Senate debates

Monday, 27 November 2017


Fife, Hon. Wallace Clyde 'Wal'

3:55 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 also acknowledge the passing of the former minister and member of the House the Hon. Wallace Clyde Fife, widely known as Wal, who passed away on Thursday, 16 November at the age of 88. At the outset, I convey on behalf of the opposition our deepest condolences to his family and his friends. Wal Fife served as a member of parliaments in Australia for over 35 years, first in New South Wales and then in the federal House of Representatives. He was regarded as a statesman in his local community and as someone whose political friendships on all sides of politics were testament to his character. A highly regarded parliamentarian, he was a minister at state and federal level with responsibilities ranging from education and mines to transport and consumer affairs. Wal Fife dedicated a lifetime of service to the Australian people and sought to enhance not his own standing but that of the offices he held and the parliament as a whole in the eyes of those he represented.

Wal Fife was born in New South Wales in October 1929 and grew up in Wagga Wagga before finishing his education at Canberra Boys Grammar. As Senator Brandis has outlined, he took an early interest in politics. The Wagga Wagga Daily Advertiser records that he once wrote to Winston Churchill and even received a reply. Prior to his election as a parliamentarian, Wal Fife worked in the Federal Secretariat of the Liberal Party, but his principal employment was in his family's produce business. It was this business that was his focus in the first decade of his working life, and he continued a connection with it when he went into state parliament, continuing to serve as a director until 1975. In 1952, he married Marcia, and they would go on to have four children, 10 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

Wal Fife first served as a member of parliament in New South Wales, elected as the member for Wagga Wagga in 1957. Next month, in fact, it will be 60 years since he first won that seat on 14 December. At that time he was the youngest person elected to the New South Wales parliament, having not yet attained the age of 30. He would continue to hold the seat until 1975, when he resigned to move into federal politics. At the state level, he held a range of positions, including Assistant Minister for Education, Minister for Mines, Minister for Conservation, Minister for Power and Assistant Treasurer, during the life of the Askin government. When Tom Lewis replaced Premier Askin in January 1975, Wal Fife took the transport and highways portfolios until his departure from state politics.

Moving to the Commonwealth parliament in 1975, Wal Fife first represented the division of Farrer, which at that time included the major centres of Albury and his home city of Wagga Wagga. After Wagga Wagga was redistributed out of Farrer ahead of the 1983 election, Mr Fife moved to Hume and continued to represent that division until 1993. As a Liberal, he was notably pleased when the division of Farrer—which, following his shift to Hume, had been held by Tim Fischer, the former National Party leader—returned to the hands of his own party in 2001.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Fife's first speech to the Commonwealth parliament had the development of regional cities as its focus. He addressed the need for the advancement of industry and commerce as well as tertiary education facilities. When it came to the latter, Mr Fife would later play a driving role in the development of Charles Sturt University, which is recognised today as one of Australia's premier regionally based universities. This is a central aspect of Wal Fife's legacy.

He did not have to wait long after arriving in the Commonwealth parliament before continuing ministerial service at a federal level, taking up his first portfolio, Business and Consumer Affairs, in 1977 and going on to serve in Education and in Aviation during the life of the Fraser government. He was described as one of the more capable Liberal politicians on the backbench. However, his early ministerial career was not without some challenges. He faced a motion of no confidence from the opposition in 1979 for his administration of matters relating to the Federal Narcotics Bureau. He served as Assistant Minister for Education in his first portfolio, under Robert Askin, and he assumed the federal education portfolio in 1979. He often commented on the importance of education in providing the basics, as well as helping students develop certain skills to ensure they were ready for future employment. As I said, the legacy of Charles Sturt University is testament to that drive. He sought to be a minister who proceeded with a carefully administrative approach, consulting with interested bodies and reflecting his political inclinations towards consensus over conflict and individualism.

Perhaps in a demonstration that some issues never quite go away, in 1981 Mr Fife approved a project to increase the breadth of sex education in schools by enabling the factual discussion of the problems faced by homosexuals, compared to those faced by heterosexuals, and an appreciation of the variety of emotional expression in human relationships. This occurred against an emotive debate not unlike that which we have seen in recent times. He went from Education to Aviation in 1982 and served in that portfolio until the defeat of the Fraser government.

After the election of the Hawke government, Mr Fife continued to serve on the front bench, now in opposition Amidst regular leadership changes and well documented turmoil in the parliamentary Liberal Party through the eighties and nineties, it speaks to Mr Fife's approach that he was chosen as Manager of Opposition Business in the House of Representatives between 1987 and 1992. He was a man who sought to build bridges of unity within his own party in difficult times. He was also a man who was well regarded across both sides of politics, as Senator Brandis has referenced.

Whilst Wal Fife had already decided not to contest the 1993 election, ill health forced his absence from the House of Representatives at the end of 1992, and he didn't return prior to the 1993 election. At the time of his retirement he was the longest serving member of any parliament in Australia, his service from his first election in 1957 being well over 30 years. In an interview with the Albury-Wodonga Border Mail he recalled:

A chap said to me today that I walked through a minefield and I came through virtually unscathed—I am very proud of that.

He went on to say that he modelled himself to be a good local member and a capable administrator. In retirement he continued to maintain an engagement with politics, in particular through the meticulous records he maintained through his lifetime in the public sphere. He kept a close watch on the activities of parliamentarians and some bureaucrats, and wasn't afraid to hold them to account when required. Alan Ramsey of The SMH described in 2007 the extensive amount of correspondence with the Art Gallery of New South Wales over the course of several years in an attempt to have the Captain Cook gallery appropriately identified. Mr Fife had particular interest, as the minister who had originally arranged for the provision of funds for the construction of this gallery.

He remained in Wagga Wagga and still ran a family sheep property for many years after leaving the House. Wal Fife represented a classical model of a country Liberal member. Throughout more than three decades as a member of the New South Wales parliament and of the federal House of Representatives, much of the time as a minister or shadow minister, he never lost sight of his local community. He always sought to represent his constituents diligently and with decency, as well as with respect for the institutions he served, as he believed they should rightly expect him to do. The obituary in The Daily Advertiser in Wagga Wagga describes him as 'the gentleman MP'. I think that is a very fitting tribute from your local community. On behalf of the opposition I extend our deepest sympathies to his family and friends at this time.


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