Nov 25, 2019

Condolences – Hon. Benjamin Charles Humphreys, AM – Monday, 25 November 2019

Mr ALBANESE (GrayndlerLeader of the Opposition) (14:05): I also rise to pay tribute to Ben Humphreys and I thank the Prime Minister for his warm and generous words. Ben Humphreys was not the first person to have slight misconceptions about the parliament from afar but, when it came to giving a description of being disabused of those notions, few have been so deft. In his last speech in this place, Ben rose to ‘the commanding heights of hindsight’ and looked back to the dawn of his political career. He said this:

When I came to the parliament I had never been to Canberra before, never been to Parliament House, and I thought everything was rosy in the rose garden down there with all these great members of the Labor Party being as one—

then, right on the beat, he rolled into the punch line—

and my baptism of fire was my first caucus meeting.

If anyone knew about baptisms of fire it was indeed Ben Humphries. His first speech to parliament in 1978, as the new member for Griffith, contained more than a bit of heat. Here’s one example of Ben releasing the handbrake. He said:

My electorate is one of the first to feel the chill of a government which puts social justice at the tail end of its priorities—a government whose harsh policies are actually fermenting social disorder, a government which directs its public servants in the welfare area to stick to the letter of the law and to throw compassion and decency to the wind.

From that beginning Ben Humphries grew to be respected across all of the parliament, regardless of the political differences which may have been there.

He was a proud son of Brisbane. He did his national service with the Royal Australian Navy and eventually became a reservist. He worked as a mechanic and auto engineer and even served as branch secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering Union. He ran a business and spent so much time criss-crossing Queensland as a salesman that he became known as the bushman’s friend. Once he was here in parliament he began a multitude of educations as he served first under Bill Hayden and then Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. He quickly learned roaming slang from Mick Young and, along the way, he learned how to navigate the sometimes conflicting calls on his loyalty. As he put it:

Once I had made up my mind, I was always a loyal person. I never ratted. I always stuck in there. It was not easy to do at times, I can assure you.

If there were any gaps in Ben’s knowledge about that part of the human condition, they were filled when he served as opposition deputy whip and government whip after Labor’s victory in 1983.

But it was in Veterans’ Affairs that I first met Ben—when as a young man I made a representation on behalf of another veteran, Tom Uren, for whom I worked in this place—and it’s where Ben found his forte. Serving from 1987 to 1993, Ben remains our second-longest-serving Veterans’ Affairs minister. In him, our veterans had a tireless and devoted advocate. A career pinnacle was when he travelled with our frailest diggers to Gallipoli for the 75th anniversary of Anzac Day. He described it as ‘not a journey but a pilgrimage’ and he was indeed very affected by that visit.

By his own admission, Ben stayed in this place a little longer than he planned to. He wanted to hang on to Griffith until a promising candidate by the name of Kevin Rudd was ready to run for the seat. He retired at the 1996 election, so in the short-term that didn’t end up as Ben wanted it to. Fittingly, Ben was recognised in the Australia Day honours in 2000. In his recent tribute to his predecessor, Kevin Rudd said:

There was a decency and authenticity to Benny that was rare in political life.

In Ben’s own words, he was a fiercely and unashamedly proud Australian. To his widow, Beryl, to his children and to his grandchildren: you are in the hearts of all of us, not just in the Labor family but the great family of all who have served their nation in this place. We give our thanks to Ben. May he rest in peace.