It is such an honour today to speak about Peter Reith and to follow the excellent contributions of my friends the member for Monash, the member for Flinders and the member for Wannon and to be the warm-up act for the member for Riverina in speaking about someone the member for Wannon quite rightly described as an extraordinary Australian.
Peter was a great hero of mine. I think he was the most complete parliamentarian ever to set foot in this building. I had the pleasure of knowing him both during and after his career. What marked Peter out as extraordinary was that he had the rare combination of both policy and political skills. Some of us are great policy wonks; some people love the fight. He loved both and was good at both. He was always prepared to argue and fight but he was one of the greatest original thinkers of his time and this continued even after he left parliament. His role in defeating the unnecessary 1988 referenda during his time as the then shadow Attorney-General was immensely important, and his campaign ensured that those referenda suffered the worst defeat of any referenda in Australia’s history.
Throughout his entire political career he remained at the vanguard of policy formulation for the coalition. Although the 1993 election was unsuccessful for our side, his work as one of the principal authors of Fightback set up the coalition for success during the years of the Howard government. The policy gave them an agenda and a set of principles that saw more choice, greater freedom and greater use of markets.
However, what Peter was best known for was his work in industrial relations reform. Peter always sought three things from his industrial relations reforms: more jobs, better pay and more productivity for the economy. These things were better for employers, they were better for workers and they were better for Australia overall. The Australian workplace agreements that he proposed were very important in achieving productivity during that period and his reforms set us up to provide the flexibility in our labour market to see Australia weather the storms of the Global Financial Crisis and COVID-19. His tireless campaign to achieve changes on the waterfront came at great personal cost to Peter and his family but he was ultimately successful.
Peter Reith was lucky that at that same time he had as a partner the businessman Chris Corrigan, who was prepared to fight alongside him to achieve the much-needed reform. It is to be remembered there was a number of crane lifts on the waterfront. The numbers were something of the order of fewer than 10 and then, as a result of Peter’s reforms, they went to more than 20. The MUA would go on strike for all sorts of strange things—the felt on the pool table had been ruined and off they would go on strike. These reforms took an extraordinary toll on both men. The threats to Peter Reith and Chris Corrigan by the Maritime Union became so severe that Chris Corrigan and his family were eventually forced to go into hiding overseas. Peter also needed to have close personal protection for the rest of his time in parliament. However, the work of these two men was essential to ensure the Australian economy continued to function. We are an island nation and we need a ports to work reliably and efficiently and, without these reforms, that never would have happened.
I want to acknowledge that personal cost I spoke about and particularly speak about the Corrigans for a minute. I had the privilege, in the years of the waterfront dispute, of serving on Woollahra council with Valerie Corrigan. She was easily my best mate on the council, and she is Chris’s wife. The threats that I saw to her family and what they had to endure were extraordinary, and I just want to acknowledge their bravery and the bravery and steadfastness of the Corrigan and Reith families.
Outside the industrial relations sphere, Peter made a very valuable contribution to policy development throughout his time in both government and opposition. Even at the height of the industrial relations dispute, he made significant achievements as the Minister for Small Business, inventing the ‘new deal, fair deal’ workplace agreements package. He implemented the unconscionable conduct provisions in the Trade Practices Act and a legally enforceable franchising code. He was staunchly opposed to power monopolies and sought to oppose them at industrial and commercial levels. He established the Employee Entitlements Support Scheme from January 2000. This provided a safety net for employees who lost their jobs as a result of their employers’ insolvency.
While each of these achievements by themselves is extraordinary and should be highly commended, as a politician with a deep interest in constitutional law, his 2000 policy paper Breaking the gridlock is of particular interest. This paper became the foundation of the industrial relations framework we still have today. It was a revolutionary idea to use the corporations’ power to create a national industrial relations system, and it famously withstood a High Court challenge after its implementation in 2005.
Peter Reith was a true champion of policy reform. If you go to the Parliamentary Library, there are 30 volumes of policy idea papers that Peter Reith himself wrote that are available to look at. That is an extraordinary record and something that I think no one in this building is likely to emulate, but it just shows the extraordinary nature of the man.
I really got to know Peter during the republic referendum campaign in 1999. Peter was a direct election republican. I know some people have accused him of being a closet monarchist and using this as a ruse, but I don’t think it was true. We had lots of conversations about this. Peter, in his brief period in the wilderness, joined with Ted Mack and Cheryl Kernot to write a series of papers about direct democracy—things like citizens initiated referenda. His support of a directly elected President was completely consistent with that view, and, in typical Peter Reith fashion, he put out a detailed policy paper explaining how an elected President might work. Still, in an Australian policy context, I think it is the only really detailed work that has been done on that subject. I really enjoyed campaigning with Peter during the referendum period. I got to see him close up and see how he operated. He loved a campaign, he wasn’t afraid of a fight and he made sure he had marshalled all the arguments and knew the response to his opponent’s argument.
