November 20, 2005 | Jeff Wall

A political icon celebrates his 80th birthday

Next Wednesday the Honourable Sir (Dennis) James Killen will celebrate his 80th birthday, and last night his many friends from across the political and community divide gathered at the Irish Club to mark the occasion.
It is fortunate that Jim Killen served in the Parliament of the nation in an earlier era because today’s sterile Parliament would surely drive him to follow his observation about the losing punter who was last seen heading towards the Gateway Bridge with a step ladder.
He loved Parliament in its purest form…as a forum for robust debate, cutting humour and oratory. The current Parliament, and its recent predecessors, fail miserably to deliver any of these qualities.
When I first began listening to Parliament on the ABC over 40 years ago, our National Parliament was blessed with some of the great orators, and political operators, in our history.
Robert Gordon Menzies, Arthur Augustus Calwell, Edward Joseph Ward, Frederick Michael Daly, Wilfred Kent Hughes, John McEwen, Clyde Robert Cameron, Thomas Eyre Forrest Hughes, Edward Gough Whitlam and Dennis James Killen in particular.
Only the latter four are alive today…and unsurprisingly Jim Killen keeps in regular contact his three former colleagues them.
In today’s House of Representatives you would struggle to fine ONE Member who would come even close to any of the above when it comes to oratory, political skill, or in the case of Hughes, eminence in his profession. Maybe Peter Costello?
The above possessed these qualities in varying degrees – oratory, independence of spirit, humour and wit, and a capacity for political ruthlessness. Some had all of them, others just one of them.
Jim Killen is best remembered, in my view, for his humour and wit, and his capacity to laugh at his own expense. How lacking are those qualities in today’s politicians?
I served as a very junior Ministerial Press Secretary when Jim was on the backbench in the McMahon Government. He and Tom Hughes sat immediately behind the Ministry – convenient positions when they wanted to tear strips off the Government.
I recall as if it were yesterday Jim’s response to the hapless Billy McMahon’s plaintive comment, “there are times when I am my own worst enemy”.
Killen’s instant response – “not while I am here you are not” – brought the House down.
After the 1975 election, when his great friend Fred Daly retired from Parliament, Killen arranged for Daly to bring his Old English sheep dog, Sir John, to be brought to Parliament House to be interviewed for a job in Killen’s office to help supplement Daly’s pension.
The attendants tried to block the dog’s entry…until Killen intervened to assure them Sir John was being interviewed for a job with the highest security classification. A priceless picture of Sir John with pen in paw “signing on” adorns Killen’s study.
The pranks he masterminded would today probably cause a major security alert!
And his exercise of his right to “cross the floor” – done more than once – would probably secure his expulsion from his party. And his interjections at the most opportune moment would surely attract the disapproval of the drabbest Speaker the Parliament has ever had to endure…the current one.
Jim Killen was fortunate to enter Parliament in an era when debate was robust, to put it mildly, and, when opponents were taken to pieces, but respected!
I recall him telling me on more than one occasion that the first advice he was given when he enter Parliament came from the distinguished then Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer, the Rt Hon Arthur William Fadden.
Fadden pulled him aside and told firm sternly “remember, Killen, in this place all the best batsmen are not in the one team.”
That helped give Jim the unique capacity to make, and keep, friends across the political divide…without surrendering his own beliefs in any way shape or form.
I know that when he watches “question time” today he despairs at how drab it has become. And he is rightly appalled by the fact that interjections, once the meat, bread and wine of Parliament, are simply not tolerated any longer.
But he has led a rich and interesting political life. He has made a legion of friends and very few enemies.
And, largely due to the personal intervention of John Howard, his relationship with the political party he helped to form has been restored.
In recent years he has endured bereavement and poor physical health, but his mind is as sharp as ever, and his wife, Benise, gives him the most steadfast care and support.
And his weekly telephone chats with Edward Gough Whitlam help keep his humour intact.
As he prepares to celebrate 80 interesting years, I wish him well.
It is an honour to have him regard me as a friend.

Posted by Jeff Wall at 11:53 am | Comments Off on A political icon celebrates his 80th birthday |
Filed under: Australian Politics

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