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Tuesday, 16 November 2004
Page: 40

Senator O'BRIEN (5:25 PM) —In the adjournment debate in the Senate on the first sitting day of the 41st Parliament I want to briefly acknowledge the service of my good friend and former parliamentary colleague Michelle O'Byrne as the Labor member for Bass between 1998 and 2004. When members of the other place announce their retirement, their colleagues are afforded an opportunity to recognise the contribution they have made to their electorates and to the life of the parliament. When their electorates choose another representative, the opportunity to acknowledge that contribution is denied.

Today in the other place the Prime Minister said he has found that most people who come into the parliament do so with a desire to improve things. He also observed that some make a mark and some do not. Michelle O'Byrne certainly had a desire to change things for the better—and she still has—and she made her mark as the member for Bass. The first mark she made was in fact to end the political career of a senior Howard government minister. As honourable senators will recall—and certainly Senator McGauran will recall—the lead-up to the 1998 election was characterised by quite a few of Mr Howard's ministerial colleagues finishing their own careers, without the assistance of the electorate. But Warwick Smith was not among them. Michelle was elected to represent Bass at the 1998 federal election, receiving a 4.7 per cent swing. She won by just 78 votes and claimed the seat from Warwick Smith, who was then the Minister for Family Services.

It is not every federal election candidate who achieves victory at their first attempt. Fewer still are able to defeat a cabinet minister in the process. One of Michelle's first contributions in the other place was a passionate plea for proper recognition of the service of Australian naval personnel involved in the Malayan Emergency. Her subsequent contributions in the parliament were equally passionate and covered the full gamut of issues that concerned the people of her electorate—affordable and accessible health care, education, training and child services, action on family violence, provision of employment opportunities and maintenance of decent maritime regulation, amongst others.

At the 2001 election Michelle increased her majority despite the disgraceful scare campaign conducted by the coalition over the circumstances of asylum seekers who found themselves aboard the Tampa off the north-west coast of Western Australia. Subsequent to the election, Michelle's talent was recognised with her appointment as a shadow parliamentary secretary after just one term in the parliament. She used her role as shadow parliamentary secretary for communications to highlight regional communications issues relevant to her electorate and others around the country. Michelle was a fierce and effective advocate for the retention of Telstra in majority public ownership and supported Australia Post maintaining its capacity to provide affordable and reliable postal services.

Michelle was not the only Tasmanian Labor MP to face defeat at the 2004 poll, and I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the service of Sid Sidebottom as the member for Braddon between 1998 and 2004. Sid gave good service to the people of Braddon, and he too served as a shadow parliamentary secretary. In fact, I had the good fortune to work closely with Sid on agricultural matters when I held the shadow portfolio. Sid was an active and effective shadow parliamentary secretary for primary industries. As with the loss of Michelle, his loss is felt deeply within the federal parliamentary Labor Party.

Returning to Michelle O'Byrne's career, in her inaugural speech in the other place, on Remembrance Day 1998, Michelle said:

I am honoured to be here representing the people of Bass. My commitment is to be a representative of the calibre of Lance Barnard and Justin O'Byrne. If I do only half as well as they did then I will be serving my electorate well.

Each day that Michelle represented the people of Bass in the federal parliament she honoured the legacy of the two great representatives she named in her inaugural speech. On behalf of the people of Bass, whom she served for six years without regard for their political persuasion, life circumstances or personal choices, I want to express my appreciation and thanks for her service. I also want to express my appreciation of and thanks to her hardworking staff, who gave her great service and, probably more importantly, gave her constituents great service. On behalf of the 24,491 voters in Bass who gave their first vote to Michelle at the election and the 47.37 per cent of her electorate that ultimately directed their vote to Michelle, I express regret at her failure to win at the election. Her qualities as a member have been reflected in the dignified manner in which she has responded to the election result, including her sensational performance at the Tasmanian Country Music Festival the day after the poll. In the words of Matthew Denholm in the Australian on 11 November:

Labor was collectively singing the blues in Tasmania yesterday, but no one did it quite as well as Michelle O'Byrne.

Life goes on, and of course Michelle's long-suffering family have welcomed her newfound presence at home. But Michelle still has much to offer public life. Whatever the future holds for her, my colleagues and I wish her well.