Senate debates

Wednesday, 30 March 2022


Cass, Hon. Dr Moses Henry (Moss)

3:12 pm

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (President) Share this | | Hansard source

It is with deep regret that I inform the Senate of the death on 26 February 2022 of the Honourable Dr Moses Henry (Moss) Cass, a former minister and member of the House of Representatives for the division of Maribyrnong, Victoria, from 1969 to 1983. I call the Attorney-General, Senator Cash.

Photo of Michaelia CashMichaelia Cash (WA, Liberal Party, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

That the Senate expresses its deep sadness at the death, on 26 February 2022, of the Honourable Moses Henry 'Moss' Cass, former Minister for the Environment and Conservation and Minister for Media and former member for Maribyrnong, places on record its admiration and appreciation for his service to the Parliament and the nation, and tenders its deep sympathy to his family in their bereavement.

Mr President, today we honour Dr Moses Henry Cass, otherwise known to his loved ones and friends as Moss. He was the federal member for Maribyrnong from 1969 to 1983 and, of note, was Australia's first environment minister. Moss lived a long life dedicated to improving the world around him and preserving and protecting its natural environment. As a minister in the Whitlam government, Moss is remembered for his immense contributions to Australian public life and the selfless approach he took towards public service.

Moss Cass was born on 18 February 1927 in Narrogin in my home state of Western Australia. He was the eldest of the three sons of Ben and Esther Cass. His father was a GP, and Moss and his brothers all pursued careers in medicine. Moss studied medicine at the University of Sydney and in 1955, married Melbourne-born Shirley Shulman who was instrumental in exposing him to a world of free thinkers and stirred his discussions on progressive causes. Through the 1950s and the 1960s, Moss worked as a registrar at hospitals in Sydney, in London and in Melbourne. It was in London that Moss undertook work at Guy's Hospital developing open-heart surgery techniques. Importantly, we acknowledge his work as a research fellow at Melbourne's Royal Children's Hospital, where he conducted research into the use of a heart-lung machine for open-heart surgery. Moss actually built the first heart-lung machine in Australia. Moss brought his expertise in medicine to the Labor Party's state and federal health policy committees and, from 1964 to1969, served as the director of the Trade Union Clinic and Research Center.

A man of profound intellect, Moss thought deeply about the issues. He took to advancing a number of progressive causes, traversing health, media and environmental policy. Upon his election to parliament as the member for Maribyrnong in 1969, Moss advocated for the decriminalisation of homosexuality and marijuana and the legalisation of abortion. Moss was, as you would expect, entwined with health policy during his tenure in the parliament. It was following the election of the Whitlam government in 1972 that Moss was appointed as Australia's first Minister for the Environment and Conservation. He made this role his own and was instrumental in proposing and securing the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974, mandating the use of environmental impact statements for federal government decisions. He initiated the influential public inquiries that preceded the end of sand mining on Fraser Island, the curtailing of the Ranger Uranium Mine in Kakadu and government protection of the Great Barrier Reef. Moss also enabled new grassroots environmental organisations through the doubling of federal government grants to these groups. He later became Minister for the Media in the Whitlam government. His work in issuing experimental radio licences is widely regarded as leading to the thriving community radio sector we have today.

During his time in this parliament, Moss was known as an effective politician, with a reputation for listening and a desire to relentlessly pursue reform where he felt it was necessary. Following his departure from the parliament, Moss maintained a keen interest in the Labor Party and in all those who were agents for change, from party branch members to environmentalists. Moss was a serious thought leader and a man who had vision of the type of Australia he sought to shape, and he pursued that vision untiringly. Today, let us all be inspired by the contributions Dr Moss Cass made to public life and by his reformist approach towards the significant challenges of his time.

On behalf of the Australian government and the Australian Senate, I extend our sincerest condolences to Moss's wife, Shirley, and the loved ones he leaves behind.

3:18 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 and on behalf of the Labor Party to express our condolences following the passing, at the age of 95, of one of our own: the Hon. Dr Moses Henry Cass, known as Moss Cass, former member of the House and minister in the Whitlam government. I start by conveying the opposition's and the Australian Labor Party's deepest condolences to his family and friends.

Dr Moss Cass was the member for Maribyrnong in Melbourne from 1969 to1983 and was a minister in the Whitlam government from 1972 to 1975, serving in the environment and media portfolios. Along with Doug McClelland, Bill Hayden and Paul Keating, he was the last surviving of the Whitlam government ministers. Dr Cass deserves to be remembered as one of the great figures of our movement. His influence at a time of great change was profound. He not only led policy development as a minister but also advanced the case for reform on significant issues of social concern, including multiculturalism; education; state aid; reform of social policy, including on drugs, abortion and homosexuality; media reform; health reform; asylum seekers; and many more. Moss Cass's contribution wasn't only to the federal parliamentary Labor Party but to our broader cause, particularly through his work as a doctor and with the trade union movement, and his commitment to the cause of Labor was absolute and stayed with him all of his life.

