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.