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Tuesday, 22 November 2011
Page: 9259

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Senator FAULKNER (New South Wales) (23:37): Tonight I wish to speak about Rob» «Chalmers» , who died on 27 July this year, aged 82. At the time of his death, «Rob» was, by many years, the longest-serving member of the Canberra press gallery. When «Rob» walked for the first time into the press gallery at Old Parliament House, Ben Chifley and Robert Menzies faced each other across the chamber. Behind Chifley, on the opposition benches, sat Doc Evatt, Eddie Ward and Arthur Calwell. Behind Menzies, on the government side, were Jack McEwen, Earle Page and Harold Holt. Up on the back benches was 89-year-old Billy Hughes, first elected to the House of Representatives before federal parliament had ever sat. They are names from a bygone era. But, for 60 years of continuous membership of the gallery, «Rob» was a living link from that generation to this.

If the Canberra press gallery is an institution, «Rob» «Chalmers» was an institution of that institution. He saw both the longest continual period of Liberal government and the longest continual period of Labor government. He interviewed Billy Hughes on Hughes's 90th birthday, only to have the ageing Little Digger demand to edit Rob's copy and then furiously—and mystifyingly—complain, 'You wouldn't have done this to that bastard Menzies.' «Rob» was there when Fitzpatrick and Browne were brought before the bar of the House of Representatives and sentenced to three months jail by the parliament, without any charge against them, without a right of appeal and without a lawyer. «Rob» was in the throng of journalists waiting outside the coalition party room to see who would become Prime Minister after Harold Holt's disappearance in rough seas off Cheviot Beach, near Portsea. «Rob» was in the non-members' dining room on 11 November 1975, when an ashen-faced ministerial press secretary rushed in with the news that the Whitlam government had been dismissed by Kerr—news immediately rejected as 'bullshit' by the experienced journalists at the table. When finally convinced, «Rob» rushed outside to see Gough Whitlam exhort the crowd to maintain their rage and enthusiasm.

Yesterday, I had the honour of launching Rob's book, Inside the Canberra Press Gallery: Life in the Wedding Cake of Old Parliament House, which he finished writing just weeks before his death. He writes not only about past leaders and politicians but about journalists and commentators, press secretaries and staff who most Australians would know only as names on a by-line, if at all. Max Newton, from the Sydney Morning Herald, was not just 'a first-class economist' but also 'raucous, witty, gap-toothed and a heavy drinker'. Hugh Dash, press secretary to Robert Menzies, was 'much liked as a companion' but was 'of no help and seemed without any knowledge of what the government was doing'. «Rob» reports that 'The Dasher', although a very heavy drinker, was never under the weather. A bottle of beer for breakfast, a double gin for morning tea and four middies for lunch. We are left to ponder his consumption in the afternoon, evening, and night.

One veteran, Jack Comans, the ABC bureau chief, was able to give a tyro in the gallery an 'invaluable tip': 'There are a lot of pisspots around here. Stick to beer and you'll be all right.' «Rob» also names the Labor senator of the 1960s who, in a 'spectacular drunken performance', chundered in the desk drawer of a government senator during a division. But, in the interests of balance, he also names the highly intoxicated Liberal cabinet minister whose behaviour in the chamber one evening led his colleagues to claim that he was only suffering from a bad back but who Gough Whitlam nailed with the immortal words, 'It's what he's put in his guts that's rooted him.'

Rob's career spanned the introduction of faxes, mobile phones, personal computers, videotape, digital recording, hand-held recording devices, hand-held video cameras, email, the World Wide Web, Twitter, Facebook, Google and, that favourite source of a few time-pressed journalists, Wikipedia. Rob's own bravery in facing his last months is beyond question. But beyond question too was his lifelong commitment to holding the government of the day accountable and the humanity and generosity of spirit with which he did so.

For well over 30 years he did this through his newsletter, Inside Canberra, which was as much an institution of Parliament House as «Rob» himself and a must-read for all of us: never afraid to tell it straight, often very sharp and never cruel. The Prime Minister described «Rob» correctly as 'a journo's journo: shrewd, independent and authoritative'. As the Leader of the Opposition said, he was 'the father of the Press Gallery and an absolute phenomenon of political journalism'. I can assure the Senate that Rob's book Inside the Canberra Press Gallery is also true to his independent character and shrewd, assessing mind, and it is a fitting tribute to his remarkable career. We are lucky that at the end of his life, through his book, he has shared with us so many of his experiences. It will be a lasting record of a time past and an extraordinary life.

The order of service for the celebration of Rob's life said this:

«Rob was a gentle man with old-fashioned manners and a ready grasp of history without ever being nostalgic. He believed the pen, typewriter and keyboard to be mighty - wielding them prolifically and unrelentingly for his record 60 years in the centre of Australia's fourth estate.

He was supported in his achievements by Lesley, Jenny and Gloria. Gloria was his first and last love.

His family and friends gather today to commemorate his long, full life, and lay him to rest after his many years of service to the demanding discipline of political journalism.

Like so many in this building, I miss him.