Senate debates

Tuesday, 12 February 2008


Hon. Kim Edward Beazley, AC

5:30 pm

Photo of Chris EvansChris Evans (WA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate records its deep regret at the death, on 12 October 2007, of the Honourable Kim Edward Beazley, AC, former federal minister and member for Fremantle, and places on record its appreciation of his long meritorious public service and tenders its profound sympathy to his family.

Unlike the people referred to on some occasions in condolence motions, I actually knew Kim Beazley Sr. He was a learned and courteous man who continued to contribute to public life right up until his passing. He, of course, was a great Labor hero. In my youth he was one of the men who I looked up to. He was an inspiration to many young Labor people as they became interested in politics. I had the honour of attending his funeral, representing the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd—as senators would understand, it was in the period leading up to the federal election. There was a very good attendance of current and former members of parliament from both sides of politics. We certainly appreciated that. Of course, former Prime Ministers Keating, Hawke and Whitlam all attended and the former Governor-General, Bill Hayden, was also there. I think that is a sign of the respect with which Kim Beazley Sr was held.

At the age of 28, he entered the House of Representatives as its youngest member, representing the Western Australian electorate of Fremantle. During his 32 years in parliament, Kim earned the respect of both sides of politics and was widely recognised as one of the best parliamentary debaters and orators of his time. Kim was a great Labor figure, often said to be the ‘conscience of the Labor Party’. His career was deeply influenced by his Christian faith and his passion for education and Indigenous issues. I think he would appreciate what the parliament intends to do tomorrow very much. He made a significant and lasting contribution in government and in opposition and has had a defining influence on policy both nationally and within the Labor Party. In 1979 he was awarded the Order of Australia. Kim Beazley Sr died in Perth on 12 October 2007 at the age of 90, leaving a country so much the richer for his many years on earth.

In his early life, Kim had a sort of classic working-class upbringing and often went barefooted to school. In fact, when the Duke and Duchess of York visited his primary school in Fremantle in 1927 he was assigned to flag waving at the back because he had no shoes. Despite not being able to afford school shoes, his mother knew the value of something much more important—education. Kim would later say:

... we might have been bare-footed, but we could recite Wordsworth.

Kim topped the state in English and history and gained a scholarship to Perth Modern School, the alumni of a number of great Australians, including Sir Paul Hasluck, Dr ‘Nugget’ Coombs, Bob Hawke, John Stone and my partner, Miriam. He subsequently studied at Claremont Teachers’ College and then the University of Western Australia.

In 1937 he commenced work with the education department and taught successively at Richmond, a school in East Fremantle, Arthur River, Midland Junction and Claremont. At the time of his nomination for the Fremantle seat in 1945 he was living in Claremont and tutoring at Claremont Teachers’ Training College. He had also tutored at the University of Western Australia and became vice-president of the state school teachers’ union and a member of the Australian Teachers’ Federation.

Kim Beazley Sr first joined the ALP through the Labor Club of the University of WA and became a delegate to the metropolitan council and member of the state executive. He became the ALP senior vice-president and was a member of the federal executive of the ALP. In 1945, on the sudden death of the Prime Minister, John Curtin, he was endorsed for and won the seat of Fremantle. In a field of six candidates, he won the seat with an absolute majority of nearly 9,000 votes, and, at 28, became the youngest member of the House of Representatives. A year later he defeated his Liberal opponent in the 1946 general election by almost 20,000 votes. His majority went up and down over the years, but he continued to hold the seat strongly for Labor.

His youthful looks and intellect earned him the nickname of ‘the student prince’, but he was also known by some of his colleagues, not entirely charitably, as ‘the young Lochinvar’. Not surprisingly, when Kim Beazley Sr first entered parliament, he was immediately touted as having ministerial potential. When Labor won government under Gough Whitlam in 1972, Kim held the education portfolio throughout the government’s three-year span. Mungo MacCallum described Kim Beazley Sr as a ‘towering and intimidating figure with something of the style of an Old Testament prophet’. He was renowned for his deep Christian faith and strong moral stances on issues that led to some testing relationships with members of his own party.

