Senate debates

Tuesday, 9 May 2023


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

4:57 pm

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to echo the remarks of Minister Watt in relation to the life of John Charles Kerin AO, and to speak on this condolence motion. From the tributes paid following the death of John Kerin in March of this year at the age of 85—including the one we've just heard—it is clear that he is most firmly identified with, and respected for, his time at the helm of the primary industries portfolio—a portfolio that John Kerin held, and clearly loved, throughout the first eight years of the Hawke government.

When looking back at political events, it's obvious that John Kerin saw many in his career, and that his career was punctuated by those events that can impact upon many of us in political life. Of course, we can only speculate what might have been if some of those events had been different. By all accounts, it would seem reasonable, given John Kerin's command of the primary industries portfolio—and the respect he earned for his stewardship of that portfolio across the political and industry spectrum—to suggest that, if not for the Keating-Hawke leadership battles, John Kerin may well have remained primary industries minister throughout the whole period of that Labor government such was his command of the portfolio and the respect he earned through it.

John Kerin had, he said of himself, a tough farming background. Tough it was and tough, but well and truly capable, it made him. Raised on a struggling farm near Mittagong, in the New South Wales Southern Highlands, John Kerin left school at 15 to join his father in cutting wood, becoming an axeman—as Senator Watt has said—to help the family make ends meet. It was something he did for seven years, then later setting bricks in a kiln and helping on his parents' chicken farm and orchard. The effects of what he saw and felt in the tomato glut, chicken disease and apple rot are all the types of challenges and experiences that farmers feel and felt. Whilst doing this, though, John Kerin set himself ambition and goals, studying hard by correspondence. So, from cutting his teeth on the family farm, John was to go on and qualify as an economist and cut his teeth, critically, at the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences, as it is now known—to this day, one of our nation's foremost agencies of economic analysis.

His entry into politics came through the seat of Macarthur in the December 1972 election, which saw Gough Whitlam take the reins of government. Events, though—this time the Dismissal and the crises surrounding the Whitlam government—saw him lose his seat at the 1975 election that swept the Whitlam government from office. For many, such a loss could have been the end of a political career, and, had that been the case, it would have been Australia's loss and our farming sector's loss if John Kerin had never returned to the parliament. However, it was another event—Whitlam's retirement from the parliament and from the seat of Werriwa just a few years later, in 1978—that gave John Kerin a vehicle to return to Canberra. So, when Bob Hawke won office in 1983, John Kerin was to become Australia's Minister for Primary Industry, building on his three years as a shadow minister.

There have always been and, particularly at that time, were some tensions between the Labor government and farmers who had become more organised through the formation of the National Farmers Federation. John Kerin himself was acutely aware of this tension. He acknowledged that: 'Labor, for the most part, had no profile and no following in the bush.' As minister, he had to confront 40,000 farmers on the steps of Parliament House and, in a separate protest, 25 tonnes of wheat being dumped on the steps of Parliament House as the natural tension escalated over the effect of taxes and charges on farming communities and a perceived lack of government action.

For many primary industries ministers, such concerns from within the farming sector would have overwhelmed their capacity to achieve reform, to build respect or to get things done. But, with a reputation for working hard and being forensic in his quest for policy based on hard facts and on evidence, John Kerin was able to succeed and, indeed, expand his portfolio, having energy added to the load.

As primary industries minister, John Kerin is renowned for focusing on policies aimed in particular at lifting farm productivity. He brought a genuine focus and true leadership to issues around agricultural research and development, most notably with the passing of the Primary Industries and Energy Research and Development Act 1989. The efforts he brought forward through it, the funding it delivered and the reforms it ultimately helped to achieve have left a lasting legacy of which John Kerin and, today, his family should be very proud.

Australia's farmers are more productive, our nation is more prosperous and our food supply is more secure thanks to the leadership of John Kerin, particularly in the areas of agricultural productivity. But, as is so often the case in political life, his career and its hitherto strong focus and trajectory based on primary industries was to be upset by Labor's leadership tensions at the time. Surprising many, John Kerin became Treasurer when Paul Keating's first failed challenge against Bob Hawke saw Keating then move to the backbench. In retrospect, it was a poisoned chalice. He was just two months out from a federal budget, a budget delivered whilst Australia was still in the 'recession we had to have'. Bob Hawke admitted how big a task he had handed John Kerin, in the shadow of Paul Keating as Treasurer, when he said that no-one had been 'thrown into that position under such pressure'.

John Kerin, of course, just got about the job. He was no grandstander. Indeed, when the government was announcing a one per cent cut in interest rates, his approach was one of simply issuing a statement—no press conference, no bells and no whistles. Perhaps that approach was ill-suited to the Treasury role, compared with the detailed approach he'd become used to in the primary industries portfolio.

John Kerin was moved from that role to Treasury and Communications. Then, following Keating's successful second challenge, he went on to serve as Minister for Trade and Overseas Development. All of these senior and important portfolios reflect the high regard in which John Kerin was held by not only his leaders and his party in government but, indeed, the stakeholders who had to work with him. And in the case of his service as trade minister, it was an opportunity to apply synergies to build on his achievements in agriculture, particularly through the championing of the Cairns Group work, as Senator Watt acknowledged.

Paul Keating, on the back of his 1993 win and drive for a fresh approach, ultimately saw John Kerin end his time as a minister, and that year John called time on his political career. In his obituary in the SMH, Malcolm Brown wrote that John Kerin was once touted as a future Labor leader, but while:

… he lacked the showmanship and flamboyance of some of his contemporaries … nobody dismissed him as anything other than a solid, reliable, servant of the nation.

And although, in 1993, he left parliament and politics, he was far from calling time on his public service. John Kerin was to go on and provide service to many organisations, including the Australian Meat and Livestock Corporation, the CSIRO, the Poultry Cooperative Research Centre, the Australian weed research centre and the Cooperative Research Centre for the Sustainable Development of Tropical Savannas. He was a board member and chair of the Crawford Fund, and, indeed, outside of immediate primary industries or agriculture policy, he also served UNICEF Australia, recognising the reach that food security has right around the world. Appropriately, in 2018 John Kerin was appointed 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.

Whilst I had the pleasure of meeting John Kerin only a handful of times, it was always clear that his decency, his thoughtfulness, his commitment to evidence based policy and to Australia's best interests shone through time and time again. Today as a Senate we acknowledge and thank him for his service, we thank his family for sharing him with the nation and we pay our respects to his wife, June, and daughter, Heidi. I thank the Senate.


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