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Tuesday, 2 February 2010
Page: 123

Senator FARRELL (7:26 PM) —I rise with deep sadness tonight to speak on the passing over the Christmas break of a great Australian, Mr Robert Atkins, and to support and endorse the remarks of Senator Xenophon earlier this evening. I first met Mr Atkins in 2001 when he came to Adelaide to take the helm of the iconic South Australian retailer Harris Scarfe, best known for its historic Rundle Mall store but having expanded in recent years throughout South Australia and to New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania. In the wake of the introduction of the GST and hamstrung by poor management, the company was staring down the barrel of receivership and potential closure with the consequential loss, as Senator Xenophon mentioned, of 1,500 jobs in South Australia alone. Most people in Adelaide believed that Harris Scarfe would go the way of so many retailers before it: John Martins, Craven’s, Miller Anderson, Moores, People Stores, Cox Foys, Demasius and others—just very distant memories. But Robert Atkins thought otherwise. At our first meeting and only a few weeks into taking over the ailing company, he told me that he had expected to find a company half-empty but in fact had found a company half-full. He said he was determined to top it up. I was secretary of the Shop Assistants Union at the time. He asked for our support to save the company and to maintain jobs. That support was freely given and workers voted to delay wage rises to keep the company afloat. Former Premier John Olsen was also instrumental at the crucial time and, with the support of the then Leader of the Opposition, Mike Rann, provided stamp duty and payroll tax relief while Mr Atkins started rebuilding the company that had employed so many South Australians, including my grandfather, Joseph Heptinstall.

South Australians in general and retail workers in particular owe a debt of gratitude to Mr Atkins. Once jobs go, in my experience, they never return. My union, the SDA, first crossed Mr Atkins’s path in the 1980s when he was general manager of buying and marketing with Kmart in New South Wales, part of the newly merged Coles Myer company. It was there that he established a good and ongoing working relationship with the national secretary of that union, Mr Joe de Bruyn. Mr Atkins also worked with Burmah Castrol in Australia and was president and chief executive of Coca-Cola Amatil’s Philippine business for many years.

A lesser known part of Mr Atkins’s life was his passion for the good works he undertook on behalf of the community and disabled members of our society. He was chair of Bedford Industries and was a philanthropic and effective fundraiser through the Butterfly Ball, held annually with great flair at the Adelaide Convention Centre. He served on the boards of the Heart Foundation and St Peters College and was president of Business SA. He was a fearless campaigner for the revitalisation of the Rundle Mall as chairman of the Rundle Mall Management Authority. As a councillor of the Australia Business Arts Foundation, he established the South Australian Premier’s Arts Partnership Fund. In fact, it has been suggested that he has just been seconded to the big board upstairs and has already set his sights on the chairman’s job!

After resuscitating Harris Scarfe he attempted the double by taking up the role as head of the Retail Adventures, the business established by Kathmandu founder Jan Cameron following the collapse of Australian Discount Retailers. However, as his health began to fail, he left Retail Adventures. Paulette Kolarz, a colleague from the Harris Scarfe days, tells me that he would tell his doctor, as Senator Xenophon mentioned, that he was really 150 years old and that he had squeezed three lifetimes into his brief 52 years.

Carmel Scoleri, the paymaster from Harris Scarfe and fellow employee, recalls fondly the support he gave her when her own father passed away. At his funeral in Melbourne two weeks ago, a poem, believed to have been written by his father during World War II, was read out. It was called This Day and included a line about how to spend your day:

Waste it or use it for good

This was the philosophy that Robert Atkins applied to his own very full life.

Mr Atkins rang me before Christmas and in his own inimitable style offered clear and direct advice on the local political scene in the lead-up to the state election. We arranged to meet after Christmas for lunch in Gouger Street. But it was not to be and he died peacefully at his home on 14 January this year. He was taken all too soon. I extend my condolences and those of my wife, Nimfa, to his wife, Deborah, and his children, Michael, Timothy, Christopher and Matthew.