Wednesday, 3 April 2019
Herron, Hon. Dr John Joseph, AO
I rise to honour the life of former senator John Herron, who yesterday in the House of Representatives chamber was generously eulogised, in particular by the Prime Minister. I want to make three points about the late great John Herron. First, he was a fine family man and he often said that his 10 children were by far his greatest achievement. Given all the other things that he did in his life, that was a great tribute to his wife, Jan, and to his children. He was a well-respected—even loved—minister for Indigenous affairs. Given the complexities of that particular portfolio, this was no mean achievement and a great credit to his character. Most notably as minister, he used the Australian Army to lead a sustained upgrading of the then appalling conditions of Indigenous housing in the Northern Territory and elsewhere. He was a wonderful friend of the most admirable character.
I have known John Herron for the best part of a quarter century. I didn't know him as well as I knew other colleagues but certainly he never did anything low or mean. He was always as helpful as he could be to all of his colleagues, and, indeed, to all he came across. Perhaps this was an echo, if you like, of the Hippocratic oath which he took to heart as a doctor. As we all know, it begins, 'First, do no harm'. So many of us, even with the best of intentions, have done much harm. John Herron was one of those figures in this parliament who said what he meant and did what he said. He was always ambitious for the higher things, not simply higher office. We need more people like that in our public life.
I recall, at the very beginning of my own parliamentary life, John took me aside and said, 'Tony, be conscious of this: it's what you don't do, not what you do, that will be your greatest regret in this place.' I very much took that to heart. I've never forgotten it and I've always thought that, if I was in doubt, I should have a go; I should give it a go. I know that has sometimes been to the dismay of my colleagues, but, having spent 25 years in the parliament acting in accordance with John Herron's advice, I don't intend to change.
Also today, in the House of Representatives chamber, we remembered briefly another former member, Peter Coleman, a one-time member for Wentworth. There was no eulogy for Peter Coleman because he was never a federal minister, yet he was a more substantial figure than many who were ministers. With your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker Wicks, I will detain this chamber to honour his life and work.
Peter Coleman was a very, very big figure in our intellectual life as well as in our political life. He edited the famous Bulletin magazine for three years. He was a colleague of Donald Horne at that time. For over 20 years, in several stints, he edited Quadrant, then and probably still our foremost magazine of conservative ideas. He enjoyed a golden afternoon as a journalist in the guise of a columnist for The Spectator magazine. But he was a serious writer too, with academic biographies of James Macaulay and Barry Humphries to his credit and many other works. And he edited his son-in-law Peter Coleman's memoirs, which were one of the best-received political memoirs of recent times.
Peter Coleman grew up in the shadow of war and he began his adult life as a man of the Left. But he was on a journey, as so many are. He wasn't just a Liberal in the sense that he belonged to the Liberal Party and represented the party in the parliament; he was a deeply philosophical Liberal, a deeply thoughtful Liberal. I would describe him as a Bourkean Liberal because, while he cherished freedom, he well understood that freedom can only exist in a context of order and respect for tradition. He was an intellectual of the first rank but he was one for whom the life of the mind was always tempered by courtesy, decency and respect.
From 1968 to 1978 he represented Fuller in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, and he became chief secretary in the Willis government before briefly becoming Leader of the Opposition and losing his seat in the 1978 Wranslide. He was for some years the Administrator of Norfolk Island, and then from 1981 to 1987 he represented Wentworth in the federal parliament, following in the illustrious footsteps of Judge Bob Ellicott and being succeeded by my former boss John Hewson before returning to journalism and academic pursuits.
But I was lucky enough to know Peter Coleman as a friend as well as a public figure, and as a mentor as well as a member of parliament. I first met him visiting the family home as a friend of his daughter, Tanya, now Tanya Costello. And, though there was a 30-year difference in our ages, Peter was never condescending. He never looked down on people because they were younger or because they'd read fewer books. Indeed, he did his best to inspire them to be their best selves. And, many years later in the late nineties, along with John Wheeldon and Piers Akerman, he acted as a kind of probity auditor in a campaign I was then waging against the One Nation party, which in those days was even cruder and coarser than the current version. I have to say that I greatly valued his wisdom and his common sense in those days and subsequently.
