Senate debates

Tuesday, 9 May 2023


Kerin, Hon. John Charles, AM, AO, FTSE

4:42 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate records its sorrow at the death, on 28 March 2023, of the Honourable John Charles Kerin AO, former Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, Treasurer and Minister for Trade and Overseas Development, and former member for Macarthur and Werriwa, places on record its gratitude of his service to the Parliament and the nation and tenders its sympathy to his family in their bereavement.

I rise on behalf of the government to express our condolences following the passing of a great servant of the Australian Labor Party and of the nation, the Hon. John Charles Kerin AO, former minister and member of the House of Representatives, at the age of 85. As I begin, I wish to convey the government's condolences to his family and many friends. I had the opportunity today to meet again with John's beloved wife, June Verrier, and some of John's former staff, and we recounted many happy memories of their time living together, loving together and working together.

I also thank the Leader of the Government in the Senate for the opportunity to deliver the speech on behalf of the government on this condolence motion. As the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, I thought it was appropriate to pay tribute to one of my most significant predecessors in this portfolio—someone that I and many others regard as the best agriculture minister Australia has ever had.

John Kerin combined experience on the land with serious economic credentials and a practical, pragmatic approach to politics. It was a combination that saw him serve as minister for primary industries for almost the entirety of the Hawke government, in cabinets amongst the best this country has ever seen. He thought the two roles were not that far apart, saying, 'Politics is like farming. No-one is forced to do it, but someone has to.' In an outstanding period of economic renewal and reform for Australia, with Labor in government from 1983 to 1996, John Kerin played an important role across a number of key portfolios for the first decade of those governments but particularly in modernising and strengthening the nation's primary industries. His contribution was not limited to his time in office, and he displayed a deep commitment and interest not just in agriculture but to education and learning throughout his life. He was a truly great Australian.

John Kerin was born in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, in Bowral, in 1937. Like my own father and many rural working-class kids of that era, John left school aged 15 to help on the family farm and to earn a living to support his family. His first occupations, as listed in his official parliamentary biography, were axeman, a job he had from the age of 15 and, later, brick setter. From 1961 until 1971 he described himself as a farmer and businessman. It was during this time that John achieved the first of his tertiary qualifications, a Bachelor of Arts from University of New England, from which he graduated in 1967. He would later obtain a Bachelor of Economics from the Australian National University in 1977 and be further awarded honorary doctorates from the University of New England, the University of Western Sydney and the University of Tasmania.

Having been energised in the opposition to the Vietnam War and with a personal passion for economics and the environment, he was active in local Labor branches through the 1960s and into the 1970s, serving as an office bearer in Mittagong, Southern Highlands, Wollondilly and Macarthur branches and electorate councils. This led to him taking on Labor preselection and succeeding in becoming a candidate for public office.

John Kerin was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1972, representing the division of Macarthur, which, at that time, incorporated those areas of the Southern Highlands with which he was closely connected. This was of course a momentous election for Labor, coinciding with the party's return to office, under Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, for the first time since 1949. In John's first speech to parliament he reflected that whilst politics is about the articulation of many, often parochial, demands and the resolution of conflicting interests, he identified the need to prioritise the national interest and create institutions that could survive and adapt to change. This was significantly far-sighted thinking that would characterise his approach throughout the next two decades. He also reflected on changing attitudes in society, particularly amongst younger voters, with a confident individualism based on mutual concern for others and wider issues in determining quality of life, as well as awareness of science and technology. It was a reflection that would not be misplaced today.

Under the leadership of Gough Whitlam, government was quite a ride, and it must have been an exhilarating experience for a freshly minted backbencher. However, the highs and lows of the Whitlam government would come to have an impact on John Kerin personally, as he lost his seat when the government was defeated in December 1975, maintaining Macarthur's then status as a bellwether seat. Fortunately, a second opportunity arose in a most fortuitous way when Gough Whitlam resigned his place as a member of parliament after leading the party to a further defeat at the 1977 election. John Kerin was successful in the ensuing by-election. He returned to the House of Representatives in 1978 as the member for Werriwa. During his time out of parliament he completed his second university degree whilst working as an economist in the Bureau of Agricultural Economics. After the 1980 election, he was appointed by Bill Hayden as the opposition spokesperson on primary industry. He would hold this position for the remainder of the parliamentary term.

John Kerin brought great personal experience to this role, as an orchardist and chicken farmer. He also brought great scepticism of the political management of farming interests. In particular, he noted how it was the case when Labor had come to government in 1972 that the specialist party that characterises itself as looking after regional interests spent a quarter of a century in power but immediately cried for immediate action in almost every rural field. It reinforced his judgement that, as with so many policy areas, Australia was being let down by short-term, short-sighted thinking, and he embarked upon building a policy agenda that took the opposite approach.

When the Hawke government was elected in 1983, John Kerin took a seat at the cabinet table as Minister for Primary Industry. This portfolio would later be expanded to primary industries and energy, in which he would continue to serve until 1991. Like so many ministers of that government, John Kerin embarked on a big reform program. He confronted big challenges but did so, as the current Prime Minister has reflected, with 'experience, care, pragmatism, consultation and an unbreakable sense of humour', even if his then Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, had a 'staggering incapacity to understand his jokes'.

