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Wednesday, 31 October 2012
Page: 12907

Mr GEORGANAS (HindmarshSecond Deputy Speaker) (10:12): It is with great sadness that I rise to speak about Gordon Bilney in this condolence motion—sadness that he has passed away and we will never again be able to enjoy those colourful conversations with him; those discussions about politics or about the latest book he has read or about a good drop of red wine and the region it came from. It is also a time to reflect on his life and the many contributions he made to public life and to his friends—some of which my colleague the member for Wakefield has mentioned.

As we heard, Gordon was married to Sandy Colhoun and he had two daughters, Caroline and Sarah, and a son, Nicholas. They will no doubt miss him far more than most, being his closest family. As we heard yesterday from the Prime Minister and others, Gordon was born in Renmark and he was the son of schoolteachers, so he had education running through his veins. I suppose that is where he got his politics from as well—that sense of fairness and opportunity for all from his schoolteacher parents. He was educated at Norwood High School and Prince Alfred College, and then entered Adelaide University to do dentistry, following which he became a practising dentist. He started his career as a dentist but then went back to school. He had a keen interest in foreign affairs. Right up to the last years of his life he was keen on discussing foreign affairs and knowing what was happening in the world and various regions. He went back to university to study this area and then went into the department that he wanted to work in, the Department of Foreign Affairs.

As the member for Wakefield said, Gordon was a very colourful character. We had many characters in the Labor Party. He came from that era of the Mick Youngs and the Chris Schachts and the Bill Haydens, and the Bob Hawke era. He was one of many of those colourful characters that came from a particular part of the ALP—the Centre-Left, which was very prominent both in state parliament in South Australia and state politics in the Labor Party, and up here in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Gordon became an adviser to Gough Whitlam. Gough hand-picked him to be an adviser on foreign affairs because of his key knowledge and expertise in this area. He later served as Deputy Permanent Representative of Australia to the OECD from 1975 to 1978 and as the Australian High Commissioner to the West Indies from 1980 to 1982. While he was serving in Kingston, Jamaica, as a diplomat in 1981, he was asked to stand for the federal seat of Kingston. After some thought, he did decide to become the Labor Party candidate for that seat. In 1983 he defeated the incumbent Liberal MP, Grant Chapman, who went on to become a senator. Gordon was re-elected to the same seat in 1984, 1987, 1990 and 1993. He was defeated by a very thin margin in the 1996 landslide. It had nothing to do with his performance as a member of parliament; it was just the big swing away from the then Labor government to the Liberals.

There is a very interesting story which made the front page of our local paper in South Australia, the Advertiser, at that time. Gordon was invited to go to the opening of a community centre or something by a particular community group in his electorate. Gordon had worked tirelessly over many years to secure funding for the group and they eventually managed to build this community centre or whatever it was—only for Gordon to find the head of this particular group writing an endorsement for his opponent in the 1996 election. The invitation to the opening had come in before that election, although the event was not until after the election. Despite having lost the seat, Gordon still turned up and they thanked him. He got on the podium and said thank you to everyone, but then—and we heard this yesterday—he said that one of the great things about no longer being an MP was:

… I need no longer be polite to the nincompoops, bigots, curmudgeons and twerps who infest local government bodies and committees such as yours.

And he pointed out the head of the group. That was the character of the man. That was what we saw in Gordon.

In 1998 I ran for the seat of Hindmarsh for the very first time. It was supposed to be an unwinnable seat for Labor, requiring an 8.1 per cent swing. I ended up being in front by about 600 votes on polling night, although the count went on for a few days afterwards. On one of those few days, I went out to dinner with my former boss, Senator Bolkus, and we bumped into Gordon in one of the restaurants at the top end of Rundle Street. He was so excited that we had nearly won Hindmarsh and were still in with a chance. He came up to me and told me what a great job I had done as a candidate, gave me some advice and spoke about a whole range of other things. I told him that we had a particular person—mentioned earlier—who had worked on his campaign working on my team. He said, 'That makes a lot of sense; that is why you did so well.'

He was always keen to talk about politics. He was always keen to know what was going on here in the House. I saw him from time to time. Occasionally I attended lunch with a group of prominent ex-politicians, known as the Hagar group, at the T Chow restaurant in Adelaide. Gordon was a regular at the Hagar lunches. He was always keen to hear about what was happening and what was going on and he was right up to date with everything. Last time I attended, they had asked me to be there as a guest speaker to talk a bit about what was taking place up here. Gordon was right up to date with all the policies, all the legislation and, in fact, the in-house machinations of our political party.

Gordon was a prolific reader. He loved reading. The books he referred me to were always great reads. I always knew that, if Gordon referred me to a book, it was a ripper of a read. I will never forget one book he referred me to. I saw him at the ALP Christmas show a few years back and he said to me, 'I have to talk to you.' I went up to him and he said, 'I have this great book that I have just finished reading; you must read it.' I put it in the back of my head and forgot about it. A few weeks later, I saw him again and he asked, 'Have you read the book?' I apologised and said, 'No, I haven't.'

At that point I wrote it down. It was a book by Jeffrey Eugenides called Middlesex. He was right. He gave me a book which he knew I would absolutely love. This book is about the history of the Greeks, a novel about a family which left Asia Minor at the turn of the last century for the United States after they had been ousted from Asia Minor. This goes to show the type of person Gordon was. He connected me and my background to this book. You can just imagine him reading this book thinking, 'This is a great book for Georganas; he'll love it.' It was a great book and I had great pleasure in talking with him many times about this wonderful book, which won the Booker prize back then.

We are all going to sorely miss Gordon, especially at the Hagar lunches, at which I would be present once or twice a year, together with many other people from South Australian such as Colin McKey; Chris Schacht; Ralph Clark; John Hill; Rosemary Crowley, who was a regular attender; Terry Groom; and my good friend Kevin Vaughn, whose electorate office was right next door. He speaks about signs appearing in the 1993 campaign. They were unauthorised signs about the GST, and he tells me they had no idea who was putting them up, but we have suspicions about where they came from. He told me that story this morning.

Gordon was a wonderful, colourful character, a friend of many in South Australia, a friend of many Labor Party members and a friend of many South Australians, especially in the southern suburbs, whom he represented with pride for many years. He was a great member of parliament, as we have heard, and not just on the ministerial side. To win so many times in a wafer-thin marginal seat shows the calibre of the man and how he connected with the people in the south. Our condolences go to Sandy, to his two daughters and son, and to his family. Gordon will be sorely missed by everyone in South Australia who had anything to do with him and his colourful discussions, debates and intellect.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. BC Scott ): I understand it is the wish of honourable members to signify their respect and sympathy by rising in their places.

Question agreed to, honourable members standing in their places.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: I thank honourable members.