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Retirement of David Elder, Clerk of the House

Last updated on December 3, 2023

These are remarks to the House of Representatives on the retirement of the Clerk of the House, David Elder.

Elder
David Elder, Clerk of the House of Representatives

On the Clerk’s final day at the table, remarks in tribute were made by Speaker Tony Smith, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, Government Leader of the House Christian Porter, and Manager of Opposition Business Tony Burke.

Listen to the tributes (19m):

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Hansard transcript of remarks to the House of Representatives on the retirement of the Clerk, David Elder.

The SPEAKER (15:14): Very soon I will call the Prime Minister to move a motion to record the House’s appreciation for the service of its Clerk, David Elder. As I mentioned a few sitting days back, everyone is aware of David’s retirement, but today is his last day here at the table. We, of course, all want to recognise that incredible service.

I will just make a few brief remarks at a personal level. David, I met you a long time ago—in fact, 29 years ago—just after the 1990 election when I came to work in this building. After my election in 2001 I got to know you a little better, and over the years I have got to know you very well, particularly when you were the Deputy Clerk, with my role in committees. I was very, very fortunate that you were the Clerk when I became the Speaker—I had a huge learning curve—and I’ve been very fortunate every day since; I really have. Your encyclopaedic mind is matched by first-class judgement and also a first-class temperament. And, can I tell members, it is accompanied by a wicked sense of humour; it really is!

David, as we recognise your last day here in the House, we reflect on your incredible public service and your service to this House of Representatives. In your 38 years, beginning in 1981, you have seen nine different prime ministers, 14 different speakers and 17 leaders of the opposition. But, as you know, David—and this might surprise members—you are only the 16th Clerk of the House of Representatives since Federation. In so many ways the wider public possibly don’t appreciate the role our clerks play as guardians of our democracy in giving frank and fearless advice to ensure the rules and conventions are upheld through the decades, and David has certainly done that. You’ve been a great leader here in the House of Representatives. You’ve served your House and our nation with distinction.

David’s wife, Louise, and some of his family are with us today in the gallery. We wish you all the best, David. I’ll miss your friendship. I know you’ve got great plans for your retirement to spend time with your family, particularly with your grandchildren. We will miss you. We hope you’ll miss us! But we will miss you.

Mr MORRISON (Cook—Prime Minister and Minister for the Public Service) (15:18): I move:

That this House place on record its appreciation of the long and meritorious service to the Parliament by the Clerk of the House, Mr David Elder, and extend to him and his wife and family every wish for a healthy and happy retirement.

The Clerk is a very humble man. He has been a gentle reminder to all of us who have had the good grace to serve in this parliament during his tenure, whether here or down the road—and there are many who have had that opportunity; hundreds of members, if not over a thousand, whom he’s stewarded have come through this place—of the dignity and great honour it is to serve in this chamber. There are 151 members here, many of those for the first time, following the last election. All of us remember—I’m sure new members do, because it was only a few weeks ago for them, and I’m sure all of us do, whether it was 12 years ago, as it was for me, or much longer than that, as it was for the Leader of the Opposition, who was first elected back in 1996—the day when we first walked onto this carpet and how special a privilege it was for us.

We approach the parliament in the morning, and we look up at this atrium; you leave the chamber, you see the flag and you nod to the speaker—a reminder of our country, our history and our responsibility to it. It’s something that connects us all, despite our often very significant differences at a partisan or any other level. But we are united in this, and this House is united in showing its deep appreciation to the Clerk.

This place doesn’t just rely on the beliefs, the courage, the passion and the integrity of all of those who come here and the enthusiasms of all of us who have been elected; it also relies on the dignity and institution of this House—the impartiality, the judgement and the enthusiasm of those who serve this parliament, whether as Clerk, attendants, Serjeant-at-Arms or others. Our Clerk—the 16th Clerk of the House of Representatives—has worked, as the Speaker has just reminded us, in this building and the one down the road for 38 years. I’m pleased you’ve only had nine prime ministers, not 10!

