Senate debates

Wednesday, 10 May 2023


West, Hon. Stewart John

3:40 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 29 March 2023 of the Hon. Stewart John West, a former minister and member of the House of Representatives for the division of Cunningham, New South Wales, from 1977 to 1993.

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate records its sorrow at the death, on 29 March 2023, of the Honourable Stewart John West, former Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Minister for Housing and Construction, and Minister for Administrative Services, and former member for Cunningham, 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 another highly respected former Australian Labor Party minister and member of the House of Representatives, the Hon. Stewart John West, at the age of 88, and I convey the government's condolences to his family and his friends.

The day after the Senate eulogised John Kerin, we are lamenting the loss of another member of a great generation of Labor ministers. The cabinets of the Hawke government set the standard for executive government in this country, and Stewart West left his own mark when he served among some of the greatest of Labor's ministers. But his contribution extended beyond his ministerial portfolios; he had a hand in policy decisions that left a lasting legacy. Notably, he took a stance on issues of principle, even when it was not convenient or when it came at personal cost. As the Prime Minister has said:

He was a politician of unbending principle, one who cherished the privilege of being in Cabinet but who nonetheless prioritised principle over career.

Stewart West was born in Forbes in 1934, in the Central West region of New South Wales. The Illawarra became his home, where he was a waterside worker in Port Kembla and, obviously, was involved in industrial and Labor politics. When Rex Connor, the then member for Cunningham, sadly died in office in 1977, Stewart West was elected to replace him, and he would be re-elected to the seat in the '77, '80, '83, '84, '87 and 1990 elections. He served a term on the backbench, before being elevated to the shadow ministry following the 1980 election. He first served as spokesperson on Aboriginal affairs and, in this portfolio, he worked with the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Hayden, to put in place long-term policy proposals focused on Indigenous jobs, housing and health, in contrast to the actions of the Fraser government, which had cut real spending by some $35 million over four years.

In late 1980, Stewart West took on the shadow portfolio that he would hold for the majority of Labor's final term in opposition: environmental conservation. Here, he built on the legacy of ministers like Moss Cass, formulating policies that would come to define a new approach from Labor in government. He oversaw development of the environmental policy that Labor took to the 1983 election and that we implemented in the face of significant opposition once Bob Hawke led Labor to victory. At the heart of this policy was Labor's pledge to save the Franklin River in Tasmania. Four decades later, that the Franklin still flows wild and free can be attributed to his courage and foresight. So, too, can the protection of Kakadu. These are substantial achievements which are a magnificent legacy.

When Bob Hawke replaced Bill Hayden as leader and led Labor to government in 1983, Stewart West became a cabinet minister, being appointed Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs. It was another issue that would result in him having a brief hiatus from the cabinet room early in his ministerial career.

In the early 1980s, there was passionate debate within the Australian Labor Party and the broader community about uranium. A strong anti-uranium proponent, Stewart West had already endured much anguish as the party thrashed out the issue at its national conference prior to coming to government. When the issue came before cabinet and a decision was taken that he felt was inconsistent with the party's platform, he resigned his cabinet position. At the time, he was the left's sole representative in a cabinet that otherwise comprised of members of the right, centre-left and the independents. In making this decision he prioritised principle over career. However, he did retain his ministry, and Prime Minister Hawke restored him to cabinet the following year.

As Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Stewart West articulated the importance of diversity and non-discrimination in Australia's immigration policy. At the time, our refugee and special humanitarian visa intake was under scrutiny, especially as a consequence of the Vietnam War and conflicts in Southeast Asia, as well as the repudiation of the white Australia policy by the Whitlam government. Immigration to Australia from Asia was the subject of political debate. Stewart West took on the falsehoods being peddled in the community by what he rightly described as a prejudiced minority that was being supported regrettably by the then opposition. These falsehoods ranged from the perpetuation of myths that government policies discriminated against people in the UK and Europe to bold-faced anti-Asian racism. He called on the opposition not to lend its support to emerging anti-Asian racism in Australia. Sadly, we know, particularly under the leadership of John Howard, these calls were not heeded. We will never forget it was Mr Howard who called for a reduction in Asian immigration in 1988, saying the pace of Asian immigration was a cause for concern. I am grateful that we on the side of the chamber can count those such as Stewart West amongst our number. He was prepared to clearly articulate the damage done by those who exploit race as a weapon for political advantage. All of us in this place on all sides must always guard against such tactics and recognise the damage those tactics wreak on our community.

Following his two years in this portfolio, Stewart West went on to serve as Minister for Housing and Construction and Administrative Services. He did not return to the ministry after the 1990 election and retired from politics prior to the 1993 election. After returning to private life, he maintained his activism on those matters that were close to his heart, including the plight of refugees, continuing to give voice to the compassion he had shown as minister.

