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Wednesday, 10 September 2003
Page: 19692


Mr BEAZLEY (2:28 PM) —I join the remarks of the Prime Minister, my leader and others who have spoken in extending our condolences to the Willesee family. I thank the foreign affairs spokesman of the Labor Party for allowing me to speak in his place.

Don Willesee was one of the parliamentary and party leaders who were key assistants to Gough Whitlam as he set about the task of restructuring the Labor Party in the late 1960s and 1970s, both in terms of our organisation and in terms of the parliamentary party, and made an intelligent, brilliant rabble fit for government. For that we in the Labor Party and the Australian people owe him a great debt of gratitude.

Some of the names of those who participated with Gough at the time, like Mick Young, are well remembered but it is not remembered how crucial the Senate leaders, deputies and the deputy leader in the House of Representatives were to that exercise and how important were the staff whom they selected. I very much remember the role played by the late Ron Barry and Geoff Briot, who were the assistants to Don Willesee in the development of policy not just in his area but throughout the frontbench and the party organisation. In those days, the opposition had only 16 or 17 staffers between the four leaders and they carried the whole weight. The parliamentary leaders and their staff very much carried the weight of those changes.

One of the paradoxes of Don Willesee's career was that by the time he secured senior ministerial rank at least two of his children were more household names than he was—a fact which he absolutely gloried in. I think that over the next three years he gloried in the fact that he was able to redress the balance, as he himself became extremely well known to the Australian public. He died with his beloved wife, Gwen, and his children around him, and to them go our deepest condolences.

As the Leader of the Opposition has said, Don was a direct contemporary of my father and his father. Don was a presence in my life as I grew up—from time to time an intimate presence, as the families knew each other and met with each other. He was something of a friend and colleague and a bit of a patron to me as I started in Western Australian Labor politics. One of the first things I did was to help organise the numbers for him in the last Senate preselection that he confronted. Some small groups in the state executive—not large, by any means—felt that they might alter the balance somewhat in the conference and the parliamentary party if Don were no longer a senator. I can recollect sitting down in the office of the secretary of the Miscellaneous Workers Union to make sure that no such silliness occurred. Don dropped in on those discussions a bit later.

I will miss him and my father will miss him terribly, far more than just about anybody else I can think of in contemporary political life—or anybody who has been in political life in the last half century. Dad and Don were no longer physically capable of easily meeting each other, even though they lived only about 30 kilometres apart, but they had regular conversations over the telephone. It was an opportunity for my father and Don, for an hour or so over the phone, to remonstrate with the contemporary political generation and determine their faults. My father will miss those conversations a great deal.

Don was of an era when Labor politicians learned about the world in the toughest possible way. He was unusual for his time in one aspect—and I am not sure that many people know this. In an era in which the immigration policies of Australia were dominated by the White Australia Policy, and Indigenous policy was reflective of either benign neglect or foolish views of assimilation, Don was a man who believed in racial tolerance and equality. He drew that from where he was brought up. He always learnt from his environment. Don was brought up in Carnarvon. Despite the existence of those policies, Carnarvon was a town replete with Indigenous Australians, Chinese, Indonesians and Afghan camel drivers. Don got to know them all in that town. Carnarvon was then a port of far more significance than it is now, with a constant stream of ships coming through, taking Western Australian products out to South-East Asia. It was those things that determined (a) Don's tolerance and (b) the fascination with foreign affairs that he developed subsequently in his political life.

Don's love for the character of the portfolio he ultimately secured was reflected in his maiden speech. I think his first remarks about foreign policy are worth briefly recounting here. Don took his seat in parliament just after the fall of the Chifley government. In his address-in-reply to the speech made by Governor-General McKell—who, I might say, was selected by the Labor Party—on the first policy statement of the Menzies government, Don said:

Therefore, in view of the statement in the Governor-General's Speech many Australians will await events to see whether we shall go forward in the international sphere to the degree that we have progressed during the last ten years when Australia's name won an honoured place in the councils of the world, or whether we shall merely slip back to the position we occupied prior to that period. However, I believe that whether the Government accepts full responsibility for its foreign policy as governments have done in the past ten years ... Australia's foreign policy, in view of our geographical position, must be dictated by the four following basic factors: First, we are a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations; secondly, we are a member of the United Nations; thirdly, the rise of Asiatic nationalism; and, fourthly, the future attitude of the United States of America in respect of the Far East, or, as we can more aptly say, our near north.

There is a very contemporary ring to many aspects of that statement.

Don was deeply humane. An assistant to Gough Whitlam, both formally and informally, he added—as has been made evident from the remarks of others—the human element to the direction of foreign policy at the time. He was constantly worried about the impact that our decisions have on the lives of the people with whom we deal and on the lives of the Australian people—a test he constantly put to his more illustrious mentor in the character of the Prime Minister. Don was a no-frills man. I remember once sitting down with members of his staff and finding that Don suddenly came into the room, grabbed a telephone and organised his air ticket to Canberra for the next day. I said to his staff, `Don't you do that for him?' They said, `No, he does all that sort of thing for himself.' He definitely was a man who carried his own bags, whether he was a minister, a senator or a private citizen. Our deepest sympathy goes out to his widow, Gwen, and to Colleen, Mike, Terry, Geraldine, Don Jr and Peter.

Question agreed to, honourable members standing in their places.