Senate debates

Wednesday, 10 May 2023


West, Hon. Stewart John

3:48 pm

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

I rise to associate the opposition with the remarks of Senator Wong in relation to paying tribute to and honouring the life of the Hon. Stewart John West and extend our condolences to his family and loved ones. Born in 1934 in Forbes and attending Wollongong high School, Stewart West would go on to represent greater area of Wollongong as the member for Cunningham for some 16 years in the Australian parliament. Before entering the parliament, he held the position of President of the Waterside Workers' Federation for five years, a position that I can only imagine would be one that would strengthen one's ability to enter into political combat.

He served as campaign manager for 10 years for the then member for Cunningham, Rex Connor, who died suddenly in office, leaving Stewart West to be elected as the next representative for the seat of Cunningham in 1977. In his maiden speech, Stewart spoke with passion for his electorate, advocating for capital expenditure grants and employment revitalisation, which he believed his community needed to succeed.

Publicly and proudly labelled as one of the few members of Labor's left faction, Stewart was a class of politician who wore his heart on his sleeve. Three years after entering parliament, as Senator Wong said, Stewart was given his first appointment as opposition spokesman for Aboriginal affairs followed by the responsibilities for environmental conversation and then finance and trade under opposition leader Bill Hayden.

Stewart had been recognised as being vocal and indeed played a key role in the campaigns to save the Franklin River in Tasmania and preserve Kakadu in the Northern Territory. In one newspaper article a few words described how devoted Stewart was to the responsibilities of his portfolios. During his time as shadow minister for the environment and conservation, the Canberra Times reported on his contribution to a Labor national conference in 1982 that was, as Senator Wong indicated, debating the ALP's position on the future of Australia's uranium industry. The article stated that:

Watching West from the press galleries of the House … he has always seemed mild and self-effacing and dutiful but at the ALP conference he did a deal of ranting …

In a passionate afternoon Mr West was megapassionate …

Following the 1983 election, the megapassionate Stewart West became the only identified member of the left faction of the new Labor government to be appointed to a cabinet position under Prime Minister Bob Hawke as Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs. It was, though, to be a relatively short-lived position initially. A man of principle, Stewart resigned from the appointment eight months in when he opposed the cabinet decision to sell uranium to France. He was subsequently reappointed to the position, though, just five months later by Prime Minister Hawke. For another two terms, Stewart West would remain in the cabinet of the Hawke government as Minister for Housing and Construction and then as Minister for Administrative Services until 1990.

In the decade following the Vietnam War and the establishment of communist governments in the region, many residents in South-East Asia became refugees. As immigration minister, Stewart approached his portfolio wholeheartedly, leading an agenda that would welcome these refugees to Australia. Stewart championed the goals of the Hawke government. In one address to the House he stated:

Whilst humanitarian considerations dictate that resettlement is still necessary, this Government maintains strongly that solutions must be found to the cause of mass population movements in South East Asia.

He didn't just state those words; he would contribute to these solutions, travelling to intergovernmental consultations between the US, Canada and Japan and Australia. He would also visit Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand to stress that resettlement alone was not the answer and there was need for voluntary repatriation and other efforts.

Throughout his time in parliament, as Senator Wong acknowledged, Stewart West was principled. He was particularly principled when it came to refugees and matters of migration as well as matters of conservation. Even after his time in parliament, Stewart continued to advocate for the rights of refugees.

After the re-election of the Hawke government in 1990, Stewart's principles were further challenged within his party. The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq led Stewart to abstain from voting on the Hawke government's resolution on the gulf conflict which would see Australian troops sent to support UN forces against Iraq. In a piece he penned appearing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Stewart wrote:

I also fear the US-UN forces will win the war but lose the peace. The post-war problems will exceed the pre-war problems.

…   …   …

Even now a devastating groundwater should be averted. We need another diplomatic approach …

Many would now see the words he wrote as being prescient for future challenges and problems to come.

It was clear that Stewart's desires during his time in parliament were of humanitarian and conservation priorities, his passion for his portfolios as strong as that for his community. Stewart retired from the parliament at the 1993 election. I have little doubt—and Senator Wong acknowledged this—that his interests and values would have ensured strong opinions continued to be expressed throughout his life, particularly on the issues near and dear to his heart and no doubt most passionately when he believed that the party he loved and served was straying from the principles he believed it needed to uphold.

Lauded as a political giant of the Labor movement, Stewart West was, I'm told, surrounded by family and friends at the time of his passing. On behalf of the opposition and as part of this Senate we extend to Stewart's loved ones—his wife, Mary, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren—our deep and sincere condolences and thank him for his service to our nation.

Question agreed to, honourable senators joining in a moment of silence.


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