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Wednesday, 12 February 2014
Page: 300

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (11:13): It was my great honour to be asked by the Gietzelt family last Thursday to speak at the state memorial service for the late the Honourable Arthur Thomas Gietzelt AO. It was a remarkable send-off, chaired by Arthur's great friend former Senator Bruce Childs. I was also honoured to be in the presence of those who spoke about Arthur's contribution to this nation: the former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who described Arthur as the best Minister for Veterans' Affairs that Australia has had; Senator John Faulkner; Rear Admiral Ken Doolan, the National President of the RSL; Dennis McHugh, the President of Sutherland District Trade Union Club; Mark Buttigieg, a former Sutherland Shire councillor; members of Arthur's own family; along with John Schumann and others from Redgum, who gave Arthur's memorial service a lighter touch but also a very important one indeed.

When it comes to politics, history tells no lies. At the end of a long career, once you strip away the rhetoric, the greatest legacy of a parliamentarian lies in what he or she achieved for average Australians and whether the world is left a better place for their political contribution. The world is indeed a better place for Arthur Gietzelt's contribution. Arthur Gietzelt achieved a great deal for his community and for the Labor Party in the cause of progressive politics and this nation. His story is one of passionate and principled conviction; of standing up for what he believed was right and refusing to back down when the going got tough. While his work improved life for his contemporaries, much of his activism was way ahead of his time.

Arthur was a trailblazer who had the courage to pursue positions that, in his own era, were not always fashionable, but Arthur was usually on the right side of history. I was reminded of this just a fortnight ago when I went to see the new film about the life of Nelson Mandela—perhaps the greatest political figure of my lifetime. If you asked the young people who were there that night, I am sure many of them would think that support for the cause of the African National Congress was a consensus position in the 1970s—that it was a given. The fact is it was not. Many political figures were indifferent or even hostile to sanctions against the apartheid regime and indeed were strident critics of Nelson Mandela and his comrades. They were opposed to sanctions. They argued that this would have an impact on commerce or international sporting fixtures, which were seen by some as being more important than the dignity of the human race. Not Arthur. As mayor of the Sutherland Shire, he led his colleagues to ban the involvement of racially selected competitors in surf lifesaving contests on the shire's beautiful beaches. This was years before sporting sanctions became widespread. Faced with the battle for racial justice and human rights, Arthur did not flinch, even after the bombing of his family home, where 17 sticks of gelignite were placed just metres from where Arthur and his wife slept on that evening. This was one of the few terrorist acts that have taken place on Australian soil. But Arthur Gietzelt had the courage to stand up and not flinch, as did all of his family. His wonderful wife and closest adviser, Dawn, and his children, Lee, Dale and Adam, always stood up to be counted.

Arthur brought the same passion to issues like gender equality, gay rights and protection of the environment. During these summer holidays, thousands of visitors flocked to Queensland's Fraser Island, a fishing and holiday nirvana that is a critical part of that state's tourism industry. Most would have been aware of Arthur's link to this wonderful environmental asset. In 1975, the federal Labor cabinet agreed to allow sandmining on the island. Arthur did not cop that. He was backed by the trade union movement including the ACTU's then leader, Bob Hawke, and Arthur led a backbench revolt. This was successful. Mining was banned, a lasting legacy as a result of political activism—in this case being prepared to stand up to those within his own political party who, I think everyone in the parliament now would agree, got it wrong.

Arthur Gietzelt would certainly agree with Mahatma Gandhi, who once said:

A 'No' uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a 'Yes' merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.

Arthur saw a bit of trouble in his three decades at the helm of the left faction of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Labor Party. If you spend a career in the New South Wales left of the ALP, I have noticed, from time to time you find yourself in the minority, even if at a later time people forget what their position was in the past, given that history has proven it wrong. Arthur was always prepared to stand up for the democratic values of the Australian Labor Party and the participation of members and their rights within the party. I know from speaking to Dawn last week that Arthur was very supportive of the change that we made to give rank-and-file members a vote in the leadership of the federal branch of the Australian Labor Party. He would want those rights extended.

Arthur did not worry about where his political position stood in terms of whether it was a majority opinion or a minority opinion. He argued his case, he put it forward and he was always optimistic at the prospect of change. He was a great advocate of the art of persuasion. His objective was nothing less than the advancement of the human condition. He embraced economic prosperity but could not abide growth without fairness and sustainability.

