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Stephen Smith Announces His Retirement From Parliament

The Minister for Defence, Stephen Smith, has become the latest minister to announce his retirement.

Smith made his announcement at the end of Question Time today. He will continue as Foreign Minister until the election but will not contest his Western Australian electorate of Perth.


He has been the member for Perth since 1993 and has served in seven parliaments.

Smith was Foreign Minister following the election of the Rudd government in 2007. He relinquished the position to Rudd after the 2010 election and has been Defence Minister ever since.

Smith is a former State Secretary of the Western Australian Labor Party. In conjunction with Wayne Swan and Stephen Conroy, he was once nicknamed a “rooster” by Mark Latham.

Seven ministers have now departed the government as a result of last night’s deposing of Julia Gillard. They are Smith, Gillard, Wayne Swan, Craig Emerson, Stephen Conroy, Peter Garrett and Joe Ludwig.

  • Listen to Smith’s valedictory speech with responses from Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott (24m)
  • Watch Smith (13m)

Hansard transcript of Stephen Smith’s valedictory speech to the House of Representatives.


Mr STEPHEN SMITH (Perth—Minister for Defence and Deputy Leader of the House) (14:59): Earlier today I had a discussion with the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister was gracious enough to indicate to me that he would like me to continue to serve in the cabinet as Minister for Defence. I enthusiastically accepted that but advised the Prime Minister that I am not proposing to recontest the seat of Perth at the forthcoming election. Accordingly, I advised the Deputy Prime Minister, the national secretary of the Australian Labor Party and the state secretary of the Australian Labor Party of that before question time.

This speech is in the nature of an indulgence and valedictory speech, but I will do my best to keep it closer to an indulgence than a valedictory. I have had the great honour of being the member for Perth since 1993. Can I, firstly, thank the people of Perth for continuing to place their confidence and trust in me.

If you were to ask me: ‘Stephen, what is the single, central reason why you are not proposing to recontest?’ I would say, ‘Twenty years is a long time for any member of parliament and six years is a long time on the executive.’ But this may be something that only Western Australians can understand: I cannot, in all good conscience, say to the people of Perth that I can continue—win, lose or draw at the next election—for another three years. Twenty years I can do; 23 years I can’t. So I have made that decision. I have been thinking about this matter for some considerable time, but other events have not allowed me to have the clarity of thought which I have had in the last couple of days, as other members have.

I thank the House for the way in which it has dealt with me over the years—sometimes harshly, most times benevolently. Can I also say that I am very grateful to two prime ministers: Prime Minister Rudd and former Prime Minister Gillard, for the opportunity that they have given me to serve in the cabinet and on the National Security Committee of Cabinet, both as foreign minister and as defence minister.

For a long period of time—too long—I was a shadow minister, but my last portfolio was as shadow minister for education in 2006-07. I was expecting to be the Minister for Education. I am probably the only Minister for Foreign Affairs, who, for the first three days, was disappointed he was not Minister for Education. But I became accustomed to that. When I was asked which other portfolio I might like to serve in I chose defence because it kept me in the national security arena, something I had not, frankly, focused on as a opposition shadow minister. I have had the good fortune of being involved in protecting, securing and maintaining the national security interests of the Commonwealth for nearly six years.

I do not want to give a lengthy list, but I think the Labor government has done some good things in those times: the work that we did to encourage the United States to join the East Asia Summit; the work we did to encourage India to enhance its relationship with Australia; and the work we did with Africa to enhance both our strategic and economic relationships. As Minister for Defence, despite some critiques to the contrary, I am very pleased with the strategic elegance of the 2013 Defence White Paper. Can I say I am very proud of what I have sought to do, together with the leadership of the Defence Force, with regard to Defence culture and treatment of women.

I came to this place following upon some long years as a Labor Party supporter and activist. I joined the party in 1975. I became the principal private secretary to the Attorney-General of Western Australia, Joe Berinson, in 1983. He was one of my predecessors as the member for Perth. I then became state secretary of the Western Australian branch of the Labor Party. Because I had to wait for my good mate Ric Charlesworth, known as Grumpy to his two mates—the only two he has; he has heard that before—to decide that he wanted to do other things before I could seek to become the member for Perth, I became the WA state secretary, which was a very good training ground for serious public and political activity.

Paul Keating asked me to come and serve on his staff, which I did firstly when he was Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister and then when he was Prime Minister. Paul is a one-off. So that collective experience came to me as the member for Perth when I was elected in 1993. Ric Charlesworth handed over the seat to me in good order. He was my campaign director. I let the local Liberal Party in Perth know that I will be the campaign director for the re-election of the Labor Party in Perth and you should fear that more than you fear me as a candidate!

