Senate debates

Tuesday, 26 June 2018


Berinson, Hon. Joseph Max QC

3:37 pm

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

It is with regret that I inform the Senate of the death on 2 June 2018 of the honourable Joseph Max Berinson QC, a former minister and member of the House of Representatives for the division of Perth, Western Australia from 1969 to 1975. I call the Leader of the Government in the Senate.

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate records its deep sorrow at the death, on 2 June 2018, of the Honourable Joseph Max Berinson QC, a former Member of the House of Representatives for the division of Perth and Minister for the Environment in the Whitlam Government, and State Member of Parliament and Attorney-General of Western Australia, places on record its gratitude for his service to the Parliament, and tenders its profound sympathy to his family in their bereavement.

Attaining political success at both the state and the federal levels, and working for his community which he cherished, the Honourable Joseph Max Berinson QC's life was one of significant achievement. Born opposite Perth's Hyde Park in Highgate on 7 January 1932, Joe was the youngest of three children to Jewish immigrant parents, Shulem 'Samuel' and Rivka 'Rebecca'. Though he grew up deeply involved in the local Jewish community, the suburban Perth of his youth was a world away from the Turkish Palestine that his mother and father had left years before. His mother's experience of hardship would inform his sensibilities as a proud member of Australia's Jewish community.

Studying at Highgate Primary School before securing a scholarship to the distinguished Perth Modern School, Joe went on to attain has professional qualification in pharmacy in 1953. He worked in that field for several years before deciding, in the mid-1960s, that a pivot towards law would prove more fruitful. It says something for Joe's talent and energy that he so deftly shifted professions midstream. In fact, when he graduated from the University of Western Australia with his bachelor of laws in 1971, he won the prestigious JA Wood prize for the best student in law and the humanities. This is even more impressive when one considers that, at the time, he was serving in the federal parliament. Indeed, he could often be found delving into legal textbooks while flying between Perth and Canberra or studying in the Parliamentary Library, late into the night, after the House had risen.

Joe was also a devoted servant of Perth's Jewish community, pushing for the purchase of land in the Yokine-Dianella district that today hosts the Maccabi sports and culture club, the Maurice Zeffert Home for the elderly and Carmel School. Decades on, these institutions still sit at the heart of Perth's Jewish community, with Carmel School marking his recent passing with a tribute to:

… a giant of vision, a giant in generosity of time, wealth and spirit.

Some others may reflect that his messaging skills were sharpened, at least in part, by time spent as the co-editor of The Maccabean newspaper, which services the Jewish community in Perth.

In 1953 Joe was invited to become a member of the WA Labor Party, and he joined its Mount Lawley branch. Decades later, he reflected that he approached the Labor Party with no socialist ideology but, instead, with a firm focus on pragmatism and an intense dislike of the then active Communist Party and its motives. In the turbulent years that followed the 1955 ALP split, Joe navigated sectarian intra-party tensions between Catholics and Protestants from his unique position as a Jewish member. With time, his political involvement increased and he became a state vice-president. On 9 September 1958 he married Jeanette Bekhor, whom he had met through the Zionist youth league. Together they would raise three daughters and a son: Jill, Linda, Ruth and David.

Having stood unsuccessfully for the seat of Swan at the 1963 federal election, in 1969 Joe contested the seat of Perth for the Labor Party and won it with a convincing swing of 12.2 per cent. In his maiden speech, he eschewed policy minutiae and, instead, articulated his vision for Australia's changing federal system. Perhaps uniquely at the time, this was a Western Australian voice that welcomed the growing role of the Commonwealth. He advocated for its further involvement in such spaces as health, education and transport.

Within the federal parliament, Joe took on a number of roles, serving as Deputy Chairman of Committees from early 1973 until his elevation to Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Committees in February 1975, a role in which he would remain until his further promotion to the cabinet. Among other committee roles, he put his professional experience to good use on the House of Representatives Select Committee on Pharmaceutical Benefits between 1970 and 1972. Within his electorate, Joe focused on a range of local constituent issues, including helping the incoming community of Burmese immigrants, who, in the context of Australia's changing immigration system, were making Perth their home at that time.

In the tumultuous political year of 1975, Joe was promoted to the cabinet, succeeding Gough Whitlam, who had stood in for Jim Cairns, as Minister for the Environment in July 1975. However, his time in the executive was cut short when he was defeated at the 1975 federal election that brought an end to the Whitlam government. But Joe's political career was far from over. His short tenure in the executive had inspired him, and decades later he would reflect that, 'There is nothing to compare with being in cabinet, in terms of actually doing something.' During this time, Joe completed his articles and practised law.

