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So long and thanks for all the fish: the oddly polite history of political farewells

Something strange happens when politicians leave the political stage. The other side suddenly becomes much more civil – even affectionate. There is an outbreak of bipartisanship or non-partisanship. It is as though, after years of fighting across the chamber, the political opponents shove babel fish into their ears and hear each other for the first time.

Goodwill is saved up for the moment of farewell, because, at most other times, expressing regard or respect for political adversaries is unsafe.

This year, Australia’s national parliament saw a conga-line of departures, including big names such as Jenny Macklin, Julie Bishop, Wayne Swan, Craig Laundy, Doug Cameron, Kelly O’Dwyer, Kate Ellis, Nigel Scullion and the infamous Andrew Broad. Where to next for these departing warriors? Senator Scullion was goin’ fish’n. ‘I’m going to eat more mud crabs, catch more barramundi, shoot more wild pigs. I have no plan beyond that,’ he said on Australia Day this year. ‘If I was a wild pig, a duck or mud crab, I’d be starting to get nervous.’

It’s a parliamentary tradition that retiring members give a valedictory speech. Families and friends come along to acknowledge and celebrate the member’s service, and the end of the Canberra commute. There’s a formula for the speeches. Spell out achievements. Define a legacy. Thank family and staff, who’ve put up with a lot. And then, strangely, reach across the political divide to acknowledge and thank the politicians on the other side of the chamber. It’s not quite the sporting tradition in which players swap sweaty jerseys. But it’s close. There is often laughing and hugging. Not infrequently, there are real tears.

The prize for this year’s valedictory speech goes to the politician who was known as ‘the fixer’. On 4 April 2019, Christopher Pyne said goodbye to the parliament. ‘I am going to miss the stage of the dispatch box, which gives you some amateur thespianism,’ he said. ‘Mr Speaker, I’ve had a fortunate life. I don’t have a log cabin story like so many people in this place…although I once did have to get my own lemon for a gin and tonic.’

I would like to thank my colleagues on all sides of the house. I once described the House of Representatives as being my natural habitat. You are all my fellow species in this unnatural place. This place brings out the best in us and it brings out the worst in us. I’ve seen some truly dreadful people come through here over the last quarter of a century Mr Speaker. That’s true though. But I’ve seen some many more outstanding people Mr Speaker, including my current colleagues [as he gestures to members across the aisle].

Anthony Albanese, Pyne’s morning TV friend and combatant, crossed the aisle to give Pyne a heartfelt hug. Sincere congratulations also came from Tanya Plibersek, Tony Burke and Jenny Macklin. When Burke rose to speak, he praised Pyne’s grace and wit. The goodwill (and gentle ribbing) continued on Twitter. On 2 March 2019, Burke used his Twitter handle @Tony_Burke (the 21st Century hitchhiker’s phone number) to say: ‘For the last 6 years @cpyne and I agreed to never say anything untrue in our conversations. As a result, sometimes, we didn’t talk for long periods of time. He fought hard with a sense of humour for his side of the argument and I wish him, Caroline & his family well.’

Christopher Pyne belongs to the special club of politicians who were elected before 2004 and have access to two special prizes: the old parliamentary contribution pension scheme, and a Life Gold Pass that entitles the holder to 10 taxpayer-funded, business-class return flights per year. John Howard removed these entitlements in 2004 after coming under pressure from then Labor opposition leader Mark Latham, who nevertheless kept his own pension.

(Politicians’ remuneration attracts much tut-tutting, but some of that is unfair. How many jobs require people to be on call 24-7, with an ever-present possibility that the job will come to an end, possibly for reasons other than personal performance? Salaries for pollies aren’t low, but nor are they especially high. If we want talent in parliament, we have to pay for it.)

Other departures highlighted other cross-party amity. During Julie Bishop’s five-year tenure as Australia’s foreign minister under the Abbott and Turnbull governments, she built genuine friendships with people from the other side, and most notably with her shadow counterpart, Senator Penny Wong. In Penny Wong’s 26 August 2018 statement on Julie Bishop, she said:

I pay tribute to Julie Bishop for her trailblazing role as the first Australian woman to be Minister for Foreign Affairs. For five years she has dedicated her life to our nation with a tireless work ethic and exhausting travel schedule. While Labor has at times been critical of the foreign policy directions under Prime Ministers Abbott and Turnbull, Ms Bishop’s commitment to standing up for Australia both here and abroad has never been in question. In particular, I have deeply appreciated her commitment to bipartisanship and personal courtesy to me.

