Vale Don Jessop
Posted on Tuesday, 5 June, 2018
Mr RAMSEY (Grey—Government Whip) (19:45): On Monday I attended the funeral of Don Jessop, who was recognised in this chamber on Tuesday. He was the first Liberal member for Grey and was elected as part of Harold Holt's historic 1966 landslide victory. Don served just one term in his place—he lost his seat in 1969—but the reluctant politician, as he called himself, wasn't finished in parliament and was elected to the upper house in a half-Senate election in 1970. He served there until 1987.
Don was an Adelaide boy who, after marrying Barbara Maughan in 1949, qualified as an optometrist and forged his career in the country, first in Port Pirie, in Jamestown, then in Broken Hill and finally in Port Augusta. In Port Augusta he set up his own practice and embarked on a lifetime of community service. An inaugural member and vice-president of Apex, he served on the Port Augusta hospital board, he was a Port Augusta city councillor for 10 years and he had a lifelong dedication and commitment to the Methodist Church—later, of course, the Uniting Church of Australia—and another lifelong commitment to choirs. In Port Augusta he became the director of the Choral Society. Later, when Don returned to Adelaide, he continued these strong commitments to the church and choirs through the Adelaide Male Voice Choir. He also had an abiding passion for the Sturt Football Club and at one stage was a vice-president. While in Port Augusta he was instrumental in setting up the RFDS optical service. He was the first flying optician, if you like, the first practitioner.
Don was always Liberal in spirit and he joined the party in Port Augusta in about 1956. He was prevailed upon in 1966 to run for the seat of Grey and won, against all expectations. Don was the first Liberal member to ever hold Grey, which is a Federation seat. It was a remarkable result, and one that I remember even as a child. 1966 under Harold Holt was a landslide for the Liberal Party. History records though that Australia lost its Prime Minister and the government its leader when Holt was swept away in the rough waters off Portsea. The next election in 1969 saw support recede, and even though the Liberals were returned under John Gorton, Don lost his seat. It was another 23 years before another Liberal was to hold Grey, when, against all the odds again, Barry Wakelin won the seat in 1993.
But Don Jessop was far from finished and in 1970 he was successful in the half-Senate election held in November and served there for 17 years until 1987. As is the way sometimes in a party that has a truly democratic preselection system, Don lost his spot in the coming election and was persuaded by his supporters to run as an Independent. He was unsuccessful, even though he won more than 25,000 votes, which was a great testament to his personal popularity. Don said he wasn't always the most popular Liberal, as he crossed the floor from time to time—something I'm pleased to report is still not a sackable offence in the Liberal Party. He expressed public misgivings about the opposition path in denying supply to force the 1975 election, which saw Gough Whitlam replaced by Malcolm Fraser.
I remember him campaigning for better transport links—in particular, the sealing of the Eyre and Stuart highways and the new standard gauge line from Tarcoola to Alice Springs. The Eyre Highway was completed in 1976 and the Stuart and the railway were both delivered in the eighties, all in Don's time in parliament. It's hard now for many to remember what it was like before these projects and even harder for others to imagine. The trip to Alice Springs was tortuous. It was truly a nation-building project.
He was a leading advocate in seeing optical services being added to the then Medibank scheme during the Whitlam years. Using his skill as an optician and a parliamentarian, he worked with the Australian Optometry Association to achieve the listing. Through all this, Don was held in the highest regard by both sides of politics and was considered a true gentleman. I checked with a number of people who worked with Don, and all have spoken of him in the highest terms.
For me, I was particularly chuffed on the night of my first election when it became clear I had won Grey. I returned to my home town of Kimba and walked into the hotel, where I was greeted by an enthusiastic band of local supporters. I was surprised and humbled to find Don had made the trip up from Adelaide—500 kilometres—to join my predecessor, Barry Wakelin, in welcoming me to the rather exclusive group of just three Liberals in more than 100 years to represent the wonderful electorate of Grey. Rest in peace, Don Jessop. You have served your community, your church, and your nation well.