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Tuesday, 30 October 2012
Page: 8421


Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western AustraliaMinister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (15:41): I seek leave to move a motion relating to the death of former member of the House of Representatives and minister the Honourable Gordon Neil Bilney.

Leave granted.

Senator CHRIS EVANS: I move:

That the Senate records its deep regret at the death, on 28 October 2012, of the Honourable Gordon Neil Bilney, former Minister and Member for Kingston, places on record its appreciation of his long and meritorious public service, and tenders its profound sympathy to his family in their bereavement.

I served for a very short time with Gordon Neil Bilney in this parliament. He was a great Labor character, and he was much admired across the parliament. Gordon Neil Bilney was born in Renmark, South Australia, on 21 June 1939, the son of Neil and Elaine Bilney. He attended school in Adelaide at Marryatville Primary School, Prince Alfred College and Norwood High School. Gordon then studied Dentistry at the University of Adelaide and graduated in 1961.

However, a lifetime as a dentist did not appeal to Gordon, and he went back to university to study for an Arts degree, graduating with honours in 1965. He joined the Australian diplomatic service in the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1966. During his lengthy career in the service, he was posted to Jakarta, Manila, Geneva and Paris and represented Australia as a member of the Australian delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in 1972.

His diplomatic career was paused in 1973, when he joined the Prime Minister's staff as private secretary. At this time, the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, also held the position of Minister for Foreign Affairs. This was a reforming time for the first Whitlam government. Gordon was associated with the recognition of the People's Republic of China, the abolition of conscription and the withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam. When Whitlam relinquished the Foreign Affairs portfolio to the great Western Australian Senator Don Willesee, Gordon moved to Willesee's office. After the dramatic dismissal of the Whitlam Government in November 1975, Gordon returned to the Department of Foreign Affairs—to the OECD and EEC branches successively.

In 1980 he was appointed Australia's High Commissioner to Jamaica, a position he would hold until 1982. But his interest in and love of politics saw him return to the centre of Australian politics by successfully contesting the marginal Adelaide electorate of Kingston at the 1983 election, which was of course the year that Bob Hawke was elected with a very large majority. Gordon was re-elected a further four times in the seat of Kingston, holding the seat until the Keating government left office in 1996. His greatest electoral challenge came in 1990, when the high-profile leader of the Australian Democrats, Janine Haines, chose his electorate of Kingston as part of her tilt to have Democrat representation in the lower house. Gordon survived that challenge and retained the seat.

Drawing on his vast experience in foreign affairs, he served the parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade and the expanded Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade from 1983 until his appointment to the ministry in 1990. He was first appointed as Minister for Defence Science and Personnel and in 1993, at a time when Australia was working for greater cooperation in our region, Prime Minister Keating appointed Gordon as the first Minister for Development Cooperation and Pacific Island Affairs.

It is probably this period in the ministry for which Gordon is best remembered, and I know he will be affectionately remembered throughout the South Pacific, where he travelled regularly and was much loved and admired. He developed a great reputation as a person and a great reputation for Australia based on his work. He remarked that his appointment as the first minister for pacific island affairs indicated the Keating government's focus on Australia's relationship with its South Pacific island neighbours. It was a new beginning in Australia's relations with its near neighbours.

Continuing the Labor tradition of activism in foreign affairs and development, Gordon was pivotal in making substantial changes to our development programs. His reforms benefited women, with a doubling of aid for women in development projects and the lifting of the freeze to family planning assistance in Australia's aid program. He was also a strong advocate for Australia's role in providing aid assistance to South Africa during their transition from apartheid to democracy in the early 1990s. He was also responsible for mobilising Australian assistance after Papua New Guinea's devastating earthquake in 1993.

Anyone who knew him knew that he was a genuine character, both in public and in private. He was a master wordsmith with a quick and devastating wit. He was never short of a smile or an anecdote or two. He was just great company. As a proud South Australian, he shared two of that state's great passions, AFL football and South Australian red wine. Combining his love of words, humour and advocacy for a great bottle of red, Gordon achieved wide success with his fundraising campaigns. Senator Abetz may refer to this, but he assures me he did well on both sides of the parliament in selling his wine, so it must have been keenly priced and a good drop.

After the Keating government's defeat and Gordon's eventual electoral loss, Gordon was quoted as saying that the future would include some thinking about cooking and enjoying one of South Australia's 'gorgeous glasses of red'. He spent time after life in parliament fishing and playing chess, as well as still being active around the place. But after a combination of 16 years as a diplomat, 13 years as an MP and six years as a minister he probably enjoyed having the chance to be a little freer to speak his mind.

One of his notable contributions, which I think has been widely quoted in recent days, was in 1996, just after his loss at the polls, when he wrote the following letter to a local official in his former electorate:

I saw your letter today of 26 February. One of the great pleasures of private life is that I need no longer be polite to nincompoops, bigots, curmudgeons and twerps who infest local government bodies and committees such as yours. In the particular case of your committee, the pleasure is acute.

Wouldn't we all like to have written letters like that! Some people suggest senators are more likely to write them anyway, but I think it is a great reflection of the attitude of many retired politicians when presented with new freedoms. It also reflects his great sense of humour. I think from the Labor point of view people like him and John Button were great characters of the Labor Party during that period. While being effective politicians, they were also great human beings and great fun to be around.

He lived a full life and was very dedicated to his family. I am very pleased that Senator Don Farrell is going to speak, because Don knew him far better than I did and I am sure he will bring a more personal reflection. But, on behalf of the Senate, I extend our condolences to his wife, Sandy, his daughters and his extended family.