Senate debates

Tuesday, 10 September 2019


Forbes, Dr Alexander James (Jim), CMG, MC

3:34 pm

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

It is with deep regret that I inform the Senate of the death, on 10 August 2019, of the Hon. Dr Alexander James 'Jim' Forbes, CMG, MC, a former minister and member of the House of Representatives for the division of Barker, South Australia, from 1956 to 1975.

3:35 pm

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

That the Senate records its deep regret at the death, on 10 August 2019, of the Honourable Dr Alexander (Jim) Forbes CMG, MC, former Member of the House of Representatives and former Minister, places on record its appreciation for his service to the Parliament and the nation, and tenders its sympathy to his family in their bereavement.

With the passing of Dr Jim Forbes, Australia has lost the last surviving Liberal minister in the Menzies government. The Liberal Party has lost a true great, and our nation has farewelled a war veteran whose service to the nation continued long after he left the battlefield. His wife, Margaret, and their five children, Sarah, Emma, Alexander, David and Anna, have laid to rest a loving, caring and remarkable husband, father and man. We share in their loss and mourn with them.

In politics, people come and go. Governments come and go. But Jim was different. He spanned the decades. His political career was one of longevity, spanning the terms of five prime ministers. But his endurance was not confined to political life; aged 95 at the time of his passing, Jim outlived almost all of his contemporaries. In this place today, we remember, celebrate and are grateful for Jim's life of service.

Jim was born in Hobart on 16 December 1923. He was educated at Knox Grammar School in Sydney and at St Peter's College in Adelaide. At the age of 16 Jim enlisted and attended the Royal Military College at Duntroon. He graduated the day before his 19th birthday and went on to serve in the Second World War with the 2nd Australian Mountain Battery. He was deployed to New Guinea, Bougainville, Japan and Germany. A dedicated and courageous soldier, Jim was awarded the Military Cross in 1945 for his gallant and distinguished service in the South West Pacific. Exceptional military courage ran in the family; Jim's father received a Military Cross during the First World War, and his brother Patrick was later awarded the medal during the Korean War.

After his discharge from the Army in 1947 Jim studied an arts degree at the University of Adelaide and later earned a PhD in political science at the University of Oxford. He married Margaret Blackburn at Oxford in 1952 and returned to Adelaide to tutor in politics. He and Margaret had five children together.

Jim's interest in politics had come to the fore in 1948. He was elected president of the Mount Lofty branch of the Liberal and Country League in South Australia and was the founding president of the Adelaide University Liberal Union. In 1956 Jim won the Barker by-election in South Australia and held the seat until his retirement in 1975. In parliament he was forthright in his views and became a member of the 'Oxbridge group', the name given by journalists to a set of outspoken Liberal backbenchers who had studied at Oxford and Cambridge.

During an official visit to Indonesia, Malaya and the Cocos Islands in 1959, Jim got to know Prime Minister Robert Menzies well. Menzies admired that Jim had graduated from the Royal Military College and served overseas. After the 1963 election Jim was elevated to the ministry as Minister for the Army and, very briefly, Minister for the Navy in the Menzies government. He advocated for a selective national service scheme at a time when the Army was under-resourced. The Menzies government argued the scheme was in the national interest, and the law passed. Jim later recalled the system not being very popular, but he believed it was a fair system and was prepared to take responsibility for it. Jim had seen active service as a teenager, holding out the Japanese in dense jungle in New Guinea, and was well qualified to make that judgement. That is what is part of being a political leader—making judgements and decisions you know may not be popular right now but are in the best interests of your country. That takes courage, and Jim had courage in spades. In sending troops to Vietnam, Jim demonstrated that Australia was a dependable ally and helped strengthen our alliance with the United States. Our relationship with the US remains just as important today.