I have often thought that you can tell a lot about the success of a parliamentarian's career by examining their maiden speech. If you compare it to their lived experience in politics, you can get a good idea about their priorities, their ticker and the depth of their conviction. Arthur's maiden speech, which came after he moved to the Senate after his time of 16 years in local government, was partly about urban development. He warned that the gross national product had become 'the new God' and said development was becoming more important than people. Arthur told the Senate:

Every country aims at greater production, greater development, greater profitability—and in so many cases human values are forgotten. We have to recognise that the world is in the midst of its second major ecological upheaval. The whole of humanity, in one way or another, is switching from an agrarian to a highly urbanised society.

…   …   …

Urbanisation is the new phenomenon.

Arthur went on to warn that governments had to craft policies that dealt with this shift, while retaining the nurturing of community and human relationships. That was right then and it is now. Arthur Gietzelt and his colleagues, such as Tom Uren and Bruce Childs, ensured that these issues remained core to the Labor agenda. Arthur would say that is the thing about the Labor Party: we think ahead. We do not just seek office to occupy power; we do something with it. We do not just talk about justice; we craft the policies that make it real. Arthur embodied this reformist spirit, always looking for progress with fairness. When Bob Hawke appointed him as Minister for Veterans' Affairs in 1983 he wasted no time taking advantage of his opportunity. The tribute last Thursday, not just from former Prime Minister Hawke but also from the president of the RSL, was a great tribute to Arthur's contribution as veterans affairs minister.

Informed by his own three-year service in Papua New Guinea, Arthur reformed entitlements and achieved formal recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders' unofficial work patrolling Australia's northern coastline in World War II. All these years later, people such as Jack Ah Kit, the former parliamentarian in the Northern Territory, contacted me before the memorial service to make sure that the gratitude of the first Australians, who had made such a contribution to the defence of our nation, not just in World War II but in each of the struggles where Australian sovereignty has been challenged, is acknowledged.

Arthur also established the Evatt royal commission into Agent Orange in Vietnam. There were messages of support at the memorial service from the Vietnam veterans. This is significant, given that Arthur was a strong opponent of Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War and very active in the moratoriums. Arthur, though, understood that it was vital that you could be an opponent of a foreign policy and defence decision of the Australian government of the time but still be supportive of our troops who were participating in that conflict, at great risk to themselves.

Arthur was, of course, a formidable political organiser, but, for him, this was just the means to achieve political objectives. As he told the National Times in 1976:

My opponents try to paint me as a sinister backroom boy, just a numbers man rather than someone with beliefs.

In fact my beliefs are what make me want to muster the numbers.

It was this perspective that drew many young activists to Arthur. He was a mentor who would take the time to sit down and go through historical analysis with Young Labor activists as they formed their own views. Labor has a strong culture of oral history as well as written history. It is how we pass our values from one generation to the next. It is how we learnt about the Vietnam moratoriums and the struggles of those who led the way.

Arthur set up his Senate office in Caringbah, rather than the CBD of Sydney, because he was dedicated to community engagement and believed that social change had to be driven from the bottom up by the community. Arthur knew that progress was unstoppable, but he told younger party members that achieving progress required community support which they could develop if they showed the courage of their own convictions. One of the lasting memories that I will have of Arthur is his position as an optimist. Throughout a period when, in my view, so much of the progressive left was often captured by both a negative analysis of the present and a romanticism about the past, without acknowledging the progress that has been made, Arthur’s ideological foundation allowed him to retain that faith in human progress. There was no ballot that was not winnable. Progressives should not simply defer to those with more conservative views. He also understood the importance of remaining engaged with those who disagreed with his views, accepting that people of good conscience could hold differing opinions. So he respected his opponents, even though he never tired of attempting to convince them of his position.

This month it is 25 years since Arthur left the Senate, to be replaced ably by Senator John Faulkner. His passing, mourned by even his most strident political opponents, is a great loss for his family, his friends, the Labor Party and the entire community—particularly those of the Sutherland shire. I would like to think, though, that Arthur would still be very proud that his activism over decades provided a great example for others on the progressive side of politics. As could only have happened to a character like Arthur—and he would have been pleased—the wake at the Sutherland District Trade Union Club after the memorial service was also the launch of his book, the first volume of his autobiography, detailing his struggles particularly in local government and in the earlier period of his political life.

Generations of Labor people have been influenced by Arthur to continue to fight what he called 'the good fight'. Today, a new generation is taking up that good fight against some of the reactionary policies and the impact they are having on the community of the current government. Sir Arthur would be very pleased that the battle for prosperity with progress continues with a new generation of Labor activists.