Senate debates

Tuesday, 9 May 2023


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

5:07 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | Hansard source

I rise on behalf of the Nationals and also as a former agriculture minister for Australia—the first female to do so—to associate us and myself with the speeches both of the government and, indeed, the fine words of Senator Birmingham on this condolence motion on the death of the Hon. John Charles Kerin AO.

John was a forester, a brick setter, a poultry farmer, an academic, an accomplished politician and, importantly, a fierce advocate for Australian agriculture. In short, John Kerin was an old-style Labor man. His passing has no doubt left a profound void in the lives of all those who knew him, and we are all here to offer our condolences, and to support his family and friends.

Like many of that generation, he was obliged to leave school at 15 to help his father around the chicken farm and spent most days cutting wood for a living. This rural upbringing ingrained in him the value of hard work and the lived experience of the very real struggles of rural and regional Australians.

After the giants who had previously served as agriculture minister, such as Black Jack McEwen and Peter Nixon, from the Victorian National Party, Kerin was one of Australia's best-regarded agriculture ministers. He was fortunate to serve for a long period in the job which enabled him to enact lasting reform measures, particularly with commodity groups, and that is a rare privilege for ministers in our system today. And, indeed, Peter Nixon has actually asked me to pass on to the Senate some of his reflections on the passing of Kerin. He says: 'When I retired, John Kerin succeeded me as minister for primary industry. John was quite pragmatic and spoke to me about the issues he faced. He was level headed, intelligent and was devoted to his work.' And I think those characteristics that Peter Nixon tells us about are also reflected in John's entire work.

As the member for Werriwa, he was successor to Gough Whitlam and the predecessor of Mark Latham—two significant leaders of the Labor Party. But most importantly, John served as the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy between 1983 and 1991 and made significant and lasting policy decisions that helped reshape our country's agriculture industry and forever changed our national economy.

In his memoir, The Way I Saw It; the Way It Was, Kerin had some wonderful insights into the job of being agriculture minister. On agriculture policymaking he said, 'A decision by private industry not to invest or to resist change can be very powerful.' He also said he was opposed to the 'whatever it takes' approach to politics in the New South Wales Labor right, going on to say, 'I always thought that the best, thoroughly thought-through policies were the best politics. I do not believe in playing politics to gain advantage, or in confusing the public by saying one thing and doing another.' He also said, 'Nor do I believe in the prattling of inane slogans.' I think, as the Anglican ministers say, there's something in that for all of us.

During his time as Minister for Primary Industry, John was instrumental in driving significant reforms, particularly in relation to the sugar and wheat industries—and Senator Birmingham told us how Australian wheat growers felt about some of those reforms at the time. He also played a key role in deregulation of that industry, and that had a major impact on the sector and paved the way for increased competition and efficiency.

He also was a strong advocate for the interests of Australian farmers in international trade negotiations, as Senator Birmingham outlined; in particular, in relation to the Uruguay Round multilateral trade negotiations. He worked tirelessly to ensure that the interests of Australian farmers were protected and that farmers had access to new and emerging markets.

I want to read, as it is budget day, this quote from the late, great John Kerin as Minister for Primary Industries and Energy:

Quite frankly, always the best thing that any Government can do for the whole farm sector is in the macro-economic policy area: getting interest rates down and inflation rates down …

I heartily agree. I know the Minister for Finance and the Treasurer are in the budget lock-up right now, and I hope that the whip will do the right thing and push that quote under the door so that they can reflect on that very good advice from John Kerin.

He also oversaw significant investments in research and development in the agricultural sector. One of his stand-out achievements was as the architect of our modern agricultural research and development system, in that he established the research and development corporations in commodity groups far and wide. It's a system where farmers contribute to research that's going to help them become more efficient and productive and where we, as taxpayers, participate and contribute to making the primary production system more efficient for farmers. This partnership between taxpayers and the farming sector has driven innovation and progress across agricultural commodities in Australia to the point where our overall agriculture sector was worth $90 billion in 2022.

Kerin also recognised that innovation was key to driving growth and productivity in the sector and worked to ensure that funding was available for research into new technologies and practices. That included in areas such as plant breeding, soil conservation and animal health.

To his wife, June, his daughter, Heidi, and the rest of John's family we offer our deepest sympathies. We thank you for his years of service to our nation and his unwavering dedication to Australian agriculture. Vale, John Kerin.


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