Opinion by ANDREW CHUTER
In the recent NRMA poll for the Harbour Region, local Rozelle activist and campaigner against radiating toll roads and unfiltered exhaust stacks, Peter Hehir, managed a surprising 32% of the vote when he stood against the incumbent Director Tim Trumper, who is also the present Chairman of the NRMA. This result came through the work of a small campaign committee.
In about mid-September Peter developed sciatic pain in his left leg and it began to severely limit his ability to walk, stand or, ultimately, even to remain seated. His campaigning for the Harbour Region was seriously hampered.
By mid-October he was advised by his GP to remain in bed for three weeks to allow the sciatic nerve to settle. He was prescribed Lyrica, which he is still taking. It is one the most powerful of nerve drugs and was administered at the very high level of 600 mgs /day, but had little impact on the constant pain, which in extreme cases has been likened to that experienced during childbirth. Lyrica’s side effects also include abnormality in thinking, amnesia, arthralgia, asthenia, cognitive dysfunction, confusion, edema, neuropathy, sinusitis, speech disturbance, vertigo, visual disturbance, myasthenia, amblyopia, increased appetite, and twitching.
As the weeks passed Peter’s condition didn’t improve. The GP arranged for a CT scan which showed ruptured discs either side of L5 and recommended cortisone injections. Over a four day period two cortisone injections to the spine were administered in an attempt to relieve the pain. This approach was again unsuccessful. He was hospitalised in RPA on the 20th of November where several high strength pain killers were attempted and discharged on the 25th . A rheumatologist advised a series of exercises along with high doses of a powerful anti-inflammatory drug, Naprosyn in 500 mg doses.
This again had no impact on the constant pain but did cause a further medical issue, melena, which is considered a medical emergency as it arises from a significant amount of internal bleeding. This meant another admission to RPA on the 9th December and became the medical focus. The constant sciatic pain however remained unaddressed.
He was again released later that day but another early AM trip by ambulance on the 12th December due to the unrelenting pain resulted in yet another RPA admission. A specialist was consulted who recommended transferal to Royal North Shore Spinal unit on the 18th December where an MRI revealed that back surgery was the only solution and it was immediately scheduled for the following day.
During this time Peter had a deadline looming for the lodgement of his NRMA campaign income and expenditure forms. It became apparent that an extension of time was necessary and was sought on medical grounds.
On Monday the 16th at 8:12pm, Peter’s son wrote to the NRMA’s Returning Officer, Ms Austin, explaining that his father’s worsening medical situation had made it impossible, stating in part:
“I have been able to determine there are some forms in relation to the election that need to be completed and returned by Thursday, however the pain management plan Peter’s Doctors have in place have made it impossible for him to complete these forms himself, nor furnish me with the information required.
In light of Peter’s ongoing medical condition, I wish to request on his behalf an extension of the return date for the relevant forms of three to four weeks to allow adequate time for the surgery and recovery period. It should be no problem for me to source a covering letter from Peter’s GP if required.”
As there was no further word from either the NRMA or Ms Austin, it was assumed that the extension had been granted and that Peter could lodge the info once he’d recovered and was lucid enough to sign legal documents.
Three days later at 12:23 pm on the afternoon of the 19th, just 23 minutes after the deadline had expired, Ms Austin emailed her reply to the requested extension, simply stating: “I will pass your request onto the NRMA”.
There was no explanation given as to why she had not forwarded the request for 3 days. Thirty minutes later, she sent a further email stating:
“We do not have any discretion to vary the timeline, which was set by the board when they approved the election rules last February. The timeline was made known to candidates in May and there was a good six week following the close of voting to complete the form.”
Peter’s 5-hour operation was undertaken on the evening of the same day, where a 75 mm section of his spine was surgically removed.
Mr Hehir says that “There is a bitter irony in being both cut open and cut out on the same day! This ruling of course means that I cannot again stand against Mr Trumper in 2023. I believe because of my medical condition, grounds for extension were justified and should have been considered by the NRMA and that the delay in replying was a clear denial of natural justice and was deliberately designed to ensure that further opposition to Mr Trumper in 2023 was eliminated.”
Mr Hehir also believes that Ms Austin’s delay in forwarding the request until after the deadline had passed, is unconscionable. If the withholding of the request was deliberate, he believes it may well constitute an illegal act.