Senate debates

Tuesday, 12 February 2008


Hon. Kim Edward Beazley, AC

5:46 pm

Photo of John FaulknerJohn Faulkner (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Cabinet Secretary) Share this | Hansard source

When Kim Edward Beazley was elected to represent the Labor Party for the seat of Fremantle in 1945, succeeding John Curtin, he was 27 years old and the youngest member of the House of Representatives. When he retired in 1977, he was the longest serving member—from ‘student prince’, as he was once nicknamed, to the ‘father of the House’. But not all the parliamentary records Kim Beazley could claim were so enviable. As the Leader of the Opposition has said, of the 32 years Kim Beazley Sr spent in the parliament, 25 of them were in opposition. And they were all as a member for a Western Australian electorate. Every parliamentarian understands the pressure that distance and travel place on family life. For our colleagues from Western Australia those difficulties are proportionally greater.

Beazley wrote in his memoir that neither he nor his wife, Betty, had any idea at the beginning of his career how difficult it would be to combine family life with the demands of a political career. It was especially difficult in Beazley’s early years in parliament when the frugal Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley restricted parliamentarians’ travel. Ironically, it was not until Labor lost government that Kim Beazley had access to improved parliamentary perks, as the newly elected Liberal government expected parliamentarians to have allowances and travel more in line with businessmen’s expense accounts than Chif’s more parsimonious standards. I am sure that Kim Beazley would have traded those perks any day for a return to office. But it would be 23 years before he would have the chance.

Nearly three decades in opposition indicates a certain undeniable endurance. It is a measure of not only Kim Edward Beazley’s endurance, but also his consistency that when he finally took his place on the government benches it was to introduce reforms addressing the issue that had first prompted his political involvement.

Like many Labor figures—like me, for example—Beazley’s path through tertiary education was made possible by his employment as a teacher. Even without the burden of fees at the University of Western Australia, the cost of books and other expenses were beyond the means of a young man from a battling family during the Depression. Beazley took a monitorship at a state school and then a course at teachers training school; he was paid £60 in return for a commitment to teach for five years. He discovered that he loved teaching.

There are those in political life who have always aimed to become reformers, whose ambition for social change has guided all their choices. And there are those whose political career emerges, almost taking them unaware, from a deep and genuine commitment to an issue dear to them. Kim Beazley Sr was one of the latter.

His own experience, from a boy standing in the back row, as the Leader of the Government has said, for the royal visit with the other children whose parents could not afford shoes, to the future unlocked for him at Perth Modern School, to teaching in the state school system, left Beazley with a powerful understanding of the role education played in transforming lives, and an abiding conviction of the responsibility government bore in making that transforming opportunity available to all Australians.

Struck by the vast difference between education opportunities available in the state’s public schools and private schools, Kim Beazley joined the Australian Labor Party with the aim, he later wrote, of bringing to Australia high-quality universal education. His education in politics followed.

Western Australia was not immune to the thorny issue of state aid. Beazley found there was no great political will in the Western Australian Labor Party at that time to wade into the debate of funding, or lack thereof, for the Catholic school system. He came to believe that the antipathy between the government and non-government systems was the root cause of successive governments’ inability to provide high-quality universal education. It took nearly 30 years but before the end of his parliamentary career Beazley was able to say that he had overcome that obstacle and achieved the aims that first took him into politics.

He was a minister for only three years but in those three years he had responsibility for what became some of the Whitlam government’s most enduring and iconic reforms. As Minister for Education, Kim Beazley oversaw the ending of the funding divide that separated private and public schools and the introduction of free tertiary education. Those policy reforms changed the landscape of Australian education. Two ideas were firmly enshrined in Australia’s education policy: the principle that university access ought to depend on merit, not wealth; and the idea that the government is responsible for ensuring the quality of education for all Australian students.

There are a great many Australians today who have had an opportunity to make far more of their lives than they otherwise could have because of their access to education—access that they owe to the reforms introduced by education minister Kim Beazley in the Whitlam government. Beazley was so dedicated to the reforms that he worked night and day, criss-crossing the country until he collapsed from exhaustion. The legislation was introduced while he was in hospital.

