House debates

Wednesday, 3 February 2021


Jeffery, Major General Hon. Philip Michael, AC, AO (Mil), CVO, MC (Retd)

10:30 am

Photo of Julian LeeserJulian Leeser (Berowra, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

General Michael Jeffery was a soldier, a governor, a governor-general, a patriot, a statesman—somebody who was deeply concerned with and interested in Australia, its history, its institutions and its future. I'm delighted to have the opportunity to pay tribute to him.

General Jeffery's career is well known. He left school at 16 to join the RMC at Duntroon. He served in the SAS, becoming its commander, and did tours in Malaya, in Borneo, in Papua New Guinea and in Vietnam, where he was awarded both the Military Cross and the South Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. Later when he came home, as I say, he went on to head the SAS. He was our national counterterrorist coordinator. He was promoted to major general and commanded the Army's 15,000-person 1st Division and rose to be assistant chief of the general staff. Between 1993 and 2000, he was governor of Western Australia.

In 2003, because of some of the controversies that had surrounded General Jeffery's predecessor, Peter Hollingworth and had ultimately led to his resignation, John Howard was looking for a person to restore public confidence in the office. He wanted to find a person who had a proven track record of service and who had already discharged the role of being a vice-regal representative with great distinction. He could have done no better than choosing Michael Jeffery, who really restored public confidence to the office.

In many respects, General Jeffery was a formal and austere man, but he was very compassionate at the same time. As Governor-General, he discharged his duties impeccably. He was a great believer in Walter Bagehot's dictum about the monarchy—that the monarchy has three rights: the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn. As a special adviser to the then Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, at the time of some royal commissions that were being established, I was told very clearly that General Jeffery was a stickler for precision, in terms of terms of reference and in terms of the presentation of documents to him in the context of executive council. So extra care and precision were taken in preparing letters patent for his signature. In fact, it was well known among government circles that General Jeffery would often send ministers back to reconsider matters from time to time if he thought that the balance wasn't right. He took his constitutional duties as Governor-General very seriously. He was in no sense a rubber stamp. His period saw the last years of the Howard and the beginnings of the Rudd government. It was not a period of constitutional controversy, and that was a good thing.

Today, in my remarks, I particularly want to focus on some work that General Jeffery did subsequent to leaving office as Governor-General and particularly his contribution to the discussion and debate about our Constitution. I think this is a perhaps less well-known aspect of General Jeffery's contribution. When General Jeffery was Governor-General he was invited to become the patron of a new organisation, the Constitution Education Fund Australia. I was there at the birth of the Constitution Education Fund Australia. In the wake of the 1999 republic referendum, a group of largely constitutional monarchists, like myself, who had been involved in that campaign took the view that Australians would benefit from knowing more about our Constitution. All of the data tells us that Australians know far too little about our constitution, and that this is particularly the case with younger Australians. And if people don't understand our Constitution and our system of government, how can we have an informed debate about changing it at some point, if people wish to do that? Indeed, from my perspective, the more people know about the system, the less they will want to change it, and I think that's a good thing.

The Constitution Education Fund Australia was the brainchild of Kerry Jones, who remains its executive director. She managed to attract a whole range of highly distinguished Australians to be involved in the organisation, both serving on the board of the Constitution Education Fund and participating in its work in substantive terms. She got people who had been involved on both sides of the republic debate, and that was very important because the organisation has no particular view on the republic debate itself. General Jeffery, when he was Governor-General, became patron in particular of the Governor-General's Prize, a $10,000 undergraduate essay competition on a topic of significance related to the debate about Australia's Constitution. It is awarded every year, and has been since 2004. That is a really significant thing that he did. It's a really significant prize and a significant way of encouraging more people to understand the Constitution.

In 2014 he became the chair of the Constitution Education Fund Australia, occupying the role from 2014 to 2019. I want to read something that General Jeffery had to say about the importance of people understanding the Constitution and about CEFA itself. He said:

I firmly believe that all Australians, young and old, those born here and those who have come from other lands, should have a broad understanding of the system of government that has made our country one of the most successful democracies in the world. I hope that you will consider either participating in, or supporting this cause. By doing so you will be helping to give all Australians—especially our leaders of tomorrow—a greater appreciation of a system of government and a Constitution that has played a vital part in making Australia a country of which we can all be rightly proud.