Kim’s commitment to the Christian faith never wavered, even if politically it may not have been the most pragmatic thing for him to do. In 1953, Kim Beazley Sr became involved in the Moral Rearmament Movement and made a commitment to ‘concern myself daily with the challenge of how to live out God’s will and to turn the searchlight of absolute honesty onto my motives.’ He committed himself very much to the work of the Moral Rearmament Movement. Many within the Labor Party felt uneasy at Kim’s commitment to honesty and the Christian faith. Alan Reid, an influential correspondent of the time, wrote that Beazley was facing political destruction taking such a highly principled approach to politics. Reid wrote:

Powerful office-hungry individuals fear that his idealism and his current determination to pursue truth, whatever the price, could cost the Labor Party the next election. The story they are assiduously and effectively peddling is, ‘Beazley has lost his balance.’

However, it was far from destroying Kim; he went on to become one of Australia’s most successful education ministers and played an influential role within the ALP. The election of the Whitlam government gave Kim Beazley Sr the opportunity, after 27 years in parliament, to a make a real difference as education minister. Driven by his sense of fairness and equality, Kim Beazley Sr was responsible for some of the most influential education reforms in Australia’s history. Perhaps his crowning achievement in education was the abolition of university fees, to provide free education for a generation of tertiary students, of which I am one. Also, under his watch as education minister, enrolments in technical education leaped from 400,000 to 705,000.

Kim was also responsible for introducing government funding for both private and public schools. He said at the time, ‘The Constitution doesn’t say that the Commonwealth may give benefits to the states, but nothing to Catholics. What we must do is look at all Australian children as Commonwealth citizens, and meet their needs.’ Kim cared deeply for those most in need—in particular underprivileged children. He once said: ‘We love the brilliant child and the scholar, but what about the others—children who are physically, socially, or geographically handicapped, children who go to school without the precognitive use of speech because they were without books or intelligent conversation? These are my first priorities.’ As education minister, Kim implemented a range of Commonwealth programs to help Indigenous children, migrant children and children with special needs, as well as providing assistance for people to embark on technical and adult education. Kim’s work ethic and desire to make Australia’s education system more equitable were second to none. His work ethic once led to his collapsing of exhaustion after embarking on a barnstorming campaign which saw him speaking every night, jumping from state to state, to explain the Karmel committee recommendations to provide funding to government and non-government schools through a grants program.

As this parliament prepares to say sorry to a generation of people who were removed from their families as children, it is pertinent that Kim’s passion for the rights of Aboriginal people is acknowledged. Kim’s commitment to this issue was an enduring feature of his life, both in and out of parliament. In 1952, he was the first member of federal parliament to raise the issue of Aboriginal land rights but, as we know, it took years before anything was implemented. His passionate advocacy for Aboriginal rights inspired many. Former Western Australian Premier Geoff Gallop has said that he would never forget, as a student, listening to Mr Beazley Sr speak about Indigenous rights. Kim pushed for and was successful in having Aboriginal land rights installed into the Labor Party platform and was the parliamentary representative on the council of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies from 1964 to 1972. One of the first things he initiated as Minister for Education was to enable Aboriginal children to be taught in their own languages—with English as a second language—and within three years Aboriginal children around Australia were being taught in 22 of their own languages. Kim also introduced scholarships for Indigenous children to encourage and assist them to gain an education.

After his parliamentary career, Kim Beazley Sr did not stand down from public life. He headed a major ground-breaking inquiry into Western Australia’s education system, the results of which form the foundations of the current Western Australian education system. Kim chaired a joint parliamentary lay committee which investigated aspects of parliamentary privilege during the term of the Dowding WA state Labor government. He continued his passionate interest in Aboriginal rights and remained a very strong public advocate. He also kept a grassroots connection with the Labor Party: up to the age of 80, he and his partner, Betty, held branch meetings in his house in Cottesloe. Betty has remained active at the branch level to this day.

There is no doubt that Kim Edward Beazley was one of Australia’s most respected political postwar figures, not so much for the relatively brief yet remarkable achievements of his time as federal Minister for Education, but for his consistently righteous stand on issues affecting public life. On behalf of the government, I wish to offer our sincere thanks to a man who made such an enormous contribution to the parliament and to public life. Last year was a very difficult year for the Beazley family. Sadly, Kim Beazley Senior’s younger son, David, died last year as well. We extend our condolences to his wife, Betty, and to his children, Kim Beazley Jr and Merrilyn Wasson, and their respective families. They have much to be proud of on the passing of a very great Australian.


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