1976 the Gill health amendment was introduced reprising the Wall Amendment which essentially sought to close the clinic? Sorry to interrupt.
Well, I don’t recall some of these details, you’ll be much better informed of these than I. But I do recall the broad thrusts and how I was myself related to it. But you, please, you ask the specific questions and I’ll try and build my answers around them.
So you got the amendment delayed for 12 months to await the report of the Royal Commission, as I understand it. The Gill Bill.
It may have been my endeavours that helped to do that but I don’t think I formally moved that, I was just opposed to it.
Anyway, about Muldoon, that was when it got serious, you said, during the debate over the Gill Bill.
Yes. You see Muldoon felt that I was taking far too prominent a role in it, although I was never formally part of any committee or didn’t join or belong to any outside group pushing this at all, it was just George Gair speaking the way he thought he should speak. And he said if I led – continued to led – he was under the impression I think that I was leading it – I wasn’t, I was supporting it, I was speaking for the more liberal position and I was opposing fiercely the ridiculous wrap-up (??correct word??) that the Gill Bill would I thought have produced. I was left under no doubt that he was – I would be right out of his, I would be out of his government if I persevered. Now what I did was, I continued but I just dropped back into a slightly less vocal role and let one or two others take the headlines as it were. But it created a relationship with Muldoon, again if you read this reference to Muldoon in the Margaret Clark book, I communicated with him from then onwards really through cabinet papers and cabinet committee papers and that worked both ways. We rarely spoke and I was never in his office after the middle of 1976 until we were defeated in 1984.
And are you saying that was primarily, or at least it had its roots in this particular issue?
Well I suppose it may have been a personality thing too. In fact I supported him – he chose me to introduce him at the opening election meeting in the Auckland Town Hall in 1975. I was – he represented a new voice, he was capable of winning back after – well we’d really been belted in 1972 you may recall, we were reduced to 32 in the House. Well we managed actually to reverse that in 1975 and Muldoon’s efforts were very important in contributing to that. There were a number of reasons. One of them also was the way in which he by holding both the finance portfolios and the premiership he was very difficult to deal with if you didn’t agree with him on everything. … And there were a lot of things I didn’t agree with him on, not just this.
What do you think was at the core of his opposition, as I guess with other members? Was it a philosophical, thought out position, was it just sort a status quo conservative social position, a certain version of pro family or what?
Or was it something in his own private background, I don’t know. I honestly don’t know but some people who feel either extremely strongly either way can tend to be very – almost fundamentalist. Now I have no and had no particular conviction in principle at all, it was a humanity thing I felt, whereas the – where one of the least of the problems, how do we get through this with the – showing compassion and – I took my lead in terms of the position I thought was best from what was the early position of the Medical Association, namely the with the blessing, uh, with the women’s will, with the blessing of two totally unrelated, competent medical people. Now the Medical Association itself, when the fight got rough, they backed away from their own position and for a while they actually had a pro-life man as their president, which complicated the issue further. He was a doctor from Rotorua, I don’t recall his name.
I recall that in a debate, I think it was over some of the amendments to the C, S & A Bill at the time, you were trying to get support from doctors and the Medical Association. Is that what you’re referring to?
I did – I did work with a number of doctors who were of reasonably, shall we say, mature and broad minded attitude. I worked with several informal groups just to give me ideas and to keep me well briefed. Some of the groups sometimes met in our own house in Hauraki Road in Takapuna, we had at that stage a play room underneath got filled up as a store room later but in those days we called it the play room for the children. We could get about 15, up to 20 people at a meeting around the room. There’d be a doctor or two, and a nurse or two, several of my friends, people like Jenny Gibbs was there and …
This group met specifically on this issue or was it a general kind of political ginger group?
Oh no no no, it was related to this or issues related to it. And I had I attended several other groups. I met once or twice with groups in Wellington. I remember there was a group in Mt. Eden I was invited to … and I’m sorry I don’t know the names either of the people or the organisations that had little peripheral influences. There were quite a few of them.
You will I’m sure in your research be able to dig these out.
The Royal Commission was something the National government inherited from the previous Labour government. It was going on when you – it had been set up under Kirk I think prompted in part by the – or Rowling maybe – by the opening of the clinic and then …
Please don’t hold me to those dates. I honestly don’t know. But I didn’t give any evidence to the Royal Commission, I had a feeling it actually came fractionally later than this.
Perhaps I have my election and Royal Commission dates mixed up. I’ll double check.
I looked actually upon the Royal Commission as the way in which the more conservative elements of the government were trying to kick the ball onto stronger ground and we’d come up with these named people who are the, what do they call them?
Yes, there’s a certain category, named people, named doctors.
Yes, certifying consultants, that’s right. And the Commission or some body would nominate who they wanted to be the certifying consultants. It had a potential hijack in it.
