John was born in Cunnamulla on the Warrego River in Far West Queensland on 2 February 1938. His father was a respected lawyer and his mother, who died when he was just 15, was the matron at the local hospital. John was a proud son of Cunnamulla, a gifted boxer, a crack shot, a runner-up in his weight division in the Queensland junior boxing titles and the best marksman in his national service intake year.
This is the full text of the Valedictory Speech read earlier today to the House of Representatives by Gary Gray, Member for Brand.
Mr GRAY (Brand): At this time of valedictory speeches, I would like to give a eulogy for a journalist who died this year. In this parliament we do not just see the passing parade of significant public figures giving of their lives to the good public administration of our nation; in the gallery we also see a passing parade of insightful, thoughtful journalists offering their views on what we do and how we do it.
John Stubbs, journalist, author, father and fisherman, was one such journalist.
Only John Stubbs could write:
The major works of recent Australian political history have been written by or from the perspective of, those who crushed or frustrated Hayden—the giants from both sides of politics; Sir Robert Menzies, Malcolm Fraser, Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke.
It was John Stubbs’ natural inclination to look for heroes, see their passion and put into perspective their achievements and their defeats. John recorded it all in his 1989 bestselling unauthorised biography of Bill Hayden. John was, by nature and inclination, on the side of David against Goliath, and in Bill Hayden he found his David.
John was born in Cunnamulla on the Warrego River in Far West Queensland on 2 February 1938. His father was a respected lawyer and his mother, who died when he was just 15, was the matron at the local hospital. John’s father was born opposite the Palms Chutney factory in East Brisbane, just a few streets from where Bill Hayden spent his childhood.
John was a proud son of Cunnamulla, a gifted boxer, a crack shot, a runner-up in his weight division in the Queensland junior boxing titles and the best marksman in his national service intake year. Times in Cunnamulla were tough. The colour bar was routine, but John’s family did their best to break it down. John was subject to what he called a cheerless educational experience made bright by school friends, including Herb Wharton, who became a renowned Aboriginal author. Their friendship endured into adulthood. Whenever Herb came to town, he could be found at John’s lunch table.
John worked as a journalist in Brisbane, Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Hong Kong, London and Kuala Lumpur. In 1964 he joined the original staff of The Australian in the press gallery in Old Parliament House. He lived a life of fun, love, contribution and passion, adding to his perspective on national politics through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. John was never a mere bystander, a passive observer. He was always in the thick of it, whether it was in the fray of politics or the hubbub of discourse on the many vigorous and often bibulous arguments over the events of yesterday, today or even tomorrow.
In private, he could be utterly determined, intensely loyal, and fiercely partisan, but as a journalist he was always fair, courteous and open to the other side. At different times he had cordial, even close relationships, with such unlikely figures as Billy McMahon and Joh Bjelke-Petersen. He may have disagreed with their politics, but he invariably gave them a hearing. He was, in the best sense, a journalist’s journalist.
He also wrote speeches for Arthur Calwell until the 1966 election, although he disclaimed any responsibility for Australia’s second attempted political assassination, which took place after Calwell had delivered a speech that John had written. It was in this period that John wrote his first book, The Hidden People, a seminal study of poverty in Australia which was influential in causing a government inquiry and changes to the system. However, when Harold Holt won a landslide majority in the 1966 election, the Stubbs family took off for another stint overseas, this time to Hong Kong for The Star and then the South China Morning Post.In 1968 John accepted an appointment as political correspondent to The Sydney Morning Herald in Canberra. He was part of the emerging group of press gallery journalists who chronicled the demise of 23 years of conservative government. He accompanied Gough Whitlam on the historic visit to China, John Gorton to Papua New Guinea and Billy McMahon to the White House. Immediately following the 1972 election, he was offered the position of the Fairfax London bureau chief where he embraced life on Fleet Street.
He covered the Six-Day War from the alcohol restricted Arab side, which was a harrowing alcohol-free period for John. While in London, he wrote Nest of traitors: the Petrov Affair, with Nicholas Whitlam. In 1974, Clyde Cameron, Whitlam’s minister for industrial relations, cabled John to work for him. He resigned from Fairfax then and in May 1974 the cliff-hanger election intervened. A quiet family holiday while the campaign was decided coincided with the Portuguese revolution, where he was one of the first journalists to file.