Mr Albanese: Don’t speak too soon!

Mr MORRISON: It’s his last day, mate, so I can be confident of that!

But in keeping with the tradition of all those years, he has not spoken a word in this parliament in one of these microphones. You won’t find any word he’s said in the Hansard, really, in terms of offering commentary on bills or anything of that nature. Though he has been among us, he has not joined us in those debates, muttering interjections or any of those things, but for 38 years, he’s let his actions speak for him in the dignified way that he’s conducted himself—his judgement, his integrity, his demeanour. We have seen the true character of the Clerk through the very decent, honest man that he is. He reminds us that we are all—from the father of the House to the newest member—only temporary custodians of this institution in which we inhabit for a time.

So, can I say more informally to you, David: thank you for your service to our country and to this parliament. You have served it with tender love and devotion, because that has been your passion and your service, and we thank you. We thank you for your dedication. We wish a very happy and long retirement to you, Louise and your family, who have earned, I have no doubt, this retirement with you that you can share with them. So on behalf of the government, I want to extend our thanks and appreciation for everything you have done for us, for this parliament and for our democracy. May God bless you.

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler—Leader of the Opposition) (15:23): I join with the Prime Minister in supporting this resolution acknowledging David Elder’s quite extraordinary contribution as a public servant. The key is that second word—servant. It is an honourable profession and we, in Labor, honour you as one of the best. You’ve spent 41 years in the service of the Commonwealth, 38 of which were in the Department of the House of Representatives. You’ve been the Serjeant-at-Arms twice, Deputy Clerk and, of course, Clerk since 2014. On a personal level, I’ve had a fair bit to do with you as the Leader of the House and as the Manager of Opposition Business, before my current role.

Just like your immediate predecessor—and unlike the overwhelming majority of the 16 clerks of this House—you’ve known what it was like to have that role in a minority parliament for a brief period of time. That changes the dynamic in this place, and it means that your role is elevated in importance by many multiples. Many of us on both sides over many years have benefited from your advice. You deal with us calmly, in a considered way. You are always courteous, always impartial and—perhaps most remarkably, and I reflect on myself, on the Prime Minister and on most of us, I think!—always patient, which does take a fair bit of character from you.

One of your roles is to edit Practice and this is your work—the seventh edition. It reminds us that the office of Clerk has its origins in the 13th century. And I say to new members, read Practice. It will serve you well if you do because one of the things it outlines is where the tradition of the Clerk reading bills—first readings, second readings et cetera—comes from. It’s because of literacy levels. Many members literally couldn’t read the documents that were before them, and, in order to save embarrassment, this tradition came about of the Clerk playing that role. And Practice outlines that great history and how our democracy has evolved.

Your life as well extends to service outside of this place. I wasn’t aware until we did a bit of research that, for two decades, you’ve been involved in the Model United Nations Assembly for senior high-school students that is held in the Old Parliament House.

We thank you for your dedicated service to this parliament and the nation. We wish you and Louise and all of your family all the best for the future.

Mr PORTER (Pearce—Attorney-General, Minister for Industrial Relations and Leader of the House) (15:26): As Leader of the House, it’s a great delight to speak to the motion. As has been noted, David Elder has devoted essentially his entire working life—38 years—to this parliament. To give all of the members present a sense of the scale and depth of this commitment to our Public Service, by my rough calculations, 38 years means that David has spent 1.7 per cent of his working life listening to Philip Ruddock’s valedictory speech.

I hope I can add a celebratory tone to this motion, by noting that, since 1981, David must have seen political slogans pass by him with the repetition of scenes, like those outside HG Wells’s time machine. Since 1981, David has seen off new leadership, proven leadership, and the very catchy 1996 slogan of just plain old leadership. He has seen this parliament choose real change, go for growth, and strive for hope, reward and opportunity. He knows when Australia deserves better and when we’re heading in the right direction, and he’s seen a new way for Australia’s future for all of us. He knows about moving forward, not standing still, standing up, standing up for Australia, standing up for your family and standing up for real action, and he’s seen good government starting now. He is well-schooled in easing the squeeze, keeping Australia safe, keeping Australia in safe hands and building Australia’s future.

