I rise to speak in this condolence motion to a very dear friend of mine. I met him when I came into this parliament in 1996, along with the member for Fisher, and we struck up a friendship. One of the things that we found was a lot of commonality between the members from the west and the members for Queensland.
[Mr Brough interjecting]
'Frontier states,' he says, and there may well be something in that.
Don's first service here was as the member for Swan. In him we found a very interesting character and somebody who was nobody's fool. I think Don early in his political career made a conscious decision that he was going to be there for the people of his electorate and certainly not there for his own political career or the benefits that he might derive through promotion, et cetera. Unfortunately, in that first instance, his service was relatively short. He was defeated in 1998 in the general election, and that was quite devastating for Don at the time.
Even though I had only known him for a couple of years at that point, I made an effort to contact him. I was so pleased I did because one of the things Don said to me was: 'When you're in this place everybody wants to know you, but the moment you become the feather duster suddenly the phone stops ringing and you never hear from any or very few of your colleagues.' He said to me that the value of a friendship is those who pick up the phone and want to talk to you. I was so pleased that I was one of those who picked up the phone and talked to him at that time. I think that really gives me a right to say, 'Yes, he was a true friend.'
I reflect on losing Don. I was in the Darwin airport ready to board a military charter aircraft to go into the Middle East and I was about to remove my SIM card, as instructed—I was told I had to take the SIM card out of my mobile phone so it could not be tracked while travelling to the Middle East on this short deployment. The last message I received was: 'Do you know whether it is true that Don has passed away?' I could not believe it.
I rang several colleagues, but I could not get anybody. I did get the foreign minister, and she confirmed it. It was very difficult getting onto that plane; at the time I was quite emotional, not knowing exactly what had happened but knowing that it had happened. I thought, 'In the eight days I am away, there is nothing else I can do.' I had arranged that, when I returned, instead of turning right to go to Cairns, I turned left to go to Perth. I had the privilege of attending the service for Don. I found it amazing: I thought I knew someone but I really did not know very much about this man at all.
In preparing today, I looked over at the seat Don occupied and I thought, 'I want to put something there so people realise that Don sat there'—that every time they look at that empty seat, they will see that white rose and they will reflect on Don. I have asked that, while that seat remains empty, I would like that rose to stay there so people can remember that he is still here with us in one way or another. That rose symbolises that.
I do not want people to forget him like they did in 1998—when he came back in 2001, he came back with a vengeance. He really did some amazing work.
As the member for Fisher said, Don had no fear. Often Don's contribution in the party room would be controversial but you could never argue that he was not being absolutely straight to the point. He would say exactly what he thought. People knew that. But, he could walk outside the room and have a civil conversation and move on. I think that was his greatest strength.
We have heard so many different achievements that he has had in his electorate, and all that praise is well deserved. His service to his constituents is legendary, and in the funeral service we heard about the mobile maintenance unit, the burying of the rabbit, the pruning of the rose trees—which he kept doing year in and year out. The number of people at his funeral service was extraordinary—his constituents. The Green Army turned out in force in respect for him, and there were many stories told.
We talk about Don's history, coming from the Wheat belt in Western Australia. I thought I knew a lot about Don. I knew he was a school teacher, and I knew that he had an absolute passion for educating and supporting disabled children. We know about his focus on autism and his walk around his electorate and how it raised money, and we know about the Clontarf Foundation, which thrives because of Don identifying the value of that foundation and then making sure that it got the appropriate level of financial support.
I knew those things—I knew he was a crusty old bugger and I knew he loved Italian and, I have to say, his love of red wine was pretty special. Whenever I would take a bottle, he would look at my bottle with absolute disdain and reflect on how it was nowhere near as good as what he had. Interestingly enough, I could usually take my bottle home because he would have two or three there to enjoy. That demonstrates some of the very special character of this wonderful man.
I knew that Don had an interest in horses, but usually when somebody has an interest in racehorses the racehorses are slow, but he actually won races with horses that he trained. I did learn at his service that he had often secured interests in horses without the knowledge of his beautiful wife, and they were looking for people to come forward to let them know where the interests were. What I did not know about Don was that he was a bronco rider—a rodeo rough-rider.