Briefly despondent after failing to secure federal preselection, his course changed at the suggestion of Kim Beazley Jr, who prompted him to run for the WA Legislative Council. Soon after, Joe was elected to the council at the 1980 state election, initially serving as a member for the North East Metropolitan region before representing the North Central Metropolitan and the North Metropolitan regions over the years that followed.

Joe had returned to public life with the full intent of making a mark in cabinet. He would not be disappointed. In opposition, he served as the opposition spokesman on legal matters in the council and on parliamentary and electoral reform. These topics were important to WA Labor at the 1983 election. Upon the election of the Burke Labor government that same year, he became its Attorney-General.

The years that followed were busy, with Joe often representing the Premier and Deputy Premier on key bills in the council. Among other things, he pursued incremental reforms to the Western Australia Criminal Code, informed in part by the expansive commentary that had been provided by the Murray report in 1983. He was a fixture of WA politics during that era and remained as Attorney-General under the premierships of Brian Burke, Peter Dowding and Carmen Lawrence. In 1988, while still serving as Attorney-General, his legal prowess was formally recognised with his appointment as a Queen's Counsel. In 1993 he retired from the ministry and the parliament following the election of the Court Liberal-National government.

The decades that followed afforded Joe more time for other pursuits, including his service on the superannuation commission and his diligent work as president of the Jewish Community Council of Western Australia between 2001 and 2005. As the son of humble immigrants who went on to serve with distinction at both the state and federal level, Joe Berinson's life speaks to his talent and energy, just as it does to the remarkable opportunities that this great country of ours affords its citizens.

Despite these achievements, Joe's modesty and service mentality were clear throughout his life, as was the love that he gave his family whenever he was away from the political scrum. His obituary notice, posted in The West Australian on 4 June of this year, lauds him as being:

At once brilliant and modest … a leader and a servant of his community who in life did that which is asked of man - to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with G-d.

To Joe's wife, Jeanette, his four children, Jill, Linda, Ruth and David, his 15 grandchildren and one great-grandchild, and all of his loved ones—on behalf of the Australian government and the Australian Senate I offer my sincerest condolences.

3:46 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 acknowledge the passing of one of our own, the Hon. Joseph Max Berinson, who passed away on 2 June 2018 at the age of 86. I commence by conveying the Labor Party's condolences to relatives and friends of Joseph Berinson.

Joe Berinson was the pharmacist turned lawyer who would serve as a federal minister and as a state Attorney-General. He was regarded as a humble and decent individual who demonstrated courtesy and tolerance, and he was a dedicated servant of the Commonwealth, of his state and of his community. Kim Christian Beazley, now Governor of Western Australia—but, obviously, previously our federal leader—summed him up in this way:

Courageous and determined … that is how Joe came across, whether discussing our party's aims with trade unionists or with journalists and the ALP State executive. … Away from politics he was rightly admired as the most devoted family man.

A lifelong Western Australian, Joe Berinson was born in Perth in 1932 to parents who had emigrated from the Middle East on either side of World War I. After completing primary and secondary education with high levels of attainment, he then completed a four-year apprenticeship at Perth Technical College in pharmacy and finished each year as the best student in his cohort. He had a dual education in politics through exposure to political leaders, including Ben Chifley and Robert Menzies, at Forrest Place near the site of his on-the-job training, and also as a young leader in the Jewish community. He was a key proponent of the development of education facilities for Perth's Jewish community and also co-editor of The Maccabean newspaper.

Elected the member for Perth in 1969, after having previously and unsuccessfully contested the division of Swan in 1963, Joe Berinson was part of the growth in the Western Australian representation in Canberra that was critical to Labor's later success. In 1958 only Kim Edward Beazley was returned as a federal Labor member from Western Australia. Just over 10 years later, he had five colleagues. In his first speech, Mr Berinson identified the malaise that had developed as a result of two decades of conservative rule. He saw economic prosperity in Western Australia had come about in spite of government policies, not because of them, and he struck a chord with many of his constituents by identifying that many of them had failed to benefit from an otherwise buoyant economy. Ordinary people were not benefitting from a higher standard of living and were faced with rising costs at the same time as grappling with inequitable social payment and taxation scales. The lack of interest in considering an orderly transfer from the states to the Commonwealth of responsibilities in areas such as transport, education, health and housing resulted in a shunting process between different levels of government, with the ordinary person most definitely not a beneficiary.

