Vale Stewart West: A rare Labor man of principle

May 17, 2023
Labor MPs and friends marching against uranium. From left Stewart West, Senator Arthur Geitzelt, Jill Wran, Neville Wran, Tom Uren, unknown person and Frank Walker. Photo: supplied

Eighteen of his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and my grandmother Mary, witnessed a condolence motion for my beloved late grandfather, the Honourable Stewart John West MP on May 9.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Leader of the Opposition Peter Dutton delivered speeches honouring the moral character and significant achievements of this wonderful man.

The tributes were powerfully worded, but hearing them honour my grandfather for the kinds of things they themselves mostly do not do also made me angry.

Growing up, my cousins and I always called them “Mary” and “Stewart”, not “Grandma” and “Grandpa”. It was from Stewart that I learned the true meaning of solidarity. He stood up staunchly for what he believed in — before and long after his time in parliament.

Stewart worked tirelessly for workers’ rights and he spoke up against Labor and the Coalition’s inhumane refugee policy at rallies in the 2010s. The value of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with others to fight together for your rights and theirs was a powerful lesson.

As I listened to Albanese and Dutton praise my grandfather for his advocacy for refugees, his “unbending principle”, I recalled hearing Stewart passionately argue at one rally that Australia was violating its responsibilities as a signatory to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. A decade later, these criticisms sadly still apply.

As they said “politicians of principle are the ones history tends to remember”, I reflected that parliament today is sorely lacking MPs, who like Stewart, are willing to put their convictions ahead of their own careers.

Albanese and Dutton both began their condolence speeches with stories of Stewart’s longstanding advocacy. He was a lifelong trade unionist, president of the Port Kembla branch of the Waterside Workers Federation, before becoming MP for Cunningham in 1977.

He was, they said, a “Labor man through and through”.

Stewart served as Shadow Minister for the Environment and then as Minister for Immigration, Housing and Administrative Affairs, following the 1983 election.

My grandmother, Mary, recalled the range of concerns he had in an article in the March 31 Illawarra Mercury: “It wasn’t just wages for dock workers, it was environmental [and] refugees, Aboriginal land rights.”

The PM said one of Stewart’s greatest achievements was the policy that saved the Franklin River. “Forty years later, as a direct result of that policy taken by Stewart West, the Franklin still flows wild and free,” Albanese said.

I thought back to a letter I’d read a few weeks before, among the memorabilia on display at Stewart’s funeral. It thanked him for his “unflagging efforts to save the South-West wilderness and the rest of Australia’s remnant wild and scenic heritage”. Sent by Bob Brown in 1982, it closed with: “You encourage us all”.

Many of the things Stewart fought for, including workers’ rights, women’s rights, Aboriginal land rights, rights of refugees, environmental issues, peace and nuclear non-proliferation, encourage me to live up to the example he set.

Albanese and Dutton described how distraught Stewart was after fiercely speaking against a move which sought to change the party position from an immediate ban on uranium mining to one “supporting its phase out over time”, only to see the motion narrowly pass.

Stewart’s convictions led to him to resign from a cabinet position in 1983 after Bob Hawke decided to sell uranium to France. He was reinstated in 1984.

Albanese credited Stewart for “putting his money where his mouth was”. Dutton echoed this, saying: “Whether one agrees with Stewart’s position or not, no-one can deny that he was a man of great courage and that he put his convictions ahead of his own career.”

Unlike the cowardice of many in the room that day, my grandfather actually put his money where his mouth was.

How can parties which accept political donations from coal corporations take the action that is necessary to halt climate change? And there’s the government’s plan to spend $368 billion on nuclear-powered AUKUS submarines and the possible plan to build a base on Stewart’s home turf of Port Kembla.

The PM and Dutton praised my grandfather’s longstanding advocacy for refugees. Albanese said he “was instrumental in reforming Australia’s immigration policy and remained vocal about the plight of refugees long after his political career came to a close”.

I knew this to be true. My grandfather spoke at rallies in the early 2010s against indefinite mandatory offshore detention and published several articles condemning both Labor and the Coalition for what he called “a shockingly negative refugee policy for any country”.

In “Time to live up to our refugee responsibilities”, a piece he wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald in 2014, Stewart pointed out that dumping asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru was Labor’s policy.

“Were we trying to be tougher than the Coalition to gain votes?” he asked. He criticised Labor’s “shock-and-horror deterrent policy”, calling it savage, severe, inhumane and politically stupid. He said it drove caring voters away from Labor and hammered home that it has “no place in a civilised society”.

This was true then and remains true today.

Labor and the Coalition have been in lock step voting against ending immigration detention on Nauru. They stopped Independent MP Andrew Wilkie’s bill, Ending Indefinite and Arbitrary Detention Bill 2022, from being passed.

As I listened to both party leaders praise Stewart for championing the rights of refugees, it was starkly apparent their actions do not measure up.

I listened as the federal budget was tabled on the drive home.

It was strange to hear the half-measures I’d expected confirmed the same day the PM had paid tribute to my grandfather for his convictions.

Labor in opposition criticised the Coalition for not raising the rate of JobSeeker. Albanese shared a video in 2019, criticising Scott Morrison for dodging a question about whether he could live on $40 a day. Morrison deflected by saying: “We have made those choices about priorities rather than increasing the size of the welfare budget.”

Albo’s response then was: “Of course he couldn’t live on $40 a day. No one can. And that’s exactly why Newstart should be increased.” Now Labor is crowing about a surplus, while raising JobSeeker by a scant $2.85 a day or $40 a fortnight. This is less than what the Coalition raised it by in 2019, $50 a fortnight.

After an election, Albanese has changed his tune. This is but one of the many budget choices that show where Labor’s priorities lie.

Where are those principles you praised my grandfather for, Albo?

My family closed Stewart’s funeral with a rousing rendition of Solidarity Forever. I sang it at the top of my voice, just as I had a few months before at the rally of striking teachers, proud to stand with my colleagues.

At that strike, at Stewart’s funeral and at the condolence motion, I reflected on what I’ve learned from my grandfather.

Stewart continued to stand up for what he believed in, right up until dementia tragically robbed him of his powerfully righteous coherence.

Albanese said he was “grateful for the advice that [Stewart] gave me as a young man and for the lessons that he taught me”.

If it’s true that “politicians of principle are the ones history tends to remember” I implore Albo to reflect on that. What legacy do you want to leave?

Have the courage to stand by your convictions even if it risks your parliamentary career. Honour Stewart West in actions, not just in words.

Vale Stewart West, 1934–2023.

[Emily McGrath is a granddaughter of Stewart West.]

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