To that I say: hear, hear! General Jeffery has been succeeded as the chair of the Constitution Education Fund by the Hon. Robert French, the former Chief Justice of Australia, and I think that indicates the quality of the organisation and the quality of the people involved.

During General Jeffery's term as the chair of the Constitution Education Fund, he and Kerry Jones came to me and asked me to be the parliamentary patron of what is now the Australian Constitution Centre. They had had a dream for several years to establish a place in Canberra that people—particularly school students—could come to as part of their visit to Canberra and understand in a memorable way something about the history of the making of the Constitution and the way in which the Constitution itself has been applied by the court and the way it operates in institutions such as the parliament. General Jeffery was hugely helpful in terms of securing funding for the Constitution Centre, which was opened in 2018, and I want to acknowledge the work of former Attorney-General George Brandis, former arts minister Mitch Fifield and former education ministers Simon Birmingham and Dan Tehan, who were involved in the initial funding and then further funding of that centre to create a truly memorable and interactive experience for students coming to visit the High Court, as part of their year 5/year 6 Canberra experience, but also for Australians more broadly who are interested in something of the constitutional history of this country. The fact that he lent his name to and that he was an advocate for this, I think, gave great standing to a proposal that many had favoured getting off the ground for some time.

I said earlier that General Jeffery was an austere man, and he was very formal in his presentation. I've had the privilege of meeting several vice-regal office holders, both in office and subsequently, and for the most part they are a reasonably relaxed group of people. General Jeffery was not that. He was always addressed as 'General Jeffery'. But that formality in some respects belied a great sense of compassion. That sense of compassion came out on the second constitutional issue that I wish to talk about that he was involved in, and that was his interest in the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. General Jeffery had had a long experience in the military of working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. He had been involved in establishing NORFORCE. Remember the famous Bush Tucker Man, Les Hiddins, of ABC fame? General Jeffery commissioned him to go out, as part of the establishment of NORFORCE, and to collect information about bush tucker in order to extend the survival of troops that might be in northern Australia. He saw that the rest of the country had a lot to learn from Indigenous Australians, from our First Nations people, from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Several years ago, he wrote a chapter in a book that was edited by Damien Freeman and Shireen Morris, called The Forgotten People. The chapter is called 'The legacy of ancient Australia for modern Australia'. The purpose of that collection of essays was for constitutional conservatives, of which General Jeffery was clearly one, to come together and demonstrate that those of us who are constitutionally conservative can believe in constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in a substantive and not just symbolic way. In his chapter, General Jeffery praises the traditions—what he borrows from WEH Stanner as the high culture of Aboriginal people, their knowledge of land and their sense of family. He acknowledges both his own experiences and the experiences of the country in dealing with it. He then makes some important observations, which I want to quote today. He said: 'The time has come for the Australian nation to consolidate reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Such reconciliation must be full and dignified, and I believe this can be achieved through a process that involves both constitutional and non-constitutional reforms. But the success of such recognition requires the same characteristics I mentioned in 1994: mutual understanding, respect and the capacity for compromise. Sometimes I feel that debates about recognition focus almost exclusively on what the Australian nation can do for its Indigenous people. For my part, I'm particularly interested in what Indigenous people have to offer contemporary Australia. A number of aspects of traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures could possibly be incorporated into contemporary Australian life and lead to far better outcomes for us all.' That's the basis upon which he participated in the debate.

I should note that, about 10 days before the Uluru statement in May 2017, an article appeared in The Australian by Stephen Fitzpatrick titled, 'Conservatives back "tangible" change model' for Indigenous recognition, where General Jeffery and Sir Angus Houston both backed the idea of a consultative mechanism—effectively a precursor to the voice that is mentioned in the Uluru statement as part of a package involving constitutional recognition. Often people think that the Uluru statement is a document of the Left. It is not that at all. Many of the ideas that underscore the Uluru statement actually came from Indigenous leaders engaging with constitutional conservatives like General Jeffery.

