HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, 30 MARCH 2022
The Whitlam government changed Australia and it encapsulated the spirit of the 1960s. And no-one did that better than Moss Cass. Long haired, bearded and described by the Sydney Jewish News as 'with it', he was happy to invite colleagues to smoke pot in his office when they critiqued Australia's drug policy. He was somebody who didn't always get on with the Prime Minister. He carried with him the same drive and passion as his parents, who'd fled the anti-Jewish pogroms in tsarist Russia.
He was a trailblazer in the area of the environment. He was frustrated at the timidity of the Australian Conservation Foundation, which was then chaired by Sir Garfield Barwick and whose patron was Prince Philip. He was an activist in the environmental area, effectively managing to stop sand mining on Fraser Island—an outrage that, when you go to Fraser Island today, you cannot believe ever occurred—and curtailing the Ranger Uranium Mine in Kakadu. He began that process of turning the Labor Party into Australia's leading environmental party, which it remains today.
He was a doctor of significant repute. He built the first heart-lung machine in Australia. He brought back from his time in London with his wife, Shirley Shulman, a sense of free thinking and a willingness to challenge authority. We in the ACT acknowledge Moss for his sponsorship of private members' bills that legalised abortion and decriminalised homosexuality in the ACT.
But there is also his important work in the media portfolio. As the Leader of the Opposition noted in the House, he initiated Double J and got rid of the television licence fee. He also put in place the Press Council, though not without some critique. When he initially proposed the notion of a press council, The Sunday Telegraph talked about it as 'a real threat to democracy, and a monstrous pre-empting of the judicial system'. The Australian editorialised: 'What country are we living in? It sounds more like Dr Goebbels's Nazi Germany than Dr Cass's Australia.' Others noted at the time that, if anything demonstrated the need for a press council, it was those distorted responses to the proposals for a press council.
But Moss didn't stop when his political career ended. He continued corresponding with a range of members of parliament, including, I'm pleased to say, me. An email that he sent me on 26 September 2021 said: 'For the survival of democracy, it is essential that opinions and assertions be supported by established, confirmed data readily available for everyone through the media.' He went on to make a range of observations about the work that he'd done and the importance of conducting a fact-based debate in politics. As the cliche goes, you can have your own views but not your own facts. Yet too often today we've forgotten the lesson Moss Cass taught us about the importance of a robust, ideas based political conversation. Moss Cass's email of 26 September 2021 finished with this sentence: 'If you have reached this far and feel like objecting or commenting, please do so by email. I am now too deaf, at the age of 94, to follow a phone conversation.'
I wrote back to him to simply say: Moss, thank you. I appreciate your views. I will do my best to ensure that we have that vibrant democracy that you worked for. By golly, I hope that, like Moss Cass, when I'm in my 90s I'll be engaging with policymakers to try to make the world a better place.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.
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