Senate debates

Monday, 27 November 2017


Fife, Hon. Wallace Clyde 'Wal'

3:36 pm

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President, Special Minister of State) Share this | | Hansard source

It is with deep regret that I inform the Senate of the death on 16 November 2017 of the Hon. Wallace Clyde 'Wal' Fife, a former minister and member of the House of Representatives for the division of Farrer, New South Wales, from 1975 to 1984 and the division of Hume, New South Wales, from 1984 to 1993. I call the Leader of the Government in the Senate.

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

That the Senate records its sorrow at the death, on 16 November 2017, of the Hon. Wallace Clyde 'Wal' Fife, former Minister for Aviation, Minister for Education, Minister for Business and Consumer Affairs and a former member of the House of Representatives for the divisions of Hume and Farrer, places on record its gratitude for his service to the Parliament and the nation, and tenders its sympathy to his family in their bereavement.

Wal Fife was born in Wagga Wagga in New South Wales on 2 October 1929, the second son of William Clyde Fife, an agricultural produce merchant, and Myrtle Elizabeth Wyatt. He began his schooling at South Wagga Public School before transferring to Wagga Primary School. Born on the cusp of the Great Depression to a family which, for many years, would struggle to make ends meet, there was little in Wal's background to suggest that a long and distinguished parliamentary career beckoned, but the political bug bit early.

As Wal recounted in later life, 'In September 1940, aged 10, I played "election day" the way other children played "cops and robbers" or pretended to be firemen or engine drivers'—a feat of which you, Mr President, may not even have been capable at the age of 10. He went on to say, 'My parents returned home from voting at the South Wagga School booth with a handful of how-to-vote cards. They might have been good scribbling paper, but I used them to set up a make-believe polling booth using boxes in the garage and handed them out to imaginary electors.' It was the earliest inkling of a life's ambition. When, a number of years later, Wal was given the choice of boarding schools between Newington College in Sydney and Canberra Grammar School, he chose the latter to be nearer to Parliament House, which he would visit frequently throughout his school days to view the proceedings. Wal, as apparent from those early yearnings, had an insatiable appetite for politics and was restless to learn everything there was to know about the political process, from the way business was transacted on the floor of parliament to the inner machinations of the party apparatus.

In 1947, when he was in his final year as a boarder at Canberra Grammar, Wal Fife chanced upon an article in The Canberra Times which reported that the federal opposition leader, Mr Menzies, had moved to establish a Federal Secretariat of the Liberal Party. The 18-year-old wrote to Mr Menzies to seek his guidance and to request a position within the party's new organisational wing. To his surprise and delight, a reply came by mail from the opposition leader's private secretary shortly after to say that Mr Menzies would be in touch. A brief meeting was scheduled in Parliament House, for which he was given permission to leave school early. Early the following year, in January 1948, Wal Fife, newly graduated from Canberra Grammar, began work as a junior clerk for the Liberal Party Federal Secretariat, then based in Sydney, so beginning a political career that would span nearly half a century.

For Wal Fife, 1947—his final year at Canberra Grammar—was consequential for another reason, for it was in that year he would meet one Marcia Hargreaves Stanley, also in her final year of schooling, at Canberra High. The pair struck up a conversation after school sports and would see each other as often as their studies and limited funds would allow. When Marcia moved to Melbourne two years later to train as a nurse, they continued to correspond. Marcia returned to Wagga after three years of training, and on 31 May 1952 the couple were married.

There can be no doubt that Wal Fife had always harboured aspirations to run for elected office, but his father was adamant that some worldly knowledge and experience outside of government were required before Wal would be ready to enter the political fray. At the end of 1948, he transferred from the federal secretariat to the Liberal Party's New South Wales division to work as an assistant organiser, conveniently based in his home town of Wagga Wagga, where he could also join his father and brother, Harold, in the family business, Fifes Produce. For nearly a decade before his eventual election to the New South Wales parliament, Wal was active in local politics. In 1949, still too young to cast a vote of his own, he helped to manage the campaign of the future Menzies and McMahon government minister David Fairbairn in his successful tilt for the seat of Farrer.

