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Tuesday, 27 June 2000
Page: 15772

Senator FORSHAW (10:35 PM) —Last weekend saw the passing of one of the giants of Australian literature of the 20th century. I refer to the passing of Judith Wright. I am sure there is not a person in this parliament and probably not a person in this country over the age of about 30, maybe even younger, who at some stage in their life did not read some of Judith Wright's poetry. It was on the syllabus of high school literature for as long as I can remember, and I am sure many of us recall learning off by heart the words to poems such as Bullocky or South of My Days.

Senator Coonan —Can you recite a bit, Michael?

Senator FORSHAW —No, time does not permit and my memory is not that good, but I do remember those wonderful references to `sinewy hands'. I had the pleasure of meeting Judith Wright on a couple of occasions during the early 1970s when I was studying literature at Sydney University. There was a course in Australian literature in either 1971 or 1972—I cannot recall exactly which year. We were fortunate to have as guest lecturers and guest tutors people such as James McAuley, Alec Hope, David Malouf—now a world renowned Australian author—and Judith Wright. I can still recall watching Judith Wright stand before a lecture theatre at Sydney University, talking to us for about an hour about her ideas on poetry. She certainly left an incredible legacy in terms of not only the volume of her work over some 60-odd years or more of writing poetry but also her commitment to many other issues.

Her poetry, as has been reflected upon in articles written in newspapers and journals in recent days, celebrated the land, the harshness and the beauty of the Australian landscape. It celebrated the environment and pointed to how man has been the destroyer of the environment as well as reaping the benefits of it. Her poetry reflected on our history—the great aspects and the injustices, particularly those perpetrated upon the indigenous people. She was a conservative poet but she was never a conservative person in outlook. By `conservative' I mean in the literary sense of someone who paid particular attention to form and substance. She was to poetry what Patrick White was to the Australian novel and Sidney Nolan and Drysdale were to Australian painting. They were people who were able to reflect, as Judith Wright did in words, on all that makes Australia great as a nation but equally those aspects that we have to focus upon and try to correct.

Whilst being, as I said, a conservative poet in terms of her style, she was at a very early age—indeed, in the 1940s—writing about personal relationships and touching upon subjects that did not become major political issues until the feminist revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, many a critic has been astounded by the ideas and the issues that she raised in her work Woman to Man, published in 1949. Judith Wright, as people have clearly recognised in commenting upon her life, was a strong advocate for the environment, a lifelong member of the Australian Conservation Foundation and particularly a supporter for the cause of indigenous people. She was a supporter for that cause long before many of us saw the light and recognised that we had to do something about correcting the injustices of the past. I note, as her biographer, Sister Veronica Brady, noted in an article in the paper today, that one of the Judith Wright's last public acts was to lead the Reconciliation Walk across the bridge in Canberra a couple of weeks ago.

I look back, like everyone I suppose, with fond memories of reading her poetry as a student at school and being forced to learn it off by heart, coming later to recognise what a wonderful contribution she has made to our literary history. As I said, she is the last of the giants of Australian literature of the 20th century. People like James McAuley and Alec Hope and others have gone before her, and Judith Wright represents the end of an era of great poetry and literature that we had in Australia in the middle and latter part of the last century. No doubt other younger and talented writers, authors and poets will continue that tradition. I think her contribution not only to Australian literature but also to the nation is probably best reflected in the captions of two articles in today's Australian. One article written by Julian Croft is headed `Poet probed the nation's soul'. The other article by Veronica Brady is headed `Guardian of the land and people'.

I make these comments tonight in the adjournment debate, which, I believe, is the appropriate place to do it. But I wish to make this point: I think it is a shame that there is a procedural impediment in this chamber so that we are not able to move notices of motion to honour the memory of people such as Judith Wright and their contribution. I know that in the past when people, including me, have moved notices of motion to pay tribute to somebody who has made an outstanding achievement in Australian life it has been said that, unless you can link that person's contribution to something that this parliament or this chamber deals with, you cannot move it. Maybe I am wrong with regard to this situation, but I recall, for instance, when we have tried on similar occasions to reflect the achievements of sporting heroes or other heroes it has not been allowed. That is the advice I have received from the President. If it were possible to do it, I would have preferred to do it by notice of motion. I am getting nods from the chair. All I can say, Madam Acting Deputy President Knowles, is that I do not think the guidelines are that clear. If we are going to say that we can do it for some who have made a great contribution to Australian life but not for others, then I think we should sort that issue out.

In any event, I have appreciated the opportunity here tonight to place some comments on the record in the adjournment debate about the great contribution Judith Wright made to our culture, to our historyand, above all, to the Australian people and the Australian nation.

Senate adjourned at 10.45 p.m.