Senate debates

Tuesday, 10 September 2019


Forbes, Dr Alexander James (Jim), CMG, MC

3:41 pm

Photo of Kristina KeneallyKristina Keneally (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | Hansard source

I rise on behalf of the opposition to express our condolences following the passing of the Hon. Dr Alexander James Forbes CMG MC, known as Jim Forbes, former member of the House of Representatives and minister, at the age of 95. As I begin, I wish to convey the opposition's condolences to his family and friends. In particular, I extend our sympathies to his wife, Margaret, and his four surviving children, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

The death of Jim Forbes marks the passing of a significant era in Australian politics. Dr Forbes was the last living former minister to have served under Prime Minister Robert Menzies. Having completed military service during World War II and worked as a university lecturer, Dr Forbes entered politics and would go on to serve under Prime Ministers Harold Holt, John McEwen, John Gorton and William McMahon. His portfolio responsibilities extended to defence, health and immigration, and he later became the federal president of the Liberal Party, the last South Australian to have held that position.

Born in Hobart in 1923, as a young man Jim Forbes found himself in the middle of World War II. He graduated from the Royal Military College, Duntroon, in 1942 and went on to serve for the remainder of the war primarily in the Pacific theatres but also in Germany and London. For gallantry and service in the South-West Pacific, he received the Military Cross. When the war concluded, he did not continue to serve in a full-time capacity but remained as a reserve officer until 1956. In addition to this, he completed a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in history and politics at the University of Adelaide and doctoral studies at Oxford, and until his election he was a university lecturer in politics at the University of Adelaide. Coincidentally, also at Oxford at that time were a future prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, and a future deputy prime minister, Jim Cairns. This background served him well for the career change that was soon to come.

After an unsuccessful tilt at Kingston in 1955, in 1956 Jim Forbes was elected the member for Barker, which at that time covered not only the south-east of South Australia, as it does today, but also the hills and coastal plains south of Adelaide, and Kangaroo Island. He took over from one of the great characters of Australian politics, Archie Cameron.

In making his first speech in 1957, Dr Forbes was accorded the honour of moving the address-in-reply to the speech of the Governor-General. Unsurprisingly, he praised the content of the speech, setting out as it did the Menzies government's priorities for the new term of office. He spoke of the 'undertones of idealism and faith in the future', which he felt were 'essential to constructive and effective performance'. A topic he particularly dwelt on was the need for increased development of Australia's productive resources, consistent with the broader postwar development that was occurring across the nation. In his own electorate, primary production was significant in agriculture, viticulture and aquaculture. He proudly cited growth in the sheep population—to 13½ million, double the number a decade prior—and in forestry as prime examples of the growth in the rural economy that had been, as he saw it, fostered by the policies of the Menzies government, accompanied by developments in agricultural science.

At the 1961 election, an election advertisement touted his credentials as 'a servant of his constituents' but also as a person of influence in the parliament by virtue of his membership on committees including defence, wool, food and agriculture. It also noted he was chosen as the sole member of parliament to accompany Prime Minister Menzies on an official visit to Indonesia and Malaya in 1959.

Jim Forbes had a high opinion of Menzies, and this was something he said only grew the more he got to know him. Menzies obviously had a high opinion of Dr Forbes as well, something that did not diminish through the close contact they had, and soon he was in consideration for promotion. Today, an expectant parliamentarian might find out about a prospective ministerial appointment through speculation on social media. And, whilst there was plenty of speculation surrounding the announcement of the Menzies ministry in 1963, Dr Forbes had only one recourse: to wait by the telephone. Fortunately, Menzies did call, and Dr Forbes was informed he was to be Minister for the Army, Minister for the Navy and Minister assisting the Treasurer. The Army and Navy portfolios were particularly well chosen for the former serviceman and recipient of the Military Cross.

With Australian involvement in Vietnam increasing, Dr Forbes took on these Defence portfolio ministries at a challenging time. Significant amongst his responsibilities was to facilitate the reintroduction of national service, including the infamous 'birthday ballot'. In 1965, he moved further amendments to defence legislation, which removed the limitation on serving overseas for persons called up for compulsory service in wartime. This meant a liability for overseas service would be mandatory for all persons called up in wartime, and, accompanied by an increasing commitment to the conflict in Vietnam, this significantly altered the character of national service.

