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Tuesday, 16 November 1993
Page: 2922

Senator COLSTON —Mr President, I wish to be associated with the condolence motion which is before the chamber due to the passing of our former colleague, the Hon. Justin O'Byrne. I join with other senators who have spoken in extending my sincere condolences to Justin's family and close friends.

   Some senators will have known Justin longer than I did, especially those from Justin's home state of Tasmania. My association with Justin, however, began after my election to the Senate in 1975. I recall that when I was waiting at a motel for transport to take me to Parliament House for my first day of sitting, a young lady who was staying at the same place remarked to me that it would be a sad day. Actually, I thought it was anything but a sad occasion because I had first stood for the Senate in 1970, then again in 1974 and, having been passed over by the Queensland Parliament for a casual vacancy in August and September 1975, I was beginning to wonder whether I should have opted for an academic career instead. So I was compelled to ask why the day would not be memorable.

  The young lady replied that the senator for whom she worked—she referred to him as her boss—was about to lose his job. She was, of course, referring to Justin and his position as President of the Senate. Later in the day, when Condor Laucke assumed the presidency of the Senate, Justin handled the situation with consummate grace and his congratulations to the new president were absolutely sincere.

   Over the years which followed our first meeting, a firm friendship developed between Justin and me, even though I was about 26 years his junior and he had already seen 28 years of service in the Senate before I entered the parliament. There are probably countless warm stories which can be told about Justin, because he was such a fine raconteur, especially at the dinner table in the old Parliament House. Quite a few times I heard the story of how he was compelled to bail out over enemy held territory. His hands had been scalded by escaping engine oil and, if I remember correctly, because of damage to his aircraft, he had to turn it upside down to bail out. I used to be fascinated at how he described his surprise at how small his parachute appeared to be when he looked up. He also mentioned that after he bailed out he could see the white cliffs of Dover to the west but described how they disappeared from his view as he descended. I expect that he had wistful memories of those white cliffs during his three and a half years as a prisoner of war.

  I cannot recall Justin speaking about his early years in the Senate when Ben Chifley was in office as Prime Minister. To me, contemporary memories of the Chifley government were associated with an era when I wore short pants to school. But in our midst here was a person who was actually serving in parliament before Labor's loss of government in 1949. With Justin's passing, very few members of that era still remain.

  A cursory glance at the 1982 parliamentary handbook, the handbook in which Justin last appeared as a sitting senator, indicates the breadth of his parliamentary service, especially when one considers that the greater part of his 34 years as a senator were spent on the opposition benches. In 1972, however, he was again part of the governing party and his long and meritorious service was rewarded by his election to the presidency of the Senate in 1974.

  Although Justin retired from the Senate in 1981, it was not uncommon for him to return to Canberra. Whenever he did, it was ever so pleasing to meet him once again. On one occasion, when I was chairing a Senate select committee in Launceston, I was surprised and delighted to see Justin—he was by then retired—sitting with those who had come to give evidence or listen to the comments of their fellow residents. It is the only time in my experience as a member of any committee that a former president was present at a public hearing. I would have thought that, after 34 years in the Senate, any activity would be preferable to spending a morning at a Senate committee hearing. But it was a measure of Justin's commitment to his local community that he came along to hear what was being said about agricultural and veterinary chemicals.

  I was, quite naturally, saddened when I heard of Justin's death. But I had another regret in that I did not call on him when I was in Launceston in June this year. I considered doing so, but decided against it, thinking I should not invade the privacy of his home. We all pass on eventually, but it never occurred to me that I would not see Justin again. I believe that I had an unreal and unconscious perception that Justin O'Byrne and death were incompatible. Sadly, because I saw and spoke to Justin earlier this year, it did not mean that there would be further opportunities to renew our friendship some time later.

  It is never easy for a family when it loses a loved one. However, I trust that Justin's good wife, Anne, and her family are to some extent comforted in their grief knowing that fond memories of Justin will dwell in the hearts of many people throughout Australia. Those memories will certainly remain with me.