Senate debates

Monday, 2 May 2016


Patterson, Hon. Dr Rex Alan

3:45 pm

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

It is with deep regret that I inform the Senate of the death on 6 April 2016 of the Hon. Dr Rex Alan Patterson, a former minister and member of the House of Representatives for the division of Dawson, Queensland, from 1966 to 1975.

3:46 pm

Photo of Nigel ScullionNigel Scullion (NT, Country Liberal Party, Minister for Indigenous Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—On behalf of Senator Brandis and the Nationals in the Senate, I move:

That the Senate records its deep regret at the death, on 6 April 2016, of the Honourable Dr Rex Alan Patterson, former minister and member for Dawson, places on record its appreciation of his long and highly distinguished service to the nation and tenders its profound sympathy to his family in their bereavement.

Rex Patterson was born on 8 January 1927 in Bundaberg, Queensland, and grew up in the Bundaberg area in a cane farming family. As well as a strong student at Bundaberg High School, he was a very fine sportsman, playing competitively in tennis, cricket, rugby league and athletics—interests he long maintained and for which he was widely known. As soon as he turned 18 in 1945, he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force, serving until soon after the end of the war.

After studying commerce at the University of Queensland, and as a young man teaching in schools in Mackay and Proserpine and working as a drover on stock routes in northern Australia, in 1949 Rex Patterson joined the research staff of the federal Bureau of Agricultural Economics. He was to remain a public servant until 1966, along the way studying further at the Australian National University and, with the assistance of Fulbright and other fellowships, at the universities of Illinois and Chicago.

Rex Patterson's work for his PhD in agricultural economics led to practical policy change when he returned to Australia, with a major federal commitment to the development of beef roads—an example of how he maintained a balance of the academic and the practical. It was said in another context that he was:

… as familiar with the business end of a cane knife as he is with the principles of agricultural economics.

After serving as Assistant Director of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics from 1960 to 1964, he was appointed in 1964 as Director of Northern Development in the Department of National Development. His extensive experience from the 1940s to the 1960s in Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia, including many rough experiences in the outback, both reflected and deepened his commitment to northern development.

By 1965, he had come to the view that the greatest contribution he could make to this was by resigning from the public service and entering parliamentary politics as a Labor candidate. As he explained:

My reason for standing for Parliament is that I firmly believe the north will never be developed for the benefit of Australians and their children unless more voices which genuinely support the north are heard in the national Parliament.

During the campaign for the February 1966 by-election in the previously safe Country Party seat of Dawson, based on Mackay, Dr Patterson was energetically supported by the then Deputy Leader of the Labor Party, Gough Whitlam. The stunning swing to Labor that saw Dr Patterson elected led on to an intervention by him which, aided by Tom Burns, is widely regarded as saving Gough Whitlam from expulsion from the Labor Party following his reference to its federal executive as '12 witless men'.

Dr Patterson served from 1966 to 1972 as Labor's Shadow Minister for Primary Industry and National Development, time and again impressing with his command of the issues, especially of northern development, and often embarrassing ministers in successive coalition governments, including Prime Minister Gorton himself. An enthusiast for the Ord River scheme and for other projects, he particularly championed the importance of water conservation, dam construction, long-term rural finance and also beef roads and other transport infrastructure to support export of primary products. Seeking to encourage wheat, sugar and other exports to China, Dr Patterson took part in Gough Whitlam's mission to Beijing in 1971, just before Dr Kissinger's secret visit there which prepared the way for President Nixon's opening to China.

After the 1972 election, Senator Wriedt was appointed as Minister for Primary Industry in the Whitlam government and Dr Patterson was appointed Minister for Northern Development. To this was added, in October 1973, the position of Minister for the Northern Territory, in which role Dr Patterson was sworn in by Her Majesty the Queen—in what I understand is the only time that an Australian minister has been sworn in by the Queen herself rather than by the Governor-General.

In June 1975, he became the Minister for Northern Australia. In October 1975, just weeks before the dismissal of the Whitlam government—when Senator Wriedt succeeded Rex Connor as Minister for Minerals and Energy—Dr Patterson became Minister for Agriculture, and Paul Keating was appointed to the ministry and succeeded him as Minister for Northern Australia. During his service as a minister from 1972 to 1975, Dr Patterson's passionate commitment to northern development was strongly evident, as was his frustration with what it was possible to achieve.

