SENATOR THE HONOURABLE CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS

Hansard

Speech on the condolence motion for Senator Kitching

28th March 2022

It is with great sadness that I rise to speak on the recent death of our colleague Kimberley. To Andrew and all your family, to Kimberley's parents and to her staff: heartfelt condolences from me, my husband, John, and my staff. I am sorry that due to a bad fall on 2 March I sustained injury to my right knee and ankle, and I was unable to travel to attend Kimberley's funeral.

I knew Kimberley very well. We spoke on many subjects. Her knowledge of Italian meant we had a wonderful affinity and were able to have conversations on a whole range of different issues. Our ability to discuss different issues, including ones of conscience, often gave us solace in the knowledge that we were doing the right thing.

I was trained under former minister Jim Carlton, who once told me that even through the rough and tumble—which, Jim noted, could be very robust on the floor of the House in those days—he always made a point of civility and friendship with opposition members; in fact, he told me that it was quite common to go off and have a beer together. After all, we are all Australians. In this spirit Kimberley and I worked very well together, most especially on the foreign affairs, defence and trade committee. Most especially we shared concerns on the challenging issue posed by the communist regime in China. On that basis we fought strongly for an inquiry into our current relationship with China, as well as for Magnitsky laws and anti-slave-labour legislation.

It was poignant that an ABC news article on 12 March 2022 drew parallels between Kimberley's preselection struggle and the one I was about to face. Ironically, the article stated:

For a parliament in which much has been made about the threats of China and the treatment of women … the biggest political victims of the moment were women taking the fight up to the Chinese government.

Like Kimberley's, my comments on China drew the ire of coalition leaders and ministers. When I first raised my prescient warnings in 2016, during my time as a minister, they were ignored. Those responsible for our foreign trade and defence policy did not want to offend China. Politicians across the spectrum preferred appeasement rather than accepting the necessity to confront Beijing. Whilst the leviathan ship of state is changing direction slowly on the issue, there is still a long way to go. The stance that I took years ago has been vindicated, and I am pleased that others, like Kimberley, joined the fight and we were able to achieve some change.

On another front, much has been written about the treatment that Kimberley received from what the media has described as the 'mean girls'. Like Kimberley, I too had experienced the Liberal Party sisterhood. For example, when I appeared on the ABC Four Corners program on 9 November 2020, I made various comments about values and beliefs, but I also made the following comments about integrity:

When we sign up to this job, we sign up for public service, we sign up as service to the Australian public. And so therefore, there is an expectation that in service of the Australian public, we abide by the highest possible conduct and integrity.

They were fair, neutral and appropriate comments at the time. Yet, after I made those comments, not one coalition female supported me—not one of them. Not one had the gumption to even say, 'Well done for speaking out.' As Peter Hartcher pointed out in his article on 13 March 2021 entitled 'Australia's women are roaring, but where are their Coalition sisters?' there was a resounding silence over ministerial conduct. Instead, the coalition women's WhatsApp group was more concerned with trivial tenth-order issues. Sadly, I note my female coalition colleagues would privately whinge and complain, but there had been no fortitude or appetite to stand up publicly and say what needed to be said. I expect they were concerned about being summoned for a fireside chat with the threat of demotion for breaching groupthink.

I shared my own experiences with Kimberley. I understood how Kimberley felt, having been treated the way she was. The concept of mean girls is not confined to one political party. Often we discussed the slings and arrows with preselections, particularly as we were both outspoken and not constrained by prevalent groupthink within our political parties. I empathised with Kimberley about the bitter internal factional fights within our respective political parties. We both had factional enemies who desperately wanted to see us defeated, and they worked very hard at it. It is interesting that, following Kimberley's passing, the Victorian ALP division is now off to the High Court in an attempt to resolve bitter factional disputes. As a parallel, a legal action has been commenced in New South Wales by a member of the state executive to defend our own constitution.

I am sorry, Kimberley, that you were not able to withstand the pressure. I have no doubts that the stress of fighting for your political career took its toll and led to your death. Your death put much into context for me. It made me realise that all the stress associated with factional warfare is not worth the toll that it takes on health and family. Andrew, while you too have been a factional warrior, I am sure it has been very hard to watch the effect on Kimberley. I know how hard it has been for my own husband, John, himself a cancer survivor, who has stood by me through all the slings and arrows of internecine factional and intrafactional skulduggery. So, Andrew, whilst John and I can walk away, you will be left to walk alone. Our heartfelt condolences go to you, Andrew, and to all your family. Vale Kimberley Kitching.