Standing up for Canberra

Mr Rob Chalmers 2011

As a former director of the National Press Club board and as the member for Canberra, which is home to many journalists and lobbyists, I rise today to echo the words of the Prime Minister in honouring the life and work of Rob Chalmers, who died, as the member for Riverina said, in late July at the age of 82. His death is a great loss to the corporate knowledge of this place and to the sense of history he brought to the press gallery and to the political life of Australia.

Robin Donald Chalmers was born on 14 July 1929 in Sydney to his parents Robin and Janet. He came to the press gallery in 1951, to the so-called provisional building just down the road. As anyone who has visited that old building will know—I strongly encourage all members to take a tour of Old Parliament House if they have not already done so—the place is very cramped and the conditions in the press gallery were very tight indeed. In fact, some journalists camped out on the roof waiting for the next press conference or to type up their notes, it got that tight.

Rob worked in Canberra for 60 years, more than half of this nation's political history since Federation. Most notably he worked on his publication Inside Canberra, surviving 12 prime ministers—Menzies, Holt, McEwen, Gorton, McMahon, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd and now Julia Gillard. I understand that throughout that time he gingered all of them and was very vocal in his views on them, and according to one of my oracles here in Canberra, a Labor Party historian but also an oracle on Canberra history as well, Don Dwyer, none of them ever met his very high expectations. He was a very demanding man of very high standards, obviously. I believe Rob attended close to 60 budget lock-ups, from Fadden in 1951 to the latest one in May this year, and he witnessed 28 federal election campaigns and five changes of government. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to go toe to toe with such legends of the Australian political establishment, but Rob Chalmers did it. He came into the game of politics and political journalism at a vastly different time—a dramatically different time to today—a time when print and radio dominated the reporting of the day's events. He witnessed the introduction of television, the 24-hour news cycle, the internet and the daily use of the social media of Twitter and Facebook. The world of 1951 was vastly different to the one we see now, 60 years on. Despite the massive changes to how news was reported over that time and is reported today, throughout this he not only kept up and maintained his relevance but continued to be a leader in the press gallery.

I understand he was a great mentor to many a young and not-so-young cadet journalist in this place. He was a very strong supporter of my husband, particularly when he started on AM in the press gallery six or seven years ago. Every time Chris had done a report on AM, Rob would come up and give him a critique of what that piece was like. I understand it was very constructive and productive. He was very good at mentoring journalists and sharing the wisdom of all his years and all his experience and, in the end, I think, making them better journalists.

I have been interested to read some of the anecdotes in recent weeks about this remarkable man. I think it is a remarkable thing that one man could collect and collate—indeed, in many ways be the embodiment of—our proud political history. I think any politician, staffer or journalist will agree that this place can be a pretty gruelling one at times. The stresses of public life and tight deadlines and of getting the right words out all can take their toll. To do it for 60 years is an absolutely extraordinary achievement.

He contributed to this town in other ways as well. He was President of the National Press Club. Having been a director on that board, I know that it can be challenging at times—a roomful of journalists making decisions on financial matters can always be a challenge. He was a very proud member of the Royal Canberra Golf Club. He was also a great contributor to what parts of Canberra used to be renowned for, particularly the press gallery: the 'long lunch club', which used to involve a lot of journalists and senior people in the Public Service. Those lunches were always on Friday and tended to go from 12.30. The piece would be written and everyone would head off for the long lunch at the Commonwealth Club, the golf club or wherever. They were always interesting affairs and there was never any wine drunk!

He was also a strong supporter of Australian industry. Because of that, some suggest that he erred on the protectionist side and so was not entirely thrilled with some of the initiatives and reforms that the Hawke-Keating government introduced over the eighties to get us to the open economy that we see has ensured our prosperity today.

He was an Aussie of the old school, according to people I have been speaking to in researching today's speech on this condolence motion. He was popular and friendly. His presence, his stories and his gravitas will be sorely missed by all in this place and by many, many Canberrans. He was sent off in grand style with a formal funeral service at Queanbeyan, but the informal farewell, at the Press Club, was equally impressive, I understand, and the stories were pretty wild and pretty ripe.

In farewelling Rob Chalmers, I offer my condolences and the condolences of all Canberrans to his family. As people have said to me, he was an Aussie of the old school. He was popular and friendly. He gave a great deal to journalism in this country. He gave a great deal to political life in this country. We honour and thank him for that.

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