Condolence Motion – The Hon. Sir John Leslie Carrick AC KCMG
I rise to support the condolence motion that was moved in the chamber by the Prime Minister and that has been so eloquently supported by the Leader of the Opposition and those that have spoken since. I do so to honour a remarkable Australian and one of the finest servants of the Liberal Party and our ideals, Sir John Carrick. I want to start by thanking the Prime Minister for what I thought was an incredible speech that he gave in the House of Representatives in honour of Sir John’s life. I suspect in part that reflects the fact that the Prime Minister’s own father-in-law, Tom Hughes, was one of the beneficiaries of Sir John’s support and patronage in his own political career.
It’s fair to say and reflect on the fact—and no hyperbole—that Sir John is without peer in terms of shaping the success of the Liberal Party in New South Wales and also, I’d argue, nationally. He was our general secretary from 1948 until 1971. He actually began his career with the Liberal Party two years earlier, in 1946, when he accepted what was a temporary job following his return from the horrors of World War II. It was, however, to become a lifetime career, both as a member of the staff of our secretariat and then as a senator in the other place. It was a role that he took, as I mentioned, not long after he’d come back from South-East Asia, where he had served Australia in Sparrow Force but was subsequently to become a prisoner of war in some of those horrific circumstances that have been so well documented. Many Australians reacted differently to that experience, but Sir John was, like many of his peers, one who came back to Australia with an absolute determination to create a more peaceful and more successful world, a world in which the horrors that he had experienced himself would not be ones that future generations would have to endure.
Many of those returned servicemen like himself were to go on to serve in state and federal politics. It’s fair to say that the ranks of the Liberal Party in parliament at the time bore many of those returned servicemen, as did of course the Labor Party as well—Tom Uren typifies the service of many returned servicemen to that side of politics. I think it’s in fact a fair observation to say that the early Liberal Party of Menzies was founded on the influence of two groups: firstly, those many returned servicemen who were determined to commit their lives to public service and also those women’s organisations that Menzies recruited so successfully to join the new party, and which really became its backbone.
Sir John was a formidable general secretary of the Liberal Party in New South Wales. He served in that role for some incredible 23 years. In fact, it was often joked—I have no idea whether it was true—when he was encouraged to move to the Senate it was because the Liberal Party couldn’t afford the superannuation he’d racked up at that time. I joined the Liberal Party at the time that Sir John was finishing his public career in the Senate, in the late 1980s, but even as a teenage Young Liberal, the legacy of Sir John Carrick was recognised and lauded across the party. My own understanding of Sir John Carrick’s role was aided by the fact that one of my first jobs was working for the late John Booth, the then state member for Wakehurst. John, alongside people like Terry Metherell, had been a member of Sir John Carrick’s staff while he was a senator for New South Wales.
Sir John had, at that time and throughout his career, a reputation as one of the Liberal Party’s greatest political operators. He was courtly, but he was also tough, and I want to note that The Bulletin described him as ‘the grey eminence of Ash Street’, Ash street being our then headquarters, but also as the ‘smiler with a knife’. Like no other estate director, as we now call it, he shaped the affairs of the division, and his hand was in many pre-selections. In fact, there was a term used to describe his time as general secretary, and that was head office factionalism. He had little truck for the emergence of other factions in the Liberal Party. In fact, most notably, in the late 19060s he put an end to the ambitions of the now notorious Lyenko Urbanchich in Warringah because he was determined to make sure that if there were to be a faction it would be one controlled by head office and one that squarely served the interests of the party.
It’s fair to say that, during those years he was general secretary, whilst we had a very competitive preselection system there was very rarely a candidate who won a preselection who wasn’t the candidate preferred or endorsed by Sir John Carrick. That, in part, reflects the fact that Sir John saw himself in the role of general secretary as responsible for the recruitment of candidates. He traversed the state of New South Wales, making sure that the party had the capacity to put forward to parliament candidates of the highest calibre. Many of them were to be fellow returned servicemen, and some of the greats of the Liberal Party in both state and federal politics at the time were people that he recruited from those ranks. He was determined and believed passionately that the success of the Liberal Party depended on the quality of the candidates he put forward. As general secretary, he regarded that as one of the primary obligations he had.