As I begin this speech, I reflect on my own personal engagement with Dr Cass, because I was the beneficiary of some extensive correspondence from him. He wrote to me over the last couple of years principally to provide his thoughts on media policy, and my office replied on my behalf and engaged in quite a lot of email correspondence. He also referred me to the book Moss Cass and the Greening of the Australian Labor Party, which is available from the Parliamentary Library. This extensively covers Dr Cass's career, from his roles as environment minister and media minister to the many other causes he championed.

It's very clear from the book and from other reporting that Moss Cass was well ahead of his time. He was ahead of his time on environmental protection, he was ahead of his time on medical and social reform, and many of the issues that Dr Cass grappled with remain significant matters of debate in Australian politics today. One of those is the media. Dr Cass expressed to me his concerns regarding the health of the Australian democracy, given what he regarded as biased media coverage, distortion of facts and the impact of free speech as a licence for hate speech. We didn't have any discussions, because he told me, at the age of 94, that he was too deaf to follow a telephone conversation, and, because he was too unstable on his feet and nursing a couple of cancers, he couldn't travel far from home. But he was happy to correspond in writing, and what was clear from the written exchange was just how active his mind remained and just how passionate he remained about political causes and the cause of the Australian Labor Party.

Moss Cass was born in Western Australia, the son of Jewish Russian migrants, on 18 February 1927. His father was a doctor, and this was the career that he and his three brothers would pursue. He first pursued great innovation before turning his talents to delivering quality and holistic health care to working people and to developing health policy. After marrying his wife, Shirley, a Melburnian, in 1955, they moved to London, where his work developing open-heart surgery techniques equipped him with sufficient skills so that when he returned to Australia, as my colleague Senator Cash has said, he was able to build Australia's first heart-lung machine. He was quite an extraordinary person.

He then was recruited to helm a new community healthcare centre in the western suburbs of Melbourne, in Footscray. The Trade Union Clinic and Research Center was established by the meatworkers union to deliver free treatment and promote preventative health care to workers. It was well ahead of its time, and Dr Cass's work there provides a window for his focus on broader issues of social inequality. Meatworkers obviously had a direct interest in the delivery of health care. Their occupation came with a multitude of perils—sharp knives and blades, heavy lifting, variable extremes of temperatures and risk of disease. The clinic became an overwhelming success, although it wasn't established and operated without resistance, particularly from insurers contesting workers compensation claims. A key component of its work was also research to 'treat, investigate and eradicate'. By undertaking proper investigation and diagnosis and deploying a range of treatments, the clinic was able to see many more workers return to work and to health sooner.

Involvement with the health policy committee of the ALP went hand in glove with Dr Cass's expertise. When it came to health policy, this was a formative time in Australian public policy. The Whitlam government first took Medibank, the forerunner of Medicare, to an election in 1969, and, whilst Dr Cass had differing views about how these objectives might be achieved, he was a central voice in the debates that led to its development and implementation. He was part of a generation of parliamentarians who delivered one of the most substantial social policy reforms in Australian history. When the Fraser government worked to dismantle Medibank after 1975, as opposition health spokesperson he became a key defender.

Involvement in the trade union clinic had another benefit: it connected Moss Cass with the left wing of the Victorian trade union movement and the ALP. In addition to the already-mentioned involvement in its health policy forum, he held a seat on the Victorian state executive at a turbulent time in the Victorian branch—there seem to be quite a few of those—which sought to recover from the split which had probably its greatest impact there. He obtained support for preselection in the seat of Maribyrnong and won election in 1969.

If you look at his first speech, it's really quite unusual not only for the times but also for a man. He devoted most of his first speech to the subject of abortion law reform. His experience as a doctor, but also his sense of justice, informed his position. He consistently sought reform, including by moving legislation in conjunction with other like-minded members across the parliament. Before the time suited it, he was also amongst those who advanced what was then described as homosexual law reform, working in conjunction with former Liberal Prime Minister John Gorton, Don Chipp and Andrew Peacock.

Of course, he was also a minister in the Whitlam government. He was Australia's first Minister for Environment and Conservation, and he was instrumental in proposing and securing the Environmental Protection (Impact Of Proposals) Act 1974. This laid the groundwork for the ending of sand mining on Fraser Island and for protection of the Great Barrier Reef. As Minister for the Media, subsequently he engaged with causes that he would continue to advance in his postparliamentary life, particularly the power of media proprietors, and he was instrumental in the establishment of community broadcasting.