Wal Fife's first chance at candidacy in his own right came at the New South Wales general election of 1953. At the urging of the party's state executive, the by now 23-year-old Wal Fife was given the unenviable task of carrying the flag in his unwinnable home division of Wagga Wagga against the long-serving Labor Minister for Agriculture Eddie Graham, a familiar rite of passage for many who go on to significant political careers. Labor easily retained the seat at the 1953 poll, but Wal did better than expected. He managed to outpoll the Country Party candidate, even though it was a regional seat. He ran again for Wagga Wagga at the 1956 election and narrowed the Labor Party's margin but failed to unseat its veteran MP. His perseverance was rewarded the following year, however, when news spread that Eddie Graham had fallen ill, with talk that he would have to retire from parliament. He died in office on 13 November 1957, and a by-election was scheduled for 14 December. It attracted what Wal Fife described as a 'Melbourne Cup field' of candidates for the newly competitive seat, including the late Eddie Graham's nephew, Dudley Graham, who was endorsed to stand for the Labor Party. Of the seven candidates, Wal was the only one who had previously stood as a candidate for Wagga Wagga, and, though he was young, his earlier experience was rewarded. In 1956, the former member Eddie Graham had won the election with an absolute majority of just over 3½ thousand votes.

In 1957, Wal Fife won the by-election by roughly 3,000 votes. At 28 years of age, he became the youngest member of the New South Wales parliament. He was sworn in in February 1958 to cries from the government benches of, 'He's only a boy.' When Wal was made Assistant Minister for Education in 1965 at the age of 35, he was, at the time, the youngest minister ever appointed in New South Wales. Between 1967 and 1975, he would serve in the New South Wales government as Minister for Mines, Minister for Conservation, Minister for Power, Minister for Transport and Minister for Highways as well as serving as the Assistant Treasurer from June 1972 until January 1975. However, it was in the mines and energy portfolios that Fife cemented his national reputation as a capable administrator and shrewd politician, successfully streamlining New South Wales's energy sector and steering government policy through the state's harsh union strikes of 1974.

Though Wal Fife's career in state parliament had been productive and successful by any measure, with all the hallmarks of a future Premier, one suspects that, from his misspent youth peering down from the public galleries of Old Parliament House to his time at the centre of decision-making in the cabinet of Robert Askin, it had always been Canberra, not Macquarie Street, which shimmered on the horizon of Wal's ambitions. He had, after all, chosen Canberra Grammar over Newington College and, by the end of 1975, he had his sights set on the federal division of Farrer to replace its retiring member, the Hon. David Fairbairn, whose first campaign he had helped manage and who was to retire at the following election. Wal was preselected, and it is notable, for what was regarded as a safe seat, that he was preselected unopposed on 9 September 1975. He resigned from state parliament on 15 October and in the double-dissolution election that followed he was elected as the member for Farrer.

Of a federal parliamentary career spanning over 17 years, Wal Fife would serve only the first 18 months on the back bench before his elevation to the Fraser ministry as the Minister for Business and Consumer Affairs, the role vacated by the ascendant member for Bennelong, John Howard. He would go on to serve as Minister for Education from December 1979 to May 1982 and as Minister for Aviation from May 1982 until the defeat of the government in March 1983. He also served three stints as Minister Assisting the Prime Minister: twice in the area of federal affairs, from August 1978 to December 1979 and from November 1980 to March 1983, and as the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister in Public Service matters from May 1982 until March 1983.

From 1982, Wal Fife's encyclopaedic knowledge of parliamentary procedure was put to use—first in his role as deputy leader of the House, which he held from August 1982 until March 1983. Returned as the member for Farrer in the 33rd Parliament, Wal Fife served as opposition spokesman on housing and construction until the 1984 election. An intervening electoral redistribution had since moved Wagga Wagga into the division of Hume, which had been won at every election for the preceding decade by prominent National Party member Steven Lusher. In a hard-fought, three-cornered contest, Wal Fife prevailed over the National Party and Labor to win the seat, which he would retain until his retirement from parliament. However, to his great disappointment, he was not included in the shadow ministry and would remain on the back bench for the final months of the 33rd Parliament.

