Senate debates

Tuesday, 9 May 2023


Kerin, Hon. John Charles, AM, AO, FTSE

4:42 pm

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (President) Share this | | Hansard source

It is with deep regret that I inform the Senate of the death, on 28 March 2023, of the Hon. John Charles Kerin AO, a former minister and member of the House of Representatives for the divisions of Macarthur, from 1972 to 1975, and Werriwa, from 1978 to 1993.

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate records its sorrow at the death, on 28 March 2023, of the Honourable John Charles Kerin AO, former Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, Treasurer and Minister for Trade and Overseas Development, and former member for Macarthur and Werriwa, places on record its gratitude of his service to the Parliament and the nation and tenders its sympathy to his family in their bereavement.

I rise on behalf of the government to express our condolences following the passing of a great servant of the Australian Labor Party and of the nation, the Hon. John Charles Kerin AO, former minister and member of the House of Representatives, at the age of 85. As I begin, I wish to convey the government's condolences to his family and many friends. I had the opportunity today to meet again with John's beloved wife, June Verrier, and some of John's former staff, and we recounted many happy memories of their time living together, loving together and working together.

I also thank the Leader of the Government in the Senate for the opportunity to deliver the speech on behalf of the government on this condolence motion. As the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, I thought it was appropriate to pay tribute to one of my most significant predecessors in this portfolio—someone that I and many others regard as the best agriculture minister Australia has ever had.

John Kerin combined experience on the land with serious economic credentials and a practical, pragmatic approach to politics. It was a combination that saw him serve as minister for primary industries for almost the entirety of the Hawke government, in cabinets amongst the best this country has ever seen. He thought the two roles were not that far apart, saying, 'Politics is like farming. No-one is forced to do it, but someone has to.' In an outstanding period of economic renewal and reform for Australia, with Labor in government from 1983 to 1996, John Kerin played an important role across a number of key portfolios for the first decade of those governments but particularly in modernising and strengthening the nation's primary industries. His contribution was not limited to his time in office, and he displayed a deep commitment and interest not just in agriculture but to education and learning throughout his life. He was a truly great Australian.

John Kerin was born in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, in Bowral, in 1937. Like my own father and many rural working-class kids of that era, John left school aged 15 to help on the family farm and to earn a living to support his family. His first occupations, as listed in his official parliamentary biography, were axeman, a job he had from the age of 15 and, later, brick setter. From 1961 until 1971 he described himself as a farmer and businessman. It was during this time that John achieved the first of his tertiary qualifications, a Bachelor of Arts from University of New England, from which he graduated in 1967. He would later obtain a Bachelor of Economics from the Australian National University in 1977 and be further awarded honorary doctorates from the University of New England, the University of Western Sydney and the University of Tasmania.

Having been energised in the opposition to the Vietnam War and with a personal passion for economics and the environment, he was active in local Labor branches through the 1960s and into the 1970s, serving as an office bearer in Mittagong, Southern Highlands, Wollondilly and Macarthur branches and electorate councils. This led to him taking on Labor preselection and succeeding in becoming a candidate for public office.

John Kerin was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1972, representing the division of Macarthur, which, at that time, incorporated those areas of the Southern Highlands with which he was closely connected. This was of course a momentous election for Labor, coinciding with the party's return to office, under Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, for the first time since 1949. In John's first speech to parliament he reflected that whilst politics is about the articulation of many, often parochial, demands and the resolution of conflicting interests, he identified the need to prioritise the national interest and create institutions that could survive and adapt to change. This was significantly far-sighted thinking that would characterise his approach throughout the next two decades. He also reflected on changing attitudes in society, particularly amongst younger voters, with a confident individualism based on mutual concern for others and wider issues in determining quality of life, as well as awareness of science and technology. It was a reflection that would not be misplaced today.

