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Tuesday, 8 May 2007
Page: 1

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) (2:01 PM) —I move:

That the House record its deep regret at the death on 2 April 2007 of Senator Jeannie Margaret Ferris, Senator for South Australia, and place on record its appreciation of her long and meritorious public service and tender its profound sympathy to her family in their bereavement.

The death of one of our serving colleagues always touches us in a particular way. Jeannie Ferris’s death on 2 April this year, after a long and heroic struggle against ovarian cancer, touched all of us in this parliament, particularly her many friends and colleagues within the Liberal Party in South Australia and elsewhere and also the rural community of Australia.

Jeannie fought her illness with great tenacity. She was candid and open about the likely outcome but she never gave up hope. I will always remember one night ringing her in Canberra after she had received what could only be called a terrible prognosis. She was surrounded by her family and friends. She was frank about the daunting task ahead, but absolutely determined to do her best to fight the illness and to be an inspiration to others suffering like cancers. I know that the Deputy Prime Minister in his remarks will have something to say about the great courage she displayed in accompanying him on a trip to Baghdad in order to do good things for the wheat industry of Australia. The outcome of that was an arrangement with the Iraqi government that saved a wheat shipment that otherwise would have been lost, as it had been caught up in concerns flowing from the inquiry into the activities of AWB.

She was a person who had a rich and varied life. The memorial service held in the Great Hall was not only in a fitting location to say farewell to a loved friend and colleague but also an opportunity in the national parliament to honour somebody who was the genuine article.

Jeannie was born in Auckland, New Zealand, in March 1941. She came to Australia in the early 1960s to continue her education at Monash University. There she graduated in agricultural economics. She first worked on the Rotorua Post in New Zealand and then continued her journalistic career here in Australia. She worked on the Canberra Times and was editor of the Yass Tribune. She took great pride in claiming that she was the first female newspaper editor for 165 years in rural Australia.

She worked in public relations and she worked in the early 1980s for CSIRO. Later she was to find her real love, which combined a passion for the bush and politics, when she became director of public relations with the National Farmers Federation. She also served for a period of time as corporate affairs director of the South Australian Farmers Federation. At the NFF she formed a close association with a former colleague of ours, Ian McLachlan, who famously led the NFF through some of its most effective years in the 1980s. Ian spoke very warmly at the memorial service of her dedication to people in rural Australia. Jeannie often spoke with great pride about that amazing gathering of 45,000 Australian farmers outside the Old Parliament House in 1985. They gathered in peaceful assembly to voice their concern about policies that they believed were hurting the farmers of this country. It was a well-mannered, well-ordered protest. There was no property damage, and no need for hordes of police to restrain people who were endeavouring to break the law.

Jeannie participated in a number of delegations representing the Senate overseas in places as diverse as Venezuela, Morocco, Latvia, Mexico and the Russian Federation. She was a dedicated parliamentarian. She served as Whip in the Senate, and her booming voice down the corridor with expressions such as ‘I want to talk to you!’ brought many recalcitrant coalition senators to heel.

One of her proudest moments in the Senate came only a few weeks before her death when she spoke in the Senate about her involvement in the inquiry by the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs into gynaecological cancers. Supported by Jeannie’s hard work and advocacy, the report, titled Breaking the silence, was instrumental in drawing attention to the issues involved in dealing with this form of cancer, particularly for women in rural Australia. It is now a matter of record that the government responded to the report by providing $1 million in seed funding for a new gynaecological cancer centre. Her speech on the success of the report came, as we now know, when she was receiving treatment for this terrible disease, and it was to be her last speech in the Senate.

As I told the service in the Great Hall, I have not forgotten her last attendance at a joint party meeting. As is the wont, I guess, of both sides of politics, when members and senators arrive they tend to take a seat and hang onto it. She took a seat—I think I would put it this way—to the centre right of the desk. That was moderately appropriate—if I can mix my metaphors—to describe Jeannie’s position on many things. What struck me on that occasion was that, despite the terrible health challenge she faced, she was in there talking about issues of enormous importance to rural Australia. I know, from discussions I have had with my wife—who takes an interest in many of the matters that Jeannie was interested in—of her intense concern and passion for people struggling with cancer and struggling particularly with the form of cancer that ultimately claimed her life.

We have lost a wonderful stalwart of rural Australia. She was an intensely practical woman who believed in doing practical things to get practical outcomes for the intensely practical Australians who live in the rural part of our country. She was passionate about the things that she believed in and, although she was broadly conservative on many issues, you could not typecast her. That was one of the endearing things about her personality. She was a passionate believer—let me leave you in no doubt—in labour market deregulation. She was a great believer in the reforms that this government has enacted in that area. She was a great believer in the right of people to negotiate directly with each other, subject to decent minimum conditions. She was a great proponent of the cause of rural Australia in some of those historic industrial relations disputes and debates of the 1980s, such as at Mudginberri. When working with Ian McLachlan, when he was President of the National Farmers Federation, they represented a powerful force for change and reform in those areas.

I am very saddened by her death. I liked Jeannie immensely. She was courageous, she was very gutsy, she was very forthright, she was a lovable soul and she cared about her duties. We will miss her terribly. We extend our deep condolences to her two sons who suffered the double tragedy of losing their mother and father in the same week. It is hard to imagine how anyone could properly come to terms with this terrible tragedy. It is a sad thing when you farewell a serving colleague who has been taken long before her time and claimed by a terrible illness. But she left behind a wonderful example of courage in adversity, a determination to help other women facing this terrible illness and for all of us, her former colleagues, a memory of a lovable soul and somebody who cared deeply for her country. We offer our sympathy to Robbie and Jeremy and their extended family as we mourn and record the death of a wonderful Australian.