In April 1987, he was elevated once again to the shadow ministry as shadow spokesman on defence before moving to the primary industry portfolio in May 1987 and then to the administrative services portfolio in August of the same year. It was also in August of 1987 that Wal Fife assumed the role, for which he was perhaps best suited, as Manager of Opposition Business in the House. Wal Fife served as Manager of Opposition Business until his resignation from the opposition frontbench in May 1992, when he announced his intention not to seek re-election. The late 1980s—indeed, the whole of the 1980s—were turbulent times for the Liberal Party which saw a series of changes of the leadership of the party. Between 1989 and 1990, under the leadership of Andrew Peacock, Wal Fife served in the party role of Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party in the House of Representatives and thus, by the late 1980s, had become one of the most senior statesmen of the Liberal Party which he had served for so long.

He was hospitalised from a stroke in December 1992 and he did not return to parliament to see out the rest of his final term before the March 1993 election. Writing of his time in the role, Wal Fife remarked that he had found being Manager of Opposition Business 'enjoyable, though exacting, even more difficult than being Leader of the House'. He noted that Bob Hawke, in his remarks on the night of his resignation as Prime Minister, had made reference to the relationship between the then Leader of the House, Kim Beazley, and Wal Fife, calling it 'remarkable'. Wal concurred with this assessment, writing that he believed 'that among all the other occupants of the positions, no two have got on so well working in the interests of our own parties and in the joint interests of the House'. Strong though it was, I dare say the amity between the two current occupants of those positions, the member for Sturt and the member for Grayndler, might give Wal Fife and Kim Beazley's friendship a run for its money—but we shouldn't press the similarities between Mr Fife and the member for Sturt or, indeed, the member for Grayndler too far.

Described by those who worked alongside him as a 'gentleman statesman', Wal Fife left parliamentary life with the reputation as a hardworking local member, an intelligent and capable administrator who could be relied upon as a safe pair of hands across a wide variety of policy areas. But perhaps the most transformative of his legacies came in the field of education. When he first stood for the New South Wales parliament as a candidate in 1953, the establishment of a rural university in the Riverina was among his central campaign platforms. It was a commitment that followed him from his early days as an assistant minister for education in the Askin government until well into his time in federal parliament, culminating in the establishment of Charles Sturt University on 1 July 1989. It was a long and painstaking project and one in which Wal Fife played a pivotal role, first in establishing a college of advanced education in Wagga Wagga, then in helping facilitate the college's move to its Boorooma campus, before finally winning government support for the incorporation of the Wagga Wagga Agricultural College into the then Riverina college in 1977, ultimately culminating in the establishment of one of Australia's finest regional universities.

For his tireless efforts, Wal Fife was conferred as honorary Doctor of Letters by Charles Sturt University in April 1993, a most fitting recognition of his work in its behalf. As the Leader of the Nationals at the time, Tim Fischer, noted when Wal Fife retired: 'It was his vision, determination and dedication which I have always said brought about the breakthrough in relation to this vital higher education project.' In 2001, Wal Fife received the Centenary Medal for service to Australian society through the Commonwealth and state parliaments and government and, only hours before his death, Wal Fife was advised that he had been awarded life membership of the Liberal Party—the Liberal Party's highest honour.

And so we remember Wal Fife as one of Australia's longest-serving members of parliament, both federal and state. We remember him as a statesman of consequence, as a parliamentarian respected for his diligence and loyalty, as a loyal and lifetime servant of the Liberal Party and, most importantly, as a husband and a father who never lost sight of the importance of family and, in particular, the love of his wife, Marcia, which sustained him through triumph and disaster—but mostly triumph—over half a century of public life. Today our thoughts are with Marcia, with their children, David, Allan, Carolyn and Susan, and with their 10 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, to whom I offer my deepest condolences on behalf of the government.