Under the leadership of Gough Whitlam, government was quite a ride, and it must have been an exhilarating experience for a freshly minted backbencher. However, the highs and lows of the Whitlam government would come to have an impact on John Kerin personally, as he lost his seat when the government was defeated in December 1975, maintaining Macarthur's then status as a bellwether seat. Fortunately, a second opportunity arose in a most fortuitous way when Gough Whitlam resigned his place as a member of parliament after leading the party to a further defeat at the 1977 election. John Kerin was successful in the ensuing by-election. He returned to the House of Representatives in 1978 as the member for Werriwa. During his time out of parliament he completed his second university degree whilst working as an economist in the Bureau of Agricultural Economics. After the 1980 election, he was appointed by Bill Hayden as the opposition spokesperson on primary industry. He would hold this position for the remainder of the parliamentary term.

John Kerin brought great personal experience to this role, as an orchardist and chicken farmer. He also brought great scepticism of the political management of farming interests. In particular, he noted how it was the case when Labor had come to government in 1972 that the specialist party that characterises itself as looking after regional interests spent a quarter of a century in power but immediately cried for immediate action in almost every rural field. It reinforced his judgement that, as with so many policy areas, Australia was being let down by short-term, short-sighted thinking, and he embarked upon building a policy agenda that took the opposite approach.

When the Hawke government was elected in 1983, John Kerin took a seat at the cabinet table as Minister for Primary Industry. This portfolio would later be expanded to primary industries and energy, in which he would continue to serve until 1991. Like so many ministers of that government, John Kerin embarked on a big reform program. He confronted big challenges but did so, as the current Prime Minister has reflected, with 'experience, care, pragmatism, consultation and an unbreakable sense of humour', even if his then Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, had a 'staggering incapacity to understand his jokes'.

Through empathy and hard work John Kerin gained much respect, and some of the major decisions that he took or contributed to included the removal of tariffs from imported agricultural products, boosting farm productivity and the establishment of research and development corporations. These reforms have stood the test of time and created the export oriented, research-driven agricultural sector that has benefited ever since. These reforms were not without controversy or pain as the protectionist systems that had been in place for most of the 20th century, such as the reserve price for wool and the centralised wheat marketing board, were overhauled. It was necessary for new thinking and approaches in agricultural policy to match the changes in international economic conditions that were leaving Australia increasingly uncompetitive and isolated.

What was required of him over those eight years suited his passion for policy too. He partnered with his colleagues, particularly former senator John Button, to provide opportunities for renewal, replenishment and outward-looking approaches for Australian business and industry. He also recognised that policy changes in agriculture and in the bush generally require different policy answers than those being confronted in the cities, even where they stem from common core issues. Accordingly, he sought to address national problems as they manifested themselves in regional areas in appropriate ways, drawing on the skills of people living in the regions affected. In doing so, he drew upon the valuable expertise within his department and its associated agencies in economics and science, too often undervalued.

He also made sure that social services were available in provincial areas in the knowledge that the bush needed a voice in the cabinet room to deliver the social dividend of economic reform to those who needed additional support wherever they were located.

In what turned out to be the last months of the Hawke government, John Kerin left the primary industries portfolio only when the Prime Minister called upon him to serve as Treasurer. It was not a role he relished, and following the ascension of Paul Keating to the nation's highest political office in December 1991 John briefly took on ministerial responsibility for transport and communications. He was then appointed Minister for Trade and Overseas Development, a role he held until the 1993 election. In this, he enjoyed the opportunity to represent Australia on the overseas stage and apply his preference for an intellectual approach to policy formulation in a new way, alongside foreign minister Gareth Evans. There was also great synergy with his previous role in primary industries, especially given his part when in that portfolio in monumental Labor government initiatives, such as the establishment of the Cairns Group.

John Kerin did not return to the ministry following Labor's win in the 1993 election and retired as a member of parliament at the end of that year. However, his service to the country did not end when he left politics. In many ways it just diversified as he committed himself to so many boards and institutions that it is impossible to name them all. His passion for and knowledge of agriculture naturally dominated many of his appointments, particularly through the leadership positions he took up in the 1990s and 2000s in the sector.

Also shining through was his deep commitment to education. He served as chair of the Australian National University's Crawford Fund, as deputy chancellor of the University of Western Sydney and as a member of the Whitlam Institute. He also made his mark through contributions to publications on the Whitlam and Hawke governments. He remained active in the Australian Labor Party as a local party member here in the Australian Capital Territory.

