March 28, 2022
I rise to add my condolences to my friend Senator Kitching and in doing so I recognise her family in the gallery today.
I say “friend” with sincerity, irony and sadness.
“Sincerity” because I don’t mean friend as we often do in politics as a synonym for “professional acquaintance”. Senator Kitching had a genuine interest in my life and my family away from this place, as I did for her.
“Irony”because I confess when she first arrived in this place, I was wary. Her reputation proceeded her and like others I had heard all the warnings about her. But whether I liked it or not she was determined to be my friend, and the earlier I gave in the easier it would be.
In fact, I distinctly remember being puzzled by how, with her husband Andrew in tow, she enthusiastically sought me and my wife Lydia out at a reception at Yarralumla hosted by the Governor General at the commencement of the parliament after the 2016 election. I think I even remarked to Lydia how random it was for this freshly minted Labor backbencher to be reaching out to an almost equally freshly minted Liberal backbencher. But clearly, she just knew before I did that we would become kindred spirits.
And “sadness” because in the extensive commentary we have all read since her passing, I learned that her friendship with me and others on my side of the aisle was an apparent justification for the treatment she received while she was here.
In the aftermath of Kimberley’s death, I refrained from publicly commenting on these issues for two reasons.
Firstly,I thought it was important that those who knew her best from within the Labor Party and the labour movement who could most authentically tell this story should be given the space to do so. I didn’t want the discussion about her experience here to be a partisan debate.
Secondly, I share the desire of her family that her life’s work not be judged through this prism alone or for her many achievements to be obscured by it.
I will speak about it today only because as someone who was a close witness of Kimberley’s time here, I feel I have a duty to history to share what I observed, and because I think there are important wider lessons to be drawn about the way politics is functioning in this country today.
I don’t do so with any animosity. I don’t come here to point any fingers or name any names or settle any scores. I certainly don’t claim perfection for myself or my side of politics either.
But I believe the idea that this can and should simply be dismissed with a glib line or two does Kimberley and everyone who will follow in her wake a gross disservice.
I am also not one of those people who claims to be an expert on the internal workings of other political parties. I don’t know whether it is true, as some have claimed, that there was never any real threat to her preselection. But if it is true that her place here was assured then it seems especially cruel that it was dangled in front of her for as long as it was.
There is no doubt in my mind that she was under significant pressure over the past few months. She confided in me about the ostracisation and exclusion she often experienced here in Canberra within her own party. Combined with the shift in the balance within the Victorian ALP and her unresolved preselection, she was not herself, something that many of her friends discussed in the last few months.
Given that her friendship with me and other Liberals has been cited as a reason why she was distrusted by some of her own colleagues, I feel duty bound, on the pain of misleading the parliament, to state that she never – not once –inappropriately shared with me internal Labor Party tactics and strategy.
Nor do I share the view, expressed by some commentators on the left and the right,that she was somehow not really a committed member of the Labor cause, that she was somehow a closet Liberal.
On the contrary, from what I observed, she was passionately, tribally, Labor.
It is true, as some have written, that she was a bit of a throwback to a tradition within the labour movement that is not as strong today as it was in the second half of the 20th century. I don’t think she would have thought it was an insult to be called a “Cold War Catholic” – and in that way she was a modern custodian of a very important intellectual tradition which was crucial in underpinning a united western response to the threat of Soviet Communism.
But I suspect that the next few years will demonstrate that far from being an historical oddity, Kimberley was ahead of her time and that her deeply felt and proudly held belief in democracy for the rest of the world as well as for us is coming back into fashion, quickly. I certainly hope so – because without people of Kimberley’s strength and conviction on the left of politics, we are going to find our uncertain strategic environment much more difficult to navigate.
It is of concern to me that her friendships with Liberals and our cooperation on national security matters has been alluded to as an explanation for her estrangement from some of her colleagues.
I think the expectation the Australian people have of us is that we do work together cooperatively on what are existential challenges. That’s not to say that genuine philosophical differences won’t arise from time to time – both between and within political parties. Nor that they should be papered over fora bland bipartisanship which denies voters a choice.
But where we do see eye to eye and where there are opportunities to work together in the national interest, we must take them. I worry that the lesson her colleagues will take from Kimberley’s experience is that it is not worth it.
And there are other people on the Labor side who I work with closely and professionally, and whose company I sometimes even enjoy. Yes, some of them are the obvious ones – but not all of them. For the sake of their careers, I won’t name them here today.
Senator Kitching and I were co-conspirators in a shared enterprise with a handful of our colleagues to drag both of our political parties to a more realistic appraisal of Australia’s relationship with China, and its plans and intentions for the region.
Although I concede we had some help from the Chinese Communist Party and Xi Jinping, I think any fair assessment will show that in setting out on this path five years ago we were ahead of our time and have had some impact.
So,I note with some cynicism that the same commentators who confidently assert there is no difference between the two major parties on China also cite Kimberley’s views on the topic as another reason for the cold shoulder she felt from some colleagues. It requires some cognitive dissonance to believe both.
If there really is no difference between us on China then Senator Kitching was an indispensable part of forging that consensus and should be celebrated, not shunned, for it.
Senator Kitching has rightly been recognised for her leadership on legislating a Magnitsky Act. It will be a very fine part of her legacy when kleptocrats, human rights abusers and malign cyber actors who threaten us bear a real cost for their conduct with Australia playing a proud part.
At the very least, we got here much earlier than we otherwise would have without her determined and consistent advocacy. We had a similar experience of being publicly in favour of Magnitsky-style sanctions regimes before either of our parties had come to accept the idea.
Politics is the art of conversion. It would be churlish and unwise to condemn people who come to the same view you do, only later. But it is remarkable that Senator Kitching got much more international recognition for her work on Magnitsky than she ever did here in Australia or within her own party.
During the debate about the Foreign Relations Bill, in defence of the provision which empowers the Foreign Minister as the final arbiter for whether an agreement with a foreign power should remain in force, I made the point that I would be more comforted knowing a future Labor Foreign Minister would make that decision instead of some sort of committee, however constituted. Because they were in the chamber and because of their interests in these issues, I said I would be happy to see that power in the hands of a future Foreign Minister Wong, Ayres or Kitching.
Kimberley told me later how amused she was to see the raised eyebrows I got back from her side of the chamber, and we agreed it probably wasn’t the idea of Senator Ayres filling the role that they objected to.
But the truth is in Kimberley, Australia and the Labor Party have lost what would have been a very fine Foreign Affairs, Defence or Home Affairs Minister. Just look at how much she achieved here in six years from opposition and imagine what she could have achieved if she had the chance to be a senior cabinet minister in a future Labor government.
Yes, she spoke five languages, travelled widely and had an inherent interest in Australia’s place in the world. But more important than that was how she was driven by the national interest – and the burdens she was willing to bear in defence of it. When it came to national security, she always put country before party, as we should all strive to do.
I do not want to remember Kimberley as a victim. It was her defiance and her grit and her resolve that I most admired about her. I think she shamed a lot of us to do more for the causes that we believed in with her courage.
Some in social media land have objected to the label “patriot” when it comes to Kimberley. But I know it is a badge she wore with pride. And that’s exactly what she was – a true Australian patriot, a friend of freedom and a tireless warrior for her cause. We should all aspire to be remembered that way.
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