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Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Page: 1479

Senator FAULKNER (Special Minister of State and Cabinet Secretary) (1:11 PM) —I have been fortunate to serve in the Senate with Robert Ray for some 19 years. When I became a senator, Robert had already been in parliament for eight years, and a minister for two of them. He was an exceptionally capable minister, and whether in agreement or disagreement with him, members of cabinet and caucus respected his judgement and knew that his opinions and decisions were scrupulously determined by his understanding of the national interest.

I want to talk most particularly today about the years after Labor was no longer in government. Many former ministers find they cannot face time on the back bench after an election defeat. With 15 years in parliament behind him, his reputation ensured and his future secure, Robert Ray could easily have chosen to be one of those. But, just as his decision to join the Australian Labor Party and to become involved in politics was never motivated by the idea of personal gain, his decision after Labor was defeated in 1996 was not motivated by the pursuit of personal comfort.

Robert stayed on. He stayed on to do the hard yards. He did not want the limelight. He did not seek a position on Labor’s front bench, which would have been his for the asking—the leadership in this place would have been his for the asking. Instead, steadily and doggedly, he set about using the mechanisms of the Senate, most particularly the Senate’s committee system, to hold the government accountable, to expose waste and mismanagement and to attack rorting and, where necessary, rorters. The role suited him well. Robert has a justly deserved reputation as a factional number cruncher. But, contrary to the picture that some like to paint of factional players being willing to do whatever it takes, Robert Ray is scrupulously honest and scrupulous in his adherence to the principle of putting the party first. He has a reputation as an honest broker—a reputation also justly deserved.

Robert’s disdain for those who were purely self-interested, and his contempt for anyone who saw the public service of parliament as an opportunity for self-enrichment, found its most apposite target in the former Senator Mal Colston. Not only was Colston a rorter; he was a rat. Parliamentary invective is often measured against the standards set by Paul Keating. Robert’s memorable characterisation of Colston as ‘the quisling Quasimodo from Queensland’ raised the bar even higher. Robert’s quick wit and way with words made him a gallery favourite—such as when he referred to Bronwyn Bishop not as ‘the Minister for Aged Care’ but as ‘the Minister for Caged Hair’. But the pointed jokes had a very serious purpose. For example, when Senator Minchin attempted to justify $8,000 for a prime ministerial wine consultant by referring to Australia’s wine export industry, Robert witheringly pointed out that fish had overtaken wine as an export industry and said:

We do not have a fish consultant that I know of.

It is true to say that Robert Ray has been known throughout his career as one of Labor’s toughest figures. He is tough, but I can say that I saw him hurt. Every day the coalition was in government hurt him. While it galled him to see the coalition in government, it incensed him to see the coalition—or, for that matter, anyone—governing badly. So he applied his considerable intelligence and determination to transforming the Senate committee system into an instrument of penetrating investigation. For example, in 2000, it was a Senate estimates committee with Robert Ray as chief inquisitor—and I was junior counsel in that episode—that forced the Howard government to admit that the plan to use the electoral roll to send a personally addressed letter from John Howard to every voter on the roll was illegal. The plan was stopped; the letter was pulped.

So closely did Robert become associated with the estimates committees and their most telling exposes of poor governance that on several occasions he was credited with estimates performances when in fact he had not even been present at the hearing. But, don’t worry, the boot was on the other foot on a few occasions when I was quoted but it was in fact Senator Ray who had been responsible for the pearls of wisdom.

Over the years that I have worked with Robert I have also benefited from the support of his staff in this place. All of his loyal and hardworking staff members have done great service not only to Robert but to Robert’s colleagues and to the Australian Labor Party. In particular, Koula Alexiadis, who worked with Robert from the early days of his parliamentary career, has been an absolute mainstay of our parliamentary operation here in Canberra. I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge her contribution and thank her for it.

As my leader, Senator Evans, said, I am sure Robert Ray would probably prefer that these speeches were not being made today. But, as they are being made, I am sure he is very pleased that he is no longer a senator and thus under no obligation at all to listen to what any of us have to say. Robert Ray was in this parliament for 27 years. He managed to make sure that Labor was in government for the majority of that time—if only by two days. If anyone deserves to choose the timing and manner of their departure from the Senate it is Robert Ray. His contribution has been tremendous. I said publicly at the time of his retirement that I think he is simply irreplaceable in this chamber. We will miss him. I will certainly miss him. I think I can say that we all wish Robert and his wife, Jane, well as they enjoy a well-deserved retirement.