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Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Page: 1471

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) (12:36 PM) —Before I commence I would like to acknowledge the return of Senator Jacinta Collins. It is very good to see her back, and I congratulate her on her election to the Senate. Jacinta Collins was a senator for 10 years up until 2005, then took an extended long service leave break and has now returned. Jacinta was a frontbencher for the Labor Party in opposition and made a huge contribution to the Labor cause during her term. We look forward to her renewing that contribution. It is good to have her back, although I presume her boys are now too old to ride their tricycles around the corridors.

Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting—

Senator CHRIS EVANS —I will have to explore that later. I want to make a few remarks about Senator Ray, who announced his retirement from the Senate a week or so ago. I do so knowing that he will hate it and that whatever I say will be held against me by him; nevertheless, I thought it was important that the Senate mark the retirement of Senator Ray after a 27-year career in federal politics. I think that, after Senator Watson, he was the longest serving senator. Senator Watson still holds the title of ‘father of the Senate’ but Senator Ray served a very long time in this Senate. Robert Ray left slightly early and that is why Senator Collins was sworn in today. As always, Senator Ray left at a time of his own choosing, in control of the procedures and of his replacement’s selection. He had it all planned and organised. We are grateful that he ensured as always that the best interests of the Labor Party were served by ensuring that there was no loss of representation, even for a day, with the swearing in of Senator Collins.

Senator Ray indicated in retiring that the timing was driven by the fact that he wanted to be in government for one day more than he had served in opposition. I am assured that it bore no relationship to the Australian cricket side’s tour of the West Indies and that that was just a happy coincidence. But he was very pleased to have served one day more in government than in opposition.

I have to be very clear: this is not a condolence motion. Senator Ray is very much alive and kicking and, as I said, he will take this acknowledgement of his contribution very badly. It is fair to say, though, that Robert Ray was one of the most significant parliamentarians of his era—certainly one of the most significant senators—and I think he would be regarded inside the Labor Party as one of the most—if not the most—influential and important party figures of his era. Robert made a huge contribution not only as a minister and as a parliamentarian but also as a senior figure of the organisation of the Australian Labor Party. Robert was a minister in the Hawke and Keating Labor governments. He was Minister for Home Affairs and the Minister Assisting the Minister for Transport and Communications. From 1988 to 1990 he was Minister for Immigration, Local Government and Ethnic Affairs. He was very much a reforming immigration minister who sought to achieve a rules-based administration to provide certainty in decision making and to remove, as someone quoted, ‘the sleaze from immigration’. Robert was very principled about the way he approached his role and wanted to be assured that the administration of the immigration portfolio was principled, accountable, coherent and transparent. His approach is one that I very much intend to follow in my role now as Minister for Immigration and Citizenship because I think we have moved too far from the sorts of principles that he established when minister.

Senator Robert Ray was also well known for his role as defence minister from 1990 to 1996, where he was a very effective minister and is well remembered for extending and developing Australia’s role in regional cooperation, for working more closely with countries in our region to secure our defence needs and for building relationships that allowed us to ensure the security of Australia through better cooperation with our neighbouring countries.

Senator Robert Ray was also very committed to the parliament and to the Senate. He took the role of a parliamentarian very seriously. He was probably one of the best debaters in this parliament over a number of years. I know that a lot of opposition members would have suffered at his hands and would have realised how effective he was. He also made a huge contribution to the committee roles of the parliament. He chaired the Privileges Committee and other committees.

The thing that I most want to acknowledge with respect to Robert’s view about the parliament was his commitment to ensuring that the Labor Party took the same view to procedures and the role of the Senate whether in opposition or government. His demand that we maintain our consistency in our attitude to our role and the role of the Senate was a defining feature of his contribution—that one should not take advantage of where the numbers were on any particular day, but one should have a consistent approach to the role of the Senate and the accountability functions that it serves. It might be a lesson that the current Liberal opposition learned at the last election—that taking advantage of one’s numbers in the Senate can bring about unintended consequences, as they found out with the industrial relations legislation and the community’s reaction to that. But in terms of the probity issues, the accountability functions, Robert Ray was very much committed to ensuring a consistent view—a view that allowed the parliament to do its job. In opposition he became famous for his role of holding the then Howard government to account at Senate estimates hearings. He put enormous effort into that and he and Senator Faulkner became famous, or notorious, as a tag team in those endeavours. He played a really important role in ensuring the Howard government was held to account during its long period in office.

What is not widely understood is the role that Robert Ray played in opposition inside the Labor Party. Robert stood down from the frontbench when we lost, and people would often suggest that maybe he ought to have retired because he was no longer serving on the frontbench. But Robert was actually a key contributor to the Labor Party’s performance in opposition. He was central to maintaining our effectiveness and keeping us competitive at the elections through the Howard government era, and he made an enormous contribution to the role of the party and its role in the Senate. He served on the tactics committee of the Labor opposition for a number of years, continued his role in estimates and continued his role inside the party. He played a huge role in mentoring new Labor senators, providing advice and supporting the leadership of the parliamentary Labor Party. I know that Senator Faulkner relied on his advice and support a great deal when he was leader, as I have subsequently.

I will not try to cover all of Robert’s career or all the issues. A lot has been said in the press about his hard-man image, and I want to make it clear that that is not undeserved in terms of his activity inside the Labor Party. Robert took a keen interest in internal party matters and he did play the game hard, but he always played it in an honourable and principled way. If Robert Ray said he was coming after you, he was, and he would get you. You could rely on all aspects of that commitment. He is an unusual character in that he is probably feared on both sides of politics, but the other side of him is not broadly understood. He brought a very keen intellect to politics, a very principled approach to issues, and I found him very honourable and straightforward to deal with.

Senator Patterson interjecting—

Senator CHRIS EVANS —As Senator Patterson interjected, there is a softer side to Senator Ray. For instance, when one of our senators was hospitalised in Melbourne—not her home state—he made considerable efforts to support her while she was in hospital. He visited regularly and provided real support to her during her illness while she was away from home. So there is another side to Senator Ray. He will hate me mentioning this, but I think people do have to understand that he is a much more rounded character than is presented in the press.

One cannot do justice to a career in the short time allowed other than to record the appreciation of the Labor Party, the Rudd Labor government and all senators for the contribution that Robert Ray made to the Senate and to politics in this country. This is not a condolence motion; he is very much alive and kicking and I am sure he will continue to contribute by providing advice and support to the Labor Party and the Labor leadership.

I would also like to mention the role that Koula Alexiadis has played in supporting Robert in his office. She is actually staying on with the Labor government, which is great to know. Obviously she has been well known as a key support for Robert during his career, as has his family. I want to place on record my personal appreciation for the contribution Senator Ray has made to the parliament and to the Labor Party. No doubt we will get an opportunity in coming months in a less formal setting to properly acknowledge his role in Australian politics over the last 30 years.