When I walked over to the marquee where they were doing the service I wondered why in the hell there was this hat and all this garb, and I suddenly realised. He was a beekeeper, and somewhat of a connoisseur of roses. You would not have expected that. There was a young fellow playing a violin, and there was this beautiful old 100-year-old violin sitting there on a stand that he had gifted to his daughter. I thought I knew a lot about Don but, frankly, there is so much that I did not know.
I can tell you that when I was the Chief Whip in the last parliament he was an absolute nightmare— he was the one guy that I could not corral. Come Thursday night, no matter what the pressure was in this place—we had a hung parliament—Don was gone. I would say to Don when he came back, 'Look, mate, we really have to work something out here', and he would always say, 'Mate, I've got to get home to the family; I've got a commitment in my electorate.' Without fear or favour he just said, 'Sorry, I'm going to go,' and he did. While it was frustrating for me and it took about two of the three years of my tenure in that role to work out an arrangement that was acceptable for both of us, it reinforced his commitment that, no matter what, he had to be home with his family and with his electorate.
Many members have referred to Julie and Tess and Elliott, but there is another member of the family that has not been mentioned very often—and his name is Bruno. Bruno is the most unattractive English bulldog that I have ever set eyes on. He is seriously ugly. Yet in Don's eyes he was absolutely beautiful. At the service they made reference to the fact that Don grew up in a household where dogs belonged in the back yard and the people were in the house. Bruno had crossed the threshold and was allowed just inside the front door. I am told that Bruno is actually suffering quite severely from the loss of Don—he is feeling it quite badly—and Julie tells me that he now has much more liberated access to the house.
The last time I had some time with Don was only a few weeks before he passed away. I was in Western Australia and I was due to go on the red-eye back to Cairns. I spoke to Don and he said I might as well come around and he would show me his new house, which he took great pride in. He said to go over and have a meal with them.
Julie was out at the time, and Don had been given the responsibility of looking after the lamb roast and the veggies, which he was quite happy to do. We sat out on the balcony and we enjoyed a Cuban cigar and several of his top-quality reds. Unfortunately, in the process, we forgot about the vegetables in the oven. By the time we sat down, we had seriously burnt offerings.
We grieve for Don. I do. I look across at the white rose at his place in this chamber, and in my view that is the spirit of Don sitting here. He loved his roses, so part of Don is sitting there.
He was never an ambassador officially, but there was the work that he did in Sri Lanka and the love that that community had for him; the work that he did in Japan and the respect that the Japanese embassy had for him; and the wonderful work that he did for the Cubans in recent times. I have seen some great photographs of Don in one of those beautiful old Cuban motor cars—with, of course, a Cuban cigar and a good Cuban rum! They are big shoes to fill. I think he made a huge difference.
Finally, I would like to mention Don's staff. Chloe was with Don at the time, when he left us, and you can imagine just how difficult that must have been for that young woman. But she was very, very strong. At the service, she spoke brilliantly and she gathered together all of the staff. When you see them all together with young Chloe, who actually wound up the service with some great stories about Don, you have to admire Don's people, if you like—Don's staff. They did a fabulous job. I say thank you to Chloe and the team for what you did in organising that.
From the moment this dreadful tragedy happened, they were there, backing up and supporting Julie and Tess and Elliott through this difficult time. They are still with them here, as we speak, offering them that very, very strong support. I was absolutely overwhelmed by it, as I think were so many of Don's friends who were able to make it to the service. He is resting in a most beautiful place, an absolutely beautiful place. The tragedy is that he was taken far too soon, far too soon. I think it makes us all reflect a little on our own mortality.
One thing that I say in all honesty is that I regularly would give him a big hug and tell him how much I loved him as a person. That sometimes did not rest too well with Don! Nevertheless, he appreciated the gesture. To Julie, and Tess and Elliott: my deepest condolences for such an untimely and tragic loss. We still love him to bits. We are certainly going to miss him—no doubt about that. He was someone who had a profound impact in this place. As Chloe rightfully said at the service, 'Don never lost Canning; Canning lost Don.'
Vale, my friend, and have a good journey. Love you to pieces.
Image above courtesy of Mick Tsikas AAP