Senate debates

Wednesday, 30 March 2022


Cass, Hon. Dr Moses Henry (Moss)

3:18 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 and on behalf of the Labor Party to express our condolences following the passing, at the age of 95, of one of our own: the Hon. Dr Moses Henry Cass, known as Moss Cass, former member of the House and minister in the Whitlam government. I start by conveying the opposition's and the Australian Labor Party's deepest condolences to his family and friends.

Dr Moss Cass was the member for Maribyrnong in Melbourne from 1969 to1983 and was a minister in the Whitlam government from 1972 to 1975, serving in the environment and media portfolios. Along with Doug McClelland, Bill Hayden and Paul Keating, he was the last surviving of the Whitlam government ministers. Dr Cass deserves to be remembered as one of the great figures of our movement. His influence at a time of great change was profound. He not only led policy development as a minister but also advanced the case for reform on significant issues of social concern, including multiculturalism; education; state aid; reform of social policy, including on drugs, abortion and homosexuality; media reform; health reform; asylum seekers; and many more. Moss Cass's contribution wasn't only to the federal parliamentary Labor Party but to our broader cause, particularly through his work as a doctor and with the trade union movement, and his commitment to the cause of Labor was absolute and stayed with him all of his life.

As I begin this speech, I reflect on my own personal engagement with Dr Cass, because I was the beneficiary of some extensive correspondence from him. He wrote to me over the last couple of years principally to provide his thoughts on media policy, and my office replied on my behalf and engaged in quite a lot of email correspondence. He also referred me to the book Moss Cass and the Greening of the Australian Labor Party, which is available from the Parliamentary Library. This extensively covers Dr Cass's career, from his roles as environment minister and media minister to the many other causes he championed.

It's very clear from the book and from other reporting that Moss Cass was well ahead of his time. He was ahead of his time on environmental protection, he was ahead of his time on medical and social reform, and many of the issues that Dr Cass grappled with remain significant matters of debate in Australian politics today. One of those is the media. Dr Cass expressed to me his concerns regarding the health of the Australian democracy, given what he regarded as biased media coverage, distortion of facts and the impact of free speech as a licence for hate speech. We didn't have any discussions, because he told me, at the age of 94, that he was too deaf to follow a telephone conversation, and, because he was too unstable on his feet and nursing a couple of cancers, he couldn't travel far from home. But he was happy to correspond in writing, and what was clear from the written exchange was just how active his mind remained and just how passionate he remained about political causes and the cause of the Australian Labor Party.

Moss Cass was born in Western Australia, the son of Jewish Russian migrants, on 18 February 1927. His father was a doctor, and this was the career that he and his three brothers would pursue. He first pursued great innovation before turning his talents to delivering quality and holistic health care to working people and to developing health policy. After marrying his wife, Shirley, a Melburnian, in 1955, they moved to London, where his work developing open-heart surgery techniques equipped him with sufficient skills so that when he returned to Australia, as my colleague Senator Cash has said, he was able to build Australia's first heart-lung machine. He was quite an extraordinary person.

He then was recruited to helm a new community healthcare centre in the western suburbs of Melbourne, in Footscray. The Trade Union Clinic and Research Center was established by the meatworkers union to deliver free treatment and promote preventative health care to workers. It was well ahead of its time, and Dr Cass's work there provides a window for his focus on broader issues of social inequality. Meatworkers obviously had a direct interest in the delivery of health care. Their occupation came with a multitude of perils—sharp knives and blades, heavy lifting, variable extremes of temperatures and risk of disease. The clinic became an overwhelming success, although it wasn't established and operated without resistance, particularly from insurers contesting workers compensation claims. A key component of its work was also research to 'treat, investigate and eradicate'. By undertaking proper investigation and diagnosis and deploying a range of treatments, the clinic was able to see many more workers return to work and to health sooner.

Involvement with the health policy committee of the ALP went hand in glove with Dr Cass's expertise. When it came to health policy, this was a formative time in Australian public policy. The Whitlam government first took Medibank, the forerunner of Medicare, to an election in 1969, and, whilst Dr Cass had differing views about how these objectives might be achieved, he was a central voice in the debates that led to its development and implementation. He was part of a generation of parliamentarians who delivered one of the most substantial social policy reforms in Australian history. When the Fraser government worked to dismantle Medibank after 1975, as opposition health spokesperson he became a key defender.

Involvement in the trade union clinic had another benefit: it connected Moss Cass with the left wing of the Victorian trade union movement and the ALP. In addition to the already-mentioned involvement in its health policy forum, he held a seat on the Victorian state executive at a turbulent time in the Victorian branch—there seem to be quite a few of those—which sought to recover from the split which had probably its greatest impact there. He obtained support for preselection in the seat of Maribyrnong and won election in 1969.

If you look at his first speech, it's really quite unusual not only for the times but also for a man. He devoted most of his first speech to the subject of abortion law reform. His experience as a doctor, but also his sense of justice, informed his position. He consistently sought reform, including by moving legislation in conjunction with other like-minded members across the parliament. Before the time suited it, he was also amongst those who advanced what was then described as homosexual law reform, working in conjunction with former Liberal Prime Minister John Gorton, Don Chipp and Andrew Peacock.

Of course, he was also a minister in the Whitlam government. He was Australia's first Minister for Environment and Conservation, and he was instrumental in proposing and securing the Environmental Protection (Impact Of Proposals) Act 1974. This laid the groundwork for the ending of sand mining on Fraser Island and for protection of the Great Barrier Reef. As Minister for the Media, subsequently he engaged with causes that he would continue to advance in his postparliamentary life, particularly the power of media proprietors, and he was instrumental in the establishment of community broadcasting.

My last correspondence with Moss Cass was in September last year. I wrote to thank him for his correspondence to me, for his continuing engagement in politics and public policy and for furnishing ideas for how he saw our nation's advancement—his ideas about how we could work towards a better future. I told him that, whilst I knew of him by virtue of the correspondence he engaged in with me, I had learnt a great deal more about his intellectual contribution to our party. I noted then, as I do now, that many of the causes that he had been championing more than half a century ago were still battles being fought and finally won by progressives at the current time—noting, for example, that my home state of South Australia had only recently fully decriminalised abortion. I expressed my hope that my card would find him in good health, but, alas, we now know he was only to be with us for a few more months. Sadly, he and his wife both required an increased level of care and had to move out of their home in Carlton, and I regret I wasn't able to take up his offer to visit him in Melbourne. But I am eternally grateful that I had the opportunity to personally express to him my gratitude.

Moss Cass was a giant of the Labor movement, and he has done so much to benefit so many people and, more importantly, to benefit the nation. Moss Cass set a standard and leaves a legacy that few can profess to have emulated. I close by again expressing the opposition's condolences following his passing and conveying our deepest sympathies to his family and his friends.


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