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Dec 11, 2014

Faulkner’s retirement a loss across many fronts

Labor Senator John Faulkner's retirement marks the end of an era in Australian politics.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Labor senator John Faulkner, it feels like, has been in the Senate forever; in fact, it’s only 25 years, which is long enough, from the Hawke era to the Abbott — if it deserves the title yet — era. Four Labor Prime Ministers, ten (by my count, I might have missed one or two) leaders, a variety of ministerial positions, mainly in the defence and environment/miscellaneous portfolios. But his finest work was as Kevin Rudd’s special minister of state, in which, however briefly, Australians got the sort of commitment to transparency and good governance that all governments should embrace and which all parties promise in opposition, but which none, ever, deliver.

By that point Faulkner had morphed from a respected warrior of the NSW Labor Left into Labor’s elder statesman. During the long years in opposition, he had become, with Robert Ray, a machine of forensic scrutiny at Senate Estimates. His mere appearance at the table served as a warning to bureaucrats that the normal tricks and games by which public servants shielded their ministers and avoided exposure would not work; Faulkner would sit there, staring icily at them, almost always civil to a fault, but relentless in his questioning. After 2007, many a Coalition senator sought to emulate Faulkner and Ray, but none of them came even close. They did, however, respect Faulkner, and still do, probably more than many on the NSW Labor Right do.

But Faulkner seemed more suited for opposition, where the compromises and venality of government were absent: he furiously broke ranks in Caucus in 2013 when the Gillard government moved to water down his political donation reforms following a deal with Tony Abbott (a deal that Abbott welshed on, in any event). Faulkner had pushed major changes to improve the transparency of political donation laws under Rudd, but the Coalition, and the appalling Steve Fielding, combined to block them, a major defeat for basic accountability and good government for which we continue to pay the price.

And every bit as important was Faulkner’s work on the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, behind the often-closed doors of which he pushed back against intelligence agencies, and their obedient ministers, who tried to extend their powers and reduce their accountability. The biggest loss from the timing of his retirement will be that he will not be in Parliament to keep the push going for the expansion of JCIS into something resembling the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee in the United States, which — with the proper membership — can provide a potent form of oversight of spies inclined to do what they want and worry about the law later. With Victorian Labor colleague Anthony Byrne, Faulkner has begun the task of overhauling JCIS; it will be up to his Labor colleagues to continue it.

So, too, will the push to reform Labor suffer from his departure: Faulkner’s has been a powerful voice calling for more grassroots participation and power in a party hollowed out by cynicism, factional games and hackery, not merely within the rotten NSW Labor branch, but in his review, with Steve Bracks and Bob Carr, of the party’s 2010 performance.

Of course his departure is a big loss — to Labor, to the Senate and Parliament, to public life. There are so few like him, when we need more who want to copy his example, not merely in the remorseless pursuit of bureaucrats in Senate committees but in holding close to the principles of transparency, accountability and better government, no matter what the short-term cost.

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10 thoughts on “Faulkner’s retirement a loss across many fronts

  1. Steven Grant Haby

    Senate Estimates will never be the same.

    A sad loss to the ALP.

    Hopefully Doug “Dougie” Cameron can step up and fill the good senator’s shoes as a frank and fearless perfomer in Estimates with his own inmitable style.

  2. GF50

    Thanks BK; you have nailed the loss from JF’s departure to Australia.

  3. Yclept

    A sad loss to us all…

  4. zut alors

    Alas, sorry to see John Faulkner finally making his well-deserved escape after 25 years of parliamentary service.

    Lindsay Tanner & John Faulkner in the ranks lent gravitas to the ALP.

  5. Neutral

    well that’s it then …L1 & L2 should just merge, monopolise and save us the pretense and expense of elections…

  6. Desmond Graham

    Brilliant standard of journalism Gold Coast Bulletin report -best Prime Minister we never
    experienced :-
    ‘Senator Faulkner wished Bill Shorten and his “caucus colleagues” well and thanked his staff.

    But when asked who he thought was Labor’s best leader, he promptly answered: “John Curtain”, sidelining Shorten, Julia Gillard, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.’

    Well so much for the erudition of modern journalism.

  7. jmendelssohn

    Before Faulkner was a politician he taught disabled children. I always wondered if that gave him both a sense of perspective as to what really matters in life. And the skills to deal with those of his colleagues who lacked life experience.

  8. Norman Hanscombe

    Steven Haby, if you think Doug Cameron has the intellectual capacity to fill Faulkner’s shoes, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise.
    John’s choice of Curtin as our best Federal Leader ever is a good one, but we’re possibly fortunate he didn’t give second place, because it’s likely Shorten, Gillard, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating [mentioned by one poster] might still not have received a place.

  9. K.D. Afford

    Indeed, I will miss his quality, no doubt the dogs in opposition are clapping, but they are all diseased with failure!

  10. K.D. Afford

    Sorry, I mean, in government, I only see them in opposition, to everything fair and democratic. Wait for them to howl at the moon in the new year and continue to blame Labor for their own inabilit to govern!