I think they first recommended a panel system. That there would be a panel to decide whether or not a woman could have an abortion. So the Royal Commission – uh, public opinion was, if you can believe opinion polls, at the time, generally supportive of a woman’s choice, but probably not supportive of abortion on demand-slash-request, however you like to word it, but almost. …
No, I don’t think, no, look, please, society was reasonably divided on it. The Catholic society was strongly against it. I can recall, which election, it would have probably been the 78 election, where the Catholic church organised petitions against me amongst their own faith and it cost me some thousands of votes. They did try to influence – and look we had a Catholic mayor of Takapuna City and he was a lovely friend of mine and his wife, his widow, still is a friend of ours. I felt nothing personal about it and they didn’t feel it personally against me either.
But there was some thought that the Catholic vote was overstated because it was more vocal, but I read some political analyses that – I mean I’m sure one could interpret the voting results many ways depending on how you break them down – but that it was a very effective tactic but that the size and power of that vote was overstated and that politicians were more afraid of it than they should have been because there was more widespread support for, not a really liberal law, but not a ban, but not this strict kind of thing you came out with.
You could be right there, but do remember also seen from 2008 we live in a more liberal society than it was in 1978.
So do you think that the report of the commission reflected the times? I ask that because a lot of people feel that it was a lot more conservative than people expected.
I think the commission was trying to find a path through a maze where there were two really uncompromising sides. Those who wanted to be completely free on the issue on the one hand, and if completely free of course could lead to all sorts of abuses, and completely opposed could also lead to all sorts of problems. And I think that the commission, and please I don’t even remember the names of the people now –
Mullen, McGregor, Henare?
I would be inclined to think that what they were trying to do was find a path through the maze.
Do you think that the result was…
Well, I think it was unnecessarily heavy but I think it possibly had to be in view of some of the – see the Catholic Church was not the only one that took a reasonably strong stand. I don’t think some of the other churches were very liberal at the time either. They’ve become more liberal since. In fact I don’t think we quite realised how in the last 20 or 30 years our own society has relaxed on a lot of these things.
So you actually played a big role in the debate over the bill and the various amendments, the endless debate in Parliament that went all night. Can you remember what that was like, what it felt like, the pressures and the people and the politics…
Perhaps the most difficult period was in the middle of 1976. It was August. I’d come back as a minister from a busy overseas trip involving several meetings with key people and we had a tradition that a minister in leaving overseas by air or returning overseas by air was always met by a colleague. The idea being when he was going away if the minister had a last minute thought he’d share it with his colleague that would be fed into the system, and when he returned the colleague would brief him on what had been happening while he’d been away. Now it is true we had telephones and things like that and I’m not sure we had faxes, we had the old long telegrams. But nothing like today’s communication, you’ll appreciate. Well I returned, was it a Tuesday?, and Bill Birch met me and he told me that the boss had deliberately held up the abortion debate so that it wouldn’t be held in my absence and therefore it wouldn’t seem to be like dodging or I don’t know he wanted me involved and I – the abortion debate went on for most of that week and in those days things taken under urgency went round the clock – and I remember on – mercifully the debate was finished on Friday because I had to come up to my younger brother’s funeral. That was a really difficult week.
What happened to your brother?
He was killed in a car accident. The timing was – yes. That was putting, that was really stretching a man’s ability to stay awake and stay alive and stay active in that – it was – however, I’m still here.
Did you suffer any personal attacks, or your family? Some of the people involved in the clinic had attacks on their homes, some of the doctors involved.
Oh yes, abuse. Abusive phone calls and we had some muck put in the mail box sort of thing.
Nothing too distressing?
No I wouldn’t say I’d ever been threatened but I don’t know it was necessarily on that issue particularly that it happened. It does happen in politics. You find some people are a bit screwed up. Even as mayor I got a bit of it.
I was wondering about the more radical groups in the 70s in terms of the abortion issue like WONAAC for instance who, although they were looking for support in Parliament, I think criticised you for being – one of the newsletters I recall was …
That I wasn’t radical enough?
Yeah, right. Do you think that that did damage or…
They can say what they like. I was me.
Oh ‘George got-an-amendment Gair and Jim it’s-not-in-my-jurisdiction McLay’ This is something from a newsletter in 1980. ‘National’s Limp Liberals.’ They were very critical of Labour I might add. The Labour MPs – Labour women MPs who promised change and change never happened. But they were very critical of both obviously their opponents but also liberals in Parliament and I just wondered whether you had any opinion about that, whether it’s not helpful or…
Well, when you’re in politics you live with people who are pressing their opinions on you, you don’t worry about that. No, no. Well, it depends who you ask. Some people believe the last thing that they had their ear chewed about. Some people will vote according to the last arm-twisting operation they got or who’s looking at them from the public gallery, this sort of thing. That doesn’t matter. To me it doesn’t matter. I should mention that I was born from a reasonably, in terms of women, liberal home background, my mother she was married at 19 to my father, she’d been a teacher and she went back to teaching later in life and she got her degree when she was a grandmother. Now she was well ahead of her time in doing this and she enjoyed her meetings with the reasonably progressive women’s – not so much radical ideas so much as educational ideas. Literature groups and things like that.
