Wednesday, 19 March 2008
Hon. Clyde Robert Cameron AO
Debate resumed from 18 March, on the Speaker’s announcement.
I take the opportunity to say that I very much wanted to be associated with this motion, being the only member of this parliament, I believe, who in fact served with Clyde Cameron. He was a member of this parliament from 1949 until 1981, when he retired. I was elected in 1973, and I had the opportunity as a very junior member of parliament to relate very much to him. I wanted to take this opportunity to first say to his wife, Doris, that we miss him and also to send our considerations to Warren, Tania and Noel, his children.
It was interesting to me to take the opportunity to read his maiden speech. It is not the sort of maiden speech you would see today. It is very much one of somebody steeped in the trade union movement, steeped very much in the adversarial approaches of his time. I found more fascinating, however, his valedictory speech when he left. In a number of respects I could relate to it.
He went on to say that he had had a very good innings. He had won 13 elections. I have done one better than that at 14. He also went on to say that he had achieved something that I have never achieved—that is, he was twice re-elected unopposed. That is an extraordinary accomplishment.
But what is more important is his comments about his life being steeped in politics, remembering it as though it were yesterday; poring over his father’s weekly copy of The Australian Worker to study the political cartoons. He could still see the cartoon called The Blood Vote as though it were yesterday. He was only three years of age when he first saw the cartoon.
What was important to me was to read his commentary on the towering figures of his time. He spoke partly of me but not by name. He said, ‘It was very rare that one finds a person who is a good politician as well as being a great parliamentarian.’ He said that Whitlam was a good parliamentarian but a hopelessly poor politician, and there he referred to the Parramatta by-election which I won in 1973. Anyone who could see the merit in announcing that he would build an airport at Galston, while the Parramatta by-election was at its height could not be called a terribly bright politician.
A division having been called in the House of Representatives—
Sitting suspended from 11.42 am to 12.07 pm
Before the division, I was drawing attention to some observations the late Clyde Cameron made about some of his colleagues in his valedictory speech of 18 September 1980. His first observation that I drew attention to was in relation to Gough Whitlam, but the second was in relation to one of my predecessors—the member for Parramatta, Sir Garfield Barwick. His observation was:
Barwick, however, was a good politician, but he was a poor parliamentarian. I take issue with David Marr who wrote the book Barwick in suggesting that Barwick had no merit as a politician. He has this merit: He always met with, talked with and mixed with the rank and file of his party, the backbenchers. His door was always open. Had he been here when Holt was drowned, Barwick would easily have been easily elected to lead the Liberal Party and he would have become the Prime Minister ...
The Prime Minister of Australia. Clyde Cameron’s observations were quite perspicacious. Barwick had a reputation that Cameron recognised was quite worthy. He went on to say:
In just the same way, if the Prime Minister (Mr Malcolm Fraser) were to fall under a bus—I do not wish that on him—I believe that the present Treasurer (Mr Howard) would … get up to take away the leadership of the party … The Treasurer is the only one who seems to realise that whilst the Prime Minister can select all the Ministers in a Liberal Administration, when it comes to the position of Prime Minister … the rank and file are equals and every vote from a rank and file member is equal to any vote from a Minister.
He congratulated him on his good sense. Of course, he was very close to people like James Killen. Elsewhere in his valedictory speech, one will find observations about the importance of linkages across the political divide. I think that is something that is not always pursued, but it was quite clear in Clyde Cameron’s time that there were people who had very civilised and very close relationships across the political divide.
As I said, I was only a young member when he left, but I did have later contact with Clyde Cameron. It was not something I spoke about; I would not have wanted to diminish him in the eyes of his colleagues. I had the opportunity of visiting him at his home at West Lakes. We talked about immigration issues, in which he—I was minister—continued to have an interest. I was gratified to have the opportunity of meeting with somebody of his experience, background and sensitivity who was willing to talk about the issues, sometimes difficult issues, that I had to grapple with in my time as the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs.
He was a person steeped in politics, as he outlined in that valedictory speech he gave. It was something that never left him. It was something that he continued to take an interest in in his retirement. I was glad to have the opportunity to know him and to hear his perspective on matters that I had to deal with at difficult times in my career. I send to his widow my commiserations, and I am thankful that I had the opportunity of knowing him.
