CONDOLENCES – Hon. Clyde Robert Cameron AO – Speech

Senator BARTLETT (Queensland) (12.55 p.m.)—I would like to also associate on behalf of the Democrats our support for this condolence motion and make some personal comments of my own. This condolence debate does indeed relate to what is literally the passing of an era. Clyde Cameron was the last surviving member of the parliament that was elected in 1949. He had the misfortune to enter the parliament at the very outset of 23 years of unbroken opposition. For those in the ALP who have felt it was fairly tiring being in opposition over the last 11 or so years, Clyde Cameron had it literally twice as bad over a 23-year period before he finally spent just a few years in government as a minister. He did play an important role as minister for labour from 1972 and it is apt in some respects that this week we will be having further significant debates around labour laws, now called workplace relations laws. He also took over the equally important role of minister for immigration. This was an era when the immigration ministry and law were still very much developing. He took over that role after the 1974 election.

In other ways also Clyde Cameron represents the passing of an era. He had many experiences that few of us in this parliament, or indeed few of us in the wider community, have had. Fewer and fewer people have had such direct and visceral experiences of the Great Depression. It is just a phrase that is mentioned with a wave of the hand almost these days and it is easy today not to fully appreciate just how extraordinary the Depression era was, just how incredibly destructive it was for many families and just how enormous the depths of poverty and difficulty were that many people went through. There is no doubt that that experience through the Depression era was a strongly formative experience for Clyde Cameron. I often wonder when you read a little bit about what the Depression era was like—the enormous queues for the unemployed, the more limited support that people received when they were unemployed, the meagre support that families received and the huge areas where unemployed men lived in quarters on their own, travelling from place to place looking for work—how our society would cope if we did experience such depths of economic difficulty again. Of course we all hope that that will never occur. But it was a formative experience for many people including of course Clyde Cameron, and it led, at least in part, to the very strong political feelings he had.

Another historic era in which Clyde Cameron was heavily involved was the split of the Labor Party in the mid-1950s. A couple of people have already mentioned his ability to have friendships across the political divide, despite the fact that he was known as and commented on as being a very strong ‘hater’. Of these friendships that developed over time, the most remarkable, perhaps even more so than the example of Lady Downer, was the one he ended up having with Bob Santamaria, who was very much a pivotal figure on the opposite side of the extremely bitter split in the Labor Party in the mid-1950s.

It is interesting to read some of the things that Clyde Cameron wrote in his eulogy on Bob Santamaria, particularly since he very strongly and stridently disagreed with the views of not just Santamaria but also others on the side of the Catholic Social Movement, or the Movement, as it was known, in the 1950s. Clyde Cameron stated that, whilst he strongly disagreed with Santamaria, he believed that he was ‘honestly wrong’ in the views he held, and that he preferred a person who honestly held their views, even if they were wrong, over somebody who held views that he agreed with but who held them ‘dishonestly’ because they felt it would favour their advancement. From what I have read in the past and over the last few days, the part of his character that sticks out most strongly is that commitment to intellectual honesty, to what he believed was right rather than just how the political winds were blowing.

It is an interesting exercise, obviously completely hypothetical, to ponder how things might have panned out if that huge split had not happened in the 1950s. It is a reminder that political and ideological fault lines can shift over time—so much so that, in the final decade or so of Clyde Cameron’s life, many of the concerns that he expressed were very similar to those expressed by those on the opposite side of the split in the 1950s. I particularly note a letter he wrote to the newsletter of the National Civic Council in 2001 praising them for publishing a special edition ‘against economic rationalists who favoured the globalisation of corporate capitalism’ and who were supportive of foreign multinationals shifting Australian industries to other areas with cheap labour costs. He also had strong concerns about the ‘globalisation of corporate power’, to use his words, which aligned with the views of Bob Santamaria, who voiced similar concerns for a long period of time. Indeed, he went so far as to describe Santamaria upon his death as an idol to those who held on to their belief in the traditional principles of the Labor Party.

As someone outside of the Labor Party I am not passing comment on all the different battles and perspectives going back over so many fascinating decades, although I do have some insight from the outside of that split in the fifties; I simply want to highlight the enormous spectrum of events that Clyde Cameron’s life encompassed and the strength of his views over such a long period of time. It is, I think, worth while noting these things, not just as a way of describing milestones in certain people’s lives or various things they said at various times but also as a way of learning from their lives. For me that is part and parcel of the importance of condolence motions. The benefit of looking back at a person’s life is seeing what lessons we can learn from it, what things we can apply to the modern era.

Whilst many things have changed dramatically since Clyde Cameron’s era, many of the lessons are still the same—such as the strong concern he had, as he wrote:

… over the way politics have deteriorated to a position that is now a contest between the rich and the poor; the privileged and the underprivileged; the exploiters and the exploited; the tax avoiders and the taxpayers; the greedy and the needy; the buyers of labour and the sellers of labour, with the odds always stacked up in favour of the first party …

It is fairly clear from his words that Clyde Cameron’s sympathies lay very much with the second party in each of those examples: the underprivileged, the exploited, the needy, those who are in most need of support. That was a constant strand throughout Clyde Cameron’s life, and I think is important to look at that consistency. Political currents shift over time, but maintaining that consistency of principle and intellectual honesty is an important lesson for all of us when we look back on what was an extraordinary life, including but not limited to a very significant period of 31 years in the federal parliament.

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