Wednesday, 13 February 2019
It's patently clear that all the people who have made a contribution here today about Senator Williams have not had to sit beside him for nearly four years, co-share an office with him or, like Senator Canavan, go and eat at the same Thai restaurant three nights a week with him! As an end to that story, and I think this is a measure of Senator Williams, that restaurant did close, and so instead of him eating at Sylvie's, Sylvie started to come and eat at Wacka's. Her and her family visited Wacka up on the farm, as did most people, and had the experience up there. I think they were up there for one Christmas.
A couple of times today, as I've been listening to these wonderful contributions, I've felt like it feels when you're at a funeral and you're listening to the eulogies and you've actually got to look down at the pamphlet to see that you're at the right event—you have to check the photo! That's because it hasn't been some of my experiences where Wacka's concerned, having sat beside him. I've had to endure weather reports from up on the farm about every 15 minutes as if somehow the weather's going to change—the anticipation of rain or a change in temperature. I've had to endure every photograph ever taken by Wacka, and there are thousands of them, of the progress of the sorghum, the hay or the mung beans that he's planted. I heard Senator Fierravanti-Wells talk about the cats. I've seen all the cats, I've seen the dogs and I know why they were named. I've had to endure this for four years.
I don't have a lot of time, but can I just say that I think everyone here recognises his strengths. I remember being at a public hearing in Townsville where there were 300 or 400 sugar farmers who were attending the hearing. We had a references inquiry, chaired by Senator Sterle, into the marketing arrangements around sugar, and I can remember Wacka opening with a question, saying, 'When I was a pig farmer,' and you could actually feel this room made up of farmers come with him. There was immediately this affinity. They'd straightened up to listen to what this fella had to say, because they knew for sure that he knew them.
Then we had a rally here in Canberra about the setting of rates for transport workers, and Wacka was sent in to prime the crowd before the Prime Minister arrived to speak. Wacka opened with 'when I was a truck driver'. Then, on another occasion, he was a shearer. Over those five or six years I spent with him, Wacka had a lot more occupations than he confessed to in his speech today. But each of them cleverly drew on the affinity of an audience, because Wacka knew the value of trust. That's how Wacka operated. He operated his friendships on the value of trust, he operated in this chamber on the value of trust and he operated in all the inquiries that he participated in, he particularised today, on a question of trust. He is the sort of guy that people very quickly come to trust.
What I do know is that, of all the things that are important to John Williams—and he spoke about many of them today—his love for his family and his agrarian lifestyle are way up there at the top of the list. If there's anything anyone wants to know about Nancy, what she is thinking, what she has said, what she has bought or what she has done on the farm, just come and see me after this, because I got Nancy from daylight to dark, right here, in this spot, next to Wacka. His love for Nancy is enormous. Of course, for those who are close would know that Nancy got quite badly injured when one of those scooter things with a flag, which was being driven along the footpath, bowled Nancy over, outside of her newspaper office. So, of course, Wacka immediately launched an inquiry into these mobile scooters. I thought at the time this would be a complete waste of time and life, but in fact it turned out to be quite an important inquiry. I didn't realise how many people in the country had been exposed to that situation. That's the nature of Wacka. When he sees a problem, he'll go after it, endeavouring to try and create a solution.
He is very much like Senator Boswell in another way. I remember when Boswell rang me one day and said, 'You've got to stop the importation of ginger from Fiji.' I said, 'Why, Ron? ' He said, 'Because they've detected nematodes in it.' I said to him, 'What's a nematode, Ron?' because I didn't know what it was. He said: 'I don't know, but it can't be good. You've got to stop the ginger coming in.' In some ways, Senator Williams has that really primal, gut feeling about things that affect people and what the solutions need to be. He will tell you himself that he's not big on the detail of how to get from here to there. He relies on his relationships with people in this place and the staff, particularly those who support the committee process. He knows where you need to be, and he knows where the starting point is. In all the inquiries that I shared with him, he had a very disarming way in leading the witnesses and breaking down what they had to say into some plain English statements, which were always captured in the reports and which underpinned the principles of the recommendations.
I've had quite literally thousands of hours sitting here talking with Wacka, as you do with your bench partners in this place. His conversations, apart from being dominated by the weather and the sorghum almum crop which he has just put in and which has come up one centimetre in the last hour and a half, were about his boys, his grandchildren, his wife, his livestock and his pets. They were about the people who had been affected by issues which he had taken up, and they were about his staff. He valued those relationships. They were about the people in here. He was right to say that he had made some very strong friendships across the chamber. I suspect that, with really one or two remote exceptions, Wacka would be regarded very, very favourably by everyone in the chamber. Sadly, I'm not going to be able to make that expression when my time comes to leave—and many of us won't—but it's certainly true of John Williams. Indeed, that's the experience that we have in our party room. He has a very unifying effect. Sometimes when some stresses have occurred, he was like Senator Boswell and Warren Truss before him. He was a unifying force and brought those relationships back together.
So he'll be remembered fondly by many of us. He'll be missed by many. I'm not sure that we're going to see personalities like his in the future. We've been watching some trends over the last couple of decades on how people make their way to this place, and, as Warren Truss said, he's not sure that someone who didn't finish grade 7 will make it to here. I'm not sure that some burned out, old busted-arse shearer who had done a bit of truck driving and had gone bankrupt would make their way here as frequently in the future as we might have seen in the past. I suspect, I'm at time, Mr Acting Deputy President, so I thank the chamber for the opportunity to reflect on John.