14 March 2024


It is a very sad honour to speak with you all today. I think the honour that we share to be here all together is the greatest of all. 


I have to say, for a politician I have a terrible memory for people and faces. I can’t remember when I met some of my dearest friends. But I can vividly remember when I met Linda White.


Doug Cameron had asked me to come back from the bush to Sydney to work for the Victorian and NSW branches of the AMWU, to reorganise our Qantas, Ansett and Aerospace members because, in his words, they’d become “too soft.” We needed to build a tougher response to Qantas’ offshoring and outsourcing, he said.


Can you imagine how offensive an idea that was to Linda White and the ASU? That everybody needed to “toughen up?”


One of my first meetings was a meeting of all of the airline unions at the Mascot jet base, and Linda just took it to me with a stick, basically. Just smashed me to pieces. I don’t remember what she said, but there were arms and legs flailing everywhere. It was quite a sight. And I just thought (it’s not a normal reaction, maybe), but I just thought “What a remarkable person.”


“What an incredible character.”


She worked so hard for those members, mostly women.


Airline clerks, booking agents, some of the biggest collective agreements in the country. 


Many unions had different approaches, to say the least.


And Linda and I became firm friends and co-conspirators, even then.


There were some moments. I remember when she was interviewed outside the Qantas offices in Sydney, with a backdrop of harried and tired ASU members, and she got a question that she wasn’t quite prepared for. She just sort of ran out of words in the full glare of the televisions, which happens to all of us, but instead of just stopping talking, she said, really exasperatedly "I mean, how much can a koala bear?!"


I don’t know, Michael, whether that was something that was said at home, but it ran on all of the news bulletins.


I never let her forget that. 


She wasn’t big on going on television, unlike some of us, but she achieved so much.


It was turmoil in the airline industry at that time. Qantas’ aggressive cost-cutting and offshoring, 9/11, Howard and Reith pushing the airlines to take us on, Ansett’s collapse.


Linda was so good. She worked so hard. She was utterly focussed on the interests of the people who she represented, in a completely uncompromising, but ultimately pragmatic way. And her members and her delegates loved her.  Not because she performed for the crowd, which, you know, some of us did, but because she was in their corner.


And she went on to do very many big things. Recovering entitlements and finding jobs for workers who lost their jobs and their entitlements in the Ansett collapse was a big thing. Equal pay for community workers. Some of their wages went up by 43%. Some of these other achievments in pay equity and superannuation. These things were never her achievements alone. Linda would never have thought that for a moment. But it’s hard to imagine any of them happening without her. And I know that Emeline and other comrades from the ASU will tell you more about those days. 


She worked so hard for democratic reform and governance and affirmative action in the Labor Party. Countless others were involved in those struggles, but again, progress would not have been possible, or imaginable, without Linda.


I remember the great battles about affirmative action in particular. I vividly remember at the national conference a meeting that we held with the conveners of the national Right, who weren’t as enamoured of the proposition. They’re very supportive of it now, of course. But they weren’t as enamoured of the proposition as we, and particularly Linda, were. And I remember the then secretary of the NSW branch of the Labor Party, who was then the national Right convenor, literally banging his head on the table in frustration. Literally banging his head on the table. Not figuratively.


Now our caucus is half women.


Our executive, as Anthony pointed out, is half women.


That’s reflected in the states and territories as well. And that is, in no small part, her achievement. The National Executive work. I mean, sometimes the less said, as Prime Minister Albanese hinted at, the better. There were some very hard times, and she was a very long-serving member of the National Executive. The intervention in Victoria. The intervention itself, which took great courage. It took great courage from the Prime Minister. It took great courage from those of us who executed the intervention; particularly those from Victoria. But also the work that she did to follow up the years of governance work, being part of that small group. Again, a consensus group, to govern the Victorian branch. Impossible without Linda.


The Labor Party, and the labour movement’s debt to her is immense. But she wouldn’t have thought about it that way. She loved it. Particularly when it was tough.


She also understood the importance of engaging more broadly than just the labour movement. Her engagement with the academic community and the research community was full-throated, two-way, and I know that there’s a lot of respect for her in the university and industrial relations sector. 


But she had fun along the way.


This place mattered a lot to her.


The MCG mattered a lot to her.


She used to take me to the football, and you’d drive in, and you’d drive past where spectators went, and Linda would just go straight through.


You’d drive past where teams stopped to get off, and Linda would drive straight through.


You’d drive to where prime ministers and team owners, and all those sorts of people would get off. Straight past. Until you got to a little car park that had Linda White written on top of it.


I never let her forget that, either. 


She made a great contribution to the policy and intellectual work of the Labor Party through her chairing of the Chifley Institute, and Brett Gale from the Chifley Institute is here. He was their CEO for a long time. And he said: "she was a believer in the power of Labor ideas." She was the Chair of Chifley from 2015 and she was immensely proud of that work. Under Linda’s stewardship Chifley conferences became must-attend events for the future of Labor. She had great regard, Brett, for you too. 


After all that, she became a Senator and she loved the Senate. As Anthony said, she made an outstanding contribution. Outstanding contribution. She loved the institution. She understood what it meant for Australian democracy, and she would have continued to make an incredible contribution there.


She loved her staff. She absolutely loved them and she spoke so fondly to me of them. Ben Armstrong. Ekta Mahal. Ned Lindenmayer.  Ead Stokes. Amit Alok. It is a unique burden for young people- and it’s a young staff -particularly given Linda’s- not request, demand, for privacy in the last months of her life. That requirement for discretion. That is a unique burden for young people to bear, and I just say to you, put your arms around them and offer them all the support that you can. They’ve done an outstanding job and she would be very pleased, staff team, with these flowers. They are…I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.


Well, that’s what she did. Harder, though, is to describe who she was. She’s very hard to describe. 


That urge for privacy, her closed-ness in personal terms was a bit of a clue. She was just so self-contained. There was a strength in that, and a remoteness in that, but there was a vulnerability and an under-confidence too, about how she was regarded by others.


I remember I came to the hospital in the wake of the PM’s visit. People were everywhere. The hospital staff were so excited for the PM to be there, and she said to me "you know, I must have done something right."


I was actually very cross with her. I said "Anthony would never have missed coming to see you. You know, he loves you. You are his friend. You mean so much to so many of us out there.”


People- her friends and colleagues and comrades, had so much admiration for her.


I was lucky to have an opportunity to tell her how I felt about her, and what she meant to me and Rae and D’Arcy and Matilda. But not everyone got that opportunity. Not many of us did. I thought we had much more time- weeks, months maybe- where that would get to happen. And I wish she had had more time with her friends, with her brother Michael, to think and to laugh and come to that deep realisation that she mattered so much to so many of us, but it wasn’t to be.


Her friends, her staff, her colleagues, and her comrades will miss her deeply.


Farewell, old friend, and rest in peace.