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Thursday, 30 November 2017
Page: 9384

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandAttorney-General, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (16:10): by leave—I move:

That the Senate records its deep sorrow at the death, on 24 November 2017, of Stephen Patrick Hutchins, former senator for New South Wales, places on record its gratitude for his service to the Parliament and the nation, and tenders its sympathy to his family in their bereavement.

When we commemorate the life of a former senator, we take part in an important and solemn tradition of this chamber. It's a tradition that gives us cause to reflect on the varied achievements of those who have come before us to this place from every walk of life and from every corner of our nation. It's a tradition that allows us, in a small but significant way, to pay our respects to these important contributions to public life. But this tradition, while always solemn, is made all the more poignant when we pause to commemorate those of whom our memories are much less distant—the men and women who have been our colleagues and cherished friends in this chamber. Today is such an occasion.

Steve Hutchins left this chamber only a little more than six years ago. Most of us will still remember his valedictory speech. It is still fresh in my mind. I served with him in this chamber for some 11 years. I felt I knew him well but, of course, not nearly as well as those who I know were his close friends in the Labor Party, like Senator Farrell and Senator Sterle and others for whom this must be a particularly difficult day.

Steve Hutchins was born in Sydney on 22 April 1956 and grew up in Cronulla, in the Sutherland shire. He attended De La Salle College, that great nursery of New South Wales Labor politicians, joining the Cronulla branch of the Labor Party while still a schoolboy. After studying for a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney, he later went to Harvard, where he completed Harvard University's Trade Union Program. He worked for a year as a forklift driver and for another year as a garbage collector—perhaps the only Harvard educated garbage collector in Australia—garnering the kinds of blue-collar credentials that would set him apart as a credible and authentic advocate for the rights of workers through his long and accomplished career in the union movement. He was a trade unionist to his bootstraps. In 1980, after two years at that coalface, Steve Hutchins became an official of the New South Wales branch of the Transport Workers' Union. He rose through the ranks, serving as assistant secretary from 1989 to 1993 and then as state secretary from 1993 until his appointment to the Senate in 1998. He also served as federal president of the TWU over the same period.

These were turbulent years for industrial politics in Australia. Steve Hutchins's time at the helm of the New South Wales branch coincided with successive Liberal state governments' attempts at industrial law reform. However, his ire was not limited, nor his opponents confined, to the non-Labor side of politics. Steve Hutchins was an outspoken critic of the creation of so-called 'mega-unions' by amalgamation in general and of the Australian Council of Trade Unions in particular.

We know that internecine fights within the industrial wing of the Labor Party can be very bitter indeed, and Steve Hutchins was plainly a very active warrior for his point of view in many of those disputes. He baulked at many of the economic reforms spearheaded by the Keating government. An early profile of Steve Hutchins from the Canberra Times described his heresies in the following terms: He regards mega-unions and enterprise bargaining as a sell-out of Australian workers.

He regards the ACTU as little better than an arm of government, and he regards most Melbourne-based left-wing union officials as power-obsessed failures.

Well, I could not but agree. Fighting words, indeed, but there is more than an element of truth in them.

However, Steve Hutchins' reputation for toughness did not obscure his genuine compassion and sense of integrity. One employer with whom he dealt gave pause to reflect that 'Hutchins can be hard and will use any tactic to get what he wants but, at the end of the day, you can rely on a deal being a deal'. I must say, unaware as I was when I served with Steve Hutchins in the Senate, I was not unconscious of his ferocious reputation in the industrial wing of the Labor Party. I always found him a very gentle man.

In October 1998, Steve Hutchins was appointed to fill a casual vacancy in the Senate resulting from the resignation of Senator Belinda Neal. He was elected in his own right in the 1998 election and would go onto be re-elected in 2004. In his first speech to the chamber, Senator Hutchins evoked the lived experience of forgotten Australians, those left behind by the quickening pace of globalisation, those whose interests he thought had been subordinated to the pursuit of abstract economic ideals. He said:

While our economy is at the heart of our society, to heartlessly pursue our economic objectives in isolation is to ignore the needs of our community and to undermine the social fabric of our nation. When some seek to diminish the role of government, I say the need for good government has never been stronger. In a society grappling with the uncertainties of today's world, governments must provide reassurance and direction in the face of an increasing cynicism and disillusionment throughout our community.