I feel immensely privileged to have known Clyde Cameron and today to be a member of this House and therefore able to briefly speak about his remarkable life and his distinguished parliamentary career. I will certainly treasure my last encounter with Clyde Cameron because it was at that encounter that I was able to get a personally autographed copy of his biography, A Life on the Left, which I enjoyed reading and which gave me a tremendous insight into the contribution he made to public life and to the Labor Party.
Clyde Cameron has been described by some as a giant of the union movement, a giant of the Australian Labor Party and a giant of the Australian parliament. I believe that those descriptions of him are quite proper. His life was eloquently summarised by the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, by the Leader of the Opposition, Brendan Nelson, and by you, Mr Deputy Speaker Georganas, in the condolence motion on Monday. I also enjoyed listening to the member for Berowra’s contribution to this debate as someone who served in the parliament with Clyde Cameron and who obviously knew him even better than I did.
It would seem to me, as I reflect back on my understanding of parliamentarians and politics in Australia, that it is unlikely that we will ever see another person who will have an influence on public life to the extent that Clyde Cameron did, bearing in mind not only the amount of influence he had on the union movement, the Labor Party and the parliament itself but also the length of time over which that influence extended. It is something that perhaps, with today’s lifestyle, we will not ever see again. I suspect that the pace of life has changed to the extent that we will not see people remain in this parliament or in public life for as long as Clyde Cameron was able to.
As I said in my first speech to parliament, I was asked to join the Labor Party by Reg Groth, a former AWU organiser who went on to be the state member for Salisbury. Through Reg Groth I got to know a lot more about the AWU and about Clyde Cameron. You might say, given that Reg Groth, I understand, became a member of state parliament as a result of the support he received from Clyde Cameron, that I may well be standing here today as a member of this parliament indirectly because of Clyde Cameron.
Clyde Cameron came from the union movement. Through Reg Groth, I got to know Don Cameron, Clyde’s brother, who was a senator from South Australia. When I was working for the late Senator Jim Cavanagh, between 1976 and 1981, I got to see firsthand the influence that Clyde Cameron had, particularly on the South Australian branch of the Labor Party and on federal parliament. It is interesting, when you reflect back, that in the 1950s, when there was certainly turbulence within the Labor Party and the great split of the day, it was in fact thanks to Clyde Cameron, Geoff Virgo, Jim Toohey and Reg Bishop that the South Australian branch of the party remained unified and was able to continue with the policies that I know underpin the Australian Labor Party.
In the time I have today I want to touch on three areas of Clyde’s life that, I think, sometimes go somewhat unnoticed—although perhaps the first does not. It relates not only to his personal influence in the parliamentary process and within the Labor Party but to the influence that will carry on and has carried on since his retirement from parliament as a result of the people whom he assisted and perhaps influenced to become members of parliament. I refer to people like Don Dunstan, a great reformer in South Australia who became a politician and Premier of South Australia essentially, I suspect, because of Clyde Cameron.
I am reminded of a story that was passed on to me about Don Dunstan’s elevation to the premiership. It went something like this, and if I in some way misquote it, my apologies to those involved. When Frank Walsh became Premier of South Australia after some 32 years of the Playford government, Clyde made these points about Frank at a party conference:
Frank Walsh will be remembered for three things: winning government, running a good government and knowing when to retire.
To Frank Walsh’s amazement he made that third comment without Frank being aware of it. When asked by Frank why he had made such a comment, Clyde looked at the audience and is reported to have said, ‘Frank, they’ll love you for saying it.’ The rest is history. In fact, Don Dunstan soon became Premier of South Australia and Frank Walsh did retire. It says a lot about the influence of Clyde Cameron at the time.
Then there was John Bannon, a former Premier of South Australia who, I believe, would not have been there if it were not for Clyde Cameron. And Senator the Hon. Nick Bolkus, who spent a great length of time in this place and retired not long ago, was also a close friend of Clyde Cameron and was supported by Clyde for preselection. I can well recall those days. I was working for Senator Jim Cavanagh and Nick Bolkus was also working for one of the other Labor Party senators at the time. I recall the preselection battles of the day. I am sure that there were many others—I referred to Reg Groth earlier—who equally owe their place in federal or state parliament to the work of Clyde Cameron.