I want to finish by quoting his contribution at the end of his chapter about the importance of constitutional recognition in a substantive form. He said, 'Since 1967, the Australian parliament has had the power to make laws with respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It's vital that the Australian parliament and all jurisdictional parliaments work in close consultation with Indigenous people in passing laws affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in order to identify new or better ways to ensure the restoration of pride, dignity and self-esteem, and that the gap is really closed. The need for consultation must be recognised as an integral part of the full recognition of our Indigenous peoples. We must commit ourselves to doing all of this in a way that continues to uphold the fundamental integrity of the Australian Constitution that has served the nation so well for over a century.' That's a very significant contribution from a very significant Australian. General Jeffery was, in any respect, one of the great military, vice-regal and cultural figures of the early part of this century. He leaves a great legacy. To his wife Marlena and their family, may his memory be a blessing.

10:43 am

Photo of Richard MarlesRichard Marles (Corio, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

I start by acknowledging the contribution that was just made by the member for Berowra, who, in a really fine contribution, honoured a great Australian in a way which certainly illuminated aspects of his life for me and for the country. It was a really fine contribution in this place, so thank you. For those of us in the class of 2007 and those of us in the class of 2004, Major General Michael Jeffery was the first Governor-General that we were introduced to as fresh-faced members of parliament. When we were in that queue lining up to shake his hand, the man we met was quiet—'austere' was the word that the member for Berowra used, and I think that's fair—but also a man of enormous authority and enormous dignity. Major General Michael Jeffery was the first career soldier to be Australia's Governor-General, and what a decorated career as a soldier that was. He was deployed in Malaya on secondment to the British Army. He was deployed in Borneo. He was deployed in Papua New Guinea, a country for which he formed a particular affection, like me, and a country which became a very special place for Michael Jeffery because it's also the place where he met and married his wife, Marlena. He was deployed in Vietnam where, as the commander of an infantry company in Operation Hammersley, he was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery and for his valour.

Major General Jeffery was the Commander of the Special Air Service Regiment in Perth and then, as Major General, the commander of the 1st Division of the Australian Army. In every sense he was a soldier's soldier, but his career, both in the Army and beyond, was so much more than that. I can remember talking to the current Chief of the Defence Force, when he was the Chief of Army, about why it was that people made a decision to join the army. If you want to go to sea, you join the navy. If you want to fly, you join the air force. But what was it that made people join the army particularly? He said that the basic platform of the navy is ships, the basic platform of the air force is planes but the platform of the army is people—the army is the people's service—and that was an idea which sat very well with Michael Jeffery. He was a people person and his life was about the service of people.

As a senior officer in the Army, he saw that married quarters for married personnel were in an appalling state and quite bravely, in a way which he was recommended not to do because it might affect his career, he went out and advocated for change in respect of those facilities. The result of his efforts led to the Defence Housing Authority. Later, as the Governor of Western Australia, he became aware that there was a sewage leak next to the Wiluna primary school, in the town of his birth. He got on the phone straightaway and had that leak fixed. He was a person who was always caring about others.

Major General Michael Jeffery served for 12 years in vice-regal office and he did so with distinction and honour. There is a delicate line to be walked, for those who serve in vice-regal office, with respect to the management of their own personal opinions, and it was a line that he walked with the utmost discretion, always on the appropriate side. However, one should not confuse that with an idea that Major General Michael Jeffery was anything other than a deeply thoughtful human being, and the contribution that we've just heard from the member for Berowra absolutely bears that out. He argued, for example, for the inclusion of Aboriginal history education in the curriculum of the schools in Western Australia. On leaving vice-regal office, he knew that one of the great challenges that would face humanity was how we were going to feed the human population into the middle of the century, how we were going to manage our water resources. So he established Soils for Life, knowing that in the most practical way soil quality was fundamental to the kind of agricultural production which would be required in order to meet that challenge.

Michael Jeffery was a man who was very humble. It's a repeated message that's come through in all of the eulogies about him. According to one of his staff, during his time as our 24th Governor-General he regarded himself as the nation's 'thankyouer-in-chief'. It says something about him that he was always interested in the contribution and in what others were doing, rather than in himself. His granddaughter said:

Despite his capacity to walk with kings, the humbleness of the boy from Wiluna never really left him.

It says a lot about Michael Jeffery. It says a lot about where his thought life was. It wasn't about his ego and it wasn't about his self; it was about others. The others who mattered most in his life, of course, were his family, and it is to them that our thoughts are most keenly directed at this moment: to Marlena, his wife, to his children and to his grandchildren. They will be feeling an enormous sense of loss and pain right now, but they can gain comfort from the idea that from their family came a remarkable Australian. Vale Major General Michael Jeffery.