His community involvement extended to other roles and organisations, including the Bush Capital Club and the Council of Birds Australia. This was fitting for a man who enjoyed reading and thinking about birds and bushwalking.

One of those who recognised the breadth of John Kerin's impact was Professor Andrew Campbell, who is the chief executive of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research in Senator Wong's portfolio. Professor Campbell noted how:

Post-politics, John Kerin chaired countless boards and shared generously his valuable time, sharp insights, dry humour and peerless networks.

His contribution to the nation was formally recognised in the Order of Australia twice—first through his appointment as a member in 2001 for service to the Australian parliament, particularly in the area of government policy and legislative reform relating to primary industry and trade, and again in 2018 through his appointment as an Officer of the Order of Australia for his distinguished service to primary industry through roles in agricultural research administration, to the minerals and natural resources sector and to science-industry linkages and policy. As John Kerin's successor, as a Labor minister in the agriculture portfolio, I'd also like to briefly add my own personal reflections about his life, legacy and his private engagement with me. He was always generous with his advice, and I know this applied not just to me but to other colleagues as well—some of whom we'll hear from today. I'm glad to have had the opportunity to benefit from his wisdom during my time as agriculture minister. John was a big influencer of my thinking as I took on the role that he once held.

As I remarked at the time of his passing, I will miss his early morning and late-night emails full of advice. As was mentioned by another Labor legend of the time, Barry Jones, at John's state funeral, I also said:

Since becoming Agriculture Minister, I have been surprised by how often farm leaders have told me that Labor Ministers often make the best Agriculture Ministers. Free of vested interests, solely focussed on doing what's right for farmers, farm workers and for the whole agriculture supply chain. I know that they are thinking of John when they say that. His reform legacy lives on in Australian agriculture and he rightly deserves the title of Australia's best Agriculture Minister.

I didn't agree with John on everything, though, and I was alarmed to read the following passage in his valedictory speech to the House of Representatives:

I have always drawn the line at dealing with the Senate. It is still a great mystery to me. I met some new ALP senators the other day and I did not know they were there. I once went on a trip with—

former Clerk of the Senate—

Jim Odgers to London and I did not think he was too bad, but I must say that I have great concerns about the Senate Procedure Office. It is institutional anarchy with an Irish twist.

I'm sure things have changed. This goes to show that whilst John Kerin was not wise in everything he said, he was at least a man of principle, and he did appreciate our committee system here in the Senate.

John Kerin passed away in March 2023. When the Prime Minister reflected on his life and legacy, he described John Kerin's time as primary industries minister as the greatest and most profound mark that he left. He's proof that it's possible to go from chicken plucker to cabinet minister. The most remarkable thing about John Kerin is that he never lost his passion for agriculture, learning and making a contribution.

The government again express our condolences following the passing of the Hon. John Kerin and we, again, convey our sympathies to his family including his wife, June, his daughter, Heidi, and those who knew him well.

4:57 pm

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

I rise to echo the remarks of Minister Watt in relation to the life of John Charles Kerin AO, and to speak on this condolence motion. From the tributes paid following the death of John Kerin in March of this year at the age of 85—including the one we've just heard—it is clear that he is most firmly identified with, and respected for, his time at the helm of the primary industries portfolio—a portfolio that John Kerin held, and clearly loved, throughout the first eight years of the Hawke government.

When looking back at political events, it's obvious that John Kerin saw many in his career, and that his career was punctuated by those events that can impact upon many of us in political life. Of course, we can only speculate what might have been if some of those events had been different. By all accounts, it would seem reasonable, given John Kerin's command of the primary industries portfolio—and the respect he earned for his stewardship of that portfolio across the political and industry spectrum—to suggest that, if not for the Keating-Hawke leadership battles, John Kerin may well have remained primary industries minister throughout the whole period of that Labor government such was his command of the portfolio and the respect he earned through it.

