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Monday, 15 September 2008
Page: 89


Senator LUNDY (10:08 PM) —Vivian Wilson died of a brain tumour on Sunday 31 August. She was well known to senators and members, having worked for the parliament for over 29 years. Having previously worked at the ANU, Vivian commenced as a part-time librarian in the Parliamentary Library in February 1974. She retired as a senior information specialist in May 2003. Parliamentary Library colleagues described Vivian as ‘a very special person, respected for her professional expertise and loved for her humanity, grace and wisdom’.

In her nearly 30 years as a research librarian Vivian saw her role as supporting the work of the parliament and the democratic process. She believed, as she said, that ‘most parliamentarians are good, hardworking people who take on this job because they think they can make a difference for the better to ordinary people’s lives’. She served politicians and their staff with an attention to detail, a commitment to excellence and a fierce impartiality admired by clients and colleagues. In her retirement speech Vivian explained why she had worked for so long for the parliament. She said that the work was always interesting and challenging, never boring, and that she felt privileged to have had the opportunity to work in such a highly regarded, world-class institution as the Parliamentary Library. Quoting Peter Shergold, who said that one of the key qualities of a public servant was to find what you do best and keep at it with dedication, Vivian said that early in her working life she had found what she did best and, she said, ‘I like to think that I have kept at it with dedication.’

Indeed, Vivian was an expert and dedicated reference librarian—diligent and thorough. She brought to her work her extensive knowledge of literature, art, music, history, politics, science, librarianship, law and travel, and had a truly inquiring mind. She was trusted and admired by many senators and members, including former minister and member of this parliament from 1977 to 1998 the Hon. Professor Barry Jones AO, who said last week:

Vivian Wilson was a librarian of consummate professionalism, generosity and warmth who helped make my life as a back bencher productive and stimulating in the days before MPs had their own research staff, and the World Wide Web and Google were barely imaginable. Through Viv I came to know her father, the eminent physicist Sir Mark Oliphant, and she nursed him devotedly in his last years. Viv was much admired by politicians and staff, at least the reading ones, right across the political spectrum.

I mourn her passing deeply. I am grateful that tribute will be paid to her work and fragrant memory in the Australian Parliament, which she served so well.

This will give some solace to her son Michael and his family and her partner Keith Powell.

For many years Vivian was overall editor of the Parliamentary Handbook, which is the record of each parliament. Under her editorship it became a more comprehensive and accurate record. She was a founding executive member of the Parliamentary Group of Amnesty International. She was active in her support of many important social and political issues. On her retirement, she said that she planned to take a more active part in causes that she cared about, particularly the three Rs: reconciliation, refugee action and racial respect.

Classical music and the arts were an important part of her life. She was a passionate supporter of the ABC and planned to take a more active part in the Friends of the ABC. Vivian’s son, Michael Wilson, remembers the times with his mother as times of ‘laughter, good food, good company and animated debate about the world and life’. But she also demonstrated to him the importance of reflection, remembrance and solitude, and the ability to draw on inner resources to remain anchored, gain strength and understand others. Social justice, fairness, and the pursuit of a peaceful and sustainable world were the values that drove Vivian’s interest in politics and current affairs.

Vivian was born in the United Kingdom in 1938 to a young single mother, and adopted as a baby by Sir Mark and Lady Oliphant, who were then living in Birmingham, as a little sister for their adopted son, Michael. By the time Vivian was able to trace her natural mother, she found that she had died many years earlier of ovarian cancer. Among the interests and causes that Vivian worked for were those of ovarian cancer research and assisting the processes of enabling contact between relinquishing parents and adopted children.

In her young life, Vivian learnt to cope with not only the pressures of public life but also its privileges as the daughter of Sir Mark and Lady Oliphant. Sir Mark’s outspoken views and fame attracted criticism as well as approval, and it was not easy growing up in Canberra in the 1950s, which was then a small town, as the daughter of a famous person. When Sir Mark was the Governor of South Australia, from 1971 to 1976, Vivian sometimes acted as a hostess at Government House functions.

Despite her background, or perhaps because of it, Vivian never sought the limelight and was always unassuming, willing to help others and ever competent. When her father moved back to Canberra after the death of her mother, Vivian had a flat built for him at the back of her house. From then on she helped her father with his life—food, shopping, medical care, his many visitors, his correspondence and his financial affairs—generally in a backup role at first, but later doing absolutely everything for him. Sir Mark died in 2000, aged 98.

With her retirement in May 2003, Vivian looked forward to travel with her partner, Keith Powell, and to enjoying time with her son, Michael, daughter-in-law, Peppi, and especially her two little grandchildren, Alissa and Sam. It is sad that this time was so curtailed. Our thoughts and condolences are with Vivian’s family. We recognise and celebrate Vivian’s contribution to this parliament and to public life, as well as her achievements, friendships and lasting influence.