Stewart West died two days short of his 89th birthday. His life was one of passion and one of principle. He was a champion for the cause and he laid a path for Labor ministers to come. The Prime Minister reflected that he was proud to sit beside Stewart West at our national conferences and proud to stand alongside him to improve the lives of working Australians. We are a better nation as a consequence of the impact of Stewart West at the highest levels of our government.

Once again, on behalf of this Labor government, I express our condolences following his passing to his friends and family, especially to his widow, Mary, and to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

3:48 pm

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

I rise to associate the opposition with the remarks of Senator Wong in relation to paying tribute to and honouring the life of the Hon. Stewart John West and extend our condolences to his family and loved ones. Born in 1934 in Forbes and attending Wollongong high School, Stewart West would go on to represent greater area of Wollongong as the member for Cunningham for some 16 years in the Australian parliament. Before entering the parliament, he held the position of President of the Waterside Workers' Federation for five years, a position that I can only imagine would be one that would strengthen one's ability to enter into political combat.

He served as campaign manager for 10 years for the then member for Cunningham, Rex Connor, who died suddenly in office, leaving Stewart West to be elected as the next representative for the seat of Cunningham in 1977. In his maiden speech, Stewart spoke with passion for his electorate, advocating for capital expenditure grants and employment revitalisation, which he believed his community needed to succeed.

Publicly and proudly labelled as one of the few members of Labor's left faction, Stewart was a class of politician who wore his heart on his sleeve. Three years after entering parliament, as Senator Wong said, Stewart was given his first appointment as opposition spokesman for Aboriginal affairs followed by the responsibilities for environmental conversation and then finance and trade under opposition leader Bill Hayden.

Stewart had been recognised as being vocal and indeed played a key role in the campaigns to save the Franklin River in Tasmania and preserve Kakadu in the Northern Territory. In one newspaper article a few words described how devoted Stewart was to the responsibilities of his portfolios. During his time as shadow minister for the environment and conservation, the Canberra Times reported on his contribution to a Labor national conference in 1982 that was, as Senator Wong indicated, debating the ALP's position on the future of Australia's uranium industry. The article stated that:

Watching West from the press galleries of the House … he has always seemed mild and self-effacing and dutiful but at the ALP conference he did a deal of ranting …

In a passionate afternoon Mr West was megapassionate …

Following the 1983 election, the megapassionate Stewart West became the only identified member of the left faction of the new Labor government to be appointed to a cabinet position under Prime Minister Bob Hawke as Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs. It was, though, to be a relatively short-lived position initially. A man of principle, Stewart resigned from the appointment eight months in when he opposed the cabinet decision to sell uranium to France. He was subsequently reappointed to the position, though, just five months later by Prime Minister Hawke. For another two terms, Stewart West would remain in the cabinet of the Hawke government as Minister for Housing and Construction and then as Minister for Administrative Services until 1990.

In the decade following the Vietnam War and the establishment of communist governments in the region, many residents in South-East Asia became refugees. As immigration minister, Stewart approached his portfolio wholeheartedly, leading an agenda that would welcome these refugees to Australia. Stewart championed the goals of the Hawke government. In one address to the House he stated:

Whilst humanitarian considerations dictate that resettlement is still necessary, this Government maintains strongly that solutions must be found to the cause of mass population movements in South East Asia.

He didn't just state those words; he would contribute to these solutions, travelling to intergovernmental consultations between the US, Canada and Japan and Australia. He would also visit Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand to stress that resettlement alone was not the answer and there was need for voluntary repatriation and other efforts.

Throughout his time in parliament, as Senator Wong acknowledged, Stewart West was principled. He was particularly principled when it came to refugees and matters of migration as well as matters of conservation. Even after his time in parliament, Stewart continued to advocate for the rights of refugees.

After the re-election of the Hawke government in 1990, Stewart's principles were further challenged within his party. The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq led Stewart to abstain from voting on the Hawke government's resolution on the gulf conflict which would see Australian troops sent to support UN forces against Iraq. In a piece he penned appearing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Stewart wrote:

I also fear the US-UN forces will win the war but lose the peace. The post-war problems will exceed the pre-war problems.

…   …   …

Even now a devastating groundwater should be averted. We need another diplomatic approach …

Many would now see the words he wrote as being prescient for future challenges and problems to come.

It was clear that Stewart's desires during his time in parliament were of humanitarian and conservation priorities, his passion for his portfolios as strong as that for his community. Stewart retired from the parliament at the 1993 election. I have little doubt—and Senator Wong acknowledged this—that his interests and values would have ensured strong opinions continued to be expressed throughout his life, particularly on the issues near and dear to his heart and no doubt most passionately when he believed that the party he loved and served was straying from the principles he believed it needed to uphold.

Lauded as a political giant of the Labor movement, Stewart West was, I'm told, surrounded by family and friends at the time of his passing. On behalf of the opposition and as part of this Senate we extend to Stewart's loved ones—his wife, Mary, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren—our deep and sincere condolences and thank him for his service to our nation.

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