Senate debates

Monday, 27 November 2017


Fife, Hon. Wallace Clyde 'Wal'

3:36 pm

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Attorney-General) Share this | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

That the Senate records its sorrow at the death, on 16 November 2017, of the Hon. Wallace Clyde 'Wal' Fife, former Minister for Aviation, Minister for Education, Minister for Business and Consumer Affairs and a former member of the House of Representatives for the divisions of Hume and Farrer, places on record its gratitude for his service to the Parliament and the nation, and tenders its sympathy to his family in their bereavement.

Wal Fife was born in Wagga Wagga in New South Wales on 2 October 1929, the second son of William Clyde Fife, an agricultural produce merchant, and Myrtle Elizabeth Wyatt. He began his schooling at South Wagga Public School before transferring to Wagga Primary School. Born on the cusp of the Great Depression to a family which, for many years, would struggle to make ends meet, there was little in Wal's background to suggest that a long and distinguished parliamentary career beckoned, but the political bug bit early.

As Wal recounted in later life, 'In September 1940, aged 10, I played "election day" the way other children played "cops and robbers" or pretended to be firemen or engine drivers'—a feat of which you, Mr President, may not even have been capable at the age of 10. He went on to say, 'My parents returned home from voting at the South Wagga School booth with a handful of how-to-vote cards. They might have been good scribbling paper, but I used them to set up a make-believe polling booth using boxes in the garage and handed them out to imaginary electors.' It was the earliest inkling of a life's ambition. When, a number of years later, Wal was given the choice of boarding schools between Newington College in Sydney and Canberra Grammar School, he chose the latter to be nearer to Parliament House, which he would visit frequently throughout his school days to view the proceedings. Wal, as apparent from those early yearnings, had an insatiable appetite for politics and was restless to learn everything there was to know about the political process, from the way business was transacted on the floor of parliament to the inner machinations of the party apparatus.

In 1947, when he was in his final year as a boarder at Canberra Grammar, Wal Fife chanced upon an article in The Canberra Times which reported that the federal opposition leader, Mr Menzies, had moved to establish a Federal Secretariat of the Liberal Party. The 18-year-old wrote to Mr Menzies to seek his guidance and to request a position within the party's new organisational wing. To his surprise and delight, a reply came by mail from the opposition leader's private secretary shortly after to say that Mr Menzies would be in touch. A brief meeting was scheduled in Parliament House, for which he was given permission to leave school early. Early the following year, in January 1948, Wal Fife, newly graduated from Canberra Grammar, began work as a junior clerk for the Liberal Party Federal Secretariat, then based in Sydney, so beginning a political career that would span nearly half a century.

For Wal Fife, 1947—his final year at Canberra Grammar—was consequential for another reason, for it was in that year he would meet one Marcia Hargreaves Stanley, also in her final year of schooling, at Canberra High. The pair struck up a conversation after school sports and would see each other as often as their studies and limited funds would allow. When Marcia moved to Melbourne two years later to train as a nurse, they continued to correspond. Marcia returned to Wagga after three years of training, and on 31 May 1952 the couple were married.

There can be no doubt that Wal Fife had always harboured aspirations to run for elected office, but his father was adamant that some worldly knowledge and experience outside of government were required before Wal would be ready to enter the political fray. At the end of 1948, he transferred from the federal secretariat to the Liberal Party's New South Wales division to work as an assistant organiser, conveniently based in his home town of Wagga Wagga, where he could also join his father and brother, Harold, in the family business, Fifes Produce. For nearly a decade before his eventual election to the New South Wales parliament, Wal was active in local politics. In 1949, still too young to cast a vote of his own, he helped to manage the campaign of the future Menzies and McMahon government minister David Fairbairn in his successful tilt for the seat of Farrer.

