House debates

Tuesday, 30 May 2006


Hon. John Murray Wheeldon

2:01 pm

Photo of John HowardJohn Howard (Bennelong, Liberal Party, Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the House expresses its deep regret at the death on 24 May 2006, of the Honourable John Murray Wheeldon, former Federal Minister and Senator for Western Australia and places on record its appreciation of his long and meritorious public service, and tenders its profound sympathy to his family in their bereavement.

John Wheeldon was born on 9 August 1929 in Subiaco, Western Australia. He attended the esteemed Perth Modern School and later the University of Western Australia. After graduating in arts and law, he went on to practise as a solicitor and around this time John Wheeldon’s political life began in his role as President of the Western Australian Young Liberals. John Wheeldon was elected senator for Western Australia in 1965, representing the Australian Labor Party, and he remained in the Senate as a Labor Party senator until 1981. John Wheeldon had a deep and abiding interest in, and extensive knowledge of, international affairs. He was a very fierce opponent of the Vietnam War from very early on. He visited North Vietnam in the mid-1960s when the war was at its height and in 1967 he visited the United States, campaigning against the war in Vietnam. In parliament he served as a member and chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee and the joint committees on foreign affairs and defence matters. John Wheeldon was a minister in the Whitlam government as Minister for Repatriation and Compensation from 1974 to 1975 and later, in 1975, he also took over the ministry of Social Security. Later, as a member of the opposition shadow ministry, in 1976 he was spokesman on repatriation, compensation, media and films.

John Wheeldon believed his greatest achievement in parliament was his involvement in a report on human rights in the Soviet Union which gave exposure to a range of significant humanitarian issues. In his last year in parliament he was made Parliamentary Adviser to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. After he left the Senate, John Wheeldon was approached by Rupert Murdoch and offered a position on the Australian newspaper. As a senior writer with the Australian, he specialised in foreign affairs and politics and he will be remembered there for his vast knowledge of world politics, his dry and incisive wit and his remarkable writing capacity.

After he left parliament, I got to know John Wheeldon rather better than I had known him when we both served in parliament between 1974 and 1981. He was a very interesting person in a political sense. He commenced membership of a political party as a member of the Liberal Party in Western Australia, he then left the Liberal Party—no doubt in part because of the Vietnam War—and became an active member of the Australian Labor Party. My recollection of him as a member of the Australian Labor Party is that he progressively adhered to some of the more left wing causes in the Australian Labor Party and he found himself in company with the late Dr Jim Cairns and a number of others—the late ‘Diamond Jim’ McClelland and many others—in the Labor Party who held strong views which might broadly be typified, certainly on international relations, as being on the left of the Australian Labor Party.

After he left parliament, I think it is fair to say—and I do not think I do any injustice or reflect inaccurately on his memory—that his views then began to return not all the way but some of the way back to the views that he had held as a younger person. One of the interesting things about John Wheeldon was it was impossible to typecast him. He was a very fierce opponent of the war in Vietnam, he was a prodigious critic of the Soviet Union and the totalitarianism involved, and he was a very fierce opponent of the acquiescence of the Whitlam government, the Fraser government and the Hawke government in the incorporation of East Timor into the Republic of Indonesia. I remember that on one occasion, when I interviewed him for a radio program in the early 1980s, he gave me a memorable blast, collectively speaking, in relation to the incorporation of East Timor into Indonesia. So he was not somebody whom you could put in a pigeonhole and say, ‘This is how John Wheeldon would react.’ He was a person who absolutely scorned pomposity and he was—and this is something that endeared him to me very greatly—a fierce and unrelenting critic of political correctness. Some of the more memorable diatribes that I have heard against political correctness were delivered in conversations that I had with John Wheeldon.

His journalistic career brought him into contact with many people who had not previously known him, and he displayed a remarkable intellect. He was somebody whom I grew to like very much when we saw each other in different circumstances after he left parliament. I recall those occasions with great warmth. He was a likeable character. Although I have no first-hand knowledge and nobody in this parliament has first-hand knowledge of 1975, he is reputed to have argued in the federal parliamentary Labor caucus that, when the Senate failed to pass the budget, the then Prime Minister should have immediately advised the holding of an election. That is what the record suggests. As I say, I was not present at that meeting and there is nobody opposite who was present at that meeting, so we will have to accept that as an accurate version of events. If indeed that is true, then he, along with the late Ken Wriedt, displayed remarkable prescience in relation to the events that unfolded in 1975.

