Feb 6, 2014

Speech – Delivered at Memorial Service for the late Arthur Gietzelt


When it comes to politics, history tells no lies.

At the end of a long career, once you strip away the rhetoric, the greatest legacy of a parliamentarian lies in what he or she achieved for average Australians and whether the world is left a better for their political contribution.

The world is indeed a better place for Arthur Gietzelt’s contribution.

Arthur Gietzelt achieved a great deal.

For his community;

For the Labor Party and the cause of progressive politics;

And for his nation.

His story is one of passionate and principled conviction – of standing up for what he believed was right and of refusing to back down when the going got tough.

And while his work improved life for his contemporaries, much of his activism was way ahead of his time.

Arthur was a trailblazer who had the courage to pursue positions that, in his own era, were not always fashionable.

But Arthur was usually on the right side of history.

I was reminded of this just last week when I went to see the new film about the life of Nelson Mandela – perhaps the greatest political figure of my lifetime.

If you asked the young people in the audience, I’m sure many of them would think support for the cause of the African National Congress was a consensus position in the 1970s.

A given.

It wasn’t.

Many political figures were indifferent or even hostile to sanctions against the apartheid regime and were strident critics of Mandela and his comrades.

They opposed sanctions on the basis of their likely impact on commerce or international sporting fixtures.

Not Arthur.

As Mayor of the Sutherland Shire he led his colleagues to ban the involvement of racially selected competitors in surf life-saving contests on the Shire’s beautiful beaches.

This was years before sporting sanctions became widespread.

Faced with a battle for racial justice and human rights, Arthur did not flinch – not even after the bombing of his family home, one of the few terrorist acts that have taken place on Australian soil.

Supported by his wonderful wife and closest adviser Dawn and children Lee, Dale and Adam, Arthur always stood up to be counted.

Arthur brought the same passion to issues like gender equality, gay rights and protection of the environment.

This summer holidays, thousands of visitors flocked to Queensland’s Fraser Island, a fishing and holiday nirvana that is a critical part of that state’s tourism industry.

Most would have been unaware of Arthur’s link to this wonderful environmental asset.

In 1975 the Federal Labor Cabinet agreed to allow sand mining on the island.

Arthur wouldn’t cop that.

Backed by the union movement, including the ACTU’s Bob Hawke, Arthur led a backbench revolt.

Mining was banned.


Arthur would certainly agree with Mahatma Gandhi, who once said:

A ‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.

Speaking of trouble, Arthur saw plenty in his three decades at the helm of the Left faction of the NSW ALP.

If you spend a career in the NSW Left of the Australian Labor Party, I have noticed that from time to time you find yourself in the minority.

But this never bothered Arthur.

He was always optimistic about the prospect of progressive change. He understood the value of facts to the art of persuasion.

His objective was nothing less than the advancement of the human condition.

He embraced economic prosperity, but could not abide growth without fairness and sustainability.

I’ve often thought that you can tell a lot about the success of a parliamentarian’s career by examining their maiden speech.

If you compare it to their lived experience in politics you can get a good idea about their priorities, their ticker and the depth of their conviction.

Arthur’s Maiden speech, which came after he moved to the Senate after 16 years in local government, was partly about urban development.

He warned that the gross national product had become “the new God’’ and said development was becoming more important than people.

Arthur told the Senate:

Every country aims at greater production, greater development, greater profitability – and in so many cases human values are forgotten.

 We have to recognise that the world is in the midst of its second major ecological upheaval.

 The whole of humanity, in one way or another, is switching from an agrarian to a highly urbanised society.

 Urbanisation is the new phenomenon.

Arthur warned that governments had to craft policies that dealt with this shift while retaining the nurturing of community and human relationships.

That was right then and it is right now.

Arthur Gietzelt and his colleagues such as Tom Uren and Bruce Childs ensured these issues remained core to the Labor agenda.

Arthur would say that’s the thing about the Labor Party: We think ahead.

We don’t seek office just to occupy power – we do something with it.

We don’t just talk about justice – we craft the policies that make it real.

Arthur embodied this reformist spirit, always looking for progress with fairness.

When Bob Hawke appointed him as Veterans Affairs Minister in 1983, he wasted no time taking advantage of his opportunity.

Informed by his own three years’ service in Papua New Guinea, Arthur reformed entitlements and achieved formal recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ unofficial work patrolling Australia’s northern coastline in World War II.

He also established the Evatt royal commission into Agent Orange in Vietnam.

Arthur was a formidable organiser, but for him this was just the means to achieve political objectives.

As he told The National Times in 1976:

 My opponents try to paint me as a sinister backroom boy, just a numbers man rather than someone with beliefs.

In fact my beliefs are what make me want to muster the numbers.

It was this perspective that drew many young activists to Arthur.

He was a true mentor who would take the time to sit down and go through historical analysis with Young Labor activists as they formed their own views.

Labor has a strong culture of oral history. It’s how we pass our values from one generation to the next.

It’s how we learnt about the Vietnam moratoriums and the struggles of those who led the way.

He set up his Senate office in Caringbah, rather than the CBD of Sydney, because he was dedicated to community engagement and believed that social change had to be driven by the community.

Arthur knew that progress was unstoppable.

But he told younger party members that achieving progress required community support which they could develop if they showed the courage of their own convictions.

Above all, Arthur was an optimist.

Throughout a period where so much of the progressive Left would often be captured by a negative analysis of the present and a romanticism of the past, the strength of Arthur’s ideological foundation allowed him to retain a faith in human progress.

There was no ballot that was not winnable. Progressives should not simply defer to those with more conservative views.

He also understood the importance of remaining engaged with those who disagreed with his views, accepting that people of good conscience could hold differing opinions.

So he respected his opponents, even though he never tired of attempting to convince them of his position.

This month it is 25 years since Arthur left the Senate.

His passing, mourned by even his most strident political opponents, is a great loss for his family, his friends, the Labor Party and the entire community.

But I like to think that if Arthur he was here today he would be proud to think that his activism over decades provided an invigorating example for others on the progressive side of politics.

Generations of Labor people have been influenced by Arthur to continue to fight what he called “the good fight’’.

Today a new generation is taking up that good fight to the Abbott Government.

I referred earlier to Labor’s oral history tradition.

This means we talk about the lives of leaders, celebrate them and learn from them.

It’s why on a sad day like today as we mourn Arthur’s passing we are keeping his cause alive.