Later in 2013, we worked together as part of the citizens committee against the local government referendum, following a decision of the now Prime Minister and Attorney-General to distribute campaign funding completely unevenly for that referendum campaign, giving effectively $34 million to the ‘yes’ side and $500,000 to the ‘no’ side. I remember us having meetings—there was Peter Reith, Nick Minchin, Tim Wilson and me—with various people, trying to work out how we could stretch that half a million dollars, and we realised it was not going to go very far. It was a shocking incident of the government trying to buy the Constitution and something that should never, ever happen again.
Peter and I spoke together at various events over the years, and he was very encouraging of me in a personal and professional capacity and was particularly keen to encourage me to come here and work as a staffer to his little brother in politics, Tony Abbott. Tony followed him in the workplace relations policy area and took on some of Peter’s excellent staff. He really had first-class staff over the years, and I was particularly privileged to work with Peter Anderson and Mary Jo Fisher, who were at the vanguard of reform. Tony also followed Peter into being Leader of the House, and while I was working with Tony one of my jobs was to prepare for question time. Tony Abbott’s preparation for question time involved a range of people sitting around the table and firing questions at him so he would be ready for any eventuality. This was obviously not a practice that Peter engaged in, because once he opened the door to try and find Tony and saw this practice going on, and I remember him sitting in question time later with John Howard, as Tony got up to answer his question, and signalling to John that he had been in this room with all these people going around and the two of them having a good laugh about it all.
I was sad when Peter’s career was cut short in 2001. I believe he could have easily led the party into the future. When Peter left the parliament, he then went on to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and we kept in touch. I went to visit him when he was in that role, and in typical Peter Reith fashion he was looking to reform that institution and had been stymied in the way that one gets in relation to international bureaucracies. He showed me his office where he had this set of stone tablets behind him in a bookcase and he said to me, ‘You’ll see our library needs a bit of updating!’
We had lunch together; we talked about the state of the party in opposition and what we could do to get ourselves into government. I strongly encouraged Peter to run for the party presidency. I thought anyone who could stare down the unions in the way he had done would be able to stare down the factional operatives in some of our state divisions and clean up our party. I know I certainly wasn’t the only person to have encouraged him to pursue these roles and it’s a great sadness to me that Peter never became party president. I think Peter would have done a very good job in steering the organisation.
When Peter eventually came home from his appointment I threw him a welcome home party in Sydney and, despite the fact New South Wales was not his home state and he was long out of politics, the event was attended by hundreds of people who admired the man who took the fight to Labor and wanted to hear from him. I remember at this same dinner, as some of the auctions and speeches went on, I said to Peter, ‘I bet you don’t miss any of this.’ And he said to me, ‘Julian, I miss all of it.’ He really loved politics. He really loved being part of public life. He loved the public conversation. He loved people and he loved the Liberal Party.
Peter was twice a referee for me in preselection, and I remember, when I was thinking about standing for a particular seat and wasn’t sure whether to do so or not, I rang him and Peter was encouraging, as he always was, and he said, ‘Julian, there’s never a time not to stand for a preselection.’ I think he told me the story of Lindsay Thompson, the former Victorian Premier who’d stood for 13 preselections before he finally got there.
Peter was endlessly encouraging. He regularly had me on the Beattie and Reith program on Sky to talk about the issues of the day, and I am very grateful to him that, in my time working at Australian Catholic University—after having a discussion about what I was doing—he had been involved in the arrangement of my appointment as a director of the Mercy Health board. I know that will sound a very strange thing, considering neither Peter nor I were Catholic, but Peter’s best friend and the groomsman at his wedding was a fellow called Julien O’Connell, who was the chairman of Mercy Health, and at Peter’s recommendation Julien gave me the opportunity to help the board deal with some of the challenges they were facing, and I’m grateful for the opportunity and learned a lot about health care and aged care in the Catholic tradition.
And that was Peter. He was just looking for opportunities to encourage people to pursue good works in public life. I’m sad that, in the last few years, Peter’s health’s meant that he didn’t have the retirement he deserved. I haven’t seen or spoken to him since he first had his stroke but I heard lots from Julien about how he was going.
Peter Reith was one of those rare Liberals whose popularity across the party was legend. At one of his birthday parties he could have every Liberal leader from Malcolm Fraser on—and there are not too many Liberals who could’ve done that. He was, of course, particularly close to John Howard, and everyone admired him because he was a man of principle who was prepared to fight.
I am grateful to have known Peter as a mentor, as a wonderful Liberal, as a great warrior and as person of such decency and encouragement. To Kerrie and his family: may his memory be a blessing. He is a man much missed on our side of the House and much missed by everybody who has been keenly touched by him. I feel his loss very much indeed. May his memory be a blessing.