Condolence Motion John Kerin
House of Representatives, 11 May 2023
The last public event that I did with John Kerin was to introduce him as the guest of honour at ACT Labor's dinner celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Whitlam government at the Canberra Labor Club in December 2022.
John was physically frail but intellectually lively, and he told the stories of serving with Gough. And what better person to regale the dinner than a man whose first stint in federal parliament had coincided exactly with the Whitlam government? Elected in 1972 as member for Macarthur and unelected in 1975. At least his dismissal was by the voters. When John returned to parliament in 1978 it was as Gough Whitlam's successor as member for Werriwa. John won a three-way preselection contest and served the people of Werriwa until 1993.
In my experience, those who have been defeated and then return to parliament come back a little humbler and more attuned to the voters. During his time out of parliament, John Kerin completed his Bachelor of Economics at the Australian National University and worked at the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics. So, when Labor won in 1983, Hawke appointed John Kerin as minister for primary industries and energy.
Kerin was a former poultry farmer and loved hard work. He could set 6,000 bricks a day in a kiln. At John's funeral, Michael O'Ceirin described John as hardworking, always able to push himself to exhaustion. Jim Glasson described John as a man who worked hard, played hard and would read and write late into the night. Barry Jones remembered that John Kerin subscribed to the New Statesman and the Spectator—keeping an open mind to new ideas across the political spectrum. He was an habitue of the Parliamentary Library, where he met his wife, June—a romance story that, in this digital age, I fear may never be repeated.
The man known to some as 'JK' never took himself too seriously. In his eulogy, Christopher Massey told us that John would often enjoy his own jokes so much that he would laugh over the punchline. Brian Hill told the story of a trade negotiation with Japan, in which a straight-faced John Kerin told his counterparts that Australians value our tuna so much that each one of them has its own name. His quixotic sense of humour is embodied in the fact that one of his favourite poems was John Donne's 'The Flea'. He also loved the poem 'Said Hanrahan', which John read in England when he and June renewed their wedding vows, and which John Lombard read at John Kerin's funeral.
He was an inveterate joiner of organisations, perfect preparation for a member of parliament who wanted to serve his community well. He was loved by his mates. His friend Tony Gleeson said of him that to be a mate of John Kerin's was to share his trust and his values. He wasn't a hugger but he had huge hands—like dinnerplates, someone said—which gave his handshake the character of an embrace. When he was dropped from cabinet by Bob Hawke, after forgetting an irrelevant acronym in a press conference, both men cried.
As a minister, John Kerin recognised that country Australia was about more than agriculture. I fear that's the mistake that some representatives of rural Australia in this place make. They focus on crops, roads and livestock but they ignore the social networks—the doctors, the schools, the communities—that bind regions together. John Kerin was respected by farming experts. As Australia's longest-serving agriculture minister, he stands as an inspiration to all who follow him in the role.
Former agriculture minister Joel Fitzgibbon described him as a lanky axeman—not a bad skill to have in politics. Joel said that John Kerin put policy before politics and detested those who got them in the wrong order. Current agriculture minister Murray Watt said that John Kerin was 'free of vested interests, solely focused on doing what's right for farmers, farm workers and the whole agriculture supply chain. His reform legacy lives on in Australian agriculture, and he rightly deserves the title of Australia's best ever agriculture minister.'
I first met John Kerin in 1994, when I was writing my Sydney university government honours thesis about trade liberalisation and the Australian Labor Party. John had only just stepped down from parliament, but he was generous with his time and his insights. He had worked to undo the McEwenite idea of 'protection all round'. He supported tariff cuts and looking after the most vulnerable. As an economist, he knew that choosing openness was the best option for Australia, and he pursued his ideas with idealism and vigour.
After retiring from politics, John Kerin remained active in public life. He chaired the Crawford Fund and wrote his memoir, The Way I Saw It; The Way It Was: The Making of National Agricultural and Natural Resource Management Policy, which is available as a free ebook download and is indispensable reading for anyone seeking to understand John and the economic reforms of the 1980s. John was an active participant in the ACT branch of the Labor Party. To see him at meetings was to be reminded of what an honour it is to represent Australia's oldest and greatest political party. With me, as with many other members, John took time to email, to chat and to turn up—a joiner and a community-builder to the end. I count myself lucky to have known him and to have shared his warmth, ideas and integrity.