March 27, 2024

It's a privilege to contribute to this very sad debate, and I want to echo the fine words from the member for Gippsland, who demonstrated the respect for public service that this House holds and the affection we hold for Joel Fitzgibbon in this place. The member for Gippsland spoke about the connections through his electorate, but also about his service in a ministerial role here. I think that, for me, that's one of the things I want to reflect on: the tragic interaction of those two things which, in this particular case, makes it even more poignant.

It's a rite of passage for Australian schoolkids, certainly for New South Wales schoolkids, to go on an excursion to Canberra. They visit parliament, but the most important building they visit in Canberra is the War Memorial. They inspect the Roll of Honour that lists the over 100,000 Australians who've died fighting for our country. They fought and died for many reasons, but one of the most common was the fight for democracy both here and around the world. That is a theme—the Democratic tradition—I will come back to in my remarks. I wanted to start with that rite of passage to Canberra to see the Roll of Honour and then the parliament to see the heart of Australian democracy.

I had the privilege of being one of the mourners at the memorial service last week in Cessnock. I think it was a real privilege. I know that I can say that every member of the Labor family would have liked to have been there to pay tribute, but there were limited numbers. It was a privilege to be there to pay tribute to Lance Corporal Jack Fitzgibbon.

One of the things that struck me at that service, although I knew it intellectually, was that you cannot have Cessnock without the Fitzgibbons. Cessnock is the heart of the Hunter Valley, and there is no Cessnock without the Fitzgibbons. Their fingerprints are indelible. If you think about where we were at St Joseph's Catholic Church, it was the heart of the Catholic community of a proud Irish Catholic town, to some extent, although that is being contested by the Scots and the Welsh as well. But St Joseph's Catholic Church is one of the landmarks of Cessnock. You've got the football team that three generations of Fitzgibbons played for, the Cessnock Goannas, who are part of the real NRL, 'Newcastle rugby league'. You can't have an NRL without the Cessnock Goannas and the three generations of Fitzgibbons who've played there. Then you have the Fitzgibbon family. For me, without trying to be disrespectful, they are the sort of holy trinity of Cessnock—St Joseph's Catholic Church, the Cessnock Goannas and the Fitzgibbon family. That struck me on that day.

There were hundreds of people in the church. There were hundreds of people outside the church trying to view proceedings remotely. When there was the march behind the gun carriage, people came out from their houses to pay their respects on their front verandahs. Such was the legacy of Lance Corporal Jack Fitzgibbon and the respect for him and his family.

Jack was continuing the noble tradition of his family's public service. It's been remarked upon, I daresay, by every speaker the role of Eric Fitzgibbon as the member for Hunter. He won that seat in 1984, succeeding Bob Brown, and then obviously Joel Fitzgibbon became the member for Hunter in 1996, only retiring from that seat at this election after decades of service, including ministerial roles. Jack was continuing that family tradition not in politics but in serving the country through being part of the Australian Defence Force. His comrades talked about his passion at that memorial service and the fact that when Jack joined up he had one goal, which was to be the best soldier he could be and to be part of the special forces and to join the 2nd Commando Regiment. His commanding officer, in his eulogy, talked about how Jack was a gold standard signaller. Signalling is a military specialty that's essential. It's very hard for the other arms of the military to work without having signallers by their side, and he was a gold standard signaller for the 2nd Commando Regiment. He was also a natural leader, as has been remarked upon. He was not someone who put himself forward for formal leadership roles, but people looked to him to lead and he always stepped up.

I pass on my condolences to all of Jack's comrades in the 2nd Commando Regiment. I am dreadfully sorry for your loss. I know you are all feeling it. To lose someone in a training accident is just heartbreaking. I think part of the tragedy of this is that, while we have lost over 100,000 Australians in war, we have lost many more in training accidents as the ADF work very hard to maintain that level of readiness and that level of capability that you can only have by embracing risk in peacetime to minimise risk in wartime. That's unfortunately the circumstance in which Jack was training and where he tragically lost his life. I think another part of why this is so particularly sad is the resonance with Joel Fitzgibbon's former role as Minister for Defence. I worked alongside Joel when he was Minister for Defence while I was a staffer for Greg Combet, the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Procurement at the time. The tragic irony abounds that one of the hardest parts of Joel's job was ringing families when they had lost a family member in the ADF. And so for Joel—and the Deputy Prime Minister remarked upon this in his contribution—to be on both ends of that phone call, to have made that call to ADF families and to receive that call as an ADF family, is particularly poignant.

I think the character of the pain for this place is particularly resonant. I think it's particularly personal here. Every loss of an ADF member is tragic. It's the loss of someone's son or daughter, brother or sister, mum or dad, and it leaves a vacuum. It leaves a massive hole in a family. But we almost feel like—and, hopefully, I'm not being too forward here—it has left a hole in the parliamentary family, such was the affection for Joel in this place. That affection is important, as it's held by many people who didn't always agree with what Joel stood for. He had his blues, both across the aisle and also within the party room. It's well known that Joel and I had a few disagreements in our time here, but they all came from a good place—that we all wanted the best for the country and, certainly within the caucus, we wanted the best for the Labor Party. After all those things we had a beer and we all worked for a common direction, which was the election of a Labor government to improve Australia. But I think no matter whether you disagreed with Joel on any particular issue, you always knew that he was passionate about improving this country. That's why the loss here was so particularly poignant.

If I can reflect on parliament last week: we saw it at its best, with a condolence motion led by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. And it continued with the Deputy Prime Minister, the defence minister and the shadow defence minister. To have Joel, Di, Caitlin, Grace, Maxine and Kass there was just heartbreaking, but really, really important.

I'll return to my first point in conclusion: it's why I think there's a symmetry in what we're talking about here today. There are school excursions to see the Roll of Honour, a reminder of the loss of life of people who have made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve democracy. They then visit the heart of democracy, which is the Australian Parliament House. Last week we saw on a very personal level the service in Cessnock to commemorate the life of Lance Corporal Jack Fitzgibbon, and then we saw the parliamentary condolence motion in front of Jack's family, continuing and ending today.

I say on behalf of the 150,000 constituents of Shortland, who I have the honour to represent; on behalf of the members of the Hunter Labor caucus, who are very close and who work very closely together—and I have the member for Paterson sitting behind me; on behalf the broader Labor family; and on behalf of all of the parliament that I pass on my condolences to Joel, Di, Caitlin, Grace, Maxine and Jack's partner, Kass. We are dreadfully sorry for your loss. We are incredibly grateful for the service of Jack and the service of your family. But, please, may Jack rest in peace. Vale Lance Corporal Jack Fitzgibbon.