Senate debates

Wednesday, 10 May 2023


West, Hon. Stewart John

3:40 pm

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate records its sorrow at the death, on 29 March 2023, of the Honourable Stewart John West, former Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Minister for Housing and Construction, and Minister for Administrative Services, and former member for Cunningham, 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 another highly respected former Australian Labor Party minister and member of the House of Representatives, the Hon. Stewart John West, at the age of 88, and I convey the government's condolences to his family and his friends.

The day after the Senate eulogised John Kerin, we are lamenting the loss of another member of a great generation of Labor ministers. The cabinets of the Hawke government set the standard for executive government in this country, and Stewart West left his own mark when he served among some of the greatest of Labor's ministers. But his contribution extended beyond his ministerial portfolios; he had a hand in policy decisions that left a lasting legacy. Notably, he took a stance on issues of principle, even when it was not convenient or when it came at personal cost. As the Prime Minister has said:

He was a politician of unbending principle, one who cherished the privilege of being in Cabinet but who nonetheless prioritised principle over career.

Stewart West was born in Forbes in 1934, in the Central West region of New South Wales. The Illawarra became his home, where he was a waterside worker in Port Kembla and, obviously, was involved in industrial and Labor politics. When Rex Connor, the then member for Cunningham, sadly died in office in 1977, Stewart West was elected to replace him, and he would be re-elected to the seat in the '77, '80, '83, '84, '87 and 1990 elections. He served a term on the backbench, before being elevated to the shadow ministry following the 1980 election. He first served as spokesperson on Aboriginal affairs and, in this portfolio, he worked with the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Hayden, to put in place long-term policy proposals focused on Indigenous jobs, housing and health, in contrast to the actions of the Fraser government, which had cut real spending by some $35 million over four years.

In late 1980, Stewart West took on the shadow portfolio that he would hold for the majority of Labor's final term in opposition: environmental conservation. Here, he built on the legacy of ministers like Moss Cass, formulating policies that would come to define a new approach from Labor in government. He oversaw development of the environmental policy that Labor took to the 1983 election and that we implemented in the face of significant opposition once Bob Hawke led Labor to victory. At the heart of this policy was Labor's pledge to save the Franklin River in Tasmania. Four decades later, that the Franklin still flows wild and free can be attributed to his courage and foresight. So, too, can the protection of Kakadu. These are substantial achievements which are a magnificent legacy.

When Bob Hawke replaced Bill Hayden as leader and led Labor to government in 1983, Stewart West became a cabinet minister, being appointed Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs. It was another issue that would result in him having a brief hiatus from the cabinet room early in his ministerial career.

In the early 1980s, there was passionate debate within the Australian Labor Party and the broader community about uranium. A strong anti-uranium proponent, Stewart West had already endured much anguish as the party thrashed out the issue at its national conference prior to coming to government. When the issue came before cabinet and a decision was taken that he felt was inconsistent with the party's platform, he resigned his cabinet position. At the time, he was the left's sole representative in a cabinet that otherwise comprised of members of the right, centre-left and the independents. In making this decision he prioritised principle over career. However, he did retain his ministry, and Prime Minister Hawke restored him to cabinet the following year.

As Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Stewart West articulated the importance of diversity and non-discrimination in Australia's immigration policy. At the time, our refugee and special humanitarian visa intake was under scrutiny, especially as a consequence of the Vietnam War and conflicts in Southeast Asia, as well as the repudiation of the white Australia policy by the Whitlam government. Immigration to Australia from Asia was the subject of political debate. Stewart West took on the falsehoods being peddled in the community by what he rightly described as a prejudiced minority that was being supported regrettably by the then opposition. These falsehoods ranged from the perpetuation of myths that government policies discriminated against people in the UK and Europe to bold-faced anti-Asian racism. He called on the opposition not to lend its support to emerging anti-Asian racism in Australia. Sadly, we know, particularly under the leadership of John Howard, these calls were not heeded. We will never forget it was Mr Howard who called for a reduction in Asian immigration in 1988, saying the pace of Asian immigration was a cause for concern. I am grateful that we on the side of the chamber can count those such as Stewart West amongst our number. He was prepared to clearly articulate the damage done by those who exploit race as a weapon for political advantage. All of us in this place on all sides must always guard against such tactics and recognise the damage those tactics wreak on our community.

Following his two years in this portfolio, Stewart West went on to serve as Minister for Housing and Construction and Administrative Services. He did not return to the ministry after the 1990 election and retired from politics prior to the 1993 election. After returning to private life, he maintained his activism on those matters that were close to his heart, including the plight of refugees, continuing to give voice to the compassion he had shown as minister.

Stewart West died two days short of his 89th birthday. His life was one of passion and one of principle. He was a champion for the cause and he laid a path for Labor ministers to come. The Prime Minister reflected that he was proud to sit beside Stewart West at our national conferences and proud to stand alongside him to improve the lives of working Australians. We are a better nation as a consequence of the impact of Stewart West at the highest levels of our government.

Once again, on behalf of this Labor government, I express our condolences following his passing to his friends and family, especially to his widow, Mary, and to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.


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