Senate debates

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Parliamentary Representation


5:33 pm

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | Hansard source

I rise on behalf of the opposition to make some valedictory remarks for Senator Chris Back. I open my comments with his words—a reflection to all colleagues that there needs to be mutual respect across this chamber, all for each other:

We can come in here with spirited and different views, but the simple fact of the matter is that, when mutual respect for colleagues is lost, this Senate, which is the senior chamber of the Australian parliament and the Australian people, is the poorer for it.

These are Senator Back's words, I think from last week, and they are an eloquent summary of the approach that has defined his career as a senator. And today in his valedictory he reprised the same principles and values.

Regardless of different points of view—and I think Senator Back and I would agree that we have a lot of points of difference on the things in which we believe—he has always conducted himself with dignity and courteously. This does not mean he has shied away from robust argument. In fact, if you look at the record, he has been a passionate speaker. On occasion I have been in the firing line, so I can attest to that. But he has approached debate in this place without personal rancour. I think that is the reason, amongst others, that he is a senator who is so liked and so respected across this chamber. I know his friendly demeanour is appreciated by senators and staff alike and I want to thank him for the approach he has brought to this place.

Senator Brandis made some comments about Senator Back making his first speech on Saint Patrick's Day. I did wonder if that was timetabled deliberately. I assume so. In his opening statement he said he was overwhelmed by the fact that a kid from the Western Australian wheat belt, whose grandfathers were, respectively, an Irish farmer and a Fremantle wharf labourer, could aspire to stand for the Senate, and he talked about his pride in that. I have to say, with that pedigree, we are surprised that he did not end up here as a member of the Labor Party. Anyway, such is life. He has always been a proud product of his background, a proud advocate for the people he represents and proud of his Western Australian heritage.

Perhaps, as Senator Brandis has said, the best known aspect of his life before politics is his qualification as a vet, although the stuff he brought out today I reckon really ought to have been banned—scary! He keeps telling us he is the first vet elected to the Senate. I have not verified it, but I will take him at his word. In the statement announcing his retirement, Senator Back noted the special privilege he has found in representing his profession. He made particular mention of doing so at the time a number of his colleagues unfortunately were struck down by the Hendra virus in Queensland. We have seen his advocacy in many matters associated with his former profession, including in relation to live export, which we have discussed. He has been a regular contributor on issues affecting the agricultural and agribusiness community, the resources sector, bushfire and emergency services personnel, education representatives and the equine industry, which reflects his interests, background and prior professional experience.

I want to make particular mention of Senator Back's service as the chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee. It is probably in this context that I have come in most recent times to work most closely with Senator Back, and it might surprise some to know that actually we got on very well. I want to place on record that he is a dignified, even-handed, calm and fair chairperson. Those of us on this side of the chamber have appreciated that greatly and respected your work greatly. We are going to be suggesting that we bring you back for training of chairs in the weeks to come.

Like many, Senator Back's announcement caught certainly me, and perhaps many of us on this side of the chamber, by surprise. This is an enormous privilege, the life we have and the service we provide, but it also takes a toll on one's personal life and one's family. Whilst all bear that, we often speak about those colleagues from Western Australia or the Northern Territory, for whom I think this is an even more arduous task. Senator Back acknowledged this in his statement of his intention to retire.

Senator Back has been a passionate advocate for the causes in which he believes through his time here. He has been a frequent participant in the debates in this chamber across a wide range of topics. He has contributed the benefit of many experiences and many careers, as he outlined today in the contribution he has made to the Senate. But above all, he has been an unfailingly courteous and decent senator. He has been a good bloke, and it is for this that he will be best remembered. Senator Back, on behalf of the opposition I thank you for your service to the Senate and to the nation. I anticipated you would reprise the same Irish blessing that you ended your first speech with, so I return that in much more prosaic form: may your journey succeed.


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