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Monday, 10 September 2018
Page: 8378

Mr SHORTEN (MaribyrnongLeader of the Opposition) (14:07): What Senator John McCain endured as a prisoner of war cannot be imagined: a dark hell hole; hanging by broken arms and a shattered shoulder; months in solitary confinement, with pain and fear his only companion. Time and time again, he was offered an early release—an escape from the hell of it all—if he would only denounce his country and betray its cause. Yet, there in the depths of human misery, as far as away from home as any person could be, John McCain discovered his deep love for the United States. Denied the value of freedom that had been his birth right, he learned the true meaning and value of liberty. On his body he wore the scars of confinement his whole life, but in his heart he carried that lesson: his love of country. By any measure, John McCain was a hero. He never claimed to be a saint; he never pretended to perfection. His volcanic temper was a DC legend. By all accounts, his vocabulary could peel the very paint off the walls. He once described his time at the Naval Academy at Annapolis as a four-year course of insubordination. Even in the US Senate, he never really took to party discipline. He cultivated his reputation as a straight-talking maverick. He revelled in it. He put it to work: calling out pork-barrelling dressed up as defence spending, joining the crusade for real campaign finance reform, staring down the isolationists and always urging America to uphold its responsibilities as the world's only superpower.

There was so much more than contrariness, more than a fondness for a good fight or the satisfaction derived from going against the grain. In the fond and very generous eulogy of his old friend and fierce foe, Vice-President Joe Biden called it the 'McCain code'—while you could disagree with your opponent's judgement, you never attacked their motives; you approached every argument from an understanding that, no matter how deep the policy differences were between you, no matter how fundamental the philosophical divide, both were there for the same reason: to serve the country. This was no badge of convenience for him; it was an article of faith.

In the wake of his death, many recall that famous moment in the 2008 presidential campaign. It was a packed Town Hall in Lakeville, Minnesota, where the racist conspiracy theory concerning Barack Obama was first given voice. As part of his question and answer session, McCain walked the microphone over to a lady in the crowd. She started saying that she'd read about Obama and that he was an Arab who couldn't be trusted. McCain was trailing in the presidential race and there was a partisan crowd baying for blood. The moment hung in the balance. but John McCain didn't shirk the issue. He didn't seek to surf over it or, as others later would, pander to the baseless prejudice in search of political gain. Instead, he firmly took back the microphone and he said:

No ma'am, he's a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that's what this campaign is all about.

Imagine: in the brightest, hottest political spotlight of them all, the 'McCain code' held strong.

We all remember John McCain as a devoted friend of Australia. I had the privilege of meeting him when he was here last year. He addressed our Labor caucus and he spoke of how his admiration and affection for our nation stretched back to his father's time here as a submarine commander in the Second World War. All through public life he was one of the greatest supporters of the alliance between our nations, not because of sentiment, although fondness for us ran deep with him, and not because of strategy, although he was alive to the geopolitical challenges of our region as much as anyone; he believed in our alliance because he believed we share a moral responsibility to advance the cause of freedom right around the world.

At his best, the late John McCain typified the very best of American politics and idealism, opposing tyranny, defending liberty, extending justice to all. As Australians we honour his life and as parliamentarians we reflect on his example. Our condolences to his family. May he rest in peace.