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Tuesday, 30 October 2012
Page: 8424

Senator FARRELL (South AustraliaParliamentary Secretary for Sustainability and Urban Water) (15:54): I am very happy to speak in addition to Senator Evans and Senator Abetz about a man whom I would consider a friend. People have commented on his ruddiness. In fact, there is a photograph in the Australian today where you can see that ruddiness. I think it was Senator Abetz who referred to two of his favourite occupations after leaving parliament—drinking red wine and fishing. It is not quite clear from the photograph whether it was the red wine or the fishing which caused that ruddiness. Perhaps it was a combination of both. Of course, the red wine he would have been supplying to all members of the parliament would have come from that great wine area of McLaren Vale, from where some of the best reds come, particularly shiraz.

He was a fine South Australian, who sadly passed away last Sunday at the age of 73. I was disappointed to hear that. I did not even know he was sick. I would have seen him at some point during the course of this year, so it was sad to hear of his passing. He was born in Renmark on the Murray River and, like me, came from the Murray community. He was an ordinary bloke who rose to be a foreign diplomat. Of course we are aware these days of politicians who have a background in foreign affairs. He might have been considered to be an earlier version of one of those. He became a foreign diplomat, was an adviser to Gough Whitlam and a minister in the Hawke and Keating governments. He was renowned for his outspoken humour and a deep belief in ordinary people getting a decent go in life. As others have said, he was a dentist who changed careers to serve with the Australian Diplomatic Service from 1966 until 1982. He was deputy representative to the OECD and then High Commissioner to the West Indies.

In that great wave of the Hawke era of 1983, Gordon was chosen by the Labor Party in a highly contested pre-selection contest. It is not just currently that we have deeply contested pre-selection contests; they even had them back in 1983. Gordon ran in the seat now occupied by that fantastic local member Amanda Rishworth and before her David Cox, both of whom very much relied on Gordon's always sage advice about how to win that seat, which often changes with government.

I cannot quite recall the candidate who ran against him in that pre-selection but I think it was John Lewin from the Australian Workers Union—I could be wrong about that. It was a bitterly contested pre-selection and how I came to first hear of Gordon Bilney was that Gough Whitlam, who by this time was out of parliament but still a great hero of the party, rang a fellow called Murray Glastonbury. Murray was an old stager from the Electrical Trades Union, a very wise and crafty fellow. Gough rang him seeking support for Gordon Bilney. I will not pretend to copy his voice; I will leave that to somebody like John Faulkner, but it was Gough on the phone. Murray was impressed by the fact that the former Prime Minister was ringing him, saying he was supporting this fellow Gordon Bilney. Murray said, 'I've never heard of this Gordon Bilney character. Where does he live?' Gough said, 'He lives in Kingston.' Murray said, 'I can't recall anybody by the name of Gordon Bilney who's connected with the Labor Party in the seat of Kingston.' Gough said, 'I'm not talking about Kingston in South Australia; I am talking about Kingston in Jamaica,' which of course was where Bilney was: he was a diplomat in Kingston, Jamaica, seeking preselection for this seat in South Australia. Most people considered that a pretty outrageous thing to do. Even now it could be considered an outrageous thing to do! But Gough held sway. He rang enough people, and Gordon won that preselection. He then continued to hold it, election after election, for the whole period of the Hawke-Keating government. That includes the difficult preselection where he beat the high-profile leader of the Australian Democrats, Janine Haines, in what was pretty much hand-to-hand combat through the streets of the seat of Kingston.

One of his great friends from South Australia was Chris Schacht, a fellow member of the Keating government. He records, in the Australian newspaper article I referred to earlier:

… he had a wonderful sense of humour; a dry sense of humour …

I think anybody who met him would know that. He would sometimes surprise you with a comment and you would think he was serious, but then you would suddenly realise he was just making fun of you.

Gordon was best known nationally for his roles as federal government Minister for Defence Science and Personnel from 1990 until 1993, and then as Minister for Development Co-operation and Pacific Island Affairs from 1993 to 1996. He was a prominent member of the political stage, but he never lost sight of the welfare of ordinary Australians. After he retired from politics, he continued to live in the seat of Kingston and continued to try and help people who he thought deserved his support. He did a range of other things in the course of his 13 years in parliament.

Having entered the parliament in 1983, he was successful in the 1984, 1987, 1990 and 1993 elections, and as I mentioned before he held off a challenge from Janine Haines. He was a man of good humour, and the former Premier of South Australia, John Bannon, has described him as a man of very high intelligence with no self-importance. Anybody who met Gordon in a pub, in an airport or at a fundraiser for Amanda Rishworth or David Cox would know that was absolutely true. He was always a straight talker.

There is a story that one of his former employees, John Bistrovic, tells about him. It was in the lead-up to the 1996 election. He arranged to set up a stall at the Noarlunga Australia Day festival; he paid his fees and made all of the necessary arrangements. On the day of the festival, just before Prime Minister Keating called the 2 March election, Gordon's stall was covered with corflutes, standard election flyers, when someone from the festival committee asked him to remove the corflutes and the other paraphernalia, claiming that they were too political. He thought this was a rather bizarre situation, considering they allowed him to set up a stall knowing of course that he was a politician. Not wanting to cause an incident, he was happy to comply with their request but unfortunately lost the election. The letter that Senator Evans referred to was in response to that particular event, so I will not go through the words again; but that is how the letter came about, as a result of that.

It is very sad to see Gordon go. He was a fine fellow and always enjoyable company. He had that great sense of humour and he always had something very sensible to impart, particularly to young politicians at the time, like me. I express my condolences to Sandy Calhoun, his wife—a hell of a nice lady—and to his children, Caroline, Sarah and Nicholas. We shall not forget his contribution to the Australian parliament.

The PRESIDENT: I ask honourable senators to stand in silence to signify their assent to the motion.

Question agreed to, honourable senators standing in their places.