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Wednesday, 10 September 2003
Page: 19688


Mr CREAN (Leader of the Opposition) (2:08 PM) —I join with the Prime Minister in this condolence motion for Don Willesee, a long-serving member of the national parliament—almost 26 years—and one of the most senior, trusted and respected members in the Whitlam government. Don was a contemporary of my father: he was born in the same year, he entered parliament a little earlier and, unfortunately for both of them—as indeed for the member for Brand's dad—they spent most of their careers in opposition. I do recall Don in much earlier days when I used to spend a bit of time here with my father. Like the Prime Minister, I always found him to be a courteous person and, perhaps because of that anecdote about youth, he was always prepared to talk to and involve us.

Like so many of his generation, Don Willesee was a self-educated and self-made man. His father in fact harboured political ambitions—I know it must drive some to distraction but reading Hansard at school is something special—but they were never fulfilled, but through Don they were. Indeed, Don's brother rose to become a minister in the Western Australian state government. Don was also a very strong Catholic and his family was sometimes on the receiving end of some of the fallout of the great Labor split in the 1950s. Don's ambition was to go into law, but he was stymied in that pursuit through the Great Depression. He was forced to give up school and to get a job. He in fact joined the post office and through that became an official with the telegraphists union. He became at the time the youngest person ever to enter the Senate after the 1949 election. As a senator he served through the split and was one of the figures that helped Gough Whitlam rebuild the party, undertake the reforms and lay the basis for government in 1972. He was, as the Prime Minister indicated, the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and then, subsequently, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. This became a key position in terms of the revamped national executive, important to Whitlam's success.

He will be celebrated most of all for his period as Special Minister of State and as Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Whitlam government. They were portfolios he held with distinction. He was well respected not just here but abroad. Along with Gough, he added the third pillar to Australia's foreign policy architecture. The first, of course, was Curtin's forging of the US alliance in 1941. The second was Evatt's leadership in helping establish the United Nations and Australia's commitment through multilateralism to its various bodies. The third was the strengthening of Australia's ties to Asia from 1972 onwards, in particular the recognition of China.

As foreign minister from November 1973 onwards, Don Willesee saw it as his job to consolidate the foreign policy changes made during Whitlam's revolutionary first year, but he played a direct and important role in those changes as well. He was the first Australian foreign minister to visit Africa. He went there in 1973. He oversaw the establishment of the first Australian Embassy in the People's Republic of China. His strenuously opposed apartheid and the Smith regime in Rhodesia. He stood up to French nuclear testing in the Pacific and to Chinese nuclear tests as well. He argued in the United Nations for Antarctica to become a zone of common heritage to all mankind. He called for an even-handed approach to the Middle East. He pushed for an internationally agreed law of the sea and for more liberal international agreements for granting asylum to political refugees. He adopted a postcolonial approach to Australia's dealings with the nations of the South Pacific.

That is a very impressive list, but overall he presided in an era in which, as he put it, `Australia's foreign policy was bolder, more enlightened and more progressive.' At one stage in fact he was a serious contender for the position of President of the United Nations General Assembly. All frontbench members can occasionally get upset about being overridden or having the limelight stolen by their leader, but you can imagine what Don was like working to Gough in foreign affairs. Some of course claim that he was a cipher for Gough, but this is not true. Don was his own man, with forthright ideas about what needed to be done in foreign affairs. While he may have disagreed with Gough on a number of issues, it never ruptured their professional relationship.

As the Prime Minister has indicated, Don and Gough disagreed over policies towards East Timor. In fact, there is a further dimension. Don knew, before it was publicly disclosed, about the fate of the Balibo Five but he was unable to tell the public. It upset him greatly because, of course, he was the father of journalists, and he felt terribly for the families of the young journalists who had been killed. His son Mike had been a correspondent in Vietnam, so he knew what the families were going through.

Don was a great human being, a man of immense integrity. He was much loved by his staff, a passionate Labor man who never forgot the effects of the Great Depression. He never walked past a homeless kid without digging deep into his pockets. He was a punter—not a big punter, I am told, but a successful one and a well informed one. Unlike most punters, he finished ahead of the bookies. He was a real aficionado of the race track. He knew Bart Cummings and Tommy Smith and the top jockeys of the day. A former employee of his tells the story that, as the person with the highest security clearance in the minister's office, he was trusted with Don's PIN for his TAB account. Don Willesee is survived by his wife Gwen and six children—Colleen, Mike, Terry, Geraldine, Don Jr and Peter. We will miss him; they certainly will. Our condolences go to them and to all of those who knew Don Willesee.