John Kerin had, he said of himself, a tough farming background. Tough it was and tough, but well and truly capable, it made him. Raised on a struggling farm near Mittagong, in the New South Wales Southern Highlands, John Kerin left school at 15 to join his father in cutting wood, becoming an axeman—as Senator Watt has said—to help the family make ends meet. It was something he did for seven years, then later setting bricks in a kiln and helping on his parents' chicken farm and orchard. The effects of what he saw and felt in the tomato glut, chicken disease and apple rot are all the types of challenges and experiences that farmers feel and felt. Whilst doing this, though, John Kerin set himself ambition and goals, studying hard by correspondence. So, from cutting his teeth on the family farm, John was to go on and qualify as an economist and cut his teeth, critically, at the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences, as it is now known—to this day, one of our nation's foremost agencies of economic analysis.

His entry into politics came through the seat of Macarthur in the December 1972 election, which saw Gough Whitlam take the reins of government. Events, though—this time the Dismissal and the crises surrounding the Whitlam government—saw him lose his seat at the 1975 election that swept the Whitlam government from office. For many, such a loss could have been the end of a political career, and, had that been the case, it would have been Australia's loss and our farming sector's loss if John Kerin had never returned to the parliament. However, it was another event—Whitlam's retirement from the parliament and from the seat of Werriwa just a few years later, in 1978—that gave John Kerin a vehicle to return to Canberra. So, when Bob Hawke won office in 1983, John Kerin was to become Australia's Minister for Primary Industry, building on his three years as a shadow minister.

There have always been and, particularly at that time, were some tensions between the Labor government and farmers who had become more organised through the formation of the National Farmers Federation. John Kerin himself was acutely aware of this tension. He acknowledged that: 'Labor, for the most part, had no profile and no following in the bush.' As minister, he had to confront 40,000 farmers on the steps of Parliament House and, in a separate protest, 25 tonnes of wheat being dumped on the steps of Parliament House as the natural tension escalated over the effect of taxes and charges on farming communities and a perceived lack of government action.

For many primary industries ministers, such concerns from within the farming sector would have overwhelmed their capacity to achieve reform, to build respect or to get things done. But, with a reputation for working hard and being forensic in his quest for policy based on hard facts and on evidence, John Kerin was able to succeed and, indeed, expand his portfolio, having energy added to the load.

As primary industries minister, John Kerin is renowned for focusing on policies aimed in particular at lifting farm productivity. He brought a genuine focus and true leadership to issues around agricultural research and development, most notably with the passing of the Primary Industries and Energy Research and Development Act 1989. The efforts he brought forward through it, the funding it delivered and the reforms it ultimately helped to achieve have left a lasting legacy of which John Kerin and, today, his family should be very proud.

Australia's farmers are more productive, our nation is more prosperous and our food supply is more secure thanks to the leadership of John Kerin, particularly in the areas of agricultural productivity. But, as is so often the case in political life, his career and its hitherto strong focus and trajectory based on primary industries was to be upset by Labor's leadership tensions at the time. Surprising many, John Kerin became Treasurer when Paul Keating's first failed challenge against Bob Hawke saw Keating then move to the backbench. In retrospect, it was a poisoned chalice. He was just two months out from a federal budget, a budget delivered whilst Australia was still in the 'recession we had to have'. Bob Hawke admitted how big a task he had handed John Kerin, in the shadow of Paul Keating as Treasurer, when he said that no-one had been 'thrown into that position under such pressure'.

John Kerin, of course, just got about the job. He was no grandstander. Indeed, when the government was announcing a one per cent cut in interest rates, his approach was one of simply issuing a statement—no press conference, no bells and no whistles. Perhaps that approach was ill-suited to the Treasury role, compared with the detailed approach he'd become used to in the primary industries portfolio.

John Kerin was moved from that role to Treasury and Communications. Then, following Keating's successful second challenge, he went on to serve as Minister for Trade and Overseas Development. All of these senior and important portfolios reflect the high regard in which John Kerin was held by not only his leaders and his party in government but, indeed, the stakeholders who had to work with him. And in the case of his service as trade minister, it was an opportunity to apply synergies to build on his achievements in agriculture, particularly through the championing of the Cairns Group work, as Senator Watt acknowledged.

