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Monday, 16 June 2003
Page: 16388

Mr RUDDOCK (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Reconciliation) (2:21 PM) —Like the Prime Minister, I had the great privilege of serving in this parliament with the honourable William Charles Wentworth. I claim, amongst others here—I think, the members for Mitchell and Fadden—to be one of those who knew him well. He campaigned for me in my first election campaign, the by-election for Parramatta, in 1973. I recall it well when people mention a colourful individual because those who remember John Armitage, who was then the member for Chifley, would recall that he was equally colourful. Bill Wentworth took me in a truck with speakers on top and we found that John Armitage was already ensconced in the Ermington shopping centre. He proceeded to have a parliamentary debate up and down the streets of Ermington. I am not sure it was to the amusement of all those who were there. Yes, Bill Wentworth was colourful but Bill was a great Australian. He was 65 years of age when I entered the parliament and when he was campaigning for me. He would still be driving out into the Gibson Desert in a four-wheel drive vehicle with his wife, Barb. He moved later to Kuranda in north Queensland until Barb had a stroke and he had to move back to Sydney. The fact is that Bill Wentworth was still very much alive, vital and interested.

The hallmarks by which I remember him are first and foremost in the area of Indigenous affairs. Let me just say that, when I came into the parliament, the interest that I have now was not something that came with me—other than from the time that I had been at Tranby at the University of Sydney as a student. But Bill was keen to involve me in Indigenous affairs. He was a member of the House of Representatives standing committee with me, he promoted my candidature for chairmanship of that committee and he sought out references for the committee. It is interesting that, just as the Prime Minister wants to see an emphasis today on domestic violence and its impact upon Indigenous people and Indigenous families—and Mick Dodson joins him in relation to that—the issue of substance abuse amongst Indigenous people was a top of the agenda item for Bill Wentworth at that time. As an Anglican, Bill was interested in the Church Missionary Society's involvement at Oenpelli. He was seized by anger at the establishment of a site that was known as Robinsons Store, on the East Alligator River. Alcohol was purveyed to Aboriginals well away from the centre but had a most deleterious impact upon them.

Mention has been made today of his involvement in the referendum campaign in 1967, but for me his work to have established, and his later sitting on the board of, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies was particularly important. The reason that I see it as being important is that it brought together the Strehlow collections and a lot of other anthropological data so that it could be secured and protected for the future. He continued to have an interest. He was there only a year or so ago for the opening of the institute's new premises at the edge of Lake Burley Griffin and again later for the dedication of a monument in the grounds of the centre. Bill Wentworth had a great and abiding interest in the standardisation of railway, and in this he was very much ahead of his time. Those who allowed the situation to develop to where we did not have standardised railway were very much behind the times. People mentioned land rights, but Bill had also a keen interest in the development of mining; not just infrastructure but mining developments around Australia. He had an interest in the utilisation of mining to earn resources for Australia and to enable us to maintain our standard of living.

They were the three key issues that Bill pushed, but I notice in the obituary today by Mungo MacCallum that he records some of the issues of colour. Let me use two examples that I think reflect upon the unwillingness of people of Bill's time to treat him seriously in relation to these issues. The first was in relation to the standardisation of railway. He had been the driving force but he was not invited to the ceremony by the government at that time. He was obviously hurt about that. Barb realised that, and as Mungo MacCallum recalls:

His indefatigable wife, Barbara, appeared on the platform instead, bearing a placard demanding: “Where's Wentworth?” Its publication in several newspapers made the point.

There was to be a curious echo of such pettiness—

as MacCallum, not me, records—

by the government of the day many years later at the anniversary of another of Wentworth's great achievements: the referendum to include Aborigines in the census, which made it possible for the federal government to legislate on their behalf. Wentworth persuaded Menzies to agree to the poll, which was finally held under Harold Holt in 1967. It was a seminal moment in Australian history, yet Wentworth was again left out when the Labor government celebrated the referendum's 25th anniversary in 1992.

I regard Bill Wentworth for the time that he was friend and from the time that he was foe as being an absolutely great Australian. He had a significant impact upon me and upon my interests in this parliament. I miss a great Australian, but I celebrate the fact that he had 95 years of life.