To end your very significant service as you have, David, means that you’re a very significant individual part of the office of the Clerk of the Commonwealth parliament. That, as the Leader of the Opposition has noted, is a wonderful history, and if Marvel were to do an origin story for parliament itself, then the Clerk would feature in the very earliest scenes. The Leader of the Opposition has noted those early scenes, but some people date the first official appointment of a Clerk to 1863, and some historians point to that as the actual origins of modern parliament. So the role of the Clerk has been indissolubly important to parliament and you have proven yourself individually to be indissolubly important to this parliament.

I might just add, finally, that you’ve also made a very significant contribution to the future of our region, in a very subtle way. Historians writing in the golden age of parliamentary statute express that the very essence of English history might be conceived of as the birth and evolution of the constitutional form, and above all, parliament. I think it’s very clear today that the history of parliaments and of democracies are inseparable, but that that history has not yet been finished in its writing. Right now, there are younger and smaller but critically important parliaments in our region and beyond that are evolving and learning and underpinning stronger democracies, and you have made a very significant quiet contribution to those parliaments, which might be more important than all foreign policy contributions of any government from either side. Thank you for your service.

Mr BURKE (Watson—Manager of Opposition Business) (15:28): As Manager of Opposition Business, I want to join in the comments of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the House, except when the Leader of the Opposition encouraged government members to read Practice. We’re in a much stronger position if they don’t.

Throughout most of my time as Manager of Opposition Business, David Elder has been the Clerk of the parliament. It’s very telling: the truth of that word ‘Elder’. It’s very much earned in terms of the wisdom that David has brought to the role.

In relation to what the Leader of the Opposition said about when you have a minority parliament, what is really significant is the extent to which the Clerk, and the respect for the Clerk from everybody in the room, becomes basically the linchpin of our democracy, because both sides, whatever we will argue and quibble with on different rulings, know that whoever’s in the Speaker’s chair is relying very heavily on the advice of the Clerk, and that means there is a consistency in our democracy. It also means the Clerk’s in a different position to anyone else in the room, in the sense that the rest of us get to enjoy the fact that we pursue what we want to have happen, whereas the Clerk, who personally always wants order, has to be in a position to answer the question: what do the standing orders allow? There was one Thursday early in the last term when there were different questions that I was asking the Clerk in the early afternoon. David wasn’t that happy with the questions I was asking but still gave very honest answers, which resulted in an evening that we thought was wonderful but that David doesn’t view as the best in his career. But the professionalism of that was extraordinary—his professionalism in saying, ‘Here’s the precedent; here are the rules,’ and not pursuing what he might want to have happen but pursuing the dignity of the House and the consistency of the rules of the House.

For that principle to now be something that David has helped provide support for, particularly in nations in the Pacific, goes to the heart of the role that Australia can play. It would be difficult to think of a time in our history when it was more important for us that governance in the Pacific be functioning well. In that way, as the Leader of the House said, you have served our nation way beyond the specifics of your role in the parliament. We really do thank you and wish you well.

The SPEAKER (15:31): I’ve got a note from the Clerk. You just saw the Clerk hand me a note: ‘Can I thank you, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Leader of the House and the Manager of Opposition Business for the very kind words about me. I wish members and the House all the best for the future. David.’

Just before I put the motion, I think it would be appropriate that the House do as it did with the retirement of the last Clerk several years ago, and that is that I’ll put the motion and I think it’s appropriate that members signify their support by simply rising in their places. The question is that the motion moved by the Prime Minister be agreed to.

Question agreed to, honourable members standing in their places.

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