Vale, John Kerin. Here lies a good man.

11 May, 2023

Thank you for the opportunity to speak on such an important motion. In 1990 when I came here—you may inform me as to how long he was the primary industries minister. When did he finish? I believe that in 1990 he was still the primary industries minister. He came with a very, very good reputation with farmers in my electorate of McMillan at the time. In fact, he was highly regarded by farmers and by the institutions that surrounded the farmers, including the VFF and NFF. For a Labor minister, he had ingratiated himself by his personal knowledge of what it's like to be on a farm, growing up on a farm, living the farmers life. His determination, of course, to get himself an education meant that he worked all day and then worked into the night on his education. Quite a remarkable man.

I recently saw him in the dining room—I felt it was recently, but what's recently in my life! I saw John Kerin in the Parliament House dining room. I knew somebody else at the table, and I went up and spoke to them straightaway. John was sitting at the other side of the table. He said: 'Aren't you talking to me? I hypnotised chooks, remember?' He called me Russell—I wouldn't have thought he would remember me. Nothing had changed with the John Kerin that I knew as a minister then. I'm the only sitting member today that was here in 1990 to '93 through the tumultuous years of the fall of Hawke as Prime Minister and the rise of Keating becoming Prime Minister. Even Keating then promoted John, after being Treasurer, to a senior portfolio in the Keating government. So he was not only highly regarded by farmers; he was highly regarded by the community at large. And he was highly regarded by his parliamentary colleagues, who thought he was a bit quirky, with his sense of humour, but they had a high regard for him.

On his staff was a fellow named Gordon Gregory. Because my electorate of McMillan was basically rural, primary industries, from one end to the other, there were a number of issues that were extremely important to me and the farmers that I represented. My contact in John Kerin's office was Gordon Gregory. Gordon and I have had a great relationship ever since that time. I want to give you Gordon's personal reflections on John Kerin, which will be far better than anything I can add to what has already been said either here or at his commemoration ceremonies that I attended in Canberra a couple of weeks ago. Gordon Gregory said this:

Working on the Ministerial staff of John Kerin was a privilege. He rarely gave orders to his staffers. Instead, he annotated Ministerial documents, uttered brief comments and requests, and made known his preferences for next-stage documents through what he heard and said in the thousands of meetings he held.

The Departments for which he was responsible, whether Primary Industries, Primary Industries and Energy, the Treasury, Transport and Communications or Trade and Overseas Development, all served him well. Their officers knew him; they grew to like him. They soon learned to trust him and to respect his working ways. Departmental officers were very rarely kept waiting for the return of Ministerial documents from his office: he liked to get through the paperwork.

Part of the duty of his Ministerial staffers was to sustain and augment this mutual respect between Minister and public service. The staffer's capacity to hide behind the Minister's wishes was treated with respect when dealing with departmental staff.

John Kerin undertook an enormous amount of official travel, mainly in Australia but also overseas as required. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of places, people and industries in regional and remote areas. In his travels he was always willing to do the work necessary for success, always cheerful. And he took those rural insights to the metropolitan places to which he went. He was a living bridge between the people of rural industries and 'members of the Board'.

As a member of his staff, one's hope was to ensure that he was informed of all relevant information needed to make a decision in the national interest. He was pleased to be an economist and proud to have become Australia's number one in that profession. But he had no pleasure in knowing that so many members of the profession he joined had blind faith in small government and market forces.

For John Kerin the national interest was something real—almost tangible—albeit complex in terms of the factors determining what it looked like. When faced with hard decisions the national interest was in the room, openly discussed, which meant seeing through the self-interest of powerful people and vested interests.

He did not trust privatisation, deregulation and the outsourcing of public services. He was always opposed to the trickle-down benefits of tax cuts.

By staying on his staff for over seven years I was able to provide him with some continuity. This was especially useful towards the end when the Ministerial road became bumpier. A Minister with a new portfolio has plenty to worry about without the challenge of finding suitable staff.

When working with him almost everyone with whom I came into contact had more technical nous than me, more intellectual capacity, and more commercial experience.

But they did not have the Ministerial confidence and trust given to loyal retainer.

I think I was able to provide what John Kerin needed on the personal (and personable) front—as a friend who was always around but did not interfere nor expect too much. I helped to satisfy his need for friendship and civility in his workplace. And it helped that there was a shared sense of empathy and fairness for those affected by decisions made.

The high-level technical support required by a Minister in economics, production, commerce, management and governance could be provided by others who would come and go.

In a well-functioning Minister's office there also needs to be someone with sufficient patience to deal with people who will not go away: those bearing gifts, the eccentric and the confused. I was that person who, by dealing in a kindly fashion with such 'enthusiasts', could help maintain the good reputation of the Minister.

I hope I wasn't one of those people at the time! He continued:

Just once in my seven years with him John gave me a very direct order. We were in the Russian Far East talking about trade relationships. Kerin was being welcomed by means of a rollicking dinner which, if I recall correctly, featured vodka and dancing a traditional late-night-folk variety.

Towards the end of the evening some of the local staff sang a Russian song in Kerin's honour. He and June were momentarily panicked: how could we possibly reciprocate and maintain our delegation's good face? He ordered me to sing Travelling down the Castlereagh—which I did.

Like everything else one did with John Kerin, it was professionally appropriate for its time and place but it was also fun. Given his absolute detestation of war, drinking and dancing in the Russian Far East would now seem both unlikely and inappropriate. But as a self-confessed humanist by nature, John Kerin would, I'm sure, ask us to distinguish between the Russian people on the one hand and their leaders on the other.

Rest in peace John.

I would say to you that in all my years in this House—and there have been a number—John Kerin, amongst other very capable ministers in the Hawke government, was a man to be admired. He was a decent man. He was an honest man. He always spoke directly to the issue that you had come to him with. He paid due respect to every parliamentarian, whatever their status in the parliament was and whatever the issues that came before him were.

I say: vale, John Kerin. Here lies a good man. I say to his family and all those that gathered for his funeral: we buried a good man—a man of standing, a man of ability, a man of talent. There are so few John Kerins that come to this place. He was the agricultural minister from 1983 to 1991. How gracious it was that I was able to spend time in this parliament when he was at his peak. Vale, John Kerin.

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