He was in every sense of the word an independent intellect. You could not predict him. Although I naturally did not share all of his positions on the issues on which he spoke, he took what can fairly be described as a very intellectually honest position. His great passion was foreign affairs. I remember him as a warm, witty and engaging personality. To his wife, Judith, and his sons, Andrew and James, and his daughter, Miriam, on behalf of the government I extend my deep sympathy and condolences.

2:09 pm

Photo of Kim BeazleyKim Beazley (Brand, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the condolence motion of the Prime Minister. I knew John Wheeldon extremely well in his time in politics, but knew him less well later. It is one of the profound regrets in my life that it is in the nature of the job we have that we tend to fall out of touch with our friends. I have not been able to see much of him over the last five or six years, and I am the poorer for that.

I cannot begin to describe in this parliament what John Wheeldon was like and who he was, because there is no member of this parliament, in the House or in the Senate, who remotely resembles John Wheeldon. He was a politician of a completely different era, with a completely different standard of intellectual honesty and an absolute determination to be his own man and to speak his own mind. If you had put him in a focus group, you would have seen them completely destroyed within five minutes flat and banging on the doors to get out of the place. If you had told him that he had to confine his remarks to a seven-second grab, he would have boxed your ears. But he was capable of a seven-second grab. I remember him being interviewed by Syd Donovan after our defeat in the 1977 election. Syd, who was then being quite portentous about it all, said, ‘Senator, could you tell us why it is that the Labor Party lost this election?’ to which John Wheeldon replied in a similar tone of voice, ‘I suppose, Syd, that the primary reason was due to an absence of votes.’ He was a great balloon pricker in his time. He was never completely comfortable in parliament, and managed to talk himself out of it thoroughly by the end of it. He said of parliament:

When I first came into the Parliament, like most of us I suppose, being human, I used to achieve a certain small measure of ecstasy at seeing my photograph in a newspaper, even if the story which appeared alongside it consisted of a garbled account of something I had said or an allegation that I had been at a secret meeting plotting the overthrow of the leadership of the Labor Party when I had been in a different city from that in which the meeting took place. In fact, one often achieved a certain thrill at seeing one’s face on a television screen while one was being asked silly questions by a disc jockey with ideas above his station. But as the years pass the charm of that tends to wear off. I remember that at the height of one great controversy, when I think I was being accused of being an agent of the Chinese Communist Party—which some suggest I still am—a near neighbour, a prominent businessman, asked me whether I could take up some matter with Sir Charles Court because he knew that I was a Liberal member of the Legislative Assembly and would undoubtedly have great influence on him.

That quote epitomises the way in which John Wheeldon used to speak. As I said, there was a time in my life when if I saw John each month I would see him each week. I saw a great deal of him. When I started in politics one of my jobs on the state executive of the Labor Party was to make sure there were at least half-a-dozen speakers after John Wheeldon had spoken on every subject, because it would take you that long to wear down the destruction of your arguments by him and have some chance of winning a majority on the state executive.

One of the last things that he did in political life, I suppose, for which I am very grateful, was to vote for me in a preselection. John went through many metamorphoses as a politician. The Prime Minister has referred to his conversion from the Liberal Party to the Labor Party, and that was on the Communist Party Dissolution Bill. He believed that the attempt to ban the Communist Party was a direct attack on democratic liberties, which he strongly upheld. He then became a thorough-going and convinced intellectual socialist. He worked in a Fabian Society bookshop in London for a couple of years, and replacing him to work in that Fabian bookshop was Jomo Kenyatta.

John had an extraordinary array of friends internationally. He spoke and read French and German fluently, and if you went into his office there would be French and German magazines all over his desk. There would be English-language papers, but none of them Australian. He had an extraordinarily encyclopaedic comprehension of where the world stood, even if he had a particularly idiosyncratic analysis of it, and many conversions on the road to Damascus. Fierce anticolonialism, picked up in the 1950s, led him to be a strong opponent of the Vietnam War. Then his analysis of human oppression and colonialism led him to be a forthright opponent of the Soviet Union in his later years in politics.

