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Wednesday, 31 October 2012
Page: 12905


Mr CHAMPION (Wakefield) (10:03): It is a great honour to speak on the condolence motion for Gordon Bilney. When we talk about those who have passed, we obviously cast our own minds back to our memories and it reminds me of when I first joined the party in the years of the Keating government. When I first started in the party it was the apex of Gordon Bilney's career. He was minister for the Pacific Islands at the time and part of that great group of Centre Left thinkers in the Labor Party—people like Mick Young, Bill Hayden, Chris Schacht and others, who really were a force to be reckoned with in the Hawke and Keating years. They were not just a political force but an intellectual force. Certainly that group of men and women were to be admired. Rosemary Crowley was also part of that group. The group originated in South Australia and there was a distinctive style about them all. Gordon was an even more colourful part of that colourful tradition.

When we look at his career, he went from dentist to diplomat and was a marginal seat candidate, politician, character, mate of Mick Young's, forthright, intelligent, robust and ebullient—a dedicated character who was not afraid to put his case and make an articulate presentation. But, as we have heard from the member for Riverina, he was respected by his opponents. It was still that rare time in politics where you could have great battles but great friendships as well. I know from my own time on the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee how important the Pacific is. I remember Gordon as the first minister to make a real impact in the area, raising Australia's influence in and care for that area and putting our involvement in that area front and centre in government affairs. As we just heard, he made a distinctive contribution as Minister for Defence Science and Personnel in removing discrimination. At that time discrimination, both civil and otherwise, was rife in the community towards gay and lesbian people. Gordon was one of those people who applied intellect and he applied the great Labor tradition of fairness and applied that in practice—he had the courage to apply that in legislation.

I had a limited amount to do with Gordon—I was at the opposite end of the great city of Adelaide, in the northern suburbs, trying to re-elect men like Neal Blewett and others, including Martyn Evans—but many of my friends worked on Gordon's campaigns and we heard rather interesting and sometimes wild stories about campaigning down there. It was a very marginal seat in those days and I am glad to say the current member for Kingston has made it safe, in Gordon's memory.

Gordon was rare because he did not just have to fight off Liberals—he had to fight off Janine Haines from the Democrats, who was a formidable candidate in South Australia at that time. It should not be forgotten that some years later the Democrats got about 23 per cent state-wide in South Australia, so they were a powerful middle force and drew from the traditional base of both parties—they drew from the small business base of the Liberals and from Labor's base as well. To fight off that challenge took a great deal of energy, colour, wit and intelligence.

I remember visiting Gordon's office and there was a wall full of black-and-white bromides, back in the days when you had to have black-and-white photos—or bromides—for your pamphlets. Gordon was in each one of them at a community event or at a school. Such is the life of a marginal seat MP. I vividly remember one of Gordon on his hands and knees planting a small tree with some kids at a local school or a local park. While we might focus on his life as a minister, as a raconteur and as a diplomat, we should not forget that he did not mind getting his hands dirty.

Gordon was very much a colourful voice of the south. He was a great campaigner and I think my generation learnt a great deal off him, particularly my friend John Bistrovic, who was mentioned in Senator Farrell's speech—a speech that I think captured some of the colour of Gordon's political career.

I know he learnt off Gordon a great deal of what he knows about campaigning. Some of those stories of the 1996 campaign when Gordon was defeated—not on the basis of his own candidacy but perhaps he was swept away in the tide against Labor after 13 years of government—I suspect should remain unsaid.

I never realised that Gordon was a dentist. I guess he went, in the life of a marginal seat-holder, from pulling other people's teeth to pulling his own. He really was representative of a time in Australia where people had very varied careers before they entered this place, and they brought all of that with them—and they brought all of the colour with them, at a time when we were not afraid to have people who were representing us in the very highest levels of civil society—people like diplomats and dentists—in our parliament. I do not think the political parties are rejecting these people; I think that, more and more, people see the conflict in politics and the demands it makes on your life—and in particular on your family's life—and are rejecting it as a career. I think that is a sad thing because the more Gordon Bilneys we have, the more colour this building has and the more life it has in it.

Gordon's career is a testament to the Labor movement, to all of its colour and to the dynamic and robust and occasionally cantankerous nature of the Labor movement. He will be sorely missed, I know. It is with great sadness that we mourn his passing. My condolences go to his family, and to his partner Sandy. Vale.