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Monday, 25 October 2010
Page: 606

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Leader of the Government in the Senate) (3:32 PM) —by leave—I move:

That the Senate records its deep regret at the death on 18 October 2010 of the Honourable Kenneth Shaw Wriedt, former federal minister and Senator for Tasmania, and place on record its appreciation of his long and meritorious service, and tenders its profound sympathy to his family in their bereavement.

Kenneth Shaw Wriedt was a great Labor champion. He served in public life for more than four decades and represented the people of Tasmania with dedication and distinction. He was a great Labor leader and figure when the labour movement needed such people—when the political and economic times were tough, when Labor was an opposition that the federal or state level, and when the politics of the day called for men and women of principle.

He was born in Melbourne in 1927, the third son of a fitter of Danish descent. He grew up in Fairfield and attended University High School. He first tried to go to sea at the age of 13 but was unsuccessful. Three years later, in 1944, his parents were able to buy him a merchant marine apprenticeship. He spent 14 years on merchant ships, which included wartime experience in the merchant navy and eventual promotion to navigation officer on bulk carriers and on oil tankers which operated to and from the Persian Gulf.

In 1958 he decided to settle in Hobart. He selected Hobart because of his fondness for the Derwent. He settled ashore and took up insurance work. It was at this time he became involved in Labor politics. He would later declare that his travels and the poverty he saw, the Depression, and the Second World War were the reasons he embraced the Labor cause. It is also fair to say that through his travels he became interested in the underlying themes of Buddhism and its karma and the value of meditation. He was strongly against the continuation of the war in Vietnam and disparaging of the Soviet Union and China, which he regarded as hypocritical in not supporting U Thant’s attempts to broker peace with North Vietnam. He campaigned accordingly during the 1967 federal election, having gained a place on the Tasmanian Senate Labor ticket.

A measure of the man can be seen in his first speech in the parliament. He said:

How many of us can look forward with certainty to security and dignity in our old age?

He went on to argue for a national superannuation scheme to give security to those in retirement. He was mindful of the plight of pensioners who waited for the handouts which came with each federal budget. That was the system of the time, which had little to offer security for the many senior Australians who did not share in a government- or privately-organised superannuation retirement scheme. Of course, the age pension at the time meant living on a standard little above the poverty line. He argued for the need to provide transferable benefits between superannuation schemes which might arise when an employee moved from job to job. He spoke about the perceived fallacies of national security, as he saw it, which was promoted on the basis of pending wars between nations. Rather—and in light of today’s events, quite interesting to note—he stressed that real dangers would come from other directions: from the poor nations of the world which provide the ‘breeding grounds of political violence and unrest’.

Every man glimpses a truth—

he added in that first speech.

No one man has a monopoly of truth. For this reason I hope that I can make a worthwhile and positive contribution to this nation.

I think we can agree he did. He was appointed Minister for Primary Industry in the first Whitlam government. It is often quoted that his portfolio surprised him because he could not tell a merino from a Corriedale. I hope the current minister can. However, he gained the reputation of a reformer and a hard worker, and during this time, and in the second Whitlam government as Minister for Agriculture, he was instrumental in reforming and restructuring the wool and dairy industries, understanding the competitive realities of the world market.

These were important reforms because they addressed the need to ensure the best possible income return for the producers. Change did not come easily but emerged from wide consultation and finding compromises acceptable to all. These changes were visionary and their success was applauded by many. Former Senate leader John Button declared:

Whatever any of us say about the partisan political debate about the Whitlam government, if honourable senators want to make these comments about Ken Wriedt in the countryside of Australia, they do so at their peril if their remarks are in any sense derogatory. The people in the non-metropolitan areas have immense regard for his work as minister in that government.

In February 1975 he replaced Lionel Murphy as Leader of the Government in the Senate and in October he replaced Rex Connor in the minerals portfolio. He was there at cabinet, at caucus and as Senate leader during the events of 1975. The Khemlani affair and its aftermath had undermined the veracity and intent of the Labor government and the passage of supply through the Senate was in dispute. Many have written about Ken’s role in the passage of supply and Gough Whitlam’s lack of communication with his Senate leader on 11 November, when supply was finally passed.

It is not for me to add to that history or that moment but I would like to make a couple of observations. He carried out the duties of Leader of the Government in the Senate in accordance with the standing orders in an honourable and principled fashion. He was, in fact, the only Labor senator in the chamber when the new Queensland senator Albert Field was sworn in because he believed that his presence as government leader was necessary. He did, however, turn his back on Senator Field’s swearing of the oath.

Throughout the latter part of 1975 he remained true to his principles and advocated in cabinet and in caucus his support for a double dissolution, which he knew would result in a major Labor election loss. He firmly believed that preserving Australia’s democratic processes and ensuring the stability of government, which many Australians wanted, was more important than a tactical decision of the government of the day. But he was in the minority in cabinet on this issue. The disastrous election brought an end to the second Whitlam government and to Ken’s ministerial tenure.

He retained his Senate leadership in opposition and continued his work as leader and as a senator for Tasmania until 1980, when he resigned to stand for the state seat of Denison. He had served for nearly 14 years in the Senate. Ken’s bid in Denison failed but he successfully won the seat of Franklin at the next election. He served as leader of the state Labor Party from 1982 to 1986 and later served as a minister in the minority Field Labor government. Government was never easy at either the federal or the state level, and Ken retired from state politics in 1990. When Ken Wriedt retired from the Senate, Sir John Carrick, then Leader of the Government in the Senate and coalition leader in the Senate, remarked:

He had never doubted the quality of Senator Wriedt as a gentleman, as a person who holds values and holds them in trust and as a person who, when sitting opposite, was willing to understand and to extend the true courtesies of the Senate chamber.

On his retirement from the Senate he did not wish for speeches and did not intend to give one, but his wishes were ignored and many spoke, forcing him to respond. His speech was short, with two themes: the first of which reiterated his opening sentences in his very first speech—he had come to the parliament with the intention to serve the people of Australia. The second was typical of the man; he mused:

I can never work out why it is that if I was such a good minister for agriculture we lost all those rural seats in 1975. I reckon that by that record I must go down as about the worst minister for agriculture the country ever had.

Clearly, he was a person who did not take himself too seriously. Of course it was never the case. He was a great Labor figure during a time of need. Ken lost his wife, Helga, just four weeks before his death. Our thoughts are now with his two daughters, Sonja and Paula, and his grandchildren: Jack, Ella, Daniel and Amy. I know a number of senators will be joining me on Wednesday to attend the state funeral of Kenneth Shaw Wriedt to pay our last respects. I thank the Senate for allowing me to move this motion today and look forward to the contributions of other senators in recognising the contribution of a great Tasmanian senator and a great Labor champion.