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Monday, 16 June 2003
Page: 16384

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) (2:02 PM) —I move:

That the House record its deep regret at the death on 15 June 2003, of the Honourable William Charles (Bill) Wentworth, AO, former Federal Minister and Member of this House for the Division of Mackellar from 1949 to 1977, places on record its appreciation of his long and meritorious public service, and tenders its profound sympathy to his family in their bereavement.

The death of Bill Wentworth in Sydney on Sunday at the age of 95 removes one of the great political characters who have served in this House since World War II. Bill Wentworth was for most, but certainly not all, of his political career a member of the Liberal Party of Australia. He was elected to represent the division of Mackellar in 1949, and he held the seat of Mackellar until the 1977 election. He in fact resigned from the Liberal Party prior to the 1977 election and stood for the Senate at that election. Almost 20 years later, at the age of 87, he ran again for federal parliament as an Independent candidate in the by-election for the seat of Wentworth—which, of course, is the seat carrying the name of one of his illustrious ancestors—that followed the resignation of John Hewson, the former Liberal Party leader.

During the time that Bill Wentworth served in the federal parliament, he identified himself with many causes. By today's standards, it would be quite impossible to categorise Bill Wentworth. He was certainly not an economic rationalist. He was a great believer in government intervention. He was a person who loathed what he regarded as the policies of globalisation. He wrote to me incessantly and often came to see me—as recently as less than 12 months ago—to rail against some of the policies now embraced by the side of politics that I am pleased to lead in this parliament. Equally, however, throughout his life he was a passionate believer in the cause of liberal democracy in the long struggle through the Cold War against communism. I do not think I have met in the federal parliament a person who was more passionate in his opposition to communism, a more stoic defender of the values, as he saw them, of Western civilisation in the years of the Cold War.

He was well ahead of his time in relation to many causes. More than any other individual within the Liberal Party, I believe he was responsible for persuading the then Holt government to hold a referendum in 1967 to remove unfair provisions in the Australian Constitution in relation to Indigenous people. He was a passionate advocate of removing the anomalies of rail gauges in Australia. His long campaign to standardise rail gauges across the huge Australian continent is something that all people who were around in the 1960s and early 1970s of Australian politics will remember.

Bill Wentworth was almost an occupational rebel within his own party. He was a constant critic of the Menzies government. He often rebelled against decisions of the Menzies government. He did not achieve ministerial preferment inside the Liberal Party until the election of John Gorton as Prime Minister following the death of Harold Holt at the beginning of 1968. He served as the first person specifically responsible for Aboriginal affairs in the Gorton government, a very significant first for which he deserves very special credit. Although losing responsibility for Aboriginal affairs after the resignation of John Gorton as Prime Minister, he did retain a ministry in the McMahon government, unlike some other members of the Gorton ministry who disappeared after the change in March 1971.

Bill Wentworth was born in Sydney on 8 September 1907. He was the eldest son of William Charles and Denise Wentworth and a descendant of D'Arcy Wentworth and his son William Wentworth, amongst the first explorers to cross the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. He was educated at the Armidale School and later at New College, Oxford, where he earned a Master of Arts. Upon his return to Australia he became an economic adviser to the New South Wales Treasury, from 1933 to 1936, during the term in office of the Stevens government. On 30 June 1935 he married Barbara Chisholm. In 1941 he enlisted with the Army Reserve and served as a captain with Headquarters 1st Division until 1942. Even during those times he displayed a streak of rebellion. It is recorded, I believe accurately, that he led a party which captured the police station at Waterfall, south of Sydney, in order to demonstrate the inadequacies of home defence.

In 1949 he was elected to the northern beaches seat of Mackellar, a seat—as I mentioned earlier—he held for a period of 28 years. He became a founding member of the Liberal Party of Australia and he served for many years on the New South Wales state executive. I, in fact, first made Bill Wentworth's acquaintance in the early 1960s when I became a member of the New South Wales executive. In his colourful contribution to all debates, he never lost enthusiasm. No matter what issue was being debated, Bill Wentworth had a vigorous, colourful and always very interesting view. His maiden speech of 24 February 1950 was very interesting. He chose to speak about only one subject: resolving deadlocks between the House of Representatives and the Senate. It provides some very interesting reading. He was, through his long parliamentary career, an active member of several parliamentary committees—the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and the Government Members Committee on Rail Gauge Standardisation. He was also the parliamentary representative on the Council of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

When I first became a member of this House in 1974, Bill Wentworth of course had ceased to be a minister—we were in opposition. But he was one of the most colourful people that I had the privilege of working with as a colleague. He was always an encouragement to new members in that he never lost interest in any subject that was being debated. He always had a view. He sometimes drove the whips crazy by talking without warning, but he always had something very interesting to say. It is impossible, I think, for anybody to say that they always agreed with Bill Wentworth, because Bill's views were unpredictable. They were always passionately expressed. He was a person of enormous intellect. Many people would describe his views as eccentric, but nobody could regard him as a person who lacked enormous courage. He had a very strong commitment to his political values. He was an interesting mixture of the conservative, the radical, the liberal and the illiberal. Depending on what the issue happened to be, Bill could often confound you. I found him, in the best sense of the word, an immensely likeable person. He gave an enormous amount to this country. He may have been the scion of what is regarded as one of the established families of Australia—he was nonetheless a powerful advocate of the cause of underprivileged people. Can I say on behalf of the Liberal Party we thank him for his great contribution to Australia.

We thank him for his passionate commitment to the cause of liberal democracy and anticommunism during the years of the Cold War, a battle that many members of this House remember with increasingly distant recollections but nonetheless something that consumed all of the passions in all of the interested people through the 1960s and into the 1970s. There was no stauncher defender of the cause of the West against Soviet communism than Bill Wentworth. There was no person more ready to identify what he saw as the threat of Soviet imperialism than Bill Wentworth. He will be remembered for that and he will be remembered for his commitment to the cause of Aboriginal people. To his wonderful widow, Barbara—a delightful person who endeared herself to all who met her—and to their children and grandchildren, I extend the deepest sympathy on behalf of the Liberal Party of Australia, as a former colleague of his and as a person who regards him as having been a very fine Australian.