3:55 pm

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

I rise on behalf of the opposition to also acknowledge the passing of the former minister and member of the House the Hon. Wallace Clyde Fife, widely known as Wal, who passed away on Thursday, 16 November at the age of 88. At the outset, I convey on behalf of the opposition our deepest condolences to his family and his friends. Wal Fife served as a member of parliaments in Australia for over 35 years, first in New South Wales and then in the federal House of Representatives. He was regarded as a statesman in his local community and as someone whose political friendships on all sides of politics were testament to his character. A highly regarded parliamentarian, he was a minister at state and federal level with responsibilities ranging from education and mines to transport and consumer affairs. Wal Fife dedicated a lifetime of service to the Australian people and sought to enhance not his own standing but that of the offices he held and the parliament as a whole in the eyes of those he represented.

Wal Fife was born in New South Wales in October 1929 and grew up in Wagga Wagga before finishing his education at Canberra Boys Grammar. As Senator Brandis has outlined, he took an early interest in politics. The Wagga Wagga Daily Advertiser records that he once wrote to Winston Churchill and even received a reply. Prior to his election as a parliamentarian, Wal Fife worked in the Federal Secretariat of the Liberal Party, but his principal employment was in his family's produce business. It was this business that was his focus in the first decade of his working life, and he continued a connection with it when he went into state parliament, continuing to serve as a director until 1975. In 1952, he married Marcia, and they would go on to have four children, 10 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

Wal Fife first served as a member of parliament in New South Wales, elected as the member for Wagga Wagga in 1957. Next month, in fact, it will be 60 years since he first won that seat on 14 December. At that time he was the youngest person elected to the New South Wales parliament, having not yet attained the age of 30. He would continue to hold the seat until 1975, when he resigned to move into federal politics. At the state level, he held a range of positions, including Assistant Minister for Education, Minister for Mines, Minister for Conservation, Minister for Power and Assistant Treasurer, during the life of the Askin government. When Tom Lewis replaced Premier Askin in January 1975, Wal Fife took the transport and highways portfolios until his departure from state politics.

Moving to the Commonwealth parliament in 1975, Wal Fife first represented the division of Farrer, which at that time included the major centres of Albury and his home city of Wagga Wagga. After Wagga Wagga was redistributed out of Farrer ahead of the 1983 election, Mr Fife moved to Hume and continued to represent that division until 1993. As a Liberal, he was notably pleased when the division of Farrer—which, following his shift to Hume, had been held by Tim Fischer, the former National Party leader—returned to the hands of his own party in 2001.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Fife's first speech to the Commonwealth parliament had the development of regional cities as its focus. He addressed the need for the advancement of industry and commerce as well as tertiary education facilities. When it came to the latter, Mr Fife would later play a driving role in the development of Charles Sturt University, which is recognised today as one of Australia's premier regionally based universities. This is a central aspect of Wal Fife's legacy.

He did not have to wait long after arriving in the Commonwealth parliament before continuing ministerial service at a federal level, taking up his first portfolio, Business and Consumer Affairs, in 1977 and going on to serve in Education and in Aviation during the life of the Fraser government. He was described as one of the more capable Liberal politicians on the backbench. However, his early ministerial career was not without some challenges. He faced a motion of no confidence from the opposition in 1979 for his administration of matters relating to the Federal Narcotics Bureau. He served as Assistant Minister for Education in his first portfolio, under Robert Askin, and he assumed the federal education portfolio in 1979. He often commented on the importance of education in providing the basics, as well as helping students develop certain skills to ensure they were ready for future employment. As I said, the legacy of Charles Sturt University is testament to that drive. He sought to be a minister who proceeded with a carefully administrative approach, consulting with interested bodies and reflecting his political inclinations towards consensus over conflict and individualism.

Perhaps in a demonstration that some issues never quite go away, in 1981 Mr Fife approved a project to increase the breadth of sex education in schools by enabling the factual discussion of the problems faced by homosexuals, compared to those faced by heterosexuals, and an appreciation of the variety of emotional expression in human relationships. This occurred against an emotive debate not unlike that which we have seen in recent times. He went from Education to Aviation in 1982 and served in that portfolio until the defeat of the Fraser government.

After the election of the Hawke government, Mr Fife continued to serve on the front bench, now in opposition Amidst regular leadership changes and well documented turmoil in the parliamentary Liberal Party through the eighties and nineties, it speaks to Mr Fife's approach that he was chosen as Manager of Opposition Business in the House of Representatives between 1987 and 1992. He was a man who sought to build bridges of unity within his own party in difficult times. He was also a man who was well regarded across both sides of politics, as Senator Brandis has referenced.