He worked hard to promote sugar exports, including negotiating sugar agreements with several countries. He was also instrumental in promoting the construction of dams, beef roads and much else. He played a leadership role in the wake of the Australia Day floods in Brisbane in 1974. At the end of that year of natural disasters, his leadership in the reconstruction of Darwin after Cyclone Tracy devastated it on Christmas Day 1974 was later said by Major General Alan Stretton, who was entrusted with command of the reconstruction, as deserving greater public recognition than it received.

The straight-talking, independent streak that led Dr Patterson to resign from the Public Service and enter politics a decade before was again evidenced in repeated public disagreements with ministerial colleagues—on a government enforced minimum price for coal exports, which he opposed; on uranium mining, which he favoured; on sugar, an industry he was strongly committed to protecting and promoting; on the abolition of the superphosphate bounty, which he believed would damage agriculture and his own party's electoral standing; and on other issues as well.

Dr Patterson lost his own seat of Dawson to the National Party in the federal election of 1975. But his widely acknowledged expertise saw him subsequently work as an economic consultant, with a particular focus on international trade in commodities, and as a primary producer in his home region of Mackay. He served in many leadership positions in community organisations, reflecting his interest in sport, animal welfare and other activities.

For anyone who was involved in or aware of politics in the late 1960s and 1970s, it was impossible not to be aware of and greatly respect Dr Patterson's deep intellectual and practical understanding of issues, his impact and his passion. We mourn the passing of a man who made a profound contribution to his party, to the public life of this country and to the cause of Northern Australia—about which he cared so passionately and about which so many of us today also care so deeply.

Dr Patterson's wife, Eileen, whom he married in 1954, predeceased him. He is survived by their daughter, Jayne; his grandchildren, Peter and Jaime; and a great-grandson, Jack. We offer them and other family and close and loyal friends our deepest sympathy.

3:54 pm

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

On behalf of the opposition, I rise with sadness to acknowledge the passing of the Hon. Dr Rex Alan Patterson and convey our condolences to Dr Patterson's family and friends. Rex Patterson was a quintessential member of a great Labor generation—one of those who forged the path for the election of the Whitlam government—and brought to it significant expertise as well as a few idiosyncrasies. He had substantial academic qualifications and had risen to a senior level in the Public Service before disillusionment with the Liberal Party-Country Party government led him to seek Labor Party preselection in his home state of Queensland. He would take the seat of Dawson off the Country Party in a by-election in 1966, one of those transformative victories that paved the way for the eventual election of the Whitlam government in 1972.

Highly educated, the opportunity to serve in the ministry in areas complementary to his credentials demonstrated him to be a man of ideas and vision. A fighter for his causes, he was particularly strident in his views on agricultural matters, speaking as a man with both practical and academic experience of Australian rural life. But, above all, Rex Patterson understood that the role of governments is to take real action to help people.

Rex Patterson was a Queenslander through and through. Born in Bundaberg in 1927, sugar and, I am sure, many other commodities ran through his veins. Upon the completion of his secondary education at Bundaberg High School his first stop was the University of Queensland, where he completed a bachelor of commerce degree and distinguished himself as a fine sportsperson, most notably in cricket, tennis and athletics. He also served in the RAAF at the end of World War II. Following completion of his undergraduate degree, he went on to complete a masters degree in agricultural science and a doctorate in agricultural economics. This further study took him to the ANU and then to the first of two significant periods in the United States at the universities of Illinois and Chicago.

From 1949, Rex Patterson was employed by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural Economics, and between 1958 and 1960 he returned to the United States as a recipient of a Fulbright scholarship. He used this opportunity to study the development and economics of transport in Northern Australia. The Northern Territory News wrote:

Using data accumulated from his work in the north, and with the help of computers at the University of Illinois, he developed a technique of analysis for determining the most economic and effective methods of moving cattle. His findings demonstrated the need for significant infrastructure development, particularly the construction of beef roads. This became a focus of his professional work as a Commonwealth public servant as he rose to the position of Director of Northern Development.

Eventually, it was due to his ongoing frustration with the lack of commitment of the Liberal Party-Country Party government to these policies that he returned to Queensland to contest a by-election in the seat of Dawson. Rex Patterson was elected in the 1966 Dawson by-election, a watershed moment in Gough Whitlam's rise to prominence. He later held his seat, centred on Mackay, in the general election that year, at which Labor suffered significant losses elsewhere, and continued to be returned at elections until 1975, when he was finally unable to withstand the tide that swept Malcolm Fraser to power.

In a speech in the parliament Dr Patterson made clear his views on the Holt government and also set the agenda for the policies he pursued throughout his time in parliament. Putting the case for proactive policy development, he said:

The government's policy is to wait until an emergency comes and then do something about it. … I listened with amazement to the Prime Minister say that the drought has demonstrated a need for greater investment in rural areas, particularly to guard against a recurrence of drought from which we have had the good fortune to be relatively free for a long time. I do not know what circles the Prime Minister moves in, but apparently they are confined to some parts of southern Australia.