The former Liberal Julia Banks, federal member for Chisholm, said: ‘In Julie Bishop, our nation has been gifted with a fine leader and a standout role model for girls and women.’ Greens MP Sarah Hanson Young said Bishop would ‘have made a great Liberal prime minister’. She elaborated on Twitter: ‘I’ve always respected her ability to cut through the bull-dust, work across the political divide and get on with her job.’ Kevin Rudd, prime minister of the 42nd Commonwealth Parliament from 2007 until 2010, was also a former minister for foreign affairs. Rudd complimented Bishop as ‘a highly effective Australian foreign minister. It’s a hard job. Much harder than it looks. We may not always have agreed on policy. That’s normal. But she has earned, absolutely, the respect of foreign ministers around the world.’

 

 

Council Chamber of the Elders of Krikkit

Uproar subsiding. Frantic mutterings.

Trillian (to self): Influences from beyond, radiation, dust particles … (Up)

Elders! Elders of Krikkit! I need transportation. I need my friends. And I need them now.

Elder of Krikkit: We need a hug.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Further Radio Scripts.

 

 

The tradition of goodwill upon departure began early in Australia’s parliamentary history. In 1903, for example, parliament contemplated the retirement of the then member for Wentworth, Irish Australian Sir William McMillian, deputy leader of the Free Trade Party. Enigmatic prime minister Alfred Deakin, a Protectionist, commented in parliament at the time:

As this occasion has been taken advantage of to make remarks of a farewell and congratulatory character, may I say, on behalf of this side of the House, how much we personally feel and regret the intimation made by my old political friend, the honourable member for Wentworth, that this is probably the last occasion on which we shall have the advantage of his presence…I am sure that there is no honourable member who would be more missed.

Another early example features South Australian Labor senator William Russell. A Scottish-born solicitor and farmer, Russell was elected to the Australian Senate in 1906 after spending the previous decade traversing both houses of the South Australian parliament. There was no doubt which side William Russell belonged to, but his death provoked an outpouring of goodwill from both sides of politics and indeed from across the country. Queensland senator Thomas Chataway of the Anti-Socialist Party said:

The late Senator W. Russell was vigorous, but always courteous, in debate. In my experience of him for nearly six years he was a man whom one could always meet in a friendly way in the lobbies, and who did not allow the acerbities of political life to interfere with personal friendship.

NSW Senator Lt. Colonel Sir Albert Gould, respectively of the Free Trade, Anti-Socialist, Liberal and Nationalist Parties (depending on the period) commented:

It is occasions like the present which convincingly demonstrate that, notwithstanding how honourable senators may differ in political debate, there is a strong bond of sympathy and friendship and brotherhood between them. Senator W. Russell was invariably a supporter of my honourable friends opposite. He fought against members of the Opposition as strongly and consistently as he could, but in his political hostility he never betrayed the slightest personal bitterness, and I am equally sure that no such bitterness was exhibited by this side of the Senate towards him. If a similar spirit be always manifested in this Senate – however much we may fight upon the floor of the chamber – we shall be able to meet each other as personal friends the moment we get beyond its portals.

Tasmanian Senator Lt. Colonel Cyril Cameron of the Protectionist and Anti-Socialist Party continued the theme:

It was my privilege and honour to have known the deceased gentleman since he became a member of the Senate somewhat intimately, and I can truthfully say that the personal intercourse which I had with him has left a deep impression upon my mind. I found that in all his thoughts, and in all that he did, he was actuated by the purest and best motives. A man of that class, no matter whether he be in public or in private life, we cannot well afford to lose.

NSW senator James Thomas Walker of the Free-Trade and Anti-Socialist Party said:

I suppose that there is no honourable senator upon the other side of the chamber with whom I had more friendly relations than I had with him. Needless to add, I found in him a strong fellow countryman of my own, and that in itself constituted a bond of sympathy between us. But irrespective of considerations of nationality or of politics, I grew to like him exceedingly. I found him most courteous. We differed in our political views it is true, but that circumstance did not interfere in the slightest with our personal friendship.

More than a century later, in 2014, the death of Gough Whitlam saw a flood of tributes. Malcolm Turnbull observed that ‘Hatred, as we know, destroys the hater. So many people in our business in politics, find themselves consumed by hatred and retire into a bitter anecdotage gnawing away at the injustices and betrayals they suffered in their life. Whitlam was able to rise above that. His cooperation and work with Malcolm Fraser on many causes. It is a great example for all of us.’

The following year, Malcolm Fraser died. Tony Abbott was prime minister at the time. The post-Lodge version of Malcolm Fraser had a very different political outlook to the intra-Lodge Abbott. But Abbott nevertheless stated: ‘The friendship he built in later life with Gough Whitlam spoke volumes about the character of both men at the centre of the crisis: in their own different ways, they were both fierce Australian patriots.’

