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Wednesday, 11 February 2015
Page: 539


Senator MASON (Queensland) (19:20): I want to pay tribute tonight to a distinguished senator and fine man who recently resigned from this place. He is a person I respect. Senator John Faulkner was a Labor warrior. He was a tough partisan, a skilled tactician, a fearless advocate and a relentless adversary. He was not to be trifled with, ever.

All senators serving in this chamber know of John's political achievements. He entered the Australian Senate in April 1989 and went on to serve in cabinet under three Prime Ministers, and as Leader of the Opposition in the Senate from 1996 through to 2004. He made his canonisation absolutely certain by serving as National President of the Australian Labor Party from 2007 to 2008—not a job which would be easy.

John was a master at Senate estimates. My first job in the Senate was as Chairman of the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee. It was an absolute nightmare. Senator Faulkner and Senator Robert Ray were brilliant interrogators of hapless public servants, and I was but a very trivial obstacle—nearly road kill, perhaps—in their pursuit of government waste and coalition embarrassment. I remember a session late one night when the whole committee devolved into a shambles. I think it was Senator Fifield who said, 'Brett, this committee of yours is a shambles; it's becoming more like a chat show than an estimates committee.' They were difficult times, and I still have not recovered from Senator Faulkner's obsession with the wine cellar at Kirribilli House, which he described as fuelling what he referred to as 'party central'—this from John Faulkner, the avowed teetotaller, of course.

John Faulkner relentlessly pursued transparency and accountability in government. These were always important issues for him but they were goals which he pursued with even greater vigour and zealotry after his retirement from the ministry. He always defended the Senate and politics and politicians; and, so often, I would hear John saying, 'I don't care whether you're a Labor, Liberal or Callithumpian. Everyone deserves respect who steps into the Australian parliament, because life isn't easy.' He said to me once, 'You know, Brett, there's not a lot of money and there's even a lot less love.' He respected politicians of all shades. He was a senior, successful and much-lauded politician. Yet, while I respect him for these achievements, as we all do, that is not why I like him.

I will never forget our first conversation. It was early in the year 2000. I was very new, and he caught me in a corridor just outside and was staring at me. I wanted to run away, thinking that this wicked old Leftie would catch me and nationalise me! His first words were: 'You seem to be enjoying yourself around here. I'm not sure I like that!' I froze. I could not say anything and I scampered.

As mentioned, I then had a lot to do with John in Senate estimates committees and, of course, the Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident, much more famously known as the 'children overboard' inquiry—very heady days. He would bark at me all day but, out of the public eye, he was always good fun, he was generous and he was witty. I remember going down to his office to ask him to sign for me a book that he had edited called True Believers: the Story of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. Let me read what he wrote:

For Brett. A non-True Believer in the Labor cause. John Faulkner. 30 August 2001.

But I liked John most of all because at a difficult time in politics he helped me. I remember, at a memorial service for the victims of the Bali bombings, he sat next to me and said, 'I hear you're having a tough time.' From memory, I agreed with that proposition. He said: 'Just remember, in this game you need some scar tissue—otherwise, the first punch will knock you out. It's painful, comrade, but it will do you good in the long run, trust me.' Of course he was right and, over the next 12 to 18 months, while resolving various political issues, John's advice would often resonate and echo in my mind. He would stop me now and then and ask how I was going. He provided the great solace—the great solace—of perspective. He was also a model of discretion. I knew he would never betray a confidence. You could make an arrangement with him and he would never break the deal. He was not tricky or devious and, just like you want government to be, he was always open and transparent.

John Faulkner was also great company. He was very well read but never showed off. He was nearly always the smartest person in the room but he had the great confidence not to need to prove that to everyone in the room. He knew more about Labor history, and indeed the broader political history of Australia, than nearly anyone in parliament.

While many people will remember John's political speeches, perhaps it is no coincidence that the ones I remember best are the ones about our shared passion, cricket. His speeches on the deaths of Sir Donald Bradman, Gary 'Gus' Gilmour and recently, of course, Phil Hughes were eloquent tributes not only to the great game of cricket but to these remarkable men who excelled at it. There were also some more curious contributions, such as John's obsession with the Glebe post office, which he went on and on about. But who will ever forget his moving motion of condolence on the death of Gough Whitlam?

This will sound like a strange thing to say but, despite his significance as a Labor leader and parliamentary performer, I always felt in the back of my mind that John was a bit shy—that he would be more comfortable curled up with a biography of one of his great heroes, John Curtin or Ben Chifley or Gough Whitlam, than debating budget bills in the Australian Senate. Perhaps when you appreciate that, before he worked in politics, John was a specialist teacher of children with severe disabilities, it makes sense that he never lusted after the limelight.

When I first had the privilege of serving in this place, I thought of John Faulkner as a class warrior. I was wrong: he was a warrior with class. The Senate is a poorer place for his leaving, and I miss him.