Whilst Wal Fife had already decided not to contest the 1993 election, ill health forced his absence from the House of Representatives at the end of 1992, and he didn't return prior to the 1993 election. At the time of his retirement he was the longest serving member of any parliament in Australia, his service from his first election in 1957 being well over 30 years. In an interview with the Albury-Wodonga Border Mail he recalled:

A chap said to me today that I walked through a minefield and I came through virtually unscathed—I am very proud of that.

He went on to say that he modelled himself to be a good local member and a capable administrator. In retirement he continued to maintain an engagement with politics, in particular through the meticulous records he maintained through his lifetime in the public sphere. He kept a close watch on the activities of parliamentarians and some bureaucrats, and wasn't afraid to hold them to account when required. Alan Ramsey of The SMH described in 2007 the extensive amount of correspondence with the Art Gallery of New South Wales over the course of several years in an attempt to have the Captain Cook gallery appropriately identified. Mr Fife had particular interest, as the minister who had originally arranged for the provision of funds for the construction of this gallery.

He remained in Wagga Wagga and still ran a family sheep property for many years after leaving the House. Wal Fife represented a classical model of a country Liberal member. Throughout more than three decades as a member of the New South Wales parliament and of the federal House of Representatives, much of the time as a minister or shadow minister, he never lost sight of his local community. He always sought to represent his constituents diligently and with decency, as well as with respect for the institutions he served, as he believed they should rightly expect him to do. The obituary in The Daily Advertiser in Wagga Wagga describes him as 'the gentleman MP'. I think that is a very fitting tribute from your local community. On behalf of the opposition I extend our deepest sympathies to his family and friends at this time.

4:03 pm

Photo of Marise PayneMarise Payne (NSW, Liberal Party, Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

It is a great honour as a senator for New South Wales to make some brief and personal remarks about the Hon Wal Fife, a lifelong Liberal and a great citizen of Wagga Wagga. Wal had an extraordinarily impressive career for many reasons, which both the Leader of the Government and the Leader of the Opposition have enunciated in the chamber here this afternoon, but not least of it was the length of his service as a parliamentarian, both in New South Wales and federally: some 17 years, 10 months and two days in New South Wales, and almost 18 years here in the federal parliament—35 years is a considerable service to the public in anyone's terms.

I came to know Wal Fife through the New South Wales division of the Liberal Party but most particularly through the roles I had over a period of time working here in the federal parliament as an adviser, including—to show my age, Mr President—in the old parliament as an adviser to Andrew Peacock, then Deputy Leader of the Opposition, and subsequently as an adviser to Robert Hill as Leader of the Opposition in the Senate here in this parliament. We also worked together, with me as a junior woodchuck of nondescript talents, I'm sure, through the federal executive of the Liberal Party and the New South Wales state executive of the Liberal Party.

If one seeks to identify the City of Wagga Wagga in a person, then I think that person was Wal Fife. His service, both, as I have said, as state and as federal member, included moving from Farrer to Hume in not controversial but at least contested circumstances post-redistribution, as he followed his beloved City of Wagga Wagga, which had moved electorate in that redistribution. Wal Fife is a Liberal Party legend. You can't say that about everybody. His guidance and his leadership were much respected and often sought.

There is one special recollection that I would briefly relate. As Senator Wong noted and Senator Brandis alluded to, he has been called in recent articles since his passing 'a statesman', 'a true servant of the people', 'well regarded' and 'well respected'. I particularly remember him as also an old-fashioned gentleman, including with one particularly charming quirk. In my life, three men have always moved to the kerb side of the street when walking beside a lady so as to protect them from splashes from passing carriages: my father, my friend John Brogden and, I fondly recall, Wal Fife. It always made me smile. I am honoured to have the opportunity to pay my brief respects here today. My condolences also go to Marcia, who was by his side through all those years, to their children and to their extended family. Vale, Wal Fife.

Question agreed to, honourable senators standing in their places.