Through empathy and hard work John Kerin gained much respect, and some of the major decisions that he took or contributed to included the removal of tariffs from imported agricultural products, boosting farm productivity and the establishment of research and development corporations. These reforms have stood the test of time and created the export oriented, research-driven agricultural sector that has benefited ever since. These reforms were not without controversy or pain as the protectionist systems that had been in place for most of the 20th century, such as the reserve price for wool and the centralised wheat marketing board, were overhauled. It was necessary for new thinking and approaches in agricultural policy to match the changes in international economic conditions that were leaving Australia increasingly uncompetitive and isolated.

What was required of him over those eight years suited his passion for policy too. He partnered with his colleagues, particularly former senator John Button, to provide opportunities for renewal, replenishment and outward-looking approaches for Australian business and industry. He also recognised that policy changes in agriculture and in the bush generally require different policy answers than those being confronted in the cities, even where they stem from common core issues. Accordingly, he sought to address national problems as they manifested themselves in regional areas in appropriate ways, drawing on the skills of people living in the regions affected. In doing so, he drew upon the valuable expertise within his department and its associated agencies in economics and science, too often undervalued.

He also made sure that social services were available in provincial areas in the knowledge that the bush needed a voice in the cabinet room to deliver the social dividend of economic reform to those who needed additional support wherever they were located.

In what turned out to be the last months of the Hawke government, John Kerin left the primary industries portfolio only when the Prime Minister called upon him to serve as Treasurer. It was not a role he relished, and following the ascension of Paul Keating to the nation's highest political office in December 1991 John briefly took on ministerial responsibility for transport and communications. He was then appointed Minister for Trade and Overseas Development, a role he held until the 1993 election. In this, he enjoyed the opportunity to represent Australia on the overseas stage and apply his preference for an intellectual approach to policy formulation in a new way, alongside foreign minister Gareth Evans. There was also great synergy with his previous role in primary industries, especially given his part when in that portfolio in monumental Labor government initiatives, such as the establishment of the Cairns Group.

John Kerin did not return to the ministry following Labor's win in the 1993 election and retired as a member of parliament at the end of that year. However, his service to the country did not end when he left politics. In many ways it just diversified as he committed himself to so many boards and institutions that it is impossible to name them all. His passion for and knowledge of agriculture naturally dominated many of his appointments, particularly through the leadership positions he took up in the 1990s and 2000s in the sector.

Also shining through was his deep commitment to education. He served as chair of the Australian National University's Crawford Fund, as deputy chancellor of the University of Western Sydney and as a member of the Whitlam Institute. He also made his mark through contributions to publications on the Whitlam and Hawke governments. He remained active in the Australian Labor Party as a local party member here in the Australian Capital Territory.

His community involvement extended to other roles and organisations, including the Bush Capital Club and the Council of Birds Australia. This was fitting for a man who enjoyed reading and thinking about birds and bushwalking.

One of those who recognised the breadth of John Kerin's impact was Professor Andrew Campbell, who is the chief executive of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research in Senator Wong's portfolio. Professor Campbell noted how:

Post-politics, John Kerin chaired countless boards and shared generously his valuable time, sharp insights, dry humour and peerless networks.

His contribution to the nation was formally recognised in the Order of Australia twice—first through his appointment as a member in 2001 for service to the Australian parliament, particularly in the area of government policy and legislative reform relating to primary industry and trade, and again in 2018 through his appointment as an Officer of the Order of Australia for his distinguished service to primary industry through roles in agricultural research administration, to the minerals and natural resources sector and to science-industry linkages and policy. As John Kerin's successor, as a Labor minister in the agriculture portfolio, I'd also like to briefly add my own personal reflections about his life, legacy and his private engagement with me. He was always generous with his advice, and I know this applied not just to me but to other colleagues as well—some of whom we'll hear from today. I'm glad to have had the opportunity to benefit from his wisdom during my time as agriculture minister. John was a big influencer of my thinking as I took on the role that he once held.

As I remarked at the time of his passing, I will miss his early morning and late-night emails full of advice. As was mentioned by another Labor legend of the time, Barry Jones, at John's state funeral, I also said:

Since becoming Agriculture Minister, I have been surprised by how often farm leaders have told me that Labor Ministers often make the best Agriculture Ministers. Free of vested interests, solely focussed on doing what's right for farmers, farm workers and for the whole agriculture supply chain. I know that they are thinking of John when they say that. His reform legacy lives on in Australian agriculture and he rightly deserves the title of Australia's best Agriculture Minister.

I didn't agree with John on everything, though, and I was alarmed to read the following passage in his valedictory speech to the House of Representatives:

I have always drawn the line at dealing with the Senate. It is still a great mystery to me. I met some new ALP senators the other day and I did not know they were there. I once went on a trip with—

former Clerk of the Senate—

Jim Odgers to London and I did not think he was too bad, but I must say that I have great concerns about the Senate Procedure Office. It is institutional anarchy with an Irish twist.

I'm sure things have changed. This goes to show that whilst John Kerin was not wise in everything he said, he was at least a man of principle, and he did appreciate our committee system here in the Senate.

John Kerin passed away in March 2023. When the Prime Minister reflected on his life and legacy, he described John Kerin's time as primary industries minister as the greatest and most profound mark that he left. He's proof that it's possible to go from chicken plucker to cabinet minister. The most remarkable thing about John Kerin is that he never lost his passion for agriculture, learning and making a contribution.

The government again express our condolences following the passing of the Hon. John Kerin and we, again, convey our sympathies to his family including his wife, June, his daughter, Heidi, and those who knew him well.


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