Jun 3, 2015

Condolence motion – Hon. Leslie Royston Johnson, AM

Federation Chamber 

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (11:54): I rise to pay tribute to the late Les Johnson, who passed away last week. Les Johnson was a minister in the Whitlam Labor government. I knew Les and his family, and I last saw him at Tom Uren’s funeral earlier this year. Like many in the broader Labor family, there was a connection between my family and Les’s family. Les’s daughter Jenny worked for my wife, Carmel Tebbutt, when she was a minister in the New South Wales Labor government. Carmel will be at the state funeral service that is being held today.

The grand old Labor giants of the former Whitlam government era are leaving us. Gough, Tom, Kep Enderby, Arthur Gietzelt and others have departed in recent times. They were men—and they were all men—who were committed to public service. Like many in the Labor Party of that era, Les Johnson was an anti-Vietnam War campaigner, joining his friends like Tom Uren and Arthur Gietzelt in that campaign.

Les was the member for Hughes from 1955 right through to 1983, with a short break in between when he was defeated for one term by Don Dobie, who went on to be, at a later time, the member for Cook. Les Johnson, indeed, is one of the people who made the Sutherland Shire such an attractive place to live. Les—along with the likes of Arthur Gietzelt as the shire president and Maurie Keane as his local state member—was a great advocate for the local community. They took the beauty that is there in the Sutherland Shire—with those magnificent beaches, the magnificent bays and, of course, located on the edge of the Royal National Park—and ensured that, for families growing up in the shire, such as my wife’s, it was a fantastic place to raise a family.

Les Johnson deserves enormous respect and credit for standing up as a local member first and foremost. Les was much more than that. Les had a vision for the nation. On many issues, Les was way ahead of the general public opinion. One of those issues was the area of Aboriginal affairs. Les Johnson not only went on to become the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, and was minister when Gough Whitlam returned the land of the Gurindji people in 1975 by pouring that red dirt into Vincent Lingiari’s hands; he also did things very much on the local level as well. Les would hold fundraising events in his own home to raise funds to set up the Kirinari Hostel for Aboriginal high school boys. He was someone who would do things at that grassroots level without any fuss, without seeking any credit, just to make a real difference to people’s lives. Les Johnson understood the importance of education as that generation did, providing that opportunity for people, no matter how disadvantaged their background, to do the best that they could in life.

Les Johnson was the Mnister for Housing in 1972 when the Whitlam government came into office and then the Minister for Works. These ministries were combined when he became the Minister for Housing and Construction. Together, the work that Les Johnson did, along with Tom Uren, with Gough Whitlam’s leadership, transformed the role of the national government in cities. Les Johnson understood that a national government that was not engaged in our cities was not one that truly represented the nation that is Australia. In terms of the work he did, that is a lasting legacy of which his family continues to be proud. When Labor lost government in 1975, he went on to be the opposition whip. Les was a character. You need to be a bit of a character to be in that job of corralling the disparate forces in our political parties. Les Johnson performed that role admirably.

After leaving parliament in 1984, he was made the High Commissioner to New Zealand—an appointment that received the overwhelming support of the parliament. Whatever their ideological persuasion, people who came into contact with Les knew him as a good bloke and a great Australian. In 1990 he was made a member of the Order of Australia for his public service, particularly for his service to the Aboriginal community.

When Les retired in 1983, I went down and worked on the campaign for his replacement in the seat of Hughes, Robert Tickner. One of the things that struck me about that campaign was very much that Robert Tickner promised to work with the same dedication and commitment as Les Johnson. People knew exactly what that meant. Of course, Robert Tickner himself went on to have a distinguished career in the parliament as well.

In his personal life, Les was married to Gladys, known as ‘Peg’. They had three children—Grant, Sally and Jenny, who is well known to me. Unfortunately, their second child, Sally, died from breast cancer in 1988. Peg passed away in 2002, and Les later married Marion Sharkey. So I pass on my condolences to Marion and to Les’s surviving children, Grant and Jenny. May he rest in peace.