Senate debates

Monday, 18 October 2021


McCarthy, Mrs Thelma

7:29 pm

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Last Saturday, an icon of the New South Wales New England region, Mrs Thelma McCarthy, received life membership of the New South Wales branch of the Labor Party. It wasn't our traditional New South Wales Labor conference. It was digital, it was short and it lacked all of the theatre and the clash of ideas that makes the New South Wales Labor conference the greatest of all Australian political conferences. Of course, COVID meant that we couldn't have her there in person and that we haven't been able to organise a dinner in her honour in Armidale. This last thing will happen, and it will be quite a dinner. I can think of no more deserving recipient—or a recipient who better epitomises Labor values and principles, particularly in the country—than Thelma McCarthy. Her decades of community work and leadership and the extraordinary details of her life represent the highest expression of Labor's values. She was also an important figure in my early life in the Labor Party and has set a very important example for people in the Labor Party, like me, to consider.

Thelma grew up on a property in south-west New South Wales. After the bombing of Darwin, she joined the Royal Australian Air Force, becoming one of the first women to serve in the Air Force. She was 17, having told a few fibs about her age. She became a wireless operator, and she taught herself Morse code in just six weeks. At that time, it took most of the men who entered the RAAF 18 months to learn. She was a born leader and was quickly promoted to sergeant. Her service, and the service of her colleagues, was critical to the defence of the country at a time of extraordinary danger. It also paved the way for thousands of women to serve across our defence forces.

It was while serving with the RAAF in Canberra that she met her first Labor prime minister, Prime Minister John Curtin. When, one evening, he called the signal station she was working in, she thought it was a hoax. During her years in the RAAF, she also met a flight officer called Bill McCarthy, who was friends with a young navigator called Gough Whitlam.

After the war, Bill and Thelma were married and moved to Armidale. They stayed close friends with Gough and became prominent members of the Armidale branch of the Labor Party. In 1978, Bill McCarthy won the seat of Armidale in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly as part of the 1978 landslide election. He would go on to hold Armidale, later renamed Northern Tablelands, for nine years. Thelma was widely considered to be the de facto local member, as she filled in for Bill when his parliamentary duties took him out of the electorate. Tragically, Bill resigned from the parliament in 1987 and died from cancer only three days later.

Thelma ran as Labor's candidate for the seat in the by-election that followed her husband's death. The Australian described Thelma, in 1987, as the Labor Party's unlikely political saviour, and it quoted the local organiser—my notes don't say it, but I'm sure it was Lawrie Daly—during the campaign as saying, 'It's a seat we should really lose, but we think Thelma might just be able to win it for us.' It was a close-run race indeed, much closer than the subsequent general election in New South Wales. I've no doubt that she would have been an extraordinary local member had a few hundred votes gone the other way.

That loss hasn't prevented her from representing the people of Armidale or being engaged in a leadership role in that community. It's a rural city that will be forever shaped by her passion for her community, for the Labor Party and for her life in the local Anglican church. She was deputy chair of the New South Wales council for the bicentenary, she served on the NSW Ministerial Advisory Committee on Ageing and she has mentored generations of Labor members in New England and across country New South Wales, including me.

Her commitment to the people of New England hasn't ended there. This month, a feature in the Weekend Australian by journalist Greg Bearup, who famously comes from the town of Guyra, very close to Armidale, described the struggle between the congregants of St Mary's Church and the Anglican Bishop of Armidale. The organist in that church, Peter, has been excluded from performing at their services because he's married to a man. Both men are in their 60s and are lifelong churchgoers. And who is leading the congregants in revolt? None other than Thelma McCarthy, at the age of 96. The article quotes her:

Can they just get out of people's bedrooms? … If people are loving and caring, what goes on in their private lives is none of anyone else's business.

The article also quotes another parishioner describing a confrontation between Thelma and the local Anglican officialdom:

My God, she cut loose … It was a sight to behold, this 96-year-old little-old-lady—she's four-foot tall—giving it to the … Dean.

I wish to note my support for the congregants and for Peter Grace and Peter Sanders. They deserve justice and to experience their faith without discrimination among a congregation who so clearly love them and want them to stay within their faith community.

Thelma McCarthy's extraordinary life in the service of others continues apace. I'm proud to be part of the political tradition that she forged in New England. I'm proud to know her and her family, particularly her daughter, Annette, who has also been a terrific servant of and contributor to the Labor Party. I hope that others across New South Wales can take inspiration from her life and her passion for justice. I wish her all the very best and look forward to seeing her in Armidale very soon indeed.