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Wednesday, 3 April 2019
Page: 14751

Mr ABBOTT (Warringah) (16:00): I rise to honour the life of former senator John Herron, who yesterday in the House of Representatives chamber was generously eulogised, in particular by the Prime Minister. I want to make three points about the late great John Herron. First, he was a fine family man and he often said that his 10 children were by far his greatest achievement. Given all the other things that he did in his life, that was a great tribute to his wife, Jan, and to his children. He was a well-respected—even loved—minister for Indigenous affairs. Given the complexities of that particular portfolio, this was no mean achievement and a great credit to his character. Most notably as minister, he used the Australian Army to lead a sustained upgrading of the then appalling conditions of Indigenous housing in the Northern Territory and elsewhere. He was a wonderful friend of the most admirable character.

I knew John Herron for the best part of a quarter century. I didn't know him as well as I knew other colleagues but certainly he never did anything low or mean. He was always as helpful as he could be to all of his colleagues, and, indeed, to all he came across. Perhaps this was an echo, if you like, of the Hippocratic oath which he took to heart as a doctor. As we all know, it begins, 'First, do no harm'. So many of us, even with the best of intentions, have done much harm. John Herron was one of those figures in this parliament who said what he meant and did what he said. He was always ambitious for the higher things, not simply higher office. We need more people like that in our public life.

I recall, at the very beginning of my own parliamentary life, John took me aside and said, 'Tony, be conscious of this: it's what you don't do, not what you do, that will be your greatest regret in this place.' I very much took that to heart. I've never forgotten it and I've always thought that, if I was in doubt, I should have a go; I should give it a go. I know that has sometimes been to the dismay of my colleagues, but, having spent 25 years in the parliament acting in accordance with John Herron's advice, I don't intend to change.

Also today, in the House of Representatives chamber, we remembered briefly another former member, Peter Coleman, a one-time member for Wentworth. There was no eulogy for Peter Coleman because he was never a federal minister, yet he was a more substantial figure than many who were ministers. With your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker Wicks, I will detain this chamber to honour his life and work.

Peter Coleman was a very, very big figure in our intellectual life as well as in our political life. He edited the famous Bulletin magazine for three years, where he was a colleague of Donald Horne. For over 20 years, in several stints, he edited Quadrant, then and probably still our foremost magazine of conservative ideas. He enjoyed a golden afternoon as a journalist and a columnist for The Spectator magazine. But he was a serious writer too, with academic biographies of James Macaulay and Barry Humphries to his credit and many other works. And he edited his son-in-law Peter Costello's memoirs, which were one of the best-received political memoirs of recent times.

Peter Coleman grew up in the shadow of war and he began his adult life as a man of the Left. But he was on a journey, as so many are. He wasn't just a Liberal in the sense that he belonged to the Liberal Party and represented the party in the parliament; he was a deeply philosophical Liberal, a deeply thoughtful Liberal. I would describe him as a Bourkean Liberal because, while he cherished freedom, he well understood that freedom can only exist in a context of order and respect for tradition. He was an intellectual of the first rank but he was one for whom the life of the mind was always tempered by courtesy, decency and respect.

From 1968 to 1978 he represented Fuller in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly. He became Chief Secretary in the Willis government before briefly becoming Leader of the Opposition and losing his seat in the 1978 Wranslide. He was for some years the Administrator of Norfolk Island, and then from 1981 to 1987 he represented Wentworth in the federal parliament, following in the illustrious footsteps of Judge Bob Ellicott and succeeded by my former boss John Hewson before returning to journalism and academic pursuits.

But I was lucky enough to know Peter Coleman as a friend as well as a public figure, and as a mentor as well as a member of parliament. I first met him visiting the family home as a friend of his daughter, Tanya, now Tanya Costello. And, though there was a 30-year difference in our ages, Peter was never condescending. He never looked down on people because they were younger or because they'd read fewer books. Indeed, he did his best to inspire them to be their best selves. And, many years later in the late nineties, along with John Wheeldon and Piers Akerman, he acted as a kind of probity auditor in a campaign I was then waging against the One Nation party, which in those days was even cruder and coarser than the current version. I have to say that I greatly valued his wisdom and his common sense in those days and subsequently.

Peter's life was marked by cultural self-confidence, personal integrity and human decency. We miss people like that. We often think that people like that are much rarer today than they once were. Maybe those times were easier than these but it's hard to avoid the conclusion, in contemplating the life of people like Peter Coleman and John Herron, that characters were stronger in those days and convictions deeper. Still, though Peter is gone, we have his life and his memory to console us and to uplift us, and his example to inspire us and to challenge us to be at least as good in our times as he and his colleagues were in theirs.