Feb 7, 2018

Michael Gordon Condolence Motion Speech – 7 Feb 2018

I was just talking to the member for McMillan about this. The irony, if there can be irony about someone who was so beloved and that passed last Saturday, is so rich, as I said to a journalist on the day that this terrible tragedy occurred. I was talking about the fact that there was a book which I had borrowed, a book that was published in 1993, Paul Keating: A Question of Leadership, by Michael Gordon about Paul Keating. The opening chapter is about a guy called Dr Chris Higgins, who was a former Treasury official. It’s an incredibly powerful opening chapter. It explains the mindset of the then Treasurer before he gave the very famous Press Club speech.

In the first chapter, in the first couple of pages, he talks about an incredibly well-loved Treasury official who was 47 who competed in an event and then collapsed and died of a heart attack. It’s hard to precisely put my feelings into words when this book had such a powerful impact on me in deciding whether or not to pursue an active political career. The fact that that very first stanza talks about a beloved individual—and Keating was very moved by what had happened to Dr Higgins, and I think that powered a lot of his reaction and then the subsequent Press Club speech, the ‘Placido Domingo’ speech—gives Michael’s passing additional context as well.

Discussing it, for me personally, it’s like a chapter of your life closing. That’s how it felt when I got the news, sometime after Michael’s tragic passing, about Michael, because he’d been so much a part of the fabric of my political existence for such a long period of time. I didn’t know him deeply well as a person, as the member for McMillan did, quite clearly, but I knew him as a profoundly ethical, moral and deep-thinking journalist and someone who, when you thought about the reportage of the media and the direction that it takes, you would look at and say, ‘This guy is an example of what the best was in journalism.’ Michael really did represent journalism at its finest, in my view. He was independent. He was a critical thinker. He was a warm—I think that was powered by his personality—generous, decent human being. You could have disagreements with him but, you knew at the end of those glasses when you were having a conversation about life or politics or the events of the day, there was a deeply thoughtful, profoundly intelligent human being, and a really good person.

I think for journalists that now live in the ebb and flow of the journalistic environment, particularly the current crop of journalists, they should reflect closely about how parliament and parliamentarians have universally responded with grief about the loss of Michael. I think if some of them reflected—and this is no reflection on any journalist individually—on some journalists now, I wonder what sort of reaction there would be. That’s not to denigrate journalists that are here now, but Michael serves as a beacon, I think, for journalists. He serves in the proudest traditions of journalism. I think that in my dealings with him—and others will talk at far greater length than I about their dealings—you really knew what you said to the guy at the end of the phone or sitting across from you was going to be held in confidence, even if he disagreed with you.

If you read the biography of Keating, Michael’s not an uncritical assessor of the former Prime Minister and Treasurer. If you look, he breathed through the gift of how he used the English language. He breathed life into a story. You could really touch it. One of the great things, I think, about this book and the quality of his journalism was he breathed life into it. We can often be seen to be as acting as caricatures, as cartoon characters or as silhouettes. What Michael did for me in terms of Paul Keating was breathe life into him. He wasn’t just this saturnine figure; he was a living, breathing person. If you look at the tributes when he first wrote this book in 1993, his first iteration before Keating won the Prime Ministership in 1993, you have people like Laurie Oakes, Neville Wran, Janine Haines, John Button and Michelle Grattan singing his praises in terms of how he wrote this book.

I really do regret having to stand up here today because it’s a reminder of the ephemeral, transitory nature of our lives. It also reminds us that if there are people we haven’t spoken to—I saw that Michael had stepped aside and retired from The Age, and it was always one of those things where I thought he’s a really interesting person to catch up. I really would have wanted to talk to him. He’s one of those journalists that you wanted to. He had such depth and breadth as a human being. He was a real person, and the more I learn about him in his passing. I was watching him on Facebook—I was a Facebook friend—about the work he was doing in Africa. There was a living, breathing, decent human being you wanted to catch up with and have a coffee with. I hadn’t had a chance to extend my commiserations, from my perspective, about his leaving because I think the press gallery was the poorer for him retiring from The Age, but I never did. I was always going to. In fact, without making too much of a big deal, I thought that week before—you put it on your list of things to do: ‘I’ll give him a call’; I should have chased him up; I wanted to say I really missed him.

When I explained to him a number of years ago about how influential the book was, it was hard to get a copy so I chanced my arm. Joking about it I asked, ‘You wouldn’t have a copy?’ For weeks he went searching for a copy he’d had in his archive, and then he turned up one day and said, ‘I got a copy for you.’ No big deal, no great fuss, just the man, his normal humble self. He gave me the book—it’s a different iteration to this one—and he’d signed it, ‘To a true believer’. I’ve still got that, and I posted it on the day that I found that Michael had passed. It was just the way he did it; he didn’t have to do it and there was nothing in it for him but it was just a mark of the man, the calibre of the person. Like I said, the deepest regret I have is that I didn’t have the chance to tell him what I thought about him as a journalist, so I’m going to use the parliamentary record. Michael: you were an incredibly fine human being. You were the best of what journalists represent. I was incredibly sad to see that you had stepped away, stepped aside and retired. I was excited about the fact that you were going to have a new chapter of your life open, and I’m absolutely crushed that that hasn’t happened, and I think we are all the worse for it.


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