As he went through these various metamorphoses, he did so to the great dissatisfaction of most members of the Labor Party, one way or another, in Western Australia and not a few in the federal parliamentary Labor Party. His career looks quite conventional when you see it on paper, as the Prime Minister read out. He had 16 years in the Senate and a couple of years as a minister. He was a very good minister in his time. I have a note from Graham Edwards, which I should read out. It says:

… though a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War, he had an immense compassion for individual veterans. He helped me and other veterans.

Of course, as Minister for Repatriation and Compensation, he was in a position to do that. He served on many parliamentary committees. He was probably most proud of two of them—though he would have wanted to forget the time when he put in a minority report arguing for the legalisation of the use of marijuana. His last report in parliament was on human rights. It was one of the seminal reports produced by the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee and I do not think we have bettered it. Unlike these days, he wrote most of the report himself. I will put his conversion in politics in his own words, as I think the words bear a bit of thought:

I have had to make what John Foster Dulles would have called an agonising reappraisal. In my early days, I believed that there were a lot of things wrong with Western society as a result of capitalism. I still think that, but I also believe that those things are just as bad, or worse, in Eastern Bloc countries. I was never enamoured of the Soviet Union and I was one of the most vocal critics in the Senate of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. And my stand against the Vietnam War was not taken out of sympathy for the Soviet Union. But it has become clear to me over the past several years that the Soviet Union is an imperialist power and that the danger it poses is greater than any other dangers. I do not think that the two superpowers are equally culpable for the threat to world peace. For a start, the US is subject to the internal pressure of its society.

Speaking about US bases, he said:

I have changed on that. I believe that the Soviet Union has designs on the rest of us and that the US is the principal obstacle to Soviet expansion. If other countries do not cooperate with the US, the chances of the Soviet Union being successful are increased.

One thing I can say about all the speeches is that absolutely none of them were read. Perhaps his second reading speeches on legislation were read, because it is necessary to do so, but they would have been the only speeches he read in this place. I also strongly suspect that he spoke without notes. I did see a set of notes prepared by John Wheeldon once. There were five words bound in a line—and they were his notes for a half-hour speech. He was an extraordinary performer in that regard. As Jim McClelland, one of his friends, said of him:

Wheeldon was one of the verbal pyrotechnists of the Whitlam era. In full flight in the Senate, speaking entirely without notes in flawless syntax on a subject such as the Vietnam War, his was a hard act to beat.

He was an extraordinary speaker. The Prime Minister had something to say about his attitude on the blocking of supply. I was not a member of the caucus then, so I do not know exactly what John’s position was. But he did say this of the Governor-General of the day, whom he had got to know well:

In my experience, I found him to be less than forthright.

That is about as mild as John ever got. I remember him describing one of my colleagues as ‘having the appearance of a soccer ball with scuffs’. He was not a fellow who, when he concluded speaking, operated on the basis that those about whom he was speaking ought to nevertheless leave the room feeling good about themselves. They invariably left the room feeling extremely bad about themselves and often feeling extremely bad about John. He was a one-off. He was an unusual character. Parliament was richer for having him and poorer when he left it. He did not leave politics. He became an active leader writer for the Australian newspaper. He wrote a great deal and put his encyclopaedic comprehension of foreign policy and politics to very good use. He had enormous affection for his family and for his wife, Judith, who will be grieving terribly today. He said this on his retirement:

I suppose it is pretty young to be voluntarily retiring from parliament, but one isn’t immortal. I am certainly not tired of politics, and it remains my main interest, but for some time I have not been enjoying it. In fact, I am not sure that I have ever enjoyed it really, spending 14 hours a week travelling between Perth and Canberra. I do not like being away from my family for long periods. I do not believe there is any great cause being argued in the federal parliament in which I am sufficiently interested to warrant spending the sort of life I am living.

He fought very hard to get that family. When he sought to bring Judith into this country, the entry was vetoed by ASIO and he was obliged to sit down with John Gorton and persuade him to allow his wife in. His wife’s parents had a background in the Communist Party in the United States. His wife subsequently became the principal of Abbotsleigh. I am not sure whether she is now.