10:49 am

Photo of Michael McCormackMichael McCormack (Riverina, National Party, Leader of the Nationals) Share this | | Hansard source

I acknowledge the fine words of the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, the member for Corio, and know that he said them with warmth and sincerity, with his usual genuine self when it comes to speaking on matters such as this. I think across the political divide we can all agree that Major General Michael Jeffery was a fine Australian. When I went to the recent Soils event, the member for Barton also spoke very eloquently about Michael Jeffery. It doesn't matter what your political persuasion, no matter what your station in life in Australia is, he has affected us all in one way, shape or form. We've lost one of our best and bravest with the passing of the former Governor-General.

Major General Michael Jeffery was not only a great Australian and respected military leader; he was someone who knew the importance of regional Australia. I and certainly the member for Dawson, beside me, know how important that is in the context of the country people we serve, because Michael Jeffery was one of us. He was one for all Australians. Australia could not have asked for a better soldier, a better statesman or a better person to advocate for the rural sector. I know how much importance he placed on being Australia's first National Soils Advocate. He was a man of the land. He loved the dirt and he wanted to improve it in every way possible. He hailed from Wiluna, in Western Australia, as the member for Corio has just indicated, and he never relinquished his early passion for agriculture and the healthy landscape on which it depends.

He was Australia's National Soils Advocate from October 2012 to August 2020, when he stepped aside due to ill health. This position was created as the dedicated specialist role to promote the importance of soil health, which underpins this country's agricultural industry. If you've got good soil and you've got good water management then country Australia benefits, all the nation benefits, as does our exports. It is a crucial role: overseeing delivery of soils research, development and education and finding new ways to boost soil management so it can improve nutrition and fibre quality. That's what Michael Jeffery was all about. It was a role about which he was passionate, because he knew the value of the land and its integral connection to Australian farming.

By championing soil health from Parliament House to the paddock, he successfully changed attitudes towards soil sustainability. Indeed, he energised change on farms right across Australia, and we are seeing the benefit of that now. We are seeing the benefit of the sorts of things that he had been championing all his life. Farming is set to expand from the $61 billion gross value of production this year to a $100 billion turnover in less than a decade from now, because our soil and water strategies will hit the mark. I know that in 2030 when—not if but when—that happens that will be a legacy, too, of his life. We cannot thank him enough for his service to this country, and we appreciate the attention he gave to agriculture, especially through his dedicated attention to promoting better soils and sustainability. I know I'm talking about soils a lot, but it was just one component of his life—just one portion of a life well lived—but it is an important one for me as a regional member.

His legacy will also be perpetuated through a new award named in his honour. The General Jeffery Soil Health Award was announced at the inaugural Parliamentary Friends of Soil function that I mentioned earlier, where the member for Barton spoke very eloquently. I know how important soil health is to the member for Barton, being a proud Wiradjuri woman. We know that Indigenous Australians looked after this land for tens of thousands of years. I know that this special award, this significant honour, was also very much appreciated by his family and indeed by General Jeffery himself. His name will live on not only for his significant contribution to Australia but also through this biennial award and the protection and preservation of one of our most precious resources—the very land beneath our feet.

There is much more work underway to build on this wonderful legacy. This year the government has a strong focus on agriculture and the environment. The 2021-22 budget will incorporate the resources needed to build a National Soil Strategy. Again, that is largely thanks to the work that Major General Michael Jeffery did. The Prime Minister confirmed this in his recent address to the National Press Club, and I know that he too shares this vision. This strategy will include practical actions and focus on the development of a national monitoring program to assess the condition of Australian soils research and development—again, things which were championed by Michael. The strategy will help with implementation, capacity building and extension work.

Soil husbandry is not a new concept. Bodies include the New South Wales Soils Conservation Service, which, over decades, has given a real practical lead in dealing with erosion and how to boost soil quality. Major General Jeffery—I called him Michael a minute ago, but we really should honour the man with his proper title—was a humble man, he was one of all of us, and he liked to be called by his Christian name. The pomp and ceremony was part of what he did as Governor-General and so much more, but he was very much a down-to-earth and plain-speaking man. From 2012 he was one of the original board members of Soils For Life, later stepping down from the chairmanship so he could focus on his prime-ministerial employment as Advocate for Soil Health. In his message as he left that chairmanship role he said:

We have worked hard to share regenerative principles and practices. We have supported change to farming practices to include carbon in our precious national asset the soil. Soil carbon benefits include resilience and food security, plant nutritional quality, improved water filtration and reduced erosion and nutrient run-off.

