Paul O'Grady MLC
12 February 2015
I rise to pay tribute to former New South Wales MLC Paul O'Grady, who passed away on 18 January this year at the age of 54. At Paul's farewell ceremony his brother, Tony O'Grady, spoke about what an extraordinary family Paul grew up in. His parents were devout Catholics, who, Tony said, probably voted DLP until 1972. Tony described Paul as being irascible, brilliant and loving. His sister, Kerrie O'Grady, talked about him as being mercurial and eccentric, thoughtful and haphazard, tolerant and open—and a gypsy. Paul, it was pointed out, had many families—not just his biological family, but the many people across Sydney and across Australia who drew on his support. Father Graeme Lawrence pointed out to many of those in attendance that perhaps some did not realise that Paul was a devout Catholic. He said that Paul's Christianity always caused him to be asking the questions such as: how many people did you feed at Sunday lunch? What do we do to feed more?
After the 1989 earthquake he spoke up in favour of getting the necessary resources to rebuild the cathedral in Newcastle—causing not a little angst among insurance companies. John Faulkner spoke about how he had first read of Paul O'Grady in the Parramatta Advertiser under the headline 'Political chief at 15'. He was a young man in a hurry. By 18 had become the youngest ever New South Wales organiser in the Australian Workers Union's history. As John put it, he had a habit of turning up at the doorstep and moving in.
He did not come out in any sense. He was out. When he was elected in 1988 to the legislative council, he advertised in the Sydney Star Observer for anyone who needed help. This was, as Senator Faulkner pointed out, still a time when gay panic was too prevalent and when there was vilification of gays in the military. Paul, himself, was instrumental in passing vilification legislation and in drawing attention to gay bashings occurring in Sydney. He invited all members of the New South Wales parliament, with the exception of a husband-and-wife pair, to march with him in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. He was a role model to many young people. He worked on issues such as Indigenous equality, policing, the environment, law reform and euthanasia.
In 1994 Paul's partner, Murray, died of AIDS. Paul and Murray were two of the first to contract HIV in Australia. In resigning from politics in 1996 Paul announced that he had AIDS. Many of us had expected that he would pass away not long after that—indeed, I remember visiting him in the Sacred Heart Hospice in the mid-1990s. But he lived for another two decades working for Sandra Nori, Frank Sartor and Sharon Grierson, among others. In that time he stood up to the unworthy and to the shonky. As New South Wales opposition leader Luke Foley has said:
He was an adviser to me. He was somebody I respected for 25 years. I think of his enormous courage not only as the first openly gay member of [the New South Wales] parliament but also speaking about his battle with HIV.
Unlike so many in politics, he left under his own terms. He was always generous to me, as a young Labor activist, and I admired the irreverence that he brought to his observation of politics. He was somebody who took no interest in the pomp and status. He was interested in ideas, in energy and in those who wanted to make a difference. From his example, we can learn a great deal. My thanks to the doctors and medical researchers who kept Paul with us for those two extra decades. He died too young, but he did so much.