Peter's life was marked by cultural self-confidence, personal integrity and human decency. We miss people like that. We often think that people like that are much rarer today than they were once. Maybe his times were easier than these but it's hard to avoid the conclusion, in contemplating the life of people like Peter Coleman and John Herron, that their characters were stronger in those days and their convictions deeper. Still, though Peter is gone, we have his life and his memory to console us and to uplift us, and his example to inspire us and to challenge us to be at least as good in our times as he and his colleagues were in theirs.
I too wish to join with colleagues in recognising the wonderful contribution of John Herron to the life of this nation, and to speak on the motion moved originally in the House by the Prime Minister. When John Herron came to this place in 1990, he already had had a very substantial career. He was, as I recall, in his late 50s when he was elected to the parliament as a senator for Queensland—a role he fulfilled for more than a decade. He'd been the chief surgeon at the Mater Hospital Brisbane, he'd been president of the Australian Medical Association's Queensland branch and, indeed, he was also chairman of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and the Queensland branch of the college of surgeons.
John Herron coming to this place was the mark of a man who had already contributed, if that's all he did in his life, the work of a great Australian. But he came here and continued to contribute as a member of the Senate. He was part of that wonderful influx on our side of politics in 1990. In 1990 people like Peter Costello, the Kemps and others were part of the new membership of the parliament, and John Herron was certainly a very distinguished part of that group.
When I joined them, as an honorary member of the class of 1990, having come here in a by-election in 1991, I soon made friendships with many of those great parliamentarians, including John Herron. I worked with John closely in a number of areas but particularly in the development of family policy, whilst we were in opposition in the early 1990s. Through various meetings and discussions, and through policy forums and the like, those deliberations led to much of the policy, in the social space, that the Howard government adopted and put into operation when we came to government in 1996. John Herron was a great contributor to that process.
The other thing, which is probably forgotten now and which John Herron made a significant contribution to for all members of parliament, was the hours of the parliamentary sittings. John, being a surgeon—and I recall there were a couple of other doctors here at the same time, whose names I can't recall now—was, I know, involved in this. He thought it was absolutely ridiculous that we were sitting until at least 11 o'clock at night on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday nights. Often, particularly towards the end of sessions, we would sit until three or four o'clock in the morning. The first fortnight I came here, I think, we sat until two, three and four o'clock in the morning on about five out of the six or seven nights of that first fortnight. I said to Andrew Peacock, on returning to Melbourne on the plane, 'I'm not sure how I'm going to survive more than a month here.' John Herron and others were keenly aware of the adverse impact this had on the health of members of parliament and, therefore, on their ability to perform their duties, on their relationships with others and, indeed, on how they could humanly perform. Through a campaign that he and others were involved in, the hours of parliamentary sittings were changed to something more reasonable, like they are today, compared to what they were in those very early days.
John was the minister for Indigenous affairs. He had a remarkable interest in Indigenous people in Australia and made a great contribution to that in the Howard government. It's been noted by others, of course, but his involvement in Rwanda and the searing experience of that—and his advocacy for the International Criminal Court—having seen the atrocities being carried out in that nation, was something that stayed with him all his life. He came back and tried to make some contribution not just in terms of national policy here in Australia but also in the way the international community treats such atrocities.
John Herron served for over a decade in the Senate. He also served as the president of the Queensland Liberal Party on two separate occasions and maintained a lifelong interest in the affairs of our side of politics. Along with other great Queenslanders of that time—and I think of the late Warwick Parer, for example—these were men who brought a substantial contribution to the parliament from their previous lives, whether it was in business or, in John Herron's case, in medicine and surgery in particular. They were gentlemen. They were people who had strong views but they were also very civil in the way in which they conducted themselves. They were well liked all across the parliament, regardless of one's political persuasion. That provides a great role model to all of us as to how we conduct ourselves: passionate about issues but civil in the way in which we reach out to each other on different issues.
I'm delighted to be able to say these few words about the late John Herron: a remarkable gentleman, a great parliamentarian and a wonderful Australian. To Jan and to all his family—particularly Willie, who I knew while she was working with John Howard under the Howard government—I extend my condolences. May he rest in peace.
I understand it is the wish of honourable members to signify at this stage their respect and sympathy by rising in their places. I ask all present to do so.
Honourable members having stood in their places—
I thank the Federation Chamber.