Can I thank some of my colleagues. It is not possible to mention all of the people I want to thank. In a long period in the parliament, particularly when, regrettably, two-thirds has been in opposition and only one-third has been in government, there are many issues you go through where relationships are forged through fire. I just want to mention a couple, not necessarily in any order. I am great mates with Albo. I said to him the other day, ‘Albo, if you become Deputy Prime Minister, I’ll be able to call you both leader and deputy at the same time and be right,’ because, for six years, I have been Albo’s deputy as Deputy Leader of the House. We have known each other for a long time, he from the Left, I from the Right. But we are mainstream Labor and it has been one of the great joys of my life to be not just a colleague of Albo’s but a close personal friend and to work with him. I think he as Leader of the House in this parliament has been a hero of the Labor movement.

Jenny Mack. I sit next to Jenny Macklin in the ERC and I have always followed, with Jenny, my mother’s adage that there is always someone worse off than you and your job in life is to give someone a helping hand. I have never let her down when it comes to an ERC submission about those people who do need a helping hand. I cannot look at her; she will make me cry. That relationship was also forged through a long period in opposition.

My mate Stephen Conroy in the Senate is misunderstood by many. Conroy is the bravest member of the parliament that I know. He has raw courage, raw integrity and raw decency and will not deviate from what he believes in principle because it might have adverse consequences for himself.


Finally in this round—there are others but I will get to the 17-minute mark if I am not careful—is my great friend the member for Lilley. We became state secretaries together; we came into this House together; we became ministers together. I always thought that Wayne was the person, when we were in opposition and in government, who most understood the need for a Labor Party and a Labor government to represent people who were of low or middle incomes who looked to the Labor Party and the trade union movement as the institutions in Australian society which had an obligation to look after them. No-one, in my view, crystallised that understanding or that commitment better than Wayne. I thought in the course of our time in opposition that, both as family and community services shadow and as shadow Treasurer, he did more than any other shadow minister to put us in a position to win when we did in 2007 through his policy and political attack upon the Howard government and its ministers.

There are a number of other people who have come into this place in later years for whom I have the highest regard and warm affection. I am proposing to volunteer my gratuitous private advice to them as they continue in the parliament and in senior positions in the party.

Because I am remaining as defence minister for a period, I will have the opportunity to formally thank those people I have worked with in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and in the Australian Defence Force and the Defence organisation. I have had the great privilege of representing our country overseas. I have always tried to do that in an appropriate and civilised and dignified manner. I have always been impressed with the quality of the senior civil servants and uniformed officials we have in those two departments. It has been a great honour to work with them. As Minister for Defence with two CDFs—Angus Houston and David Hurley—I have as an individual defence minister seen on my watch more deaths than any other Australian defence minister since Vietnam. It is at those moments when you look into the Chief’s eyes you see the integrity, the decency, the commitment of those two individuals. They are both Australians of whom we can be proud.

I will make other remarks about the DFAT and Defence officials that I have worked with, but can I say now that I have had the opportunity of working closely with quality, first-class Australian public servants: Michael L’Estrange, Dennis Richardson, both at Defence and DFAT, and Gillian Bird, who acted as Secretary of DFAT, together with Ian Watt and Duncan Lewis in Defence. Can I say of Dennis Richardson that, when the Hawke-Keating challenge was on, he and I were the ones behind the scenes who ensured that life went on in a civilised way for those people who were not combatants. Dennis is one of the all-time great Australian civil servants; any and every Australian government is well served by his frank and fearless advice—which it is—in the finest and truest traditions.

Can I thank the House. Can I thank the clerks. Can I thank the attendants and the cleaners. When I turned up for my first day of work on a Monday morning when I was on Paul’s staff, I got in at about half past seven, quarter to eight, and the cleaners were there. They said: ‘Oh, no, darling, it’s much too early for them! You’ll have to wait. Go down to Aussie’s and have a cup of coffee.’ I have always been well treated by the cleaners in the early hours of the morning and the late hours of the night as I wander through, having done my paperwork.

Because this is a retirement from the parliament, come the election, can I focus on a couple of things so far as federal Perth is concerned. I will not mention all of my electorate staff but members know how valuable and essential they are to us. I just want to mention one. Anne Keane has been on my staff for all of my time as the member for Perth. She was also on Ric Charlesworth’s staff for almost all of Ric’s time as the member for Perth. He had 10 years, I have had 20. Having Ric for 10 years is probably the equivalent of having me for 20! But I make this point: I am the longest serving Labor federal member for Perth but Anne is the person who, since Federation, has made the longest continuous contribution for federal Labor in federal Perth. She has been a heroine. I have been blessed, for her loyalty and for the work that she has done for me.

Ms Macklin interjecting—

Mr STEPHEN SMITH: If I think of Jenny Macklin I will dissemble. Let me conclude by saying that when I came into this place back in 1993, Jane and Hugo were in the house and Maddie was on the way. Hugo is now 21. Maddie is now 19—or, as I often say because they are a pigeon pair, Hugo is 21 going on 19 and Maddie is 19 going on 21. Jane has been long-suffering. Public life, of its very nature, as a participant is inherently selfish so far as our families are concerned, so the burden falls on the spouse and the children. In one sense I have been blessed because my children have never known anything else, so for them it is standard fare. But for Jane, as it is for other spouses, from time to time it has had its moments. After 20 years, if it is a choice between spending three more years here to make it 23 or the next few years doing whatever comes along in Perth then, as those people whom I have taken to it would know—Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton and a few others—I very much enjoy and love living in Perth. I am very much looking forward to doing that and continuing to help federal Labor in whatever capacity, not just in Perth but in Western Australian generally. I thank the House.