When Harold Holt succeeded Menzies as Prime Minister in 1966, Jim became health minister. He felt the new portfolio enabled him to really be a politician. Jim believed wealth should not define a person's health, so he introduced a new national health scheme that prioritised medical services for those on low incomes. As the Minister for Immigration in William McMahon's government, Jim oversaw the continued dismantling of the White Australia policy, helping to create the diverse, multicultural society Australia is today. He was a principled member of parliament who cared for his nation and always strived to advance our society and our interests. Jim retired in 1975, but he was never far removed from politics after leaving parliament. In 1979 he was elected South Australian state president of the Liberal Party, and he became the party's federal president in 1982. During his time in parliament, Jim served with distinction, as he had done during his time in the armed forces. The former member for Barker was made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George in recognition of his service to the parliament, and in 2001 he received a Centenary Medal.

To Margaret and his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren: thank you for sharing Jim with our nation. On behalf of the Australian government and the Senate, and in tribute to a remarkable man whose life was one of distinguished service in uniform and in parliament, we offer you our sincerest condolences. Rest in peace, Jim Forbes.

3:41 pm

Photo of Kristina KeneallyKristina Keneally (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise on behalf of the opposition to express our condolences following the passing of the Hon. Dr Alexander James Forbes CMG MC, known as Jim Forbes, former member of the House of Representatives and minister, at the age of 95. As I begin, I wish to convey the opposition's condolences to his family and friends. In particular, I extend our sympathies to his wife, Margaret, and his four surviving children, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

The death of Jim Forbes marks the passing of a significant era in Australian politics. Dr Forbes was the last living former minister to have served under Prime Minister Robert Menzies. Having completed military service during World War II and worked as a university lecturer, Dr Forbes entered politics and would go on to serve under Prime Ministers Harold Holt, John McEwen, John Gorton and William McMahon. His portfolio responsibilities extended to defence, health and immigration, and he later became the federal president of the Liberal Party, the last South Australian to have held that position.

Born in Hobart in 1923, as a young man Jim Forbes found himself in the middle of World War II. He graduated from the Royal Military College, Duntroon, in 1942 and went on to serve for the remainder of the war primarily in the Pacific theatres but also in Germany and London. For gallantry and service in the South-West Pacific, he received the Military Cross. When the war concluded, he did not continue to serve in a full-time capacity but remained as a reserve officer until 1956. In addition to this, he completed a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in history and politics at the University of Adelaide and doctoral studies at Oxford, and until his election he was a university lecturer in politics at the University of Adelaide. Coincidentally, also at Oxford at that time were a future prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, and a future deputy prime minister, Jim Cairns. This background served him well for the career change that was soon to come.

After an unsuccessful tilt at Kingston in 1955, in 1956 Jim Forbes was elected the member for Barker, which at that time covered not only the south-east of South Australia, as it does today, but also the hills and coastal plains south of Adelaide, and Kangaroo Island. He took over from one of the great characters of Australian politics, Archie Cameron.

In making his first speech in 1957, Dr Forbes was accorded the honour of moving the address-in-reply to the speech of the Governor-General. Unsurprisingly, he praised the content of the speech, setting out as it did the Menzies government's priorities for the new term of office. He spoke of the 'undertones of idealism and faith in the future', which he felt were 'essential to constructive and effective performance'. A topic he particularly dwelt on was the need for increased development of Australia's productive resources, consistent with the broader postwar development that was occurring across the nation. In his own electorate, primary production was significant in agriculture, viticulture and aquaculture. He proudly cited growth in the sheep population—to 13½ million, double the number a decade prior—and in forestry as prime examples of the growth in the rural economy that had been, as he saw it, fostered by the policies of the Menzies government, accompanied by developments in agricultural science.

At the 1961 election, an election advertisement touted his credentials as 'a servant of his constituents' but also as a person of influence in the parliament by virtue of his membership on committees including defence, wool, food and agriculture. It also noted he was chosen as the sole member of parliament to accompany Prime Minister Menzies on an official visit to Indonesia and Malaya in 1959.

