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Wednesday, 9 May 2007
Page: 83


Senator WATSON (3:39 PM) —by leave—I offer my condolence on the passing of Mr Alan Cumming Thom. I rise today to give my personal thanks for the enormous contribution made to the Senate by the recently deceased Alan Cumming Thom. I commence by saying that Mr Cumming Thom was a personal friend of mine and a man with whom I had maintained some contact since he retired as Clerk of the Senate back in 1988 until his death recently.

He contributed greatly to my ability to do my work in this place over many years, and his knowledge and dedication cannot be questioned. I got to know him quite personally as a result of an overseas delegation to Europe, where we developed a strong friendship. I was very impressed by his professionalism. Each morning he made sure that each member of the delegation was fully briefed on their responsibilities for the coming day. That is an important thing for people travelling with delegations.

Alan Cumming Thom arrived in Australia as a boy with his family, who had migrated from Scotland. He graduated in arts and law from Sydney university and was employed by the Attorney-General’s Department from 1951 to 1955, when he was appointed as Clerk of Records in the Senate. His career after that appointment followed a progression which was well deserved by someone who took his work very seriously. Alan Cumming Thom once described himself as an ‘institutional man’ as his career was dedicated to the smooth running of his institution—our Senate.

From 1970 to 1979 he was Clerk Assistant and had administrative responsibility for the Senate committee system at a time of rapid growth in the system we now know. The successful establishment of the committee system was largely due to his profound advice and assistance. In this task he was helped by his long experience as a secretary to committees, including major select committees such as those on medical and hospital costs.

In 1972 he was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to allow him to travel overseas, where he strengthened his knowledge of committee systems and helped improve his reputation as a leading authority on parliamentary committee operations. In 1982 he was appointed Clerk of the Senate, a position he retained until his retirement at the age of 60 just before the opening of the new Parliament House in 1988.

I mentioned that Alan Cumming Thom was of immense help to my work during my first decade as a senator. His characteristics of a deep knowledge of the traditions and working of the Senate combined with his calm approach to problems made him the first person a young senator would approach for advice. Mr Alan Cumming Thom also took on the mammoth task of updating and republishing the bible of our chamber, Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice.

In his later years of working here there could have been no more suitable person to take charge of keeping us up to date on the procedural matters of the Senate than Alan Cumming Thom. I note that praise was widespread on the occasion of his retirement in 1988. The Hansard of that time records speeches of thanks from Senators Button, Haines, Stone, Harradine, Brownhill and Michael Baume.

Those of my colleagues who were here in early 1988 would well remember the challenges we faced in the move to this new Parliament House and the regret we faced knowing that Alan Cumming Thom would no longer be at our beck and call to answer our questions about how to conduct proceedings in the new chamber and the new building. That we survived that move so well was due in no small part to the institution Alan Cumming Thom and his colleagues put in place during his many years of sterling service to the Senate.

To simply say that Alan Cumming Thom was a ‘true gentleman’, which he was, or was a ‘dedicated servant to the Senate’, which he also was, would be to miss the point that he was essentially a very special man whose strength of will and depth of knowledge ensured his success in his important role. I join honourable senators in passing on my personal thanks for the life of a fine man and a good friend. To his family, I add my sincere condolences at the passing of Mr Alan Cumming Thom. The Senate will not forget him.