Kim Beazley’s gentle and personable style sits oddly alongside his interest in military history. The comedian and journalist Bryan Dawe wrote famously and insightfully that Beazley’s lifelong ambition was to be defence minister in a major regional war – in which no one was hurt. On Beazley’s retirement from federal parliament in 2007 (he was succeeded in his seat by Gary Gray), there were heartfelt accolades from left and right. Geoffrey Blainey, the prominent conservative historian and close John Howard associate, praised Beazley, calling him an important ornament to Australian public life.

In September 2009, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd appointed Beazley as Australia’s ambassador to the US. At the same time, in a surprise bipartisan move, Rudd appointed former federal Liberal opposition leader Dr Brendan Nelson as ambassador to the European Union, Belgium, Luxembourg and NATO, and as special representative to the World Health Organisation. Beazley’s appointment began on 17 February 2010. As ambassador, Beazley played an important pro-trade role, including in the development of the multi-lateral Trans-Pacific Partnership. In June 2014, in another bipartisan move, Prime Minister Tony Abbott extended Beazley’s appointment by 12 months, to the end of 2015. In 2018, Beazley enjoyed bipartisan support when he was appointed Governor of Western Australia.

With strong roots in the labour movement, Martin Ferguson was well known as an unapologetic advocate for workers’ rights. During his rough rise through the mining unions, Ferguson made as many enemies as friends. But in 1996 he had enough remaining allies on the left of politics to enter federal parliament for Labor as the representative for Batman in Victoria. In Canberra, Ferguson built a reputation as an effective and formidable parliamentarian. Across the chamber, Tony Abbott was well known as a ruthless parliamentary warrior. In their backgrounds and their styles, Abbott and Ferguson couldn’t have been more different. And yet, upon Ferguson’s retirement from parliament in 2013, then opposition leader Abbott gave a sincere and at times tearful speech in which he spoke of Ferguson’s contribution to Australia’s national government and public life.

After calling Ferguson ‘Labor Party royalty’, Abbott apologised for calling his family ‘hereditary peers’. Ferguson, Abbott said, was ‘an honourable opponent and a great Australian’, his retirement ‘a sad day for the country’. Abbott’s speech was a strange moment and an unlikely spectacle: a conservative warrior was praising a dyed-in-the-wool unionist and prominent Labor figure. The words were fodder to Ferguson haters on both sides of the chamber. But outside the parliament, Abbott’s words were well received. Albeit briefly, they helped soften his hard edges and broaden his political appeal.

So long, farewell.

On 19 June 2013, Labor’s Robert McClelland made a valedictory speech that emphasised his own cross-party friendships: ‘I take this opportunity to acknowledge the very valued friendships I have made across both sides of the chamber. I know that Dr Mal Washer will be giving his valedictory speech later this afternoon. From my point of view—and I think it is a universally held view—Mal is one of the finest men that I have ever met, and he will be a real loss to the parliament, as indeed will other members.’ Rob McClelland also gave his respects to his opposite number, shadow attorney general Senator George Brandis:

We obviously had our disagreements but, on every occasion we had discussion, those discussions were cordial and constructive. Anything said in confidence remained in confidence and matters that could be resolved were resolved and, indeed, many successes from our collective point of view—that is, the parliament’s collective point of view—were achieved. For instance, George’s support for legislation amending some 80 pieces of legislation to remove discrimination against some same-sex couples was vital, as indeed was his support for introducing legislation to prohibit capital punishment from being reintroduced in Australia, which was potentially controversial. I am proud of the fact that both houses of parliament unanimously passed every bit of legislation in that context. That was in substantial part as a result of the support and decency, I thought, of Senator Brandis during that process.

MP Mal Washer rose in reply to McClelland: ‘Thank you, Madam Speaker. Rob, I congratulate you too. I cannot come over and shake his hand, because I have to make a speech, but he is a dear friend and I will miss him’.

On 7 February 2018, Senator George Brandis delivered his own valedictory speech to the parliament as he was about to head off to be Australia’s next high commissioner in the United Kingdom. He spoke of the cross-party work on national security legislation: ‘measures to keep our people safe have been successful. While four innocent people have died in lone-wolf [attacks] law enforcement agencies have disrupted and prevented 14 major terrorist attacks.’

Of course, it is not politicians who should claim the credit for this success…But governments and parliaments do play an important role, by giving the agencies the resources and powers they need…Secondly, we have maintained bipartisanship. All eight tranches of legislation were passed with the opposition’s support… It was a fine example of government and parliament working hand in hand to protect the national interest.

