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Tuesday, 11 September 2018
Page: 94


Mr WATTS (Gellibrand) (17:15): on indulgence—Mr Deputy Speaker, well said. I rise in this Chamber today to recognise the life of Senator John Sidney McCain III, particularly his role as a friend of Australia and a friend of democracy. Australia's current ambassador to the United States, Joe Hockey, appropriately described John McCain as Australia's ally-in-chief. Indeed, it's difficult to think of another American leader with stronger ties throughout history to Australia.

Famously, the McCain family's relationship with Australia began when John McCain's grandfather sailed here in 1908 with the Great White Fleet. This continued when McCain's father visited as a submarine commander in World War II and was cemented through his service in Pacific Command, PACOM, during the Second World War. John himself served alongside Australians in the Vietnam War. More recently, John's own sons have served alongside Australian troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. The McCain family will always have a special place in the heart of Australians.

The senator has not been short on eulogies in recent times, and there's no need for me to recount his storied military and political career again here. It's worth saying briefly, however, that, had he never entered politics, John McCain would have lived a life worthy of recognition and admiration. John McCain's time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam showed that he was a man with a code. His refusal of early release from captivity after months of the most base torture—of wrenching physical pain and deprivation—showed him to be a man willing to sacrifice himself in service of the personal code. The fact that McCain was offered early release ahead of his fellow prisoners, the fact that this was offered to him alone by his Vietnamese captors as a consequence of his father's military rank and position—inconsistent with John McCain's personal code of honour—made it impossible for him to accept. It's worth dwelling on that act, on that decision, though. David Foster Wallace wrote:

… try to imagine that moment between getting offered early release and turning it down.

Try to imagine it was you. Imagine how loudly your most basic, primal self-interest would have cried out to you in that moment, and all the ways you could rationalize accepting the offer. Can you hear it? If so, would you have refused to go?

You simply can't know for sure. None of us can. It's hard even to imagine the pain and fear in that moment, much less to know how you'd react.

But, see, we do know how this man reacted. That he chose to spend four more years there, in a dark box, alone, tapping code on the walls to the others, rather than violate a Code.

In this regard, John McCain's legacy is unimpeachable. Grappling with John McCain's political legacy, however, is a complex thing to do. To appropriate Walt Whitman, he contained multitudes.

I did not share his political values. Indeed, I entered politics to defeat the majority of the things that he believed in. Importantly, John McCain was an advocate of the US intervention in Iraq—the greatest foreign policy mistake of my lifetime, an intervention opposed by my political party and an intervention that we must recognise caused immeasurable human suffering and unleashed geostrategic consequences that we are far from seeing the end of a decade and a half later.

While I believe that John McCain's intentions and conduct in advocacy of this intervention were honourable, this calamitous mistake will always be a part of the legacy of all those who were involved in it. Despite this, I believe that this mistake was made in pursuit of admirable instincts that as Australians we should honour. John McCain always fought American isolationism. He believed that America had a role to play in defending the liberal international order and he argued strongly for this stance in the domestic US political debate—not an easy thing to do. For this Australians can be enormously thankful, because a United States that is engaged with the world and engaged in supporting a rules based international order is overwhelmingly in Australia's interest, and the world is a better place for it as well.

In addition to being a friend of Australia, John McCain was a friend of representative democracy at home and abroad. His willingness to work with his political opponents to implement campaign finance reform in the United States and attempt to dull the influence of money over people in the political process is a tribute to his commitment to that democratic process. Similarly, his staunch opposition to torture in all of its forms and his refusal to allow the United States to degrade itself in its practice, put democratic agency above coercive force.

In a time when our politics is being threatened by the forces of authoritarianism and nativism, John McCain was a beacon for a politics defined by the contest of ideas, the advocacy of high ideals and the give and take of political compromise. I was pleased to meet him on his latest visit to Australia—a visit that gave powerful symbolism to the fact that the relationship between Australia and the US is bigger than, broader than and stronger than any individual President. I'm confident that he will be the only US Republican to address a Labor caucus during my political career. I'm happy to say that I enjoyed his contributions.

In many ways, when viewed from Down Under, John McCain was a living embodiment of the United States: a magnificent, imperfect enterprise and a symbol that could inspire with the pursuit of lofty ideals and frustrate when those higher hopes were not realised. On his last visit to Australia, John McCain asked Australians to persevere with America through the current tests that it is enduring. He asked Australia to:

… encourage us to stay true to who we are at our best … and to remind us just how much is at stake.

John McCain himself was a living embodiment of this call. We honour him here in this place. Vale.