Jim Forbes had a high opinion of Menzies, and this was something he said only grew the more he got to know him. Menzies obviously had a high opinion of Dr Forbes as well, something that did not diminish through the close contact they had, and soon he was in consideration for promotion. Today, an expectant parliamentarian might find out about a prospective ministerial appointment through speculation on social media. And, whilst there was plenty of speculation surrounding the announcement of the Menzies ministry in 1963, Dr Forbes had only one recourse: to wait by the telephone. Fortunately, Menzies did call, and Dr Forbes was informed he was to be Minister for the Army, Minister for the Navy and Minister assisting the Treasurer. The Army and Navy portfolios were particularly well chosen for the former serviceman and recipient of the Military Cross.

With Australian involvement in Vietnam increasing, Dr Forbes took on these Defence portfolio ministries at a challenging time. Significant amongst his responsibilities was to facilitate the reintroduction of national service, including the infamous 'birthday ballot'. In 1965, he moved further amendments to defence legislation, which removed the limitation on serving overseas for persons called up for compulsory service in wartime. This meant a liability for overseas service would be mandatory for all persons called up in wartime, and, accompanied by an increasing commitment to the conflict in Vietnam, this significantly altered the character of national service.

In an interview 50 years later, in 2014, just after his 90th birthday, Dr Forbes continued to affirm that decision, convinced it was the right one for the nation at that time. He also argued it was a fairer system than what existed elsewhere—for example, in the United States. He believed their system enabled the sons of people of wealth and influence to dodge the draft. National service was abolished by the Whitlam government when it came to power in 1972. During his tenure, Dr Forbes also oversaw the introduction of a scheme to give soldiers the ability to have trades training recognised outside of the Army.

When Harold Holt took over from Menzies in 1966, Jim Forbes was given the health portfolio. He continued to hold this portfolio under John Gorton, whom he admired for his leadership and compared favourably with both his predecessor and successor. He was especially engaged in the Commonwealth's scientific and research work in the health portfolio. Dr Forbes was ahead of his time in trying, on multiple occasions, to alert Australians to the dangers of smoking, including through educational films, restrictions on advertising and warnings on packets. In his 2014 interview, he lamented that the government ceded vital ground on health policy by allowing the gap between medical benefits and costs to grow too wide, paving the way for—as he saw it—public support for the introduction of Medibank, the forerunner of Medicare, by the Whitlam government. The policy solutions he proposed came too late to address the shifting tide of public opinion in this area.

William McMahon appointed Jim Forbes to be immigration minister when he took over from Gorton in 1971, and Dr Forbes retained this portfolio until the Whitlam government came to power in 1972. Dr Forbes had a highly unfavourable opinion of McMahon, something that he remarked put him in step with the majority of Australians at the time. He felt that had he not been the sole minister from South Australia McMahon would have quickly bundled him out, recalling constant arguments with his prime minister. One of these arguments centred on the decision to deport the entertainer Joe Cocker, following his conviction in Adelaide for drug offences. McMahon thought the government had to take a stand, whilst Dr Forbes later said that he 'didn't mind one way or the other'.

He also oversaw the continued dismantling of the White Australia Policy. On Immigration Sunday in 1972, he spoke about the significant contribution of migrants to Australia's postwar economic growth and relative affluence. Reflecting further on this, he also noted the important responsibility that rested on existing citizens to personally extend the hand of welcome to new arrivals. And perhaps it's somewhat appropriate that the Leader of the Government in the Senate and the Leader of the Opposition today are both new arrivals, so to speak, to Australia. He said that Australians should recognise the positive impact that a hand of welcome would have on migrants 'seeking a secure place in a strange environment'. Without helping new settlers to find life in their new country satisfying and rewarding, he said, Australia would not 'attain its proper fulfilment'.

