We all know it is impolite to speak ill of the dead, but as one of the 135 people on whom John Howard has bestowed a coveted AC, it is appropriate to assess the performance of Sir James Killen, who died last week and will receive a state funeral.

The obituaries were keen to point out that Killen was admired by people on both sides of politics. Based on Noeline Brown’s memoir, it’s fair to say that Killen also wanted to love people on both sides of politics, as the actress and two-time Labor candidate recounted the following from 1982:

I was asked to go down to Melbourne for an industry awards night and the Hon Jim Killen, who was once the president of the Liberal Party, Minister for the Navy and Minister for Defence, was also invited.

We were seated together, with his wife and five other people, for what turned out to be a very long night. Dinner and drinks were served and Jim was getting friendly. “My God, you’re a beautiful woman,” he said to me several times during the course of the meal. After dinner we both had to go to the backstage area of the function centre to wait for our cues. “My God you’re a beautiful woman,” he repeated as he lurched forward. His wife suddenly appeared, and stepped between the two of us, saying, “It’s not your fault, dear. He’s a silly old bastard.”

You would think that having already been knighted and gonged with an AO, someone who spent the late 1990s on the board of a Townsville casino company wouldn’t be top of your list for an even high honour.

But no, the man who vociferously backed John Howard over Andrew Peacock went up a division in 2004 and the PM even announced his death.

The obits were even talking up his bulldust, pointing out that for 25 years he perpetuated a myth that Menzies rang and said “Killen, you are magnificent” after he held on to Moreton by 120 votes in the 1961 cliffhanger election.

Killen may be have been a good drinker, joker and sometime old lech, but that doesn’t make him someone who did fabulous things for the country and deserved to receive an even higher honour 21 years after leaving Parliament.

He did serve in Cabinet with John Howard for all of the Fraser years but was hardly an inspiring Minister in a reforming government. The ADF is his greatest policy legacy but he’s better remembered for his practical jokes and tomfoolery.

Peter Fray

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