My last correspondence with Moss Cass was in September last year. I wrote to thank him for his correspondence to me, for his continuing engagement in politics and public policy and for furnishing ideas for how he saw our nation's advancement—his ideas about how we could work towards a better future. I told him that, whilst I knew of him by virtue of the correspondence he engaged in with me, I had learnt a great deal more about his intellectual contribution to our party. I noted then, as I do now, that many of the causes that he had been championing more than half a century ago were still battles being fought and finally won by progressives at the current time—noting, for example, that my home state of South Australia had only recently fully decriminalised abortion. I expressed my hope that my card would find him in good health, but, alas, we now know he was only to be with us for a few more months. Sadly, he and his wife both required an increased level of care and had to move out of their home in Carlton, and I regret I wasn't able to take up his offer to visit him in Melbourne. But I am eternally grateful that I had the opportunity to personally express to him my gratitude.

Moss Cass was a giant of the Labor movement, and he has done so much to benefit so many people and, more importantly, to benefit the nation. Moss Cass set a standard and leaves a legacy that few can profess to have emulated. I close by again expressing the opposition's condolences following his passing and conveying our deepest sympathies to his family and his friends.

3:28 pm

Photo of Nick McKimNick McKim (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

On behalf of the Australian Greens, I express our deepest collective condolences to the family and friends of Moss Cass. I never had the pleasure of meeting Moss Cass, but a great number of my fellow Greens did, and they have relayed to me nothing but admiration for a remarkable man.

Moss was a great many things: a doctor, a medical scientist, a parliamentarian, a photographer, a father and a pioneer. He was also a voice for those who needed a voice and a voice for the things that didn't have a voice. In each of his endeavours throughout his long life, he was always collaborating with others, looking to create a better humanity and a world where people are at peace with each other and in connection with nature.

Before entering parliament, Moss was a medical scientist. He built Australia's first heart-lung machine. While working as a registrar in London, he helped develop open-heart surgery. He used his experience as a doctor from the very start of his parliamentary career. His maiden speech is extraordinary. Instead of the usual story of self or grand pronouncements about the state of the world, he got straight to business. The entire speech was devoted to advocating for the legalisation of abortion. This included his own admission of criminality for having helped women terminate their pregnancies.

If Moss is perhaps less well known than other parliamentarians who achieved lesser feats than he, then the telling is right there in his first speech, because it was not about him. It was about getting things done. And get things done he did. While serving as Australia's first Minister for the Environment and Conservation, he established Kakadu National Park. He established the National Parks and Wildlife Service and established the process for environmental impact statements that saved Fraser Island from sand mining and that restrained uranium mining in Kakadu.

Later, as Minister for the Media, Moss proposed the establishment of a national press council. In scenes that would not be unfamiliar today, Rupert Murdoch turned the full force of his media empire onto Moss and, in fact, onto the entire Whitlam government. But Moss stood his ground, and although the Whitlam government did not survive, Moss's cause did, and in 1976 the Australian Press Council was established.

Moss continued to work on progressive causes after his time in parliament, particularly those which sought to build alliances. He did so in a way that always sought to foster the next generation. He didn't seek to big-note himself or use his undoubted status to wield influence amongst fellow activists. He was humble and he was generous, and he was always about the collective and always about the many, many causes he was a champion of.

Someone who did know Moss well was Dr Bob Brown, former senator and former Leader of the Australian Greens. I spoke to Bob earlier today, and he asked me to place this on the record with regard to Moss Cass: 'Moss, along with Tom Uren, worked hard to try to save Lake Pedder after the Whitlam government was elected in 1972. Later on, Moss was made Minister for the Environment, and Prime Minister Gough Whitlam offered $8 million to Tasmanian Labor Premier Eric Reece for a moratorium on flooding Lake Pedder. But Reece, to the cheers of the Tasmanian House of Assembly, said he'd have none of it. Lake Pedder is still there, 50 metres under water, awaiting restoration. Moss was a very intelligent gentleman, who was to the left of the ALP in wanting social justice and environmental protection. He worked tirelessly to get the World Heritage Convention signed by Australia, which became crucial to saving the Franklin River. I remember Moss very fondly indeed.' Those are the words of former Senator Bob Brown.

Moss's son, Dan, who has been a Greens staffer in the past, wrote of his dad recently that he made it into cabinet because of his science of hope, that radical honesty wins votes and that power only matters if you do something bold. What great and principled legacies those are to leave to the rest of humanity. To Dan, to Moss's wife, Shirley, and to his daughter, Naomi, I convey the deepest condolences from the Australian Greens. Vale, Moss Cass.

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (President) Share this | | Hansard source

In adding my personal condolences to the family, I ask all senators to rise and join me in a moment's silence to signify their assent to the motion.

Question agreed to, honourable senators joining in a moment of silence.