Paul Keating, on the back of his 1993 win and drive for a fresh approach, ultimately saw John Kerin end his time as a minister, and that year John called time on his political career. In his obituary in the SMH, Malcolm Brown wrote that John Kerin was once touted as a future Labor leader, but while:

… he lacked the showmanship and flamboyance of some of his contemporaries … nobody dismissed him as anything other than a solid, reliable, servant of the nation.

And although, in 1993, he left parliament and politics, he was far from calling time on his public service. John Kerin was to go on and provide service to many organisations, including the Australian Meat and Livestock Corporation, the CSIRO, the Poultry Cooperative Research Centre, the Australian weed research centre and the Cooperative Research Centre for the Sustainable Development of Tropical Savannas. He was a board member and chair of the Crawford Fund, and, indeed, outside of immediate primary industries or agriculture policy, he also served UNICEF Australia, recognising the reach that food security has right around the world. Appropriately, in 2018 John Kerin was appointed as an officer of the Order of Australia for his distinguished service to primary industry through roles in agricultural research administration, to the minerals and natural resources sector, and to science-industry linkages and policy.

Whilst I had the pleasure of meeting John Kerin only a handful of times, it was always clear that his decency, his thoughtfulness, his commitment to evidence based policy and to Australia's best interests shone through time and time again. Today as a Senate we acknowledge and thank him for his service, we thank his family for sharing him with the nation and we pay our respects to his wife, June, and daughter, Heidi. I thank the Senate.

5:07 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise on behalf of the Nationals and also as a former agriculture minister for Australia—the first female to do so—to associate us and myself with the speeches both of the government and, indeed, the fine words of Senator Birmingham on this condolence motion on the death of the Hon. John Charles Kerin AO.

John was a forester, a brick setter, a poultry farmer, an academic, an accomplished politician and, importantly, a fierce advocate for Australian agriculture. In short, John Kerin was an old-style Labor man. His passing has no doubt left a profound void in the lives of all those who knew him, and we are all here to offer our condolences, and to support his family and friends.

Like many of that generation, he was obliged to leave school at 15 to help his father around the chicken farm and spent most days cutting wood for a living. This rural upbringing ingrained in him the value of hard work and the lived experience of the very real struggles of rural and regional Australians.

After the giants who had previously served as agriculture minister, such as Black Jack McEwen and Peter Nixon, from the Victorian National Party, Kerin was one of Australia's best-regarded agriculture ministers. He was fortunate to serve for a long period in the job which enabled him to enact lasting reform measures, particularly with commodity groups, and that is a rare privilege for ministers in our system today. And, indeed, Peter Nixon has actually asked me to pass on to the Senate some of his reflections on the passing of Kerin. He says: 'When I retired, John Kerin succeeded me as minister for primary industry. John was quite pragmatic and spoke to me about the issues he faced. He was level headed, intelligent and was devoted to his work.' And I think those characteristics that Peter Nixon tells us about are also reflected in John's entire work.

As the member for Werriwa, he was successor to Gough Whitlam and the predecessor of Mark Latham—two significant leaders of the Labor Party. But most importantly, John served as the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy between 1983 and 1991 and made significant and lasting policy decisions that helped reshape our country's agriculture industry and forever changed our national economy.

In his memoir, The Way I Saw It; the Way It Was, Kerin had some wonderful insights into the job of being agriculture minister. On agriculture policymaking he said, 'A decision by private industry not to invest or to resist change can be very powerful.' He also said he was opposed to the 'whatever it takes' approach to politics in the New South Wales Labor right, going on to say, 'I always thought that the best, thoroughly thought-through policies were the best politics. I do not believe in playing politics to gain advantage, or in confusing the public by saying one thing and doing another.' He also said, 'Nor do I believe in the prattling of inane slogans.' I think, as the Anglican ministers say, there's something in that for all of us.

During his time as Minister for Primary Industry, John was instrumental in driving significant reforms, particularly in relation to the sugar and wheat industries—and Senator Birmingham told us how Australian wheat growers felt about some of those reforms at the time. He also played a key role in deregulation of that industry, and that had a major impact on the sector and paved the way for increased competition and efficiency.

