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John Gorton: Condolence Speech by Simon Crean

This is the text of the speech by the Leader of the Opposition, Simon Crean, on the Condolence Motion for the late Sir John Gorton in the House of Representatives.

  • Listen to Crean’s speech (6m)

Speech by Opposition Leader Simon Crean on the Condolence Motion for Sir John Gorton.

GortonI support the motion moved by the Prime Minister and on behalf of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party I want to express our deep condolences on the death of Sir John Gorton. He was a great Australian.

He was a man who loved his country deeply, and served the nation magnificently in both peace and war.

Sir John did not have the benefit of a close family upbringing. In fact his background made him tough, it made him independent and it also made him determined to enjoy life. He did it his way.

Sir John Gorton excelled in sports and showed great courage in war.

Last Friday we buried the last Gallipoli ANZAC, Alec Campbell and on the weekend the oldest of the First World War veterans also died.

The life of Sir John Gorton reminds us that the Great War – the War that was to end all wars – did not live up to that promise, but was followed only a generation later by a second and more terrible conflict.

The death of Sir John also reminds us that the old soldiers of that generation are now starting to fade away.

Sir John fought with great bravery in the defence of this nation in Britain, in Malaya and in Papua New Guinea, and he suffered terrible injuries when his Hurricane fighter crashed during the defence of Singapore.

He then served his nation in the Federal Parliament for 26 years, most notably as Government Leader in the Senate and Minister for Education and Science, culminating in his elevation to Prime Minister in 1968.

He was a surprise Prime Minister. Most, including Paul Hasluck, thought that Hasluck would win. Those circumstances followed the tragic drowning of Harold Holt in 1967. Billy McMahon and John McEwen had essentially cancelled each other out.

It shows the part that luck can play in politics. It also shows that the contender considered most likely doesn’t always win.

Obviously we on this side of the House like to think of Gough Whitlam as the man who modernized Australia after the conservative Menzies years.

But Gough Whitlam himself paid tribute to Sir John’s trailblazing legacy. When Sir John congratulated Gough Whitlam after his win in 1972, Gough replied:

“I shall try to advance some of the causes which you were the first prime minister to identify.”

Sir John later repaid the compliment by advocating a vote for Labor after Whitlam’s dismissal in 1975.

While John Gorton anticipated some of the directions in which Gough Whitlam was to take Australia, he, like all of us, was a man of his times.

He was radical on many issues and he took his party further than ever before in a reforming direction.

He was a nationalist and he was a centraliser. He believed in the Federal Parliament and the Commonwealth when many of his colleagues wanted more power for the states.

He refused to share income-taxing powers with state parliaments.

He was farsighted enough to help protect the Great Barrier Reef from mineral exploration and mining.

He helped establish the Australian Industry Development Corporation and he helped the revival of the Australian film industry by establishing the Australian Film and Television School and the Arts Council.

He helped launch the territory of Papua New Guinea on the road to self-government and to full independence and when it came to foreign affairs he would not go all the way with LBJ – only part of the way – refusing to commit further troops to Vietnam.

He supported equal pay for equal work.

But, as the Prime Minister has noted, he was a conservative on other issues.

He was opposed to the watering down of the White Australia Policy.

He was opposed to Aboriginal land rights.

And he continued the policy of assimilation of Indigenous Australians at a time when Aboriginal self-determination was gaining widespread support.

In many ways he was not the first of the new nationalists but the last of the old. Closer perhaps to Chifley than to Whitlam.

But for the post-war generation he was a breath of fresh air.

Sir John’s death robs the nation of a man whose devotion to Australia was unquestioned and I extend my deepest sympathies to Sir John’s widow, Nancy, sons Michael and Robin and his daughter Johanna.

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