What did you think about the C, S & A Bill, was also quite conservative about sex education and that became an issue later in the early 1980s and I think Merv Wellington was minister of education. No information to be given to under 16s and so on. Do you recall being involved in any debates about that?
I don’t recall. But I do recall having clashes of sorts with Merv Wellington a few times.
You also played a role in Repeal, after the act was passed. There was Jim McLay, Warren Freer, Martyn Finlay, Marilyn Waring were some of the people from Parliament involved. Do you recall anything about that? That effort? That was the big petition to try to repeal the act…
I’m not too good on the detail now, but I do recall there was one occasion and I don’t even – What was Fran Wilde’s Bill?
Homosexual Law Reform Bill?
Maybe that was it. There was one bill at the committee stages that was short of one vote or it would have crashed and it was purely a technicality, a procedural technicality and nothing to do with the principle and I do recall I had to vote in what I knew would be a way that would be extremely unpopular with my colleagues and it wasn’t a point of principle, it was a point of technicality. That was what made it difficult. I voted nevertheless to keep the bill alive. Now I can’t recall just which bill it was. It might have been homosexual law reform, it might have been – oh, it would be quite an exercise to look back over the records to find that. But that sort of – when you vote on a technicality you don’t have quite the same moral argument as voting on a thing that touches the matter of principle. But of course is the same. If the whole bill crashes then the principle’s down the drain anyway. But that’s a harder thing to justify to people who aren’t going to forgive you anyway, feel so cross about it.
Did Marilyn influence you politically over the years? I presume that she herself grew a little more radical as she went along?
Well, I had a lot of sympathy for her. I knew she had some problems. In 1981 we were in government by I think a majority of one. It was very very low. I had been Minister of Health and Social Welfare without assistance for three years, I’d been kept very very busy and I think it was Muldoon’s intention to keep me so damn busy I could never get my act together to challenge him – challenge him directly, I don’t know. But I offered to – and Marilyn was getting into deeper and deeper trouble with Muldoon. I could see that Marilyn was vulnerable to huge pressures from these outside radical groups because she represented a natural ear for them. And a sympathetic ear too, but she was paying a price inside the caucus for it.
She must have been very torn.
She did not have an easy time at times and I felt very supportive of her because in any case I’d got her into the problem with politics anyway so – or I’d been shall I say partly responsible. So we had a tradition in those days – immediately after the election everybody would write a letter to the leader saying who they thought should get what in the way of positions. I don’t know that he ever took any notice of it but I realised – I made a suggestion to Muldoon and it’s a good reason why it wouldn’t be accepted. But I offered if he appointed Marilyn as a parliamentary undersecretary to me – because I didn’t think for a moment he’d take health and social welfare away from me because I had actually got on top of them. They’re two pretty difficult portfolios at times; health was in a mess when I picked it up. But I was very literally 18 hours a day, seven days a week sort of work. I would have welcomed a loyal assistant and I offered, if he would appoint Marilyn as my parliamentary undersecretary, assuming I was left in health and welfare, I would keep her so busy I would keep her out of all trouble, and she would be doing a good job and she would love it. Well I suppose because I suggested it, it wasn’t going to happen anyway. In the event, she was given nothing and my portfolio was changed over to a completely different group – the transport group. The Erebus problem and a few other things like that.
When you were minister of health did the abortion issue raise its head much or was it fairly stable then?
I believe I was a suitable influence behind the scenes to prevent the fundamentalist attitudes that wanted to impact on the health services having an unreasonable influence.
Are you talking … about both sides – the pro-choice and the pro-life?
It was more particularly the pro-life extreme because the pro-choice extreme were very much on the defensive. … In any case the way the law had become shaped, the regulatory structure supporting the law, it had all fallen on the stricter side of middle ground rather than the more liberal side of the middle ground. But what I tried to do was – in other words, let the practical realities of sweet reasonableness work their way through.
Now we have essentially that same conservative law but being interpreted fairly liberally, I think.
I think this is the way it worked out. The law finished up as more – as a more strict and – not more strict, that’s not the right word. A more, a slightly more weighted law than I would have wished, but I think that realities and the commonsense that the great majority of people, particularly those involved, apply has softened the sharp edges to the point where it’s a liveable situation, but I think it’s unnecessarily complicated and unnecessarily expensive but those are small considerations in light of the trauma from which it was all born.
And no one is ever enthusiastic about revisiting it. What do you see happening in the future?
I think there are far more pressing problems. The result is it’s down the list, and there’s a certain commonsense amongst particularly amongst those who are in the fields directly involved which takes the sharp edges off and allows the process to work reasonably even if unnecessarily ponderously and unnecessarily complicated. But it does, broadly speaking, work. Now that’s a great improvement on the mess we had 30-40 years ago.