Ken Fry, 1920-2007

November 10, 2007

"When Ken Fry came back from a funeral several years ago he complained that one of the speakers 'went on about the bloke as though he was a blessed saint … I hope they don't go on about me like that when I go …'."

These were the opening words of the first of several eulogies for Dr Ken Fry at a memorial function held at the Canberra Press Club on November 9, spoken by his son Warwick. Ken was the federal member for Fraser (North Canberra) for 10 years. He died peacefully at his home on October 10 this year.

The range of a lifetime of activity on the left was reflected in the speakers, from the ALP left, the republican movement, and movements for international solidarity, human rights and an independent East Timor.

Ken was essentially a modest person, although he had rubbed shoulders with people like Noam Chomsky, and Nobel Laureates like Gabriel Garcia Marquez while serving on several of the Popular People's Tribunals and in other international human rights forums. He worked with future leaders like Jose Ramos Horta (now himself a Nobel Laureate and president of East Timor) while serving as parliamentary representative at the United Nations. There, with Horta, he succeeded in counteracting Indonesian lobbying to reverse the vote of several countries and maintained the international status of East Timor (now Timor Leste) as an independent nation state. This status disallowed recognition of its integration into Indonesia.

Dr Alastair Greig, head of the sociology department at the Australian National University, described the impression Ken had made on him as a student activist in the 1980s. Ken was a patron of the combined solidarity network — Central America, Chile, the Philippines, East Timor and Turkey — that thrived under the umbrella of Ken's patronage in a kind of Golden Age of solidarity activism. Working discreetly as a backbencher on small, virtually ignored parliamentary committees and sub-committees, Ken and a couple of left colleagues quietly achieved the establishment of programs like the Special Humanitarian refugee program, that enabled thousands of the victims of right-wing repression in Latin America to escape to Australia. Many of these were in the audience at the memorial, as was the ambassador of Timor Leste.

Outside the ALP, the scale of his work for an independent East Timor tended to overshadow Ken's role and achievements within the ALP, which were often underestimated by his colleagues. But in the early days of his (unintended) political career he was instrumental in making the Australian Capital Territory branch of the ALP branch independent of New South Wales. This freed the ACT ALP from the heavy hand of the NSW right-wing executive, and accounted for the burgeoning of a healthy left in ALP politics. Certainly in the days of the Vietnam moratoriums and the Springbok anti-apartheid demonstrations the ACT ALP was the home base for progressive academics, unionists, and student activists of the day, allowing them a freedom of action and expression seldom seen since.

Yet, through much of his parliamentary career, Ken would still drop in for a quiet beer at the Canberra Rex hotel where he could relax with the same old friends he had first met there when it was a student pub and he was a shy newcomer to Canberra. This, as much as his activism, was the keynote of many of the eulogies spoken for Ken. He was genuinely interested in people as people, not as status symbols, or political capital, or opportunities for career advancement. It accounts for the extraordinary popularity that enabled him work against the more conservative political grain. It informed his integrity and his ability to achieve apparently impossible results — like the UN vote on East Timor — across apparently irreconcilable differences — like laying a wreath for Women Against Rape in war at the Australian War Memorial, or dissuading the Federal Police from the violent removal of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in front of Old Parliament House.

Ken's respect for people and resilience was informed by intellectual honesty and a tough sense of humour. He was a secular humanist to the end. It was expressed in his deathbed attitude. His son Warwick spoke of how he reacted to phone calls from Horta and many email tributes. There was one in particular from his old comrade Rob Wesley Smith that was particularly heartfelt. His daughter read it out to him and asked him if he would like parts of it to be read at his funeral ceremony. His response was: "I don't give a stuff what you say. I won't be around."

Looking at the audience, Warwick summed up the impression Ken's life had made. "He leaves a legacy of enduring friendships that empowers, rather than making us vulnerable to the powerful."

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