Wal Fife's first chance at candidacy in his own right came at the New South Wales general election of 1953. At the urging of the party's state executive, the by now 23-year-old Wal Fife was given the unenviable task of carrying the flag in his unwinnable home division of Wagga Wagga against the long-serving Labor Minister for Agriculture Eddie Graham, a familiar rite of passage for many who go on to significant political careers. Labor easily retained the seat at the 1953 poll, but Wal did better than expected. He managed to outpoll the Country Party candidate, even though it was a regional seat. He ran again for Wagga Wagga at the 1956 election and narrowed the Labor Party's margin but failed to unseat its veteran MP. His perseverance was rewarded the following year, however, when news spread that Eddie Graham had fallen ill, with talk that he would have to retire from parliament. He died in office on 13 November 1957, and a by-election was scheduled for 14 December. It attracted what Wal Fife described as a 'Melbourne Cup field' of candidates for the newly competitive seat, including the late Eddie Graham's nephew, Dudley Graham, who was endorsed to stand for the Labor Party. Of the seven candidates, Wal was the only one who had previously stood as a candidate for Wagga Wagga, and, though he was young, his earlier experience was rewarded. In 1956, the former member Eddie Graham had won the election with an absolute majority of just over 3½ thousand votes.

In 1957, Wal Fife won the by-election by roughly 3,000 votes. At 28 years of age, he became the youngest member of the New South Wales parliament. He was sworn in in February 1958 to cries from the government benches of, 'He's only a boy.' When Wal was made Assistant Minister for Education in 1965 at the age of 35, he was, at the time, the youngest minister ever appointed in New South Wales. Between 1967 and 1975, he would serve in the New South Wales government as Minister for Mines, Minister for Conservation, Minister for Power, Minister for Transport and Minister for Highways as well as serving as the Assistant Treasurer from June 1972 until January 1975. However, it was in the mines and energy portfolios that Fife cemented his national reputation as a capable administrator and shrewd politician, successfully streamlining New South Wales's energy sector and steering government policy through the state's harsh union strikes of 1974.

Though Wal Fife's career in state parliament had been productive and successful by any measure, with all the hallmarks of a future Premier, one suspects that, from his misspent youth peering down from the public galleries of Old Parliament House to his time at the centre of decision-making in the cabinet of Robert Askin, it had always been Canberra, not Macquarie Street, which shimmered on the horizon of Wal's ambitions. He had, after all, chosen Canberra Grammar over Newington College and, by the end of 1975, he had his sights set on the federal division of Farrer to replace its retiring member, the Hon. David Fairbairn, whose first campaign he had helped manage and who was to retire at the following election. Wal was preselected, and it is notable, for what was regarded as a safe seat, that he was preselected unopposed on 9 September 1975. He resigned from state parliament on 15 October and in the double-dissolution election that followed he was elected as the member for Farrer.

Of a federal parliamentary career spanning over 17 years, Wal Fife would serve only the first 18 months on the back bench before his elevation to the Fraser ministry as the Minister for Business and Consumer Affairs, the role vacated by the ascendant member for Bennelong, John Howard. He would go on to serve as Minister for Education from December 1979 to May 1982 and as Minister for Aviation from May 1982 until the defeat of the government in March 1983. He also served three stints as Minister Assisting the Prime Minister: twice in the area of federal affairs, from August 1978 to December 1979 and from November 1980 to March 1983, and as the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister in Public Service matters from May 1982 until March 1983.

From 1982, Wal Fife's encyclopaedic knowledge of parliamentary procedure was put to use—first in his role as deputy leader of the House, which he held from August 1982 until March 1983. Returned as the member for Farrer in the 33rd Parliament, Wal Fife served as opposition spokesman on housing and construction until the 1984 election. An intervening electoral redistribution had since moved Wagga Wagga into the division of Hume, which had been won at every election for the preceding decade by prominent National Party member Steven Lusher. In a hard-fought, three-cornered contest, Wal Fife prevailed over the National Party and Labor to win the seat, which he would retain until his retirement from parliament. However, to his great disappointment, he was not included in the shadow ministry and would remain on the back bench for the final months of the 33rd Parliament.