I can almost hear him saying that today.

By any measure, Senator Hutchins' contribution to the parliament lived up to his ideal and his values. The first inquiry he chaired on the Senate Community Affairs References Committee examined the extent of poverty across the nation and called upon the Commonwealth to establish a national poverty strategy. However, the inquiry that was to have the most profound effect upon Steven Hutchins was the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs inquiry into children in institutional care, of which he was first chair. The inquiry's findings of widespread abuse and neglect left a lasting impression upon him. Of the inquiry process, Senator Hutchins would reflect in his valedictory speech it was one of the most harrowing periods of his time here.

These people's stories are etched in my memory—the most reprehensible experiences and impossible to forget. We were all shaken to the base of our souls. Our hearts sighed. We were bewildered. We wondered time and time again how adults could do such things to children. How could men and women of faith routinely abuse boys and girls sexually, physically and psychologically? Why didn't someone step in? Why were they able to get away with it?

It was a marked departure from Steve Hutchins' public persona as a hard-nosed factional warrior, a hard man of the trade union movement and testament to his overriding desire to see justice done to those to whom it had been denied.

As was the case in his former life as a union leader, it was often his own side of politics that felt the brunt of Steve Hutchins' rebukes. He challenged the Rudd government to reverse its policy of not sending ministers to Taiwan as well as labelling Labor's cuts to criminal intelligence agencies as 'pretty lame' while he was the chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Australian Crime Commission.

A devout Catholic, his socially conservative views often put him at odds with the majority of his caucus colleagues on issues like euthanasia or same-sex marriage. I must say I always thought that Steve Hutchins was more right wing than me—at least on most matters. I remember very early in my career as a backbencher, I made a speech about the Greens and I made some rather aggressive remarks about the common philosophical roots of radical environmental philosophy and German fascism—

Senator Bartlett: I remember.

Senator BRANDIS: Senator Bartlett, thank you, you remember—a concept caught by the phrase 'ecofascism'. It was a speech that attracted a lot of criticism, but I remember Steve Hutchins drew me aside one day and he said to me—he was sitting in fact in the chair probably during one of these debates—'I thought it was a great speech'. I will also, as will we all, remember him with his friend Mike Forshaw, also from the New South Wales Labor right. They were very much a pair.

He fell out with his faction and was positioned third on the 2010 New South Wales Senate ticket—his defeat all but assured. His term would end on 30 June, 2011. In his valedictory speech to the chamber, Steve Hutchins reflected on the battles fought; of his spectacular falling out with the New South Wales ALP and the opportunism of its leaders; poignantly, of his long battle with the cancer that had overshadowed his parliamentary career and which ultimately was to claim him; and of the countless, vulnerable Australians for whom he had always fought the good fight.

Australia is a fairer country because of the battles people like Steve Hutchins fought. It is his family who have been the closest witnesses to his most courageous fight, his fight with cancer, and must now bear the deepest loss. So, to his colleagues and friends who are in the chamber today, I know what you must feel, because I lost a great friend and colleague of mine earlier this year when Russell Trood succumbed to cancer. I know how you must feel and how sad you must be. So, to you—of course, to his wife, Natalie; his children, Lauren, Julia, Michael, Georgia, Madeleine and Xavier; and his grandchildren Jacob, William, Edie, Nathaniel, Rorie and Audrey—I express my profound sorrow and to whom, on behalf of the government, I offer my deepest condolences.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: As senators would be aware, the standing orders provide for general business to be called on at 4.30 pm. I understand it is the will of the Senate for this condolence debate to have precedence and continue. With the concurrence of the Senate, it is so ordered.