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Wednesday, 11 September 1996
Page: 3333


Senator SHERRY (Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate)(7.15 p.m.) —In respect of Senator Watson's contribution, we on both sides of the chamber recognise the expertise that Senator Watson has in this area of tax. Following on from the theme that we enunciated in question time today, I hope he is keeping a very careful eye on the new superannuation tax and the complexities that that will have on superannuation funds.

I wanted to make some remarks tonight about my former Tasmanian Senate colleague John Coates from a number of perspectives. I found on John Coates' retirement that after just six years I have become the senior Labor senator for Tasmania. I am not sure whether that is a good or bad thing, but it did lead me to reflect a little on John's career. I first met John at the 1968 conference of the Tasmanian Labor Party held at the university. John was standing for preselection for the Federal seat of Denison. The ballot that took place was a relatively open ballot for the Australian Labor Party. It was a time when actually making a speech at a preselection process did influence a significant proportion of the delegates who were present on that occasion. My recollection of John—it was my first conference—was that John gave a very impressive speech on that occasion, which, given the narrowness of the result, certainly contributed towards his being preselected as our federal candidate. He was elected to the federal seat of Denison in 1972. Regrettably, he lost his seat in 1975.

During his period in the House of Representatives it has not often been acknowledged—I would like to acknowledge it tonight—that John Coates played a significant role in the development of Labor's health policy during that period of government, particularly in the development of Medicare's predecessor, the Medibank system, which was regrettably scrapped over a number of years following the election of the Fraser Liberal government in 1975. I would like to place on record John's contribution in that area because it was very substantial. He would have to have been considered one of the major architects of our health policy through that era.

I also recall quite vividly the events in the lead-up to the 1972 election when the then leader, Gough Whitlam, visited the Hobart Town Hall. A meeting took place at which my father, who was then a federal member, and John were speaking. On that occasion John gave two commitments. I related the story to him a couple of weeks ago when we had some retirement drinks for John. One of the issues he raised on that occasion was the transfer of the Antarctic base from its then location in Canberra to southern Tasmania. That was a specific issue and a specific commitment that John made. He made it a cause, and he delivered on that cause. He spent a number of years lobbying the federal Labor government during that period up to 1975, and he was successful. I think the then science minister was Mr Bill Morrison. He came to Hobart and announced the transfer of the Antarctic base. That has been critical, important and central in the development of Tasmania as an Antarctic centre for management and research. If there is an enduring legacy to John, it is the Antarctic centre in southern Tasmania.

The other commitment he gave was a commitment in respect to bull semen. John could not recall that issue that he raised on that occasion. He had a particular interest in that issue in those years.

Up to 1975 John was a very active contributor in parliament and a very thorough, assiduous and dedicated member of the House of Representatives. Despite his defeat, John remained active in the Australian Labor Party. He was subsequently pre-selected and elected to the Senate. Throughout his period as a senator, John had a very distinguished committee career. I will just mention a couple of committees on which he was actively involved. They included the privileges committee, the regulations and ordinances committee and a range of other general policy committees. It is work that is not often recognised outside this place. Certainly from Labor's perspective, John was one of our major contributors in putting issues into policy through the Senate committee system.

As I have said earlier, John was a very committed, dedicated and assiduous worker and very thorough in his approach, and a great stickler for detail. At times I found him a little too detailed from my dealings with him in the party. They are all attributes that led to his making a fine contribution in those areas. I have said earlier that committee work, as we all know, is very important in this Senate. Unfortunately, not enough people read the committee reports that we publish. Any cursory glance back through those reports would show that John, both as chair of a variety of committees and as a member of those committees, was a very active contributor indeed.

Senator Faulkner has referred to John's factional activity. I was not a factional colleague of John's. We did have some differences of opinion over the years during his political career, but in politics I think it is important that we do not carry those differences personally. I certainly never did with John and I know he did not. He had a very committed set of principles. He always followed those principles through within the Australian Labor Party and within the broader community. He was a very dedicated and active senator, in particular in that area of committee work that I have highlighted. I think he is an example to anyone who wants to be involved in the committee area. There is also his work on the finance and public administration committee. I understand he was chair of that committee for a number of years.

Former Senator John Coates can leave the Senate, reflecting back on an almost 20-year political career during which he made a significant contribution in terms of policy, committees and the internal workings of the Senate. As I said earlier, I think the Antarctic centre in Hobart is a monument to the perseverance of John as a politician. I wish John all the best in whatever his future undertakings. I wish his family all the best. I know that one of the reasons he decided on retirement at this point is that his son is entering his teenage years and John wants to spend more time with him. We all know the pressures on families, friendships and relationships as a consequence of our political service.

John was a hard-working dedicated senator and I would like to pay tribute to him not only on behalf of my Tasmanian colleagues but also on behalf of the Labor opposition.