24 February 2015

Condolence Speech

Mr Wynne (Minister for Planning) – Thank you Speaker. With your indulgence, I congratulate you on this magnificent achievement of yours. I know it is a matter of great pride for you and your family. You have come a long way from the public housing towers of Racecourse Road in Flemington. Your new position here as Speaker of the House is a fantastic achievement. I am sure Evan Walker would have been immensely proud to see that the opportunity to be a representative of the Labor Party in this Parliament has been provided to you and to all members on this side, and in your case, he would have been proud to see that you have been provided the opportunity to hold the high office of Speaker of the Legislative Assembly.

It is a measure of the respect and standing of Evan Walker that no less than seven former premiers from across the political divide attended his funeral yesterday. Former Premier John Cain, Evan’s children, Chris, Ben and Rebecca, professional colleague and friend Daryl Jackson, and former staff member Michael Henry spoke beautifully about his life and achievements. The notices of condolence that were published in our daily newspapers last week spoke to the deep affection many had for Evan and the respect with which he was regarded. All of these tributes agreed on one point – that Evan was the greatest planning minister this state has seen. That is certainly my view.

Evan was a man of vision. He has professional training as an architect, and he had a political career that taught him how to get things done and how to stay focused on the long-term goal of making Victoria a better place to live. Evan’s role as deputy leader in the Cain Government placed him at a critical point in history – a turning point. After 27 years of Liberal governments, Victoria turned to Labor, which at the time was led by John Cain. Evan’s appointment as Minister for Planning and Environment gave him the platform to execute a sweeping set of reforms that transformed not only Melbourne but also regional Victoria.

Evan came to office 10 years after that other great visionary who also very recently passed, Tom Uren, and he delivered a second generation of reforms following up on Uren’s urban development initiatives. Whitlam gave the suburbs sewerage, transport, schools and hospitals, and Evan Walker injected design, lifestyle and that often abused term, liveability, to the city.

Melbourne today is a welcoming, exciting and dynamic city. It leads the way in major sporting events, and its streets are adorned with the best Victorian, art deco and modern architecture. It boasts Australia’s best restaurants, bars and cafes. It is a city with Australia’s finest network of parks, bike paths and rivers. It is a city of art and culture, business and innovation, design, fashion and of course festivals.

These things were dying in the 1970s and we revitalised by a welter of reforms that can be traced back to the Cain and successive governments, and the seminal influence that Evan Walker had on modernising Victoria’s outlook. Evan is often credited as the man who created Southbank, but he did so much more than that. Melbourne today is a city that profoundly embraces the Yarra River, but in the early 1980s the Yarra was politely described by some as a utilitarian space. Those who were brutally honest referred to it as a post-industrial sewer. There is no doubt that much of the riverside in the centre of our city was abandoned and redundant. Today it has been transformed, and Evan’s much-loved analogy of a four-poster bed that was Flinders Street Station and the arts precinct were at one end, and a convention centre and the Docklands, were at the other. Of course, this has come to fruition, and now many Melburnians cannot conceive of our city without this beating heart.

The principal architect of this turnaround – and I use the term ‘architect’ in both the professional and the general sense – were Evan Walker and of course the Secretary for Planning at the time, David Yencken. There is a memorial to them on the banks of the Yarra River near the Polly Woodside, which features a picture looking back at the city of the 1970s. All you can see are ships unloading, factories, trains, wasteland. I invite everyone here today to visit the memorial and look back along the river to see the vibrant spaces that have been created and the active life that has been returned to the river and its precincts, largely due to the efforts of one man – Evan Walker.

This was by no means his only achievement. He introduced effective heritage controls and applied urban conservation zones and the first-ever planning controls of the inner city. In addition, rural land was protected through the reports of the Land Conservation Council, and the Leader of the Nationals spoke about Evan’s very strong interest in rural Victoria. As Minister for Planning and Environment, he produced Australia’s first greenhouse gas strategy in 1988, appointed David Scott as the first Environment Commissioner, and produced the state’s conservation strategy. Perhaps his greatest achievement was transforming how environment and planning decisions were taken, ensuring that every Cabinet submission had to detail the environment issues around a proposed policy.

When I was preparing for today’s debate, a number of Evan’s former colleagues provided me with their own personal insights. Caroline Hogg, a former Minister and Member of the Legislative Council, spoke of his calm leadership and the respect that he earned from the then Opposition, as well as the collaboration he had with the President of the Upper House at that time, Alan Hunt, in the management of the Legislative Council. We should not forget that for almost the entire period of the Cain Government, except for six weeks, Labor did not control the Legislative Council.

Caroline also observed that she never saw Evan happier than when on country trips. As Minister for Agriculture and Rural Affairs, he would take the Cabinet sub-committee for overnight trips to the regions, meeting councils, community groups and farmers, addressing major public forums and finishing the day in the local pub, meeting Labor Party stalwarts. Such was Evan’s easy going and accessible manner that rural communities were naturally drawn to him.

After his Parliamentary career ended, Evan lectured at Melbourne University and recommenced his love of art and painting as one of the Elgin painters group – a loose association of former MPs, academics and other professional colleagues. Evan painted with the group and exhibited at their annual shows each year, and I attended a number of those openings. Barry Pullen, another former Minister and member of the Legislative Council, and one of the Elgin studio participants, described his work as perhaps the finest of the group, and all of his works sold well at exhibition.

My last conversation with Evan was a couple of years ago, where in the company of Judy, his loving and devoted wife, he came to my electorate office to canvass his concerns about what he saw as an encroachment by a large residential development on the banks of the river and its potential impact on public access along the riverbank and bicycle path. These issues were ultimately resolved. Typically, Evan’s interest was in the public realm. As we bid farewell to this great parliamentarian, we also must acknowledge the extraordinary love and devotion of his wife Judy and children, particularly as the ravages of Parkinson’s disease took away his mobility and function. If I can be half the Minister for Planning that Evan was, I will have done my public duty. Vale Evan Walker.