Photo of John HowardJohn Howard (Bennelong, Liberal Party, Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

She is retired.

Photo of Kim BeazleyKim Beazley (Brand, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

She was a brilliant teacher. When I knew her in Western Australia she was the vice principal of John Curtin High School. When she went to Sydney she shifted to the private sector. I think she was principal of a prominent Jewish school in Sydney for some time before she took up the appointment at Abbotsleigh. She is a marvellous woman. She and John were a wonderful, witty and enormously capable couple together. I extend on behalf of the Australian Labor Party our deepest condolences to Judith; their son, James; and the son and daughter from John’s first marriage, Andrew and Miriam. I will conclude with something which was said in one of his obituaries, which I think puts it far better than I could conceivably do here:

Wheeldon was a man of almost limitless erudition … original … witty … fluent, sagacious … Although originally a man of the Left, and never one for modern economic reform, he wouldn’t sentimentalise the Left or any of its causes … Wheeldon’s brilliance and wit and moral courage will be missed by all who knew him.

2:22 pm

Photo of Tony AbbottTony Abbott (Warringah, Liberal Party, Leader of the House) Share this | | Hansard source

I came to know John Wheeldon in the late 1980s, by which time he was a writer and commentator, but he was all the better at that thanks to his experience of parliamentary and ministerial life. He would sometimes lament that, as a member of parliament and minister, he had read millions of newspaper articles but not a single book. It was not true of John Wheeldon, of course, but it was certainly an illustration of his awareness of the danger of drawing down too much on your intellectual capital. He also used to say that, in government, people who had studied issues for years never made decisions and the people who did make decisions tended to have studied them for about five minutes—again, a caricature, nevertheless a revealing one, and a warning against the danger of decision making on the run.

As both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have pointed out, John Wheeldon was something of a political pilgrim. He was a former president of the Western Australian Young Liberals. He was not the only lefty to be a Young Liberal president, but I am told it is not as common these days! By the late 1980s, he certainly was a partisan for good people and for defensible principles and not for any particular party. In my experience his passion was to see people treated humanely—that was his great passion and he was quite pragmatic about how that might best be done. He happened to believe, for instance, that Australia’s role in the independence of East Timor righted a great historical wrong and he thought it was one of the proudest moments in our history.

In 1998, along with Peter Coleman, another distinguished former member of this House, he was prepared to lend his name to a campaign to expose the undemocratic nature of the then One Nation Party. I was particularly touched by the faith he was prepared to place in me in this regard, and I hope it was not misplaced.

In my experience, John Wheeldon was loyal without being blind to people’s faults; he was committed without believing that any particular side had a monopoly on wisdom and virtue; he was ferociously opposed to political correctness in all its forms because he believed it defied commonsense. He was a man of high intelligence, of broad culture and of rare moral courage. There are too few such men in our public life, but certainly he served his country to the best of his ability in parliament and in public advocacy. We rightly honour his life and mourn his passing.

In conclusion, I should point out that he was very sick for several years before his death. He was devotedly nursed throughout that long illness by his wife, Judith, who, as the Leader of the Opposition said, is an absolutely brilliant woman in her own right—a former headmistress of Queenwood School in my electorate and of Abbotsleigh College in Wahroonga. We certainly should honour her as we honour him.

Honourable Members:

Hear, hear!

2:26 pm

Photo of Jenny MacklinJenny Macklin (Jagajaga, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

It is true, as the previous speakers have said, that John Wheeldon was a politician who defied categorisation—a thinker, a wit, a brilliant speaker and a fierce proponent of human rights whom Bob Carr described as ‘federal parliament’s one true internationalist’. As the Prime Minister and others have said, he was at one time a small ‘l’ liberal. He was a member of the Young Liberals until 1950, when he quit over the Menzies government’s attempt to ban the Communist Party because he felt it offended principles of justice. One example of his cutting sense of humour was when, in his response to the Menzies’ Communist Party Dissolution Bill, he said: ‘It seemed rather fatuous to call itself the Liberal Party and then introduce a bill like that.’

