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Wednesday, 9 May 2012
Page: 4427


Mr BOWEN (McMahonMinister for Immigration and Citizenship) (11:36): It is an honour to join in the condolence motion for the late Hon. Lionel Bowen. I first met Lionel Bowen in 1995. He at that point was, of course, a former Deputy Prime Minister and a lion of the labour movement. I was a very junior ALP branch member of, at that point, seven years standing in the ALP—a young man who had yet to be elected to his local council and without a profile in the party. In what would become over the years a very typical mistake, I found myself sitting next to Lionel Bowen at a dinner to celebrate the election of the Carr Labor government. This mistake was due to an official assuming that I was his son and therefore seating me on the official table next to the former Deputy Prime Minister. I soon worked out that this mistake had occurred and suggested that I might take my leave and go and find a more appropriate seat at the very large function—a seat more befitting a very junior Labor Party branch member than the official table with the newly elected Premier and the former Deputy Prime Minister. Of course, Lionel would not hear a word of that. He insisted that I remain in my seat and spent considerable time chatting to me about matters of common interest. Lionel was always quick to encourage and loath to criticise. He enjoyed taking the time to chat. He shared his views with humility. He was keenly interested in the rejuvenation of the Labor Party after his retirement, and he had not an arrogant bone in his body.

The mistake that that official made on that evening was the beginning of my relationship with Lionel Bowen. Of course, a few years after that the ravages of the pernicious disease of Alzheimer's began slowly to take their toll on Lionel. But it has been very common at functions or meetings since I have entered parliament for people to come up to me and tell me that they went to school with my father or used to work for my father. I was initially quite surprised that so many people worked for the NRMA, until I realised after a number of these incidents that they were confused. But I would find that as a result of regularly being assumed to be related to Lionel Bowen I learnt a lot more about him even than in my own interactions with him. I would obviously tell disappointed interlocutors that in fact I was not Lionel Bowen's son, but they would invariably go on to tell me a story about Lionel, and invariably those stories would reflect on his humility, his integrity and his decency.

Lionel Bowen had, I think, the Chifley-like qualities of a great Labor politician: humility combined with passion and determination. His humility sometimes led him to be underestimated, but the record shows how wrong those who underestimated him were. He is one of the handful of people in Australian history to have served in all three levels of government: local, state and federal. He was a mayor at 28, going on at one point to be the longest serving Labor minister in Australia's history, a record subsequently surpassed only by Paul Keating, Kim Beazley and Gareth Evans. He was Deputy Leader of the Australian Labor Party for more than half his time in the federal parliament, and he came very close to becoming our leader in 1977, losing that ballot by six votes in the caucus. It is an interesting question of historical record as to what might have happened if he had in fact won that ballot. I suspect that his down-to-earth nature and his passion would have made him a very successful Labor leader, and the political history of Australia over the last 30 years may well have taken a very different turn.

His length of service and his high office does not tell the full story of his achievements and his passion. He was not a high-profile politician, despite his very high office. His role was often as a counsel and a sage behind the scenes. He was involved in the very difficult and emotional meeting in which Bill Hayden handed the leadership over to Bob Hawke. He took the view that it was the right thing for the Labor Party for him to waive his right under Labor Party conventions to name his portfolio, ceding the foreign affairs portfolio in opposition—very clearly, at that point, soon to be the government—to Bill Hayden.

He was driven to pursue social justice at least in part because of his childhood poverty. It has often been mentioned in his obituaries that his father was an alcoholic who abandoned the family when Lionel was at a young age. His mother also had to care for her brother, who had an acquired brain injury. Her father had passed away a few years before in the great Spanish influenza pandemic—which also killed my great grandmother. The family was borne into great poverty in that period. This, I think, informed his view that—as one of his sons eloquently said in a eulogy at the local church—'nobody should be wiped out simply due to his or her frailty'. That was a view Lionel Bowen kept throughout his political life and also his personal life. As I said, it has been commonly mentioned that his father abandoned the family. What is less mentioned is that at the place where his father is buried a gravestone marking the burial place reads: 'From your loving son Lionel'. His forgiveness of his father says more about him than any words we can muster here in this House.

Lionel Bowen is lost to us, but his records, his achievements and his great, great qualities live on as an inspiration. I extend my condolences to the family, as I have personally, and I record my personal admiration and the inspiration Lionel Bowen provided to many of my generation—even those of us who do not share his surname!—in this House.