Brandis thanked his media team with humour, and relayed salient advice about media management and cabinet security:

[The team] staunchly resisted frequent entreaties by one or two journalists to engage in transactional journalism: cabinet leaks or classified national security information in exchange for favourable coverage in the tabloids. I am reminded of Lyndon Johnson’s advice to Richard Nixon about leaks from America’s National Security Council: ‘Read the columnists, and if they call [somebody] thoughtful, dedicated, or any other friendly adjective, fire him immediately. He is your leaker.’

Brandis then paid homage to his opponents, in whom he said he’d been fortunate:

For most of the time I was the shadow Attorney-General, Robert McClelland was the Attorney. He was a very good Attorney-General and we got on well. We would meet regularly, establish what we could agree on and identify the areas of difference, and then go out and have the argument. When he made his valedictory speech, Robert, now Justice McClelland, spent more time saying generous things about me than about any of his Labor colleagues—admittedly, it was a difficult time for the Labor Party—and I am honoured that he has come to my valedictory speech this evening. Nicola Roxon and I were ideological opposites, but she was always the soul of courtesy. Then, throughout my time as the Attorney-General, my opponent was Mark Dreyfus QC. This was also a stroke of good fortune. There were a couple of controversies over the last four and a half years, but I could always rely on the member for Isaacs to get me out of trouble. I will be forever grateful that Mark Dreyfus was my shadow. One of the many reasons that I’m cautiously optimistic about the outcome of the next federal election is that I believe the Leader of the Opposition is quite close to Mr Dreyfus and often seeks his advice.

Brandis remarked that he was also fortunate in the timing of his departure, which followed the landmark passage of the marriage equality bill. ‘In decades, indeed centuries to come, if the 45th Parliament is to be remembered for nothing else, it will be remembered for this.’ Brandis’s tearful conclusion quoted W. B. Yeats: ‘Think where man’s glory most begins and ends, And I say my glory was I had such friends.’

A great defender of workers’ rights and the union movement, Labor senator Barney Cooney died in February 2019. Former Liberal senator Amanda Vanstone wrote for the Fairfax newspapers a ‘Farewell to a friend and respectful foe’.

Colleagues of all persuasions come and go, but rarely ones like Barney. If you want an example of what a decent, hard-working, committed parliamentarian looks like, you couldn’t do better than him. I knew I liked and respected Barney, but it was when speaking on his valedictory and my throat tightened and my eyes got glossy that I realised just how much he mattered. He bothered to write me a beautiful letter from retirement and another when I went to Italy.

At the funeral of US Republican senator John McCain, the former POW and war hero was widely praised from all sides (although President Trump wasn’t invited). McCain loved the outdoors, especially at his Arizona ranch. In his dying days, he was visited at the ranch by many of his friends, including Democrat Joe Biden. The New York Times reported, ‘When former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. travelled to Senator John McCain’s Arizona ranch last Sunday to spend a few hours with his ailing friend, the two reminisced about the “crazy senators” they had served with, the overseas trips they took together for decades and the friendship Mr McCain forged with Mr Biden’s two sons.’

Ellen DeGeneres and Barack Obama in The Ellen DeGeneres Show (2003).

At McCain’s funeral, immediate past president Barack Obama – who’d defeated McCain in the race to the White House – said, ‘We shared, for all our differences, a fidelity to something higher, the ideals for which generations of Americans and immigrants alike have fought, marched and sacrificed.’ Former president George W. Bush, who had defeated McCain in the Republican primaries to go on and become President, commented, ‘Some lives are so vivid, it is difficult to imagine them ended. Some voices are so vibrant, it is hard to think of them stilled. John McCain was a man of deep conviction and a patriot of the highest order.’

In his life after politics, George W. Bush developed a strong friendship with Barack and Michelle Obama. ‘She kind of likes my sense of humour,’ he said of Michelle Obama. ‘Anybody who likes my sense of humour, I immediately like.’ In 2017, on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, Ellen asked Bush about his friendship with the Obamas. ‘That surprised everybody,’ he said. ‘That’s what is so weird about society today. People on opposite sides of the political spectrum could actually like each other.’

Ellen asked Bush a pointed question: to which Obama was he closer?

‘Well let’s put it this way,’ Bush replied. ‘He’s never given me a hug that way.’

‘So it’s all about the hug,’ Ellen said.

Author Bio

Scott Hamilton & Stuart Kells

Scott Hamilton and Stuart Kells are Melbourne-based authors, researchers and policy advisers. They are researching the history of bipartisanship in Australia.