Frank Walker

I spoke in parliament last night about the late Frank Walker.

Frank Walker
19 June 2012

Frank Walker did more in public life than many of us can ever hope to do. During his time he suffered more than any of us probably ever will. He lost his two sons, Michael and Sean, to suicide. Both died at age 33, and he found both of them. But he contributed an extraordinary amount to our public life. He spent his first years in a Coogee housing commission home. His family moved to New Guinea in 1948 after his father, Jack Walker—a brickworks dragger and a member of the Communist Party of Australia—was black-listed. He was a campaigner for the underdog, and perhaps part of that was formed by those early years in Papua New Guinea, sitting alongside indigenous children in coastal villages.

In 1950s Australia, at the age of 13, he staged his first political act, sitting with segregated Aboriginals at the Sawtell picture theatre. He joined Charlie Perkins on the freedom ride to Mooree in 1965. He devoted decades of his life to public life, and it was in the latter years that I first came to know him. At university I decided I would write a paper on the New South Wales left. Frank was generous enough to give me two hours of his time sitting in his electorate office. I look back on my notes today and see that on 22 April 1994 I went to the Robertson electorate office and sat with him, talking through some of the old stories of the faction. Perhaps the one that caught me the most was when Jack Ferguson - the member for Werriwa's father - stepped down as Deputy Premier and there was a question as to whether Frank would succeed him. He did not. In somewhat controversial circumstances he was beaten out in that internal ballot.

He was a full participant in some of those very difficult times for the left. He voted for Paul Keating in both the leadership ballots and ran for the ministry without the support of the left. But he took stands on principle. When Prime Minister Bob Hawke spoke on the Iraq war, Frank Walker was one of a handful of members who left the chamber, earning themselves substantial opprobrium in the process.

I remember Frank very much as being generous with his time with me, a young whippersnapper and surely the least important thing on his agenda, but it was a reminder of how those of us in public life should behave when people come to learn from us. I enjoyed very much the story Senator Faulkner told in the other place about when he arrived in his office in Sussex Street to receive a Christmas present from Frank Walker—a New South Wales ALP rule book with every page blank because, as Frank's annotation read, the Sussex Street machine just ignored the party rules anyway. Senator Faulkner has lodged Frank's Christmas present in the National Archives of Australia.

My friend Macgregor Duncan, a family friend of Frank's, said the following:

‘… I would say that Frank lived his life with great dignity and nobility. As has been well documented, he suffered great sorrow and sadness in his life, enough to make most of us resign in despair and unjustified guilt. But Frank never gave into those emotions. He summoned the will to rise above it all. He was loyal, generous and kind to his friends. And he was an exemplary parliamentarian and minister. For a man who'd had so much taken from him, he gave so much back to his friends, family, community and country. And in a democracy, where we collectively rely on the private exertions of our public leaders, it's important that we celebrate those contributions when so noble and hard-fought.’

Vale Frank Walker.

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