The second point I want to make about Clyde Cameron’s life is that, when there was a huge influx of migrants to this country after World War II, he was one of the politicians who made himself accessible to the new migrants. For the new migrants, the early days in the fifties were very difficult. The government services and support that we have today were not available then so, inevitably, when they really needed something or were having problems with the bureaucracy, it was to people like Clyde Cameron—and in particular to Clyde Cameron—that they would turn. I am reminded of a telephone call I received only last Saturday night. By sheer coincidence an acquaintance of mine from Melbourne rang me to congratulate me on being elected to parliament. That day the news had broken about Clyde Cameron having passed away. In the same breath, the caller said: ‘And it is sad to see that Clyde Cameron passed away. I remember that when my family came to this country in the fifties he helped us immensely.’ I believe he was speaking for hundreds if not thousands of migrants who came out to Australia at the time.
The third point I make is that he was one of the first politicians to stand up for the rights of women in this country. In particular, his stance on equal wages for women was something that made him an exception.
There is no question that Clyde Cameron was an influential person, and I suspect his 80-year membership, or thereabouts, of the Australian Labor Party will never be beaten. Listening again to the member for Berowra, it is clear to me that, whilst Clyde Cameron was only in government for three years during his time in parliament, which was 31 years or so, his influence—was extended, even in his years of not being in government, by his close association with members of the opposition. The member for Mayo made mention of that in his address on Monday as well. Clyde Cameron was one of those people who befriended people from both sides of politics and, I am sure, in the course of that friendship was able to convey messages and influence policies of the government of the day, even when he was in opposition.
As I said from the outset, I feel privileged to have actually known him, albeit not as well as others, and to have been able to be in this place at the time of his passing and therefore speak on his life. I close with this quotation, and it is a quotation which I have sourced in respect to an obituary that Clyde Cameron wrote about Bob Santamaria at the time that Bob Santamaria passed away. He said:
I shared Bob Santamaria’s sadness over the way politics have deteriorated to a position that it is now a contest between the rich and the poor; the privileged and the underprivileged; the exploiters and the exploited; the tax avoiders and the tax payers; the greedy and the needy; the buyers of labour and the sellers of labour; with the odds always stacked up in favour of the first party!
I think that quotation summarises and expresses Clyde Cameron, the man, better than I ever could, and it is in itself testimony to the commitment that he made to working Australians in this country. My condolences certainly go out to his family—to his wife, Doris; to his sons, Warren and Noel; and to his daughter, Tania.
I rise to support the Prime Minister’s condolence motion and to pay tribute to Clyde Cameron, the former member for Hindmarsh and Whitlam government minister. My father, Al, revered Clyde Cameron, and he will be immensely proud of his son speaking today about Clyde’s death and his life. I would like to extend my deepest sympathy to Clyde Cameron’s family, friends and comrades in their bereavement. The lives of a select number of people reflect and illuminate the life and times of our nation, and Clyde Cameron’s story is one such life. For over 70 years he was a leading light of the labour movement, a Labor Party stalwart, and his life spanned four-fifths of the history of the Australian Labor Party, founded in 1891. The ALP and the union shaped his life, and he in turn did much to shape our history.
Anyone who followed politics in the 1960s and 1970s will remember Clyde Cameron as one of Labor’s legendary hard men, the last of the 49ers. Clyde was a prolific chronicler of the Labor Party’s history and a tough warrior for the working class. He was an intelligent and able parliamentarian who spent decades on the political front line in opposition. In fact, he holds the rather inauspicious political record of the longest period of service in opposition, sitting for 28 years on the opposition benches. He was dedicated to the interests of the working people of Australia, and it remains a great tragedy that he spent the best years of his life out of office.