Another founding member of Soils For Life, Alasdair MacLeod—and this is an interesting point—has likewise worked long and hard. We have seen him step forward just in recent weeks. Mr MacLeod chairs a group which owns Wilmot Cattle Company based at Ebor in the New England region. This business has now sealed the sale of carbon credits to global technology company Microsoft. That's a big step forward. Again, it's another thing that Michael Jeffery championed. In announcing the sale, Wilmot said it was 'focused on grazing management to build a resilient landscape, countering drought, especially by ensuring that they were not overgrazing'. So this focus on soil health is delivering payment for carbon sequestration—all of which, no doubt, will deliver even better soil management practices in the years and decades to come. Good care for our soils is delivering so much now, and there is so much more to come.

I also recognise the outstanding leadership of Michael Jeffery not just through the Armed Forces but also as Governor-General. He led by example. As the Prime Minister said, he was a man of faith, integrity and decency. I join with all members in extending condolences to his wife, Marlena, and his family. His legacy will live on, and it will keep building not just through a reward structure but because reliable water and fertile soils are, I believe and he believed, the pathway to our nation's future. Regional growth is highly reliant on quality soils and water. We all know that. Today we see regional growth leading our national economic recovery through COVID-19. Former Queensland Governor the Honourable Penny Wensley AC is our new National Soils Advocate. I welcome her. She builds on General Jeffery's work. We thank her for the way she is honouring the legacy of Michael Jeffery. I thank all members for their contributions on this very important condolence motion. Vale a truly great Australian.

10:58 am

Photo of Brendan O'ConnorBrendan O'Connor (Gorton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs (House)) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to add to the contributions made by the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Deputy Prime Minister, the member for Corio and others about the remarkable life of Major General Michael Jeffery. I first met Michael Jeffery in 2003 as a relatively new member of parliament. He was appointed Governor-General after what was clearly a very difficult and controversial period for the position of Governor-General given the way in which his predecessor resigned. It was up to Major General Michael Jeffery to restore normalcy to a very important office. He did that with the professionalism and dedication to duty that he had exhibited throughout his entire military career.

My memory of him in that very significant role is of civility, curiosity and a rather dry sense of humour. He held to the maxim that it's important to adhere to protocols in such positions. He was quite formal in his approach to engaging with members of parliament. But behind that official presentation, that visage, was a very humorous man who was always interested in talking about matters he had an interest in beyond his military career.

His career was one of great success. He left home, Perth, at the age of 16 and attended the Royal Military College Duntroon. He served our nation in Malaya, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam, where he was the commander of the 8th Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment and where he was awarded the Military Cross and the South Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. He continued in his many roles in the military until he was appointed Governor of Western Australia in 1993. He held that important post for seven years, after which he was involved in establishing a think tank to consider medium- and long-term policy challenges that confronted this nation. He was a man of curiosity beyond his military career, and that was on display whenever we had the chance to discuss matters with him. In his role as Governor-General, he played an important part in restoring that office after a very turbulent period. He took to that task with the professionalism and dedication to duty that was a hallmark of his career.

He was also appointed, by the then Gillard government, as the Deputy Prime Minister just mentioned, as the first National Soils Advocate. He had a deep interest and concern for the environment and, as an advocate, he met many people, from the parliament to the paddock. He was engaged in that role, talking about ensuring that our environment could be improved, and his legacy will live on in that role as well.

I extend my condolences to his wife of more than 50 years, Marlena, his three sons and daughter and his seven grandchildren. Vale Major General Michael Jeffery.

Photo of Ross VastaRoss Vasta (Bonner, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I understand it is the wish of honourable members to signify at this stage their respect and sympathy by rising in their places, and I ask all those present to do so.

Honourable members having stood in their places—

I thank the chamber.

11:03 am

Photo of Pat ConaghanPat Conaghan (Cowper, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That further proceedings be conducted in the House.

Question agreed to.

House adjourned at 11:04