We know that he mixed with people from very diverse backgrounds—whether it was Rupert Murdoch, Bob Santamaria, Jim Cairns or Barry Cohen, and the list goes on. Even though it is a very diverse list, respect for his intellect was extensive. It is certainly the case that he knew what he was talking about on international affairs, politics, literature and history, and, of course, he had the capacity to turn that knowledge into words that shone.

He was a very lucid, aggressive and, as I understand it, memorable speaker in the parliament. I gather he was impatient with imprecise questioning and intellects less capable than his own—which I suggest might include all of us! As the Leader of the Opposition said, he was a fluent speaker of French and German, studied philosophy at Oxford, practised law and brought all of that into the parliament.

As the Minister for Repatriation and Compensation, he was responsible for trying to establish a national rehabilitation and compensation scheme. Here is another example of his wit. Apparently, when in opposition, John Wheeldon was known to have joked with his then left-wing colleagues: ‘Whitlam will make us all the minister for repatriation.’ It has been suggested that Gough was being ironic in giving this portfolio to a man who once said: ‘I was too young for World War II, too old for Vietnam and too scared for Korea.’

As others have said, he was a passionate opponent of totalitarianism, whether it was of the Left or the Right. He fought apartheid in South Africa, campaigned against the persecution of Lebanese Christians and fiercely criticised the White Australia policy. As others have mentioned, the very important report of the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, which he chaired, made a very significant contribution to exposing human rights abuses in the Soviet Union. We should be very proud of that work.

In short, John Wheeldon cared about the world and Australia’s place in it. He told the Bulletin:

A commitment to democracy and human rights should imbue our view of the world, both because it is morally right and is in our interests.

I must say, working with John must have been, at times, a bewildering experience. His staff told the Age back in 1975:

He can wake in the morning and act like an English social realist philosopher, move into the realms of absurdist humour and finish the day deep in existential thought.

It must have been a task and a half to be one of his staff, but I am sure they learnt an enormous amount as well. To his wife, Judith; his children, Andrew, Miriam and James: our condolences on your loss.

2:30 pm

Photo of Philip RuddockPhilip Ruddock (Berowra, Liberal Party, Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

I briefly wish to be associated with the remarks of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the minister for health and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. This has been a remarkable condolence motion in the context of the sincerity of views on both sides of the chamber. I had the privilege of serving with John in the parliament from 1973 to 1981. I share the same respect that my colleagues have expressed today. My daughter Caitlin was at Abbotsleigh when Judith was the principal. I was at a function organised by the school upon her retirement to look after John. John was present on that occasion. I have enormous admiration for him and a great deal of admiration for his wife. I think she served in the great tradition of Betty Archdale in influencing many young women who will play leadership roles in the future. I am privileged to be able to be associated with the motion.

2:31 pm

Photo of Duncan KerrDuncan Kerr (Denison, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Might I add a couple of remarks. I only met John Wheeldon on a couple of occasions, but one will live in my mind forever. It occurred at a time when I was standing for the Labor Party in 1977, a failed venture into politics as a very young man. I attended a meeting at which Wheeldon was a speaker. He was a small man, who sat curled up with a cigarette smoking between his fingers, in the days when that was possible in public halls. He looked quite insignificant until he rose. He spoke without notes, and he spoke in such a manner that it captivated everybody in that room. And although we only saw him for a short phase in public life as a minister, he also had carriage of one of those great issues of public policy that the Whitlam government put forward and sadly was not implemented—a national compensation scheme, which Whitlam, in his later book recounting his political triumphs and failures, says was his greatest sadness that he was not able to see come into effect. It remains unfinished business for us, when we contemplate the fact that we still have circumstances where persons injured in various different walks of life find themselves without adequate recourse or compensation.

A life like John Wheeldon’s is one that touches many people in many different ways, which has been evidenced by the tributes that have been paid from both sides of this House. As someone who had a tangential relationship with John, difficult though he is said to have been, I remember the speech that he gave on that occasion as probably the most vivid explanation of the agenda of the Whitlam government that I was ever privileged to have heard. Those who were fortunate enough—and, sadly, now as I reflect, old enough—to have been part of that generation and to have seen any aspect of it will never forget his like.

Question agreed to, honourable members standing in their places.