When I was a kid, in my household in Ipswich, Kim Beazley Sr, Fred Daly and Clyde Cameron were the patron saints of the labour movement, akin to St Peter, St Paul and St John. We discussed around the kitchen table their adventures, what they did and how they stood up for the Labor Party and the labour movement. I recall my father, who describes himself as ‘a good old-fashioned leftie’ and is a bit concerned that his son is a bit further to the right than he would like, talking in reverent tones about Clyde. He idolised the man for his contribution to the labour movement and dedication to the cause. Clyde was a proud upholder of the Labor Party’s working-class roots and was never afraid to speak his mind. He was greatly influenced by his mother, who was a Quaker who always claimed that Jesus Christ was the world’s first communist.
Clyde became passionate about the Labor Party, a party of which he was a member for 70 years. There is a great story about how a dead sheep forced him into the Labor Party, and about his experiences dealing with his employer at the time. My local former member, Bill Hayden, the former Governor-General, who worked alongside Clyde Cameron in the Whitlam Labor ministry, said that he was from the old school of hard Labor players and a great friend, but also a difficult and unforgiving enemy. I think Bill was probably correct there. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke once described Clyde Cameron as a great hater, saying that he made his mark as one of the most aggressive and uncompromising Labor members ever to enter parliament. Clyde’s politics were forged in the shearing shed, where he moved through the union office, into parliament and onto Whitlam’s front bench. For the duration of his entire career, he fought for strong working-class values. He became a curiosity in many ways, an oddity: a vocal socialist in the Australian Workers Union, a union traditionally associated with the more moderate elements of the Australian Labor Party.
Clyde became a rouseabout at Ashmore Station in 1928 and was elected as a union organiser with the AWU in South Australia in 1938, where he was endearingly called ‘Shithouse Cameron’ because of his insistence that shearers be given decent toilet facilities. It was a memorable way to start a career in the union movement. He became state secretary of the union in 1941 and was elected president of the South Australian branch of the ALP in 1946. He was the Minister for Labour in the Whitlam Labor government. As labour minister he captured primary responsibility for wages from the Treasury and he sought and supported equal pay for women, a fact not always remembered. Women of Australia should be proud of the contribution that Clyde Cameron has made in that regard. In 1975 he became the minister for science in a cabinet reshuffle which led him to be very angry, I think, for what happened. He retired from parliament in 1980.
He wrote two books: Unions in Crisis in 1982 and The Cameron Diaries in 1990. He remained a great contributor, and his life is a contribution. He was a servant to, and made sacrifices for, the Labor Party and the labour movement. Even after his retirement he mentored people. He helped the party with contributions and fundraising in South Australia and elsewhere. He mentored young Labor Party movement activists and union officials. He will be remembered for his lifelong commitment to the Australian workers and their welfare. He hated conservativism with a deep and abiding passion, and he made no secret of it. I remember as a boy seeing him on TV talking about it. But he could be friendly and courteous to conservatives, as the member for Mayo mentioned just the other day.
For all his idealism and radicalism, he was still pragmatic enough in the 1960s to side with opposition leader Gough Whitlam in the troubles in Victoria. His support for Whitlam in his showdown with the socialist Left clique in the troublesome Victorian ALP executive was crucial to federal intervention, power sharing and thereby Labor’s victory nationally in 1972. I commend the book A Life on the Left because it chronicles in detail those wonderful factional machinations which really were crucial to Labor wining in 1972. In fact Gough Whitlam once wrote of Clyde Cameron that he was ‘a principal architect of victory’ in 1972. We should all be proud on this side of the House.
A political animal and great storyteller, Clyde Cameron was brilliant at elucidating political strategy and dispensing profound insights into the world of politics. I must confess to having used his Clydeisms on many occasions in speeches I have made. In his address to the National Press Club in 1990 he delivered his political code, comprising the 21 golden rules of Clyde. Some of Clyde’s greatest political lessons to live by include: ‘It is better to overrate one’s opponent than to overrate one’s own ability’ and ‘The best line of defence in politics, as in war, is the frontal attack.’ He lived that life always. This sounded a bit like a Johism from Queensland: ‘Birds of a feather flocking together happen all the time,’ so it is a good idea to observe who is talking, eating or drinking with whom. That is the best way to keep tabs on doubtful allies. I like this one: ‘Never deny, or seek to defend, a mistake. It is far better to admit that one is not the Pope.’ These are just a few of Clyde’s great insights into great life. Thank you, Clyde, for your contribution to Australia, the Labor Party and the labour movement.