Condolence Motion - Leslie Royston Johnson AM

Click here to watch Sharon’s speech 

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (18:48): It is a great honour to be able to contribute to this parliamentary recognition of the life of Les Johnson, a former member of this place and a very well-loved local in our region. I acknowledge the presence of the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, who was able to attend the funeral with me, and Les's widow, Marion, who is also with us this evening. In the contributions to date, members have focused on Les's work nationally as a minister and locally in the Sutherland shire, which was the heart of his electorate. Les loved the shire. For that community he contributed much, and his legacy will be forever remembered, there is absolutely no doubt about that.

His achievements on the national stage have been well traversed by honourable members in this debate, so I also thank them for their kind words. I thank the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, in particular, for their generous remarks. However, members may not be aware that for much of Les's long time in public office—a total of 25 years, as we have heard—the division of Hughes also extended southward into the Illawarra, into what is now the electorate of Cunningham that I represent.

Les formed close working relationships with the people of the Illawarra as well as the shire, and our community is grateful for his service and support over those many long years in office. Les always attended May Day rallies and marches in the Illawarra. He knew the symbolic importance of this and enjoyed a good relationship with the union movement of our region as well. And, as he did in the shire, Les worked at the grassroots level with many local organisations and Labor branch members in the Illawarra, winning their great confidence and support. In the Labor Party this is no mean feat. Back then, in the mid-1950s, the northern Illawarra Labor branches of Bulli, Thirroul, Scarborough and Helensburgh were tough crowds. The membership was tribal, mostly made up miners and railwaymen, and Les was an outsider from the shire; he was not of either tribe. But he was a working man and a practical man. He had been the delegate of his union and he had organised and agitated for workers to protect workers' rights and to promote workers' safety, and so he won them over. Les's son Grant remembers as a boy travelling with his father down the coast a couple of times each week, visiting branches and community meetings one after the other down the coast road. Once elected to office, Les would hold mobile electorate office meetings every second Saturday or so in the Thirroul Railway Institute hall, which still stands today as a monument to local Labor history and has been painstakingly restored by the local community.

At Les's state funeral, stories were recalled, as told by Les, of meeting the Scarborough Labor branch for the first time in the mid-1950s, mostly tough old coal miners. As a sort of test of his manhood, he had to drink six beers in a row before giving his speech. He also recalled addressing the Helensburgh branch, where one of his preselection opponents appealed to the audience for their vote because, he said, 'I am the only one that has been to university.' Les was next to speak and to the surprise of preselectors he said: 'Members, unfortunately for my dear friend here, it is just not true. I, too, went to university and probably no-one here knows that. That's right. My brother and I went right through Sydney university as boys, recycling bottles during the Depression to help put food on our family's table.' Through his words, Les had a real way of connecting with people, and through his words and his deeds, as we have heard in this debate, we remember Les Johnson as a remarkable Australian. The essence of it, according to Les, was just to work hard and to communicate well—'Not really all that difficult if you had the knack like I did,' as he said.

One of the closest working relationships that Les formed in the Illawarra was with Jim and Lois Hagan. Sadly, we lost Jim about five years ago, but it was good to see Lois at Les's state funeral recently. Lois is a life member of the ALP, as was Les. The Hagans first met Les in the Caringbah branch in 1954 at the time of Les's preselection. As we have heard in the debate, that was a time when Labor was bitterly divided. Jim used to say that you could go to some branch meetings back then and literally draw a line down the middle of the room, so divided were they. One of Les's lasting legacies is that he played no small part in helping to heal those rifts. He brought people together and, although his initial preselection was highly contested—there were 11 candidates—he won the members' confidence and was never challenged.

Jim and Lois moved to Austinmer about 10 years later and, along with others like Keith Woodward, Paul and Kaye Tuckerman, Norman and Kathleen Smith, Maurie and Connie Lawless, Bill McKay and Rob and Josie Castle, they became the bedrock of the Thirroul branch for the next 40 years. They were great friends and political partners in Hughes. Jim was president of the Hughes Federal Electorate Council for years and Les's long-term campaign director. In fact, when Jim passed away, Les dedicated each of his election victories to his comrade and friend.