After the Whitlam government was elected, Jim Forbes unsuccessfully stood to be deputy Liberal leader under opposition leader Billy Snedden. He served Snedden as shadow minister for defence and was a strident spokesperson for greater capital expenditure in the portfolio for the Citizen Military Forces and for national servicemen. His unhappiness at the decision to remove Snedden in favour of Malcolm Fraser—possibly with Fraser's destructive role in sparking the end of Gorton's prime ministership still in mind—was a significant factor in his decision not to contest the 1975 election, and he did not offer himself for the shadow ministry following the leadership change.

Jim Forbes had retired at a relatively young age, for parliament, of 52. Despite his frustration with the way in which Snedden had been undermined, after his retirement Dr Forbes continued to serve the Liberal Party, most notably as its president in South Australia from 1979 to 1982 and then as federal president from 1982 to 1985. The instability in leadership that had plagued the Liberals in the late 1960s and early 1970s reared its head again in the 1980s, with infighting between Malcolm Fraser and Andrew Peacock, then Peacock and John Howard, simmering away during his time as president. His frustration with this state of affairs saw him stand down as federal president prior to the conclusion of his term. He also continued to contribute in public service as chairman of the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories from 1978 to 1984, maintaining the links with medical science that had been a feature of his time as Minister for Health. He also welcomed the opportunity to rebuild friendships and relationships that had suffered in the 20 years he'd been a member for a large country electorate and, for nearly half that time, a federal minister as well.

Jim Forbes was respected for his long and dedicated service to the nation in uniform and in parliament. He was regarded by his colleagues as a principled representative, and his death closes the door on an unparalleled era in Australian politics. Again, I express the opposition's condolences to his family and friends.

3:52 pm

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party, Minister for Resources and Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise on behalf of the Nationals party to pass on our commiserations and condolences on the passing of the Hon. Jim Forbes, and particularly to pass on our condolences to his family and many children and grandchildren, as well as to members of the Liberal Party. As has been expressed here, Dr Forbes was a remarkable contributor to our nation over decades of service, not just in this parliament but also in wartime. Serving with distinction in the south-west Pacific region in World War II, Doctor Forbes was awarded a Military Cross and also participated in the victory celebrations in London as part of the Australian delegation. After the war, Dr Forbes committed himself to study, first in Adelaide and then overseas at Oxford, eventually returning to take up a lectureship in political science at the University of Adelaide.

When he decided to go into politics, Dr Forbes entered the seat of Barker and succeeded the then member, Archie Cameron. Archie had himself been a leader of the Country Party in previous times, although by that stage Archie had himself left for first the United Australia Party and then the Liberal Party. As has been expressed here by others, Dr Forbes served with distinction as a minister within the Menzies government in the portfolios of Navy, Army, Immigration and Health. He made enormous contributions in all of his portfolios—particularly the establishment of the national health service, a precursor to the broader universal healthcare Australians enjoy today, and his advocacy for the disestablishment of the White Australia policy in the portfolio of Immigration. And he wasn't averse to making controversial decisions from time to time that he thought were right. Senator Keneally mentioned kicking out Joe Cocker, although I think that was because, at the time, the Prime Minister thought that might have been a popular decision. It didn't save him, in any case. Dr Forbes also made a controversial decision to shut the then government-owned Canberra abattoir. That decision caused the resignation of all members of the ACT Advisory Council, at the time. Dr Forbes as Minister for Health also banned the importation of cheese made from unpasteurised milk into our nation—another controversial decision.

He was the last surviving member of the Menzies government, a government that helped build modern Australia. I looked back at his first speech to parliament. He could have taken great pride in the fact that a lot of what he outlined was the focus of that government, and it was achieved in great measure by that government. In his first speech, Dr Forbes said:

Our capacity to import the capital goods we require for development depends upon the export income with which we pay for them, and that income is the most important single factor in our progress.

In the past week, after Dr Forbes's passing, we have for the first time in 44 years as a nation delivered a current account surplus. A lot of that is because we've maintained an open environment for the importation of those capital goods and supported the industries that produce the export income, as Dr Forbes mentioned, that allow for that importation. The result of a current account surplus is the long-term support for development of those income-producing industries that Dr Forbes advocated for in his life and helped deliver as part of the Menzies government.