In 1972, Labor came to power for the first time in a generation. Mr Berinson admired Gough Whitlam, for Gough's commitment and attention to civil rights and social welfare, and he would have an opportunity to participate in the advancement of the government's program, not only as a backbencher but in the ministry. He served briefly as Deputy Speaker and was appointed Minister for the Environment on 14 July 1975. Like many others, obviously his service was severely curtailed by the dismissal of the Whitlam government on Remembrance Day later that year.

Labor has a proud history of protecting the environment, and it was the Whitlam government that provided the foundation for this. Mr Berinson took on a portfolio in which there had been great policy advances in a short time. The Whitlam government appointed Australia's first minister for the environment, passed Australia's first environmental legislation, the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act, and put in place the inquiry into the environmental impacts of the Ranger Uranium Mine. Joe Berinson approached his ministerial role with the diligence that was typical across his career. He was a voracious reader and he quickly gained a reputation for being across his brief and for his well-informed questioning of his colleagues' cabinet submissions. But, of course, as I alluded to, the regrettable events of 11 November 1975 curtailed his ability to make his own impact in the environment portfolio. With his passing, there remain just four surviving members of those who served in the Whitlam ministry: Doug McClelland, Moss Cass, Bill Hayden and Paul Keating.

At the election immediately following the dismissal, Joe Berinson lost his seat in the parliament. A decade earlier, he had taken the view that it would be law rather than pharmacy that would best equip him with the skills required to affect the change that he saw was necessary. He completed his studies at the University of Western Australia by making use of the long flights to and from Canberra to work on his assignments. After an intervening period in which he put these legal qualifications to use, he entered the Western Australian Legislative Council in 1980.

On the election of Labor to government in Western Australia in 1983, he became Attorney-General. Courtesy of his service in the Whitlam government, he was the only member of the new state cabinet with any ministerial experience—obviously an asset, as he cast a critical and pedantic eye over the workings of the new government. He went on to serve in this role for a decade, surviving both the political winds and, of course, the WA Inc. royal commission. He took on other portfolios, including corrective services, prisons, budget management and resources, and, additionally, served from '87 to '93 as the Leader of the Government in the Legislative Council.

One of the key political and policy issues he dealt with in his role was Aboriginal incarceration, which he described as a serious and frustrating problem. He recognised the need to address the causes through diversionary programs and alternative options to imprisonment. Regrettably, many years later, the incarceration rate of our First Nations peoples is still, as it was then, unacceptably high. Mr Berinson was justifiably proud of his efforts to place new emphasis on the rights of victims in criminal proceedings, and he oversaw the creation of a new parole system and introduced home detention. A new children's court with judicial oversight was established during his tenure. Of the Whitlam government ministers, only Paul Keating was to continue serving in an Australian parliament longer than Joe Berinson. Regarded as competent and well liked, he served with three premiers and could potentially have replaced one of them had he not turned down a suggestion that he assume the leadership. True to his humble demeanour, he decided he wasn't right for the job.

Joe Berinson did not contest the 1993 state election and he retired from politics at the end of April that year. Subsequently, he was appointed by the Commonwealth to serve on the Superannuation Complaints Tribunal. Mr Berinson was a dedicated servant of the Jewish community in his home state. This was something to which he was able to devote a greater amount of time in his retirement. He served as the president of the Jewish Community Council of Western Australia. At annual general meetings of Carmel School, he directed questions at the board with the same insistence as he had done to his colleagues around federal and state cabinet tables. Fifty years earlier, he had been the youngest contributor to the campaign to purchase the land on which the school would later be situated. He often spoke publically as a defender of the rights of Israel and in support of freedom of religious practice.

Joe Berinson was at the coalface of a generation-defining government. After being part of Labor's return to government in 1972, he had the opportunity to serve as a federal minister before Labor was swept from power just three years later. However, this proved to be the prelude to a much longer period of ministerial service at a state level, where he was fortunate to be a senior minister in a Labor government that lasted a decade. As I said, after politics he continued to serve his community.

Labor mourns the passing of our comrade. We again extend our sympathies to his family and friends at this time. As Senator Cormann has quoted, and as Mr Shorten has quoted, I end on the words that his family used to describe him: 'In life he did that which is asked of man: act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God'. May he rest in peace.

3:55 pm

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Environment and Water (Senate)) Share this | | Hansard source

This afternoon I want to rise briefly, on behalf of all those in the West Australian Labor Party, to say our condolences to Joe Berinson's family and to pay respects for the enormous contribution that he's made to our nation and to the state of Western Australia. Thank you.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

I ask honourable senators to stand in silence to signify their assent to the motion.

Honourable senators having stood in their places—

The motion is carried.