It’s hard to fathom the challenge he faced when he first joined the party in the late 1940s. He was there in its infancy. His first role was within months of Menzies founding the party. As general secretary, two years later, at the age of just 30, he had the responsibility of building an entire party organisation effectively from scratch and finding candidates to run immediately for federal and state office. In part, his strength as a general secretary and the influence and success he had was because of the network of field officers he created across the party. Those field officers became his agents, both in electoral politics but also, it’s fair to say, in the internal politics of the Liberal Party. When I joined the party, sadly those field officers were in decline, and whilst there were a handful back then, they weren’t to last for much longer.
It’s also fair to say his time in the Liberal Party was highly personally rewarding. The great love of his life, Lady Angela, was a person he met at those Ash Street headquarters in his early years at the party. She was the party librarian and equally committed to the cause. I’m not sure that that type of relationship would be one that would be permitted today, but it was certainly a very fruitful one for Sir John.
Sir John was far more than simply a machine man for the party. His parliamentary career which followed his retirement as general secretary in the early 1970s is testament to that fact. Throughout both his career in the party organisation and in the Senate, he demonstrated such a deep commitment to the values of our party. My predecessor, Joe Hockey, quoted Sir John in his own maiden speech, and I want to repeat that quote. Joe said:
A true Liberal was described by Sir John Carrick in 1967 as someone who was always concerned about the welfare of the individual, for the creation of opportunities, for the preservation of human dignity and the development of human personality.
It was those values that guided his parliamentary career and perhaps shaped his great passion in public life, which of course was for improving education in Australia. Sir John described the role of education in these terms: ‘the real role of education is to stimulate people in mind and spirit for what is a limitless adventure’. That passion for education is reflected in his committee service in the Senate and in his role as the federal education minister during the Fraser government. Importantly, it was a passion that he carried beyond his retirement from the Senate. Most notably, when the Greiner government was elected in 1988, the then education minister, Terry Metherell, and Premier Greiner commissioned Sir John to chair a committee which bore his name, in the form of the Carrick report, which reinvented and reshaped school education in New South Wales. It’s a legacy that prevails today.
I also wanted to mention, because it’s a passion close to my own heart, the fact that, when was unfashionable to do so, Sir John was one of the earliest advocates to end the death penalty in Australia.
In fact, the second speech he gave in the Senate, the very day after he had given his maiden speech, was to support a private members bill introduced by Lionel Murphy to abolish the death penalty in federal jurisdictions. He at the time was just one of three Liberal senators who exercised a conscience vote to support that bill, which passed the Senate at the time but failed in the House of Representatives; however, it was importantly enacted just a couple of years later.
I only had the privilege of meeting Sir John on a couple of occasions during my own involvement in the Liberal Party. I want to reflect on one of those occasions which, I think, typifies the type of person that Sir John was. In 2005, I had the great pleasure of assisting Joe Hockey in organising North Sydney commemorations for the anniversary of Victory in the Pacific Day, what we originally called Victory over Japan. It was a significant commemoration for our veterans. Joe invited Sir John to be the keynote speaker. I vividly remember two things: firstly, his remarks about the values that have been spoken about by other speakers—his commitment to reconciliation, the deep faith he had in human nature, which led him to spend much of his adult life post the Second World War trying to ensure that the horrors of that war did not affect our relationship, not only as individuals but as a nation, with the Japanese people.
Secondly, the thing that struck me about his contribution that day was his extraordinary humility that was reflected in all that he said. It was also reflected in the way he happily spent an hour after the service mingling with schoolchildren who didn’t know who Sir John Carrick was. It was the first time in their lives they had met a knight and they were intrigued by that fact and by the impressive medallion he wore as a knight. He happily talked to them and shared his own experiences with those school students for a very long time. It’s that humility that we’ll most remember Sir John for and it was reflected in his decision to make sure that this family turned down a state funeral—as the Prime Minister pointed out in his speech—because he believed that his life was no more worthy than any of the other veterans who he had served alongside. His humility was reflected when the Liberal Party, over the years, on many occasions discussed whether our own head office should be named in his honour. It was a request or a suggestion that he always turned down because he considered himself a servant of the Liberal Party and no better than any other person who served in that role.
I speak today to honour someone who was a child of the Depression, a soldier for Australia, a survivor of those awful prisoner of war camps that he experienced in South-East Asia, a warrior for the Liberal Party and its values, but, most importantly, someone who was committed to further generations, be they the generations to follow him and his own family, or more broadly across Australia, as his commitment to education was so effectively to demonstrate. We have lost a great Australian, and I extend my sincerest condolences to his family.