I would like to, once again, pass on my condolences to his wife, Margaret, and broader family, and, again, pass on the National Party's commiserations to the Liberal Party. Vale, Dr Jim Forbes.

3:56 pm

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

I too join fellow senators in paying tribute to the lifetime of service given by distinguished former South Australian federal Liberal member of parliament Dr Jim Forbes, CMG, MC.

Like so many of his generation, Jim Forbes served our nation during World War II, taking that calling as an officer in the Australian Army, defending our values, liberties and way of life. Dr Forbes was awarded the Military Cross in recognition of his gallantry and service in the south-west Pacific. A graduate of the University of Adelaide, Dr Forbes completed his PhD at Magdalen College, Oxford following the war and prior to his election to the federal parliament. His service to both Australia and our defence forces continued through a long period of parliamentary service, as the member for Barker, from 1956 through until his retirement in 1975. As has been noted before, Dr Forbes served as Minister for the Navy and Minister for the Army in the Menzies government, Minister for Health in the Holt and Gorton governments, and Minister for Immigration in the McMahon government.

Dr Forbes continued his contribution to Australian society following his departure from the parliament, including as chairman of the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories Commission. He was elected as president of the South Australian division of the Liberal Party in 1979 and as federal president of the Liberal Party in 1982 and was the last South Australian to have held that position.

Dr Forbes was, as has been noted, the last surviving minister of the Menzies government. As our great party prepares to celebrate its 75th anniversary, the passing of Dr Forbes reminds us of our proud beginnings and our unshakeable commitment to the advancement of Australia. Dr Forbes's family can be proud of his many achievements in his political life—across his ministerial portfolios and throughout his rich lifetime of service not only to the Liberal Party or to South Australia but to our nation overall.

On behalf of the South Australian Liberal family, I extend our sympathies to his wife of 67 years, Margaret, and to his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and our thanks to them for sharing him with a grateful nation and state.

3:59 pm

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Australian Conservatives) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to express my condolences, as we all have, on the passing of Dr Jim Forbes. In talking about his life and his service, I want to celebrate someone I think was a most remarkable Australian. I had the great privilege of being acquainted with Jim through the Liberal Party. I will never forget the first time I met him. I was a newly minted president of the Liberal Party and he was the trustee of the party's assets. He took me aside into a little anteroom and he said, 'Son, never spend money you haven't got.' I took that to heart. It's clear from his political disposition that he strongly believed in that in public and private practice. More importantly, we sprung what I would call a modest friendship. Jim always had a wise set of words and ideas and he was an inspiration. I was fortunate enough to be invited into a small group of which he was a member, and we would meet a few times a year to discuss politics and, I guess, learn from those who had trod the path before.

I have to say that I am a little ashamed that I never quite knew how remarkable Jim Forbes was until I actually attended his funeral a few weeks ago. It was a celebration of a life well lived, and it made me humble in recognising the service that this man had given this country over so many decades. It's not often you hear of people who enlist in a royal military college; go to the second-best school in South Australia, St Peter's College—that's a uniquely South Australian story, Mr President; go and study at Oxford and become a doctor of political science; go into the ministry and serve under a number of prime ministers with great distinction—and have the courage to deport Joe Cocker; and then continue to serve the party, the Liberal Party, and the people of Australia in whatever capacity they can, being so generous in sharing their wisdom, their mentorship, their ideas and their experience with newcomers to the political scene. It makes you recognise that some people really do squeeze the marrow right out of life, and Jim Forbes was one of those people.

I'm humbled to have met him, and I'm greatly appreciative of the time that he was willing to spend with me and with others. I will always remember his advice. I express my condolences to his family and I give thanks for a life very, very well lived.

Question agreed to, honourable senators standing in their places.