Les's reputation as a local campaigner was legendary, and Jim and Lois were right there by his side. Les made so many contributions to the Illawarra community during his time in office—too many to list—and we are grateful for all of them. But in recent years, towards the end of his life, Les also gave generously of his time to help catalogue the history of the Labor Party in the Northern Illawarra. It is recorded in Chris Lacey's book titled Illawarra Agitators about which I have reported to the House previously. Les was often in demand for Labor campaigns in those early years—not least, it must be said, because he was one of the very few members who owned a car, as well. Les often spoke about the early years campaigning with Gough Whitlam and of his time in the Whitlam ministry. Chris has told me that the book could not have been done so comprehensively without Les's help, and that he will be forever grateful to Les for it. He is also very grateful to Marion, who, as I said, is with us today and who, because of Les's failing eyesight, would have to read long emails and early manuscripts to Les to verify the content. Chris had the honour of presiding over Les's state funeral as MC a little over a week ago. I am told that Marion had lined him up for the task about two years ago after the Thirroul branch centenary dinner, and he was only too happy to do it for his friend.

In my conclusion to this contribution I want to share with the House Chris's own words. Chris, who is the president of the Thirroul branch now, took up writing the book after Jim Hagan had passed away. Jim had done so much work on it, and then Chris saw it to its completion, spending a lot of time with Les. It left a very lasting mark on him. Chris writes: 

What a remarkable man was the late the Hon. Leslie Royston Johnson, a man that everyone knew simply and fondly as 'Les'. Here was a man who had impact on his community and for the nation; a man whose time had come, and who used it well. It was a great privilege to have known Les towards the end of his long life, and to have spent many hours talking with him. He was a child of the Depression, a boy who went to work at 14 to support his family, who put himself through night school—in Les's own words, "an angry young radical" who saw injustice in his community and in his workplace, joined his trade union and agitated and organised people to his cause. An aspiring politician who artfully navigated through Labor's most divisive moment to win a contested pre-selection, but who then won the party's confidence and was never challenged. A comrade and confidant who shared the sage of great Labor men: Les Haylen, Doc Evatt, Lionel Murphy and, of course, Gough Whitlam. A witness and, indeed, an actor in some of Labor's historic events who pursued new national initiatives in housing policy and Aboriginal affairs. A Labor life member whose party ticket was first date stamped when Curtin was Prime Minister. And above all, a man with the conviction to fight for his values and what he thought was right and good.

But for all the accolades and achievements, anecdotes about Labor's trials and personalities—important though they are—in the end, it was Les the man who made the most impact on me: his enthusiasm and energy that was apparent in everything he did, even at the age of 90; his discipline and commitment to his craft—he was a planner and an organiser; his deep connection to community and to justice, whether here or abroad; his wit and humour, with a mind like a steel trap and the memory of an elephant; and, ultimately, his positive outlook on life.

Through his long life Les had the support of a loving family whom he also loved. It was truly an honour to be entrusted by Les, his wife Marion and children Grant and Jenny with the deep and solemn responsibility to preside over his state funeral. I had the good fortune of seeing Les one final time for a weekend about a month before his passing, and we had the opportunity to talk about service and what was important to him. It was very sad to say goodbye to my friend for that last time, but I think Les would have been pleased with how it all went. There were very generous contributions made by the Hon. Tony Whitlam QC, the Hon. Michael Egan on behalf of the Hon. Paul Keating, and the Hon. Bob Hawke. His children, Grant and Jenny, gave loving and heartfelt family tributes for their dad. Although Les was not a religious man, he loved to sing old hymns that he had learned as a boy. He sang them every day, so he would have been pleased that the service included one of his favourites, How Great Thou Art, sung by classical soprano Ms Morgan Balfour.

I concluded the service in the following way: although another of the great Labor men of old has passed into history, let us remember him well. Let us honour his memory by dedicating ourselves to a life that is rich and as purposeful and as joyful as the one that he led. Les would expect us to remember him with a smile and, yes, perhaps even with a song. The words of Joyce Grenfell's poem Life Goes On sum up our old friend well:

    If I should go before the rest of you,

    Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone.

    Nor, when I am gone, speak in a Sunday voice,

    But be the usual selves that I have known.

    Weep if you must, 

    Parting is hell. 

    But life goes on,

    So….sing as well

Vale Les Johnson.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: I understand it is the wish of honourable members to signify at this stage their respect and sympathy by rising in their places.

Honourable members having stood in their places—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: I thank the Federation Chamber.