In an interview 50 years later, in 2014, just after his 90th birthday, Dr Forbes continued to affirm that decision, convinced it was the right one for the nation at that time. He also argued it was a fairer system than what existed elsewhere—for example, in the United States. He believed their system enabled the sons of people of wealth and influence to dodge the draft. National service was abolished by the Whitlam government when it came to power in 1972. During his tenure, Dr Forbes also oversaw the introduction of a scheme to give soldiers the ability to have trades training recognised outside of the Army.

When Harold Holt took over from Menzies in 1966, Jim Forbes was given the health portfolio. He continued to hold this portfolio under John Gorton, whom he admired for his leadership and compared favourably with both his predecessor and successor. He was especially engaged in the Commonwealth's scientific and research work in the health portfolio. Dr Forbes was ahead of his time in trying, on multiple occasions, to alert Australians to the dangers of smoking, including through educational films, restrictions on advertising and warnings on packets. In his 2014 interview, he lamented that the government ceded vital ground on health policy by allowing the gap between medical benefits and costs to grow too wide, paving the way for—as he saw it—public support for the introduction of Medibank, the forerunner of Medicare, by the Whitlam government. The policy solutions he proposed came too late to address the shifting tide of public opinion in this area.

William McMahon appointed Jim Forbes to be immigration minister when he took over from Gorton in 1971, and Dr Forbes retained this portfolio until the Whitlam government came to power in 1972. Dr Forbes had a highly unfavourable opinion of McMahon, something that he remarked put him in step with the majority of Australians at the time. He felt that had he not been the sole minister from South Australia McMahon would have quickly bundled him out, recalling constant arguments with his prime minister. One of these arguments centred on the decision to deport the entertainer Joe Cocker, following his conviction in Adelaide for drug offences. McMahon thought the government had to take a stand, whilst Dr Forbes later said that he 'didn't mind one way or the other'.

He also oversaw the continued dismantling of the White Australia Policy. On Immigration Sunday in 1972, he spoke about the significant contribution of migrants to Australia's postwar economic growth and relative affluence. Reflecting further on this, he also noted the important responsibility that rested on existing citizens to personally extend the hand of welcome to new arrivals. And perhaps it's somewhat appropriate that the Leader of the Government in the Senate and the Leader of the Opposition today are both new arrivals, so to speak, to Australia. He said that Australians should recognise the positive impact that a hand of welcome would have on migrants 'seeking a secure place in a strange environment'. Without helping new settlers to find life in their new country satisfying and rewarding, he said, Australia would not 'attain its proper fulfilment'.

After the Whitlam government was elected, Jim Forbes unsuccessfully stood to be deputy Liberal leader under opposition leader Billy Snedden. He served Snedden as shadow minister for defence and was a strident spokesperson for greater capital expenditure in the portfolio for the Citizen Military Forces and for national servicemen. His unhappiness at the decision to remove Snedden in favour of Malcolm Fraser—possibly with Fraser's destructive role in sparking the end of Gorton's prime ministership still in mind—was a significant factor in his decision not to contest the 1975 election, and he did not offer himself for the shadow ministry following the leadership change.

Jim Forbes had retired at a relatively young age, for parliament, of 52. Despite his frustration with the way in which Snedden had been undermined, after his retirement Dr Forbes continued to serve the Liberal Party, most notably as its president in South Australia from 1979 to 1982 and then as federal president from 1982 to 1985. The instability in leadership that had plagued the Liberals in the late 1960s and early 1970s reared its head again in the 1980s, with infighting between Malcolm Fraser and Andrew Peacock, then Peacock and John Howard, simmering away during his time as president. His frustration with this state of affairs saw him stand down as federal president prior to the conclusion of his term. He also continued to contribute in public service as chairman of the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories from 1978 to 1984, maintaining the links with medical science that had been a feature of his time as Minister for Health. He also welcomed the opportunity to rebuild friendships and relationships that had suffered in the 20 years he'd been a member for a large country electorate and, for nearly half that time, a federal minister as well.

Jim Forbes was respected for his long and dedicated service to the nation in uniform and in parliament. He was regarded by his colleagues as a principled representative, and his death closes the door on an unparalleled era in Australian politics. Again, I express the opposition's condolences to his family and friends.


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