He also was a strong advocate for the interests of Australian farmers in international trade negotiations, as Senator Birmingham outlined; in particular, in relation to the Uruguay Round multilateral trade negotiations. He worked tirelessly to ensure that the interests of Australian farmers were protected and that farmers had access to new and emerging markets.

I want to read, as it is budget day, this quote from the late, great John Kerin as Minister for Primary Industries and Energy:

Quite frankly, always the best thing that any Government can do for the whole farm sector is in the macro-economic policy area: getting interest rates down and inflation rates down …

I heartily agree. I know the Minister for Finance and the Treasurer are in the budget lock-up right now, and I hope that the whip will do the right thing and push that quote under the door so that they can reflect on that very good advice from John Kerin.

He also oversaw significant investments in research and development in the agricultural sector. One of his stand-out achievements was as the architect of our modern agricultural research and development system, in that he established the research and development corporations in commodity groups far and wide. It's a system where farmers contribute to research that's going to help them become more efficient and productive and where we, as taxpayers, participate and contribute to making the primary production system more efficient for farmers. This partnership between taxpayers and the farming sector has driven innovation and progress across agricultural commodities in Australia to the point where our overall agriculture sector was worth $90 billion in 2022.

Kerin also recognised that innovation was key to driving growth and productivity in the sector and worked to ensure that funding was available for research into new technologies and practices. That included in areas such as plant breeding, soil conservation and animal health.

To his wife, June, his daughter, Heidi, and the rest of John's family we offer our deepest sympathies. We thank you for his years of service to our nation and his unwavering dedication to Australian agriculture. Vale, John Kerin.

5:13 pm

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

RES (—) (): It is completely appropriate that the Senate pause for a period to reflect on the life and service of John Kerin. I do want to thank the speakers thus far—the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and the Leader of the Nationals in the Senate—for their thoughtful contributions. It does reflect, I think, the fact that John was widely regarded as a remarkable—we might argue about whether he was the best—contributor in agriculture and across a range of policy areas. He was loved across the parliament, particularly in the Australian Labor Party, for the seriousness of his convictions and the way that he approached the task of politics.

As Senator Watt said in his contribution, a number of us have benefited from engaging with John over the years, and I'm one of those people. He was very generous. For a bloke who was very busy in his retirement, he was very generous with his time. He had a thoughtful approach to the challenges that faced modern Labor in this parliament and the parliaments before it. I am very grateful. I came from a background where my family valued farming, agricultural science and education, and John Kerin epitomised those values and drives in a way that is very uncommon in modern politics.

I don't intend to traverse all of the details of John's history here—and his later life has been done very well so far—but I want to make a couple of reflections. His intellect and capacity to bring a sharp, well-read policy brain to the problems of the era that he was engaged in had their foundations in his own drive for self-improvement. He didn't do undergraduate study on a university campus. He did it at night-time, studying at night school to finish his high school education and by correspondence to complete his university education—and it was all done after the farm work was done. He worked through the night.

His brother gave a very compelling account of the hard work and commitment required for John to get the education that he got, and that drive for self-improvement continued all through his life. He's left a legacy of reform in agriculture. He certainly was a person who could draw the relationship between agriculture policy, trade policy and industry policy, and he knew that reform agenda and issues like no other Australian politician. He was deeply sceptical of the Australian Senate. It would have come as no surprise to him that our condolence motion for him was delayed by a further hour and 40 minutes because of some debates and playing up in the Senate! He would have found that irony pretty rewarding.

His book, 450,000 words on agricultural policy, and with him having been an agriculture minister, is available in the Parliamentary Library. It is absolutely worth grabbing. It is a show stopper—possibly a doorstopper—a real page turner. It's absolutely worth grabbing for anybody interested in agricultural politics, research and development, science, industry policy or thinking about their role as a member of parliament or senator. His contribution after his retirement had been immense.

I want to express on behalf of all of my colleagues, particularly those from New South Wales, how well loved and deeply respected John was. His state funeral was a remarkable occasion, in the Old Parliament House, and I pass on my respects and condolences to his remarkable family. Vale.

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