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Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Page: 1483

Senator CARR (Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research) (1:32 PM) —I will firstly take this opportunity to congratulate Senator Jacinta Collins on her return to the chamber. Senator Robert Ray was a proud defender of the great Labor traditions. He served his party professionally for the better part of 42 years. In this chamber we all carry private images of ourselves which do not always bear a close relationship to reality. In my mind’s eye, I am a man with a 90-centimetre waistline. In Robert Ray’s mind’s eye, he was a noble and chivalrous contestant. In some media circles his hands were unsoiled by the grubby stuff of base factional politics.

Robert Ray, as I think all would agree, was a great senator, a great colleague and a great Labor man. He was also a man who loved a political stoush, and I think it is equally fair to say that he was more than accomplished in the dark arts. It would be a bit of a stretch to say that Robert Ray and I were soul mates, but we did have a surprising amount in common. We both started our professional lives as teachers in Victorian technical schools, and we both set out to make a difference in the Australian Labor Party from a pretty fragile base. We were not lawyers and we were not union officials. We started working in our professional lives in unfashionable schools—he at Baxter tech and I at Glenroy. We found ourselves in different camps of the Victoria branch of the Labor Party, yet we were able to establish a very good working relationship based mostly on mutual respect and occasionally on mutual forgiveness.

Robert was misjudged when he arrived in this place and the superficiality of the press analysis of politics was quickly revealed. He was pigeonholed as a factional operator. He was sometimes seen as a bovver boy with no real interest in policy or ideas. In fact, he was a very well-rounded politician. It was no surprise that he was so successful as a minister. In my judgement the training ground of internal party politics in the Labor Party—and I am sure this applies more widely than just to the Labor Party—can be a very good training ground for politicians. In fact, there are not too many others that are available, especially for those that do not have access to the great institutional connections. Anyone who can survive and thrive in the political boiler room of the Victorian branch of the Labor Party is likely to have a great deal of determination and a thick hide—a hide, I might say, supplemented by a substantial layer of scar tissue.

Whatever Robert Ray’s detractors might have thought, he was a substantial thinker. He had a deep interest in policy issues and in the strategic directions of the labour movement. Robert Ray himself sometimes played up the bovver boy image and played down his interest in policy. He used that often to distinguish himself from some of my colleagues, but I do not think he fooled all that many. It was a surprise to me, however, that an ex-schoolteacher could take so little interest in education. Whatever Robert Ray did in terms of training his intellect on policy questions, you could always count on his thoughtfulness and his imaginative responses.

His enthusiasm for the defence portfolio struck me as heartfelt and genuine and was actually quite inspirational. He is forthright, even brusque. As he said himself, he would never make a good diplomat because he saw them as professional crawlers, which gives the lie to the story that appeared earlier this year that he had accepted a diplomatic posting. I always found him to be courteous and professional in his dealings. Despite the fact that we might have disagreements, he never personalised things, at least not to me and not face-to-face.

Robert Ray had considerable courage in his political professional career and he was always prepared to face down those whom he thought he needed to, even if they were in the highest of offices, including the office of the Prime Minister. In fact, he was ready to face down anybody who opposed him when he thought the need arose. My colleague Senator Conroy and I in recent times have been described by him as ‘factional Daleks’ whose intention was apparently to exterminate in the best of Doctor Who traditions. I did receive an emissary on this issue, and it was pointed out to me that in fact I was collateral damage in that arrangement. I think Robert Ray made the point himself. We have been forgiving each other for many years. In recent years Robert Ray has in fact withdrawn from factional politics and he has become quite a critic of aspects of the ALP factional system. He has always remained a consummate numbers man. He remained a person who had a very deep understanding of the fact that political numeracy was not just a question of being able to add up columns of names—that it was more a branch of the behavioural sciences, and a good numbers person was one who could actually understand what people thought and why. It is often misunderstood what function that has within political organisations.

He was a pleasure to work with and, in his time here in the Senate, I have found him to be a great mentor to Labor senators. I do not think I would be the only one to say that he offered advice which was considerate and incisive. He was a plain dealer and a man of integrity. As long as he practised it he gave factionalism, in my judgement, a good name. He gave Labor a good name. He gave politics a good name. I wish him well in his retirement and I trust that his life at home with Jane will be rewarding.