Mr RUDD (Griffith—Prime Minister) (15:13): On indulgence: I think all members of this place would agree that what we have just heard has been an elegant and humane conclusion for an extraordinary public career in the Australian parliament and we are going to be poorer for your absence, as an institution and not just as an Australian Labor Party. Smithy is one of the few folks to have served since the Second World War as both defence and foreign minister; there are not many of them, and it actually says something about the professionalism of the minister that they can extend themselves across these two critical institutions of state which lie at the heart of our national security arrangements.

What do you say about Smithy? He is disciplined, organised and methodical, and the best joke in the cabinet, which I will now publicly reveal, is about when you really want to get under his skin. He has this impeccably organised set of papers which are basically organised like this, as I show you, and they are not a centimetre out of place. So when he gets up and goes out of the room to get a sandwich or a drink, the thing you do is just twist them slightly and when he comes back his entire visual universe is turned on its head. True?

Government members: True!

Mr RUDD: That’s right. So, Smithy, we love you for that because you are even more anally retentive than I am.

The other thing I would say about Smithy’s career is we know him to be disciplined, highly professional, unflappable. Prior to when the good people of Australia voted us in, in 2007, we were having a discussion about portfolios and I said to him, ‘Mate, how about you lend yourself to the Foreign Affairs portfolio?’ That is the first time I have seen the universally unflappable Stephen Smith look like a stunned mullet. Smithy, it was the first occasion when you looked as if you did not see it coming.

Can I say, having served Australia as a foreign minister myself, he has served Australia well. What he has just referred to with our critical relationships in the region is absolutely true. Australia’s diplomatic relationships in East, South-East and South Asia are in their best state ever, and that is a consequence of the diplomacy of ministers like Stephen Smith, who has made a singular contribution. Let me give you one example; he referred to it briefly. One of the major foreign policy achievements in the last several years has been the invitation from ASEAN to the United States to become a full member of the East-Asian Summit and to persuade our dear American friends to accept that invitation once it had been extended—talk about a double treat! The person who did a large amount of the diplomatic legwork to make that happen was one Stephen Smith. It is important because it is the first time the United States is a full member of a regional institution with an open political, security and economic agenda.

I commend also his role as Minister for Defence. He has made an extraordinary contribution. Around the world—this is when I run into foreign ministers and when I have run into others engaged in the international policy debate—he is a figure who is universally respected. He is calm, he is utterly professional and he honours his word.

As for the Labor Party, he outlined his career in the Labor Party going back to 1975, almost the Mesolithic period for some of us who have been in this business of politics. That is an extraordinarily long service to the party, the movement, and the values which we on this side of the House serve. He has been a Labor warrior first-class, and the party deserves to extend to him a great vote of thanks.

I would say this finally to all members who come to this place from Western Australia, and I think of the member for Curtin—and, on our side of the House, the member for Brand and the member for Fremantle—and the senators: this is an extraordinary sentence which you all endure. I can only say that your commitment to the nation, whichever side of the political divide we fall on, is doubly great because you spend so much of your lives on that plane. So, Smithy, I understand full well how much your family have finally put their foot down, and I wish you and your family all the best on behalf of the Australian government.

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler—Deputy Prime Minister, Leader of the House, Minister for Infrastructure and Transport and Minister for Regional Development and Local Government) (15:18): On indulgence, can I say very briefly to my Deputy Leader of the House, my extraordinarily lifelong friend and comrade: Stephen, you have shown today what an adornment to the parliament you have been since the day you walked on to the floor of this chamber. You are a class act, and I wish you, Jane and all of your family all the best for the future.

Mr ABBOTT (Warringah—Leader of the Opposition) (15:19): On indulgence, on behalf of the coalition I extend our best wishes to the retiring member for Perth. May I say, on behalf of the coalition, that the Labor Party has lost today another significant son. It seems that there is something of a changing of the guard taking place amongst members opposite and I suspect that the Labor Party may be the poorer for it.

As all of us know, in this particular place there are opponents and there are opponents. I can say that the member for Perth has always been an honourable opponent: if he told you something you knew it was true and if you told him something you knew he would not misuse it. Regrettably, that cannot always be said for people in this place.

The heaviest thing this parliament does is commit our armed forces to combat, and there has been much combat in the tenure of the member for Perth as Minister for Defence. The hardest thing for anyone to deal with is casualties and, as the member for Perth has outlined to the House, he has had too many casualties to deal with, he has had too many bitter words, bitter experiences, to break to good people who did not deserve it. It is a very heavy burden to bear and the member for Perth, as minister, has discharged his responsibilities with decency and humanity, and we thank him for it. This parliament in which we serve is a vocation. It is not a career and it is not a job; it is a vocation, and the member for Perth has been an adornment to it.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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