Senate debates

Tuesday, 12 February 2008


Mr Peter James Andren

6:13 pm

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by leave—I move:

That the Senate records its deep regret at the death, on 3 November 2007, of Peter James Andren, former member for Calare, and places on record its appreciation of his long and meritorious public service and tenders its profound sympathy to his family in their bereavement.

I thank the Senate. I note, as is so appropriate, that as I rise here the Prime Minister is speaking about the magnificent contribution to parliamentary life that Peter Andren made in the House of Representatives. Last year, when he knew that he was terminally ill, Peter Andren said, ‘I look back on the last 11½ years with great pride, having forever silenced the sceptics who say an Independent is wasted space within the political system.’ That pride was warranted.

Peter was a son of Gulargambone, a much-loved independent member for Calare and one extraordinarily good Australian. To quote his fellow independent, Tony Windsor:

He never took a backward step when it came to representing the people of Calare and, more broadly, country Australians.

Peter Andren was also described as the conscience of Australia’s parliament. He put himself to the people of Lithgow, Bathurst, Orange and all the rest of Calare and, when they said yes, he turned out to be an outstanding representative for them and for the country. At each election since, he won by a bigger margin. That is not because Peter followed opinion polls. Rather, he was a leader who knew the thinking of his constituents. He worked hard for Calare, disproving the notion that, if you are not in government, you languish. As Prime Minister Rudd said in the House, Peter Andren gave the instruction to his staff that, when members of his electorate phoned the office, that call was to be treated as the most important thing going on in that person’s life on that day.

In his first speech to the House in 1996, Peter outlined his independent viewpient as follows:

There is a growing awareness in the electorate that honest, effective representation of constituents’ interests can be achieved through channels other than political parties. Inflexible ideology on either side will bring swift retribution. People want fair and reasonable government, no domination by one school of thought whether it be union or rationalist economics.

In a note to me in 2003, Peter Andren spoke about ‘grit, determination and ethic’, which are three words that fit his politics like a glove. His ethics were shown in his stand for Aboriginal Australians. His grit was shown in his insistence that the Tampa refugees be treated with decency. His determination was shown by his attempts to get better transport, telecommunications and other essential services for his people of Calare. He saw the sale of Telstra as economic rationalism, serving the interests of the big end of town rather than those of the people of Millthorpe, Trunkey Creek or Molong.

Peter took on the systematic abuse of parliamentary travel allowances. He said:

Here is a golden opportunity to lift the standards, and I am sure the Prime Minister—

he was referring to Prime Minister Howard—

will address it.

After hurling a few disgruntled words at the member for Calare, Prime Minister Howard did lift the standards. It was over this issue that Peter said he got his dander up, so he stood up again and objected. But instead of listening, the Speaker had Peter ejected. Peter said, ‘That was probably one of the silliest things the Prime Minister has done in question time since I have been here because it focused attention on the issue and I got calls from all over Australia.’ Tandberg drew the famous cartoon of Peter Andren being booted out of the House, showing it to the Australian people gathered outside. The cartoon carried the words:

The cheek of him! Coming in here representing the mob.

Peter enjoyed his political life, but he spurned the blatant self-interest of politicians’ superannuation and pay rises, which are so often a matter of public opprobrium. He wanted hard-working MPs to have a fair reward, but he was the voice for all Australians in insisting that the 69 per cent top-up of MPs superannuation be brought back to nine per cent, which was what all other citizens could expect.

What is not well known is that Peter never took up the $15,000 of overseas travel that he was entitled to each time he was re-elected. Nor did he take the $180, or thereabouts, per night in travel allowance when out of his electorate, because he saw the $39,000 per annum electoral allowance as generous enough. Who of us knows anybody else in this parliament who has that attitude?

He gave politics a good name indeed. In an article she wrote in the Bulletin, the then columnist, Maxine McKew, who replaced Prime Minister Howard as the member for Bennelong, observed:

He certainly makes a three-hour drive from Sydney to his electoral office in Bathurst more than worth while. It is hard to think of another politician who is so waffle free. Andren indicates nothing. He gives you the facts and tells you what he thinks.

Peter campaigned for better rural health services. He argued:

Communities without a doctor want to know why taxpayer-trained doctors can’t be required to work for a period in the country in return for taxpayer-funded Medicare provider privileges. Globalisation, competition policy and government hands-off markets may work well at the top end of town, but can have devastating effects on rural and regional areas.

He spoke out for a free East Timor during all those years in which the major parties—no matter who was in government or in opposition—endorsed Indonesia’s military occupation. And time has proved him right of course. Peter said, ‘I might only be a pinprick on an elephant hide, but I can raise matters at national level.’ People told him, ‘You stick your neck out. We don’t always agree with you, Peter, but we know you are not being driven by other forces.’ That is so true.

His driving force was the people of Calare, their children and their grandchildren, and this nation of Australia. His decency was noted across the political spectrum and throughout the press gallery, which was stunned and saddened by the news of his illness in the middle of last year. An editorial in the Daily Telegraph put it:

They say in politics we get the MPs we deserve—which would suggest the people of Calare are possessed of exceptional character and decency.

Peter Andren ended his first speech here in Canberra by saying:

To my father and mother, both deceased, thanks for the strength and guidance—

On behalf of his admiring colleagues and all the Australians in the future who ever put up their hands for high office and, seeking a lead, read about his contribution to national life, Peter Andren, now that you are deceased, to you we can say, ‘Thank you for your strength and your guidance.’

On a personal note, I will never forget Peter coming with his partner, Valerie Faber, to walk in Tasmania’s giant forests, which were and are threatened needlessly by woodchipping and now by the Gunns pulp mill. In fact, after that visit, the two of them held a magnificant fundraising dinner in Orange in the mists on Mount Canobolas to help save the forests of Tasmania so far away. In the Styx Valley, which is a living wonder of the world, we talked about how much we human beings rely on nature for the air we breathe, for the food we eat, for the medicines that give us aid and for the inspiration that wild nature brings to every heart. This notable member of parliament went out of his way for those forests, as he did for the people of his beloved Calare. Like the great eagles of the forest, Peter Andren’s integrity, his example, and his impact on Australian affairs will forever soar high in this nation’s political history.

Question agreed to, honourable senators standing in their places.