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Friday, 14 May 1999
Page: 5121


Senator PAYNE (3:45 PM) —I want to pay a very brief tribute to a long serving, committed Liberal and former Premier of New South Wales, Sir Eric Willis, who died earlier this week. I make my brief comments personally as well as politically because my family had known Sir Eric since 1949. He died, aged 77, after some 28 years in the New South Wales parliament and a distinguished career outside politics. He was from a great Liberal family. His brother Max Willis was a longstanding member and former president of the Legislative Council of New South Wales.

Sir Eric was from Murwillumbah in northern New South Wales and was educated there and at the University of Sydney. He served in the AIF in New Guinea and the Philippines in the Second World War. In 1949 he unsuccessfully stood for the then federal seat of Lang in New South Wales, and afterwards contested and won the state seat of Earlwood in 1950. It was there that my family became connected with Sir Eric. My father, also a World War II veteran who served in New Guinea, campaigned with him in Lang in 1949 and even in very recent times Sir Eric has continued to remind me of that connection. When I joined the Liberal Party I joined a branch in the then state seat of Earlwood, which Sir Eric had represented for 28 years, and my family's home in Sydney was only two streets away from the Willis home in the suburb of Bardwell Park.

Sir Eric was deputy leader of the New South Wales parliamentary Liberal Party for some 15 years and Leader of the House for 10 years. It is said that he earned the somewhat forbidding nickname of `Stainless Steel' in that capacity of Leader of the House, although I do understand there are other political stories as to how that may have come about.

During his long parliamentary career he held a broad range of portfolio responsibilities including tourism, sport, labour and industry, education, treasury and Chief Secretary. When he was elected Premier, it was a post he held for only four months because he called an early election which saw the ascension of the first Wran government—and the rest, as they say, was history. When he was elected the Sydney Morning Herald recognised a man of great experience and great political expertise and said:

He is well known for his steadiness and acuity . . . he is a seasoned, highly professional politician.

After that defeat he served as opposition leader for, I think, two years and retired from politics in 1978.

I suspect the things one chooses to recall at the end of a political career are always curious. But Sir Eric, when asked, said:

If I had to pick one achievement of my period as Premier that I might be remembered for in the public mind, it would be the introduction of daylight saving.

I guess it was no surprise to him that the editors of various major metropolitan newspapers continue to this day to receive letters complaining about the removal or otherwise of daylight saving.

He had a very fulfilling post-political career—which I think is the test of whether someone can actually make that transition. Initially after his retirement he became executive director of the Arthritis Foundation. He was also chairman of the first Australian Constitutional Convention—as it was described by Who's Who—held in Sydney in 1973. I regret that I never had the opportunity to discuss that with him.

He was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly 10 times and when he was first elected he was the youngest member of the Assembly. He will be remembered as a great friend and member of the Liberal Party in New South Wales, and even in recent years he was still participating in redistribution deliberations in particular. Only last week his son, Greg Willis, represented Sir Eric at a function in my office in Parramatta because his father was away on holidays.

I know that I reflect the views of many members of the New South Wales division and friends from the New South Wales community, in remembering his contribution to the Liberal Party in New South Wales and also in noting that our sympathies are with his family. He served his party, his parliament and his state with enormous distinction. I would like to echo the words of New South Wales Liberal leader, the Hon. Kerry Chikarovski, in saying that the party has `lost a great figure in our political history'.