In April 1987, he was elevated once again to the shadow ministry as shadow spokesman on defence before moving to the primary industry portfolio in May 1987 and then to the administrative services portfolio in August of the same year. It was also in August of 1987 that Wal Fife assumed the role, for which he was perhaps best suited, as Manager of Opposition Business in the House. Wal Fife served as Manager of Opposition Business until his resignation from the opposition frontbench in May 1992, when he announced his intention not to seek re-election. The late 1980s—indeed, the whole of the 1980s—were turbulent times for the Liberal Party which saw a series of changes of the leadership of the party. Between 1989 and 1990, under the leadership of Andrew Peacock, Wal Fife served in the party role of Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party in the House of Representatives and thus, by the late 1980s, had become one of the most senior statesmen of the Liberal Party which he had served for so long.

He was hospitalised from a stroke in December 1992 and he did not return to parliament to see out the rest of his final term before the March 1993 election. Writing of his time in the role, Wal Fife remarked that he had found being Manager of Opposition Business 'enjoyable, though exacting, even more difficult than being Leader of the House'. He noted that Bob Hawke, in his remarks on the night of his resignation as Prime Minister, had made reference to the relationship between the then Leader of the House, Kim Beazley, and Wal Fife, calling it 'remarkable'. Wal concurred with this assessment, writing that he believed 'that among all the other occupants of the positions, no two have got on so well working in the interests of our own parties and in the joint interests of the House'. Strong though it was, I dare say the amity between the two current occupants of those positions, the member for Sturt and the member for Grayndler, might give Wal Fife and Kim Beazley's friendship a run for its money—but we shouldn't press the similarities between Mr Fife and the member for Sturt or, indeed, the member for Grayndler too far.

Described by those who worked alongside him as a 'gentleman statesman', Wal Fife left parliamentary life with the reputation as a hardworking local member, an intelligent and capable administrator who could be relied upon as a safe pair of hands across a wide variety of policy areas. But perhaps the most transformative of his legacies came in the field of education. When he first stood for the New South Wales parliament as a candidate in 1953, the establishment of a rural university in the Riverina was among his central campaign platforms. It was a commitment that followed him from his early days as an assistant minister for education in the Askin government until well into his time in federal parliament, culminating in the establishment of Charles Sturt University on 1 July 1989. It was a long and painstaking project and one in which Wal Fife played a pivotal role, first in establishing a college of advanced education in Wagga Wagga, then in helping facilitate the college's move to its Boorooma campus, before finally winning government support for the incorporation of the Wagga Wagga Agricultural College into the then Riverina college in 1977, ultimately culminating in the establishment of one of Australia's finest regional universities.

For his tireless efforts, Wal Fife was conferred as honorary Doctor of Letters by Charles Sturt University in April 1993, a most fitting recognition of his work in its behalf. As the Leader of the Nationals at the time, Tim Fischer, noted when Wal Fife retired: 'It was his vision, determination and dedication which I have always said brought about the breakthrough in relation to this vital higher education project.' In 2001, Wal Fife received the Centenary Medal for service to Australian society through the Commonwealth and state parliaments and government and, only hours before his death, Wal Fife was advised that he had been awarded life membership of the Liberal Party—the Liberal Party's highest honour.

And so we remember Wal Fife as one of Australia's longest-serving members of parliament, both federal and state. We remember him as a statesman of consequence, as a parliamentarian respected for his diligence and loyalty, as a loyal and lifetime servant of the Liberal Party and, most importantly, as a husband and a father who never lost sight of the importance of family and, in particular, the love of his wife, Marcia, which sustained him through triumph and disaster—but mostly triumph—over half a century of public life. Today our thoughts are with Marcia, with their children, David, Allan, Carolyn and Susan, and with their 10 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, to whom I offer my deepest condolences on behalf of the government.


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