The expansion of access to high-quality education may be the greatest of Kim Beazley’s legacies but it was neither the only cause he championed nor the only success he had. He held strong opinions about the direction of the Labor Party, opinions that placed him at odds with his own party branch in Western Australia. Although not a Catholic and never a Grouper he had a deep antipathy to the atheist convictions of the Communist Party and a belief that the tragedies of the world were due to mankind ignoring the tenets of religion.

He did not leave the Labor Party during the split but, as for so many members of the Labor Party in that era, the split had a long-lasting effect on Kim Beazley’s career, as it did on the fortunes of the Labor Party. Beazley lost his membership of the federal executive for defying the left-wing state secretary, Joe Chamberlain, by voting to support Gough Whitlam’s intervention into the unelectable Victorian branch and voting against intervention into the right-dominated New South Wales branch. He paid and was willing to pay a personal price to support Whitlam’s leadership and his very necessary party reforms, without which there would not have been a Whitlam government.

In other ways I think his views could be described as to the left of the party. His experience in 1961 as a member of the Select Committee on the Voting Rights for Aborigines, which travelled 21,000 miles to hold hearings all around the country, had a profound impact on Beazley’s views. He became a long-time supporter of the rights of Australia’s first inhabitants, championing the principle of what was then termed ‘tribal title’ but what we now know as land rights. He argued for government recognition that Indigenous people had a relationship to the land that was different to but not lesser than the European model. He also understood that economic security was a fundamental right for all Australians, and that for Indigenous Australians economic security had to start with title to their land.

He believed in listening to Indigenous communities, not to officials and welfare officers, and it was from listening to and talking with Indigenous Australians that he developed his views. He was resistant both to assimilationist insistence that Indigenous Australians completely surrender their heritage and to the brand of noble-savage racism that sought to impose unwanted paralysis and stagnation.

The ability to meet his fellow men as equals regardless of race or nation influenced his views on foreign policy. Beazley was able to see Australia in the context of our region without the fear of Asia that poisoned so many of his contemporaries. When it came to national security, international relations and the rights of the original inhabitants of Australia, his views would not be shared by the majority until long after his retirement from parliament. In these respects he was ahead of his time. There is a certain irony that the internationalism and antiracism that informed these views grew from the deep and abiding religious convictions and advocacy of moral rearmament that led many to characterise him as behind the times.

It is often said of Kim Edward Beazley that he might well have led Labor were it not for the enemies he made through his devout faith and moral rearmament convictions. I think this is perhaps a little simplistic. His views were strongly and sincerely held, were always rooted in conviction, and were without desire for personal or political gain. However, they were, in many cases, not the views of the Australian Labor Party or the Australian people.

On matters that are traditionally regarded as questions of conscience—such as the availability of divorce—Kim Beazley was, even in the days of the Whitlam government, part of a minority fighting to hold back a tide of change. His declaration that he had made a decision to ‘concern myself daily with the challenge of how to live out God’s will and to turn the searchlight of absolute honesty on my motives’ was viewed with consternation by some political colleagues. Nor was his enthusiastic evangelising on questions of personal morality welcome in all quarters. Although some of his views may seem alienating to us, the sincere impulses from which they sprang, I think, can only be viewed as admirable.

Kim Beazley Senior’s childhood was marred by the poverty and fear that followed his father’s struggles with alcohol. In his unpublished memoir he recounts going around the house hiding all the razors, believing his father might even use them on his family. At the same time his mother, a bastion of love and security for Kim and his six older siblings, emphasised the importance of education and of religion—education as the escape from poverty and insecurity, and religion as the guide to a decent and moral life. Throughout his life, Kim Edward Beazley would continue to be guided by these values.

His lifelong determination, expressed in political activism and religious faith, was to be a good husband, a good father and a good man. At his funeral, his family testified movingly how well he lived up to the first two of those ambitions. Speaking as a member of the Australian Labor Party, to which Kim Edward Beazley gave so many decades of service and in whose name he achieved so much on behalf of the disadvantaged, the marginalised and the embattled in our community, I believe it is undeniable that he achieved the third as well. Knowing Kim Edward Beazley’s son Kim Christian Beazley so well, we of course feel this loss very keenly. Our sympathies are with Betty Beazley and all the Beazley family. We have lost a colleague. They have lost a dearly beloved husband, father and friend.


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