In mid-1975, as a journalist turned press secretary, he was at his desk after a quick lunch when the telex machine on a desk next to his started to wobble. It teetered and almost fell on the startled Stubbs before whomever was pushing at the door it stood in the way of gave up and moved on. Stubbs soon learned that it was Gough Whitlam pushing the door open, seeking entry to the office of labour and immigration minister, Clyde Cameron, so he could sack him.
Cameron had told Whitlam’s staff that anything that needed to be said would be done in his office. He was not going to go to the PM; the PM would have to come to him. As the commotion spread, John was asked to go to the minister’s office where the senior adviser, and the later South Australian Premier John Bannon, was showing Whitlam in. When John told his story over a few glasses of red wine, he added that Bannon, on instruction from Cameron, found the smallest chair available for the 198-centimetre-tall Whitlam to sit upon, as Cameron gazed down upon Gough from a suitable height. John Bannon said:
John–‘Stubbsie’–was a passionate man, but in crises or dealing with urgent problems he was always quietly in control and unruffled—and his sense of humour and the ridiculous always helped break the tension.
When Kerr sacked Whitlam, John maintained the rage. The Stubbs family took refuge in the only remaining Labor enclave, Adelaide, where the government of Don Dunstan kept the light burning.
John worked for Hugh Hudson while his wife Romey worked as Dunstan’s Norwood electorate secretary until he resigned because of ill-health and Dunstan’s successor, Des Corcoran, unwisely called a snap election and lost. In the 1980s, John showed me around Parliament House, where he sat and where he worked, where he drank and where ‘who said what and when and to whom, and who wrote it’. John was like that. He was a political tragic, but also a living encyclopaedia.
Perspective allowed John to see the real, substantive, committed and smart Bill Hayden. He saw more in Bill Hayden than Bill did or Bill’s party colleagues did. John’s perspective on Bill Hayden’s life is slightly different from that of most political commentators. John spent 25 years writing about Australian politics or working for politicians. His commitment to equality—economic, social and racial—was an unrelenting constant in his life. He saw poverty and racial exclusion up close in Cunnamulla and never gave up highlighting the consequences and agitating for change. In Hayden he saw a kindred spirit. He saw David taking on Goliath. As a result, he had a keener appreciation of the difficulties that Bill faced in dealing with the powerful political forces based in Sydney and Melbourne that shaped Australian politics and society.
Like many journalists, John lived a crowded life with twists and turns that took him to places a youngster in Cunnamulla could not even imagine. In 1995, he was awarded the Walkley Award for the most outstanding contribution to journalism. At about this time, following the fall of the Goss government, John and Romey moved to their Northern Rivers farm at the end of General Stubbs Drive. It was never identified exactly which conflict the general had served in. For a short time, John returned to political speech writing, this time for Anna Bligh. At home, John made jam and created a garden that has been described as half Joseph Banks and half Jackson Pollock. He wrote and he was an accomplished fisherman. In his own fashion, he was a skilled bush carpenter.
A terrible stroke, in 2008, left John incapacitated, but he still managed to get around in a specially fitted-out vehicle bought for him by family and friends, including old mates at News Limited. He used the ‘Stubbsmobile‘ to meet with friends for the weekly Bangalow boys’ lunch. Everyone who met and knew him remembers John fondly. He was unstintingly generous with his time and knowledge and possessed a memory that could be funny, frightening and impressive. He could never abide inequality of any sort, and he had a perceptive eye for humbug and hypocrisy.
In his biography of Hayden, John pays thanks to his wife, Romey, Gough Whitlam, Paul Keating, Cathi Collier, his son, Will, and daughters, Susie and Sasha. In a touching note John reflects:
The people responsible for the project being started and finished are in order, my wife Romey, and John Timlin who runs an outfit in Melbourne called, ‘The Almost Managing Company’—a title more fitting for the author.
This eulogy borrows heavily from work published by John Stubbs, Dennis Atkins, Mungo McCallum. John Bannon, Max Suich, Kerry O’Brien, the Hon. Greg Crafter AO and Will and Romey Stubbs provided invaluable guidance and, ultimately, the Stubbs family have had their final say in the content of this eulogy.
John Stubbs is survived by a loving family, friends and colleagues, and by the fierce memories of the victories that David deserved over Goliath, and John is survived by Romey, their children Will, Susie and Sasha, and grandchildren Audrey, Darcy, Jude, Rosealee, Arian and Siena. This Christmas will be the first Christmas that the Stubbs family will have without John being present around the Christmas tree and at the Christmas lunch.
In that my heart goes out to them, but I also know that John had a good life, an enjoyable life, and made the contribution that the Cunnamulla Kid wanted to make.