Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
I join with the Prime Minister in honouring the life of Simon Findlay Crean.
I remember him as a giant of the Labor Party and a true gentleman.
As the Prime Minister pointed out, on the 23rd of January 2003, Simon, as the Leader of the Opposition, joined Prime Minister John Howard at Garden Island.
There, on the deck of HMAS Kanimbla, they farewelled our men and women in uniform bound for the Middle East.
Simon did not mince his words.
‘I don’t believe that you should be going,’ he said.
‘I don’t support the deployment of our troops in these circumstances. I do support our troops and always will.’
‘… my argument is with the Government, not with you.’
In that speech, Simon did what so many had failed to do in the Vietnam War:
He separated the politics from the people who serve their nation.
He voiced his dissent to war in Iraq while maintaining the respect and reverence deserved by our men and women in uniform.
As a student during the Vietnam War, Simon knew only too well the mistreatment levelled at many veterans.
He had friends who fought, who came back from the war, and who were treated by demonstrators as ‘pariahs’.
With Australia sending troops to a new war, Simon was determined to ensure the mistakes of a past war were not repeated.
On show in that speech was Crean’s candour, his courage, his conviction and compassion which defined his character throughout his life.
Such qualities were visible when Simon responded to John Howard in the House in subsequent weeks where he said, and I quote:
‘I do not disagree with the outcome you seek, but I disagree fundamentally with the way you seek to achieve it.’
And such qualities were visible when Simon welcomed George W. Bush to Parliament where he said to the US President:
‘The Australian perspective is bound to differ from time to time from the perspective of the United States. Of course, on occasions, friends do disagree – as we did, on this side, with you on the war in Iraq.’
Simon was right when he said the issue of Iraq was one which created a clear divergence between the two major political parties.
Yes, the Coalition disagreed with Labor’s view that Australia was simply or blindly following the United States.
But Simon articulated his party’s position with a certitude which was laudable.
It was true leadership.
In many ways, Simon Crean was destined to lead – to play a prominent role in public life.
As we’ve read in the newspapers, his father, Frank – a Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister – was a primary influence.
But there was also Frank’s colleagues who joined the Crean family for Sunday dinners.
For Simon, the treat was not just devouring his mother’s roasts, but imbibing the ideas of houseguests like Evatt and Calwell and Whitlam.
And with such an upbringing, it was no surprise that Simon joined the union movement. He joined it soon after finishing his studies in economics and law at Monash University.
As Phil Coorey noted, the university-educated Simon was one of the new breed of union officials.
But Simon was very much ‘Old Labor’ in his championing of the working class.
Indeed, The Age noted years later that his style was ‘reassuringly suburban’.
He, of course, rose through the union ranks.
From General Secretary of the Storeman and Packers Union, to Vice President of the ACTU, before finally serving as the ACTU’s President.
His time as a union official was marked by major achievements.
He helped to lay the foundations for universal superannuation, improve workplace safety, create new opportunities for skill and employment, and most importantly, negotiate the Prices and Incomes Accord with Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.
Years later, as the Minister for Employment, Education and Training, he would say:
‘Wasted and underutilised ambitions and aspirations tear at the social fabric of our society with many unemployed people vulnerable to crime and drug abuse, suicides and broken homes.’
In those words, we get a sense of the kind-heartedness which drove Simon Crean.
When Simon entered politics in 1990 – winning the seat of Hotham which he would hold for 23 years – Bob Hawke catapulted him straight into the ministry.
The press pointed out Crean’s parallels with Hawke.
‘… right-wing Labor man, union career, president of the ACTU, move to politics, fast track to the top.’
His contributions to public life through politics were many and varied.
He served dutifully and skilfully in numerous ministerial portfolios and in Cabinet.
He left his imprint on a plethora of policy areas, be it education and energy, trade and technology, science and social inclusion, workplace relations and our regions, and much more besides.
Simon stood up for Australian women as an advocate for paid maternity leave and job flexibility.
He didn’t like to lecture about family values, instead, he wanted policies which valued Australian families.
And in 2002, he asked:
‘… is it any wonder our birth rate is declining when Australians simply can’t afford to start a family or have that second or third child?’
It’s a question we’re still grappling with today.
Simon was elected the leader after the 2001 election loss – one of the lowest of low points for the Labor Party.
It was a difficult time for any leader with terrorism and border protection, among many other issues, front-and-centre of the national debate.
His speechwriter, Dennis Glover, said that Simon ‘was under more pressure than any Labor leader since John Curtin or Doc Evatt. Every day brought a new leak, another knife in the back, more ridicule’.
But for the man who would later admit he had ‘never been afraid to take on the hard jobs’, Simon was one to never shy away from hard debates or hard decisions.
Whether it was on the war in Iraq.
Or indeed in relation to the union movement.
As leader, Simon diluted union influence in party conferences by reducing their representation from 60 to 50 per cent.
He did it not because he wanted to put himself up in lights but because he thought it was in the best interest of his Party and a movement that he believed in wholeheartedly.
From that moment, of course, Simon’s Labor leadership was sadly on borrowed time.
For those of us who were here then, we can recall the very unforgiving and bitter period of politics which followed and plagued the Labor Party – a time when careers and friendships were wounded.
Under four Prime Ministers Simon Crean dutifully served.
But events would determine that he would not serve as Prime Minister.
He was the first Labor leader since 1916 to be deprived of an opportunity to contest an election.
Those memorable words of Macmillan – ‘Events, dear boy, events’ – rang true for Simon Crean.
If fate was different, and Simon had become the leader of our country, he would have surely been a great Labor Prime Minister.
In his maiden speech he said:
‘I am committed to placing the national interest first and developing, through consultation and cooperation, the most effective mechanisms for creating a more just and equitable society.’
Simon was known for his moderation and finding ways of reaching a middle ground.
He was a listener. He was decent. He was humble. He was honourable. He was moral.
He put the nation and his Party ahead of personal ambition.
It’s telling that his final days were spent working in our national interest to further our trade relations with the EU.
Simon’s sudden passing was a shock to us all – no more so than to his dear family.
Simon’s adoration for his family surpassed anything else in life – even his beloved North Melbourne Kangaroos where he served as the club’s No.1 ticket holder for many years.
Certainly, that club’s renowned ‘Shinboner Spirit’ shone through everything Simon did in public life.
He courageously tackled the difficult issues. He embraced the tough choices on the political football field.
On behalf of the Coalition, I offer my heartfelt condolences to Simon’s wife Carole, to daughters Sarah and Emma, to the wider Crean family, and to his many colleagues and family.
I had the pleasure to see Simon only a few months ago.
But I had a greater privilege to know and work alongside – as so many of us did – the true gentleman Simon Findlay Crean.
May he rest in peace.