Dr Patterson's passionate commitment to Northern Australia, and to the development and realisation of Australia's potential, marked his parliamentary career. He saw that the pathway to future development for Australian agriculture, particularly in Northern Australia, was through opening up exports to our region. And whilst he may not have been an advocate for free trade in the way we would understand it today, Dr Patterson worked tirelessly to break down barriers to trade for Australian agriculture in particular. He was a member of the landmark trip to China taken by Gough Whitlam as opposition leader—famously condemned by the then Australian government but vindicated shortly thereafter by the visit of the President of the United States, Richard Nixon. Of trade with China, Rex Patterson said:

… the trade stakes, as far as Australia is concerned, are so high in the China game that these personal political consideration should be scrapped. The future economic welfare of the Australian economy and of the people in rural areas should be the only criterion.

Dr Patterson went to China with the principal objective of opening up the wheat market. Given his roots in Bundaberg and Mackay it should not be of any surprise that he returned with an opening of exports for sugar as well. This sits alongside successful efforts to open markets for sugar in other countries, including Malaysia. He also spoke of the importance of exports and predicted future demand for commodities, including milk and milk products as well as wool and wool technology.

In addition to beef roads, Dr Patterson was also a strong advocate of other infrastructure development schemes in northern Australia. He was a great proponent of the Ord River scheme and sought the development of other such schemes, particularly in northern Queensland. It was a source of great disappointment that many of his grand plans and ideas did not come to fruition—although this was never a consequence of lack of advocacy on his part. He was also a proponent of continued uranium mining in the Northern Territory. It was as the Minister for the Northern Territory that Rex Patterson had a direct and profound impact on the lives of tens of thousands of people. When sworn to the portfolio in 1973 he became the only Australian minister to have been sworn in by a reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. The NT News greeted his appointment by saying that he knew 'the saddle, the springless seat of a Jeep and the remoteness of the outback far better than most Territorians'.

Dr Patterson made immediate progress on the pathway to self-government for the Territory and in the beef and mining industries. But it was in response to Cyclone Tracy, which struck on Christmas Day 1974, that Rex Patterson's skills as a minister came to the fore. With recent experience in control of and recovery from floods in Brisbane and other parts of Queensland, Dr Patterson took command of the government's response to this natural disaster of epic proportions and supported and facilitated the mass evacuation of Darwin, earning praise from the highest levels and later acknowledgement that he never received full recognition for the part he played in that emergency.

Rex Patterson was once described by the Bulletin as a 'prickly, independent man in a prickly portfolio which has little independence and a more imposing title than responsibilities'. This undersold the impact Dr Patterson had as a minister, but the character description did highlight some of the difficulties he encountered during his time in government, including with his colleagues. Most marked of these was with the other Rex—Rex Connor, the Minister for Minerals and Energy. A minister who strongly advocated development himself, Rex Connor clashed with Dr Patterson, particularly over coal prices in Queensland. It is deeply unfortunate that such quarrels between ministers, which were by no means isolated, contributed to the fortunes or lack thereof of the Whitlam government.

In October 1975 Rex Patterson became Australia's Minister for Agriculture, the portfolio in which he had served as shadow minister in opposition but that had to that point eluded him in government. However, the actions of Sir John Kerr in dismissing the government meant that Dr Patterson served a mere few weeks in that portfolio. It is beyond doubt that, were it not for the intervention of events beyond his control, Australia would have seen the drive and tenacity that typified Dr Patterson's approach to his previous responsibilities, exercised through the agricultural policy landscape. As with so many careers that came to a premature end, our country was deprived of the true potential of this minister. After losing his seat, the seat of Dawson, in the 1975 election, Rex Patterson remained working in the areas he loved. He was a consultant in agricultural economics and a primary producer.

In conclusion, I say this: Rex Patterson was a man who was respected where it counted. He dismissed governments that merely hoped to provide for the Australian people, decrying the attitude of the Liberal and Country parties, who 'hoped' but never acted. His life and service to our nation were filled by big ideas backed up by understanding and experience as well as accomplishment. Rex Patterson passed on 6 April in his home town of Mackay at the age of 89. We farewell him, and we extend our deepest sympathies to his daughter, Jayne, and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren as well as all his friends and colleagues.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

I ask that senators again join me in a moment of silence to signify their assent to the motion.

Honourable senators having stood in their places—

The motion is carried. Thank you.