Hon. William Desmond McGrath

04 September 2018


There are many ways to describe Bill McGrath: a farmer, a committed and trusted community member, an avid sports fan, a much-loved father and grandfather and an absolute legend of our party. As has already been said, Bill followed the well-worn path of many country MPs as a VFL footballer before his election to Parliament. But it was his deep involvement, understanding and love of community rather than his football prowess for which he will be long remembered in western Victoria.

He started his football career as a 16-year-old, playing for Minyip before he was recruited by South Melbourne. He would drive the 3½ hours from Minyip to Melbourne on Thursday nights for training before playing on Saturday and then returning home late that night, where he would spend the rest of the week working on the farm. I am sure those journeys well prepared him for the long trips to Parliament — and we all feel sorry for the member for Lowan for having to do them now.

Bill played his first VFL game for South Melbourne at Victoria Park, as has already been said, against Collingwood in 1959, the year after Collingwood won the flag. I am sure that everybody in this house, with the exception of the Collingwood supporters, would be delighted that South Melbourne won that game. Bill was a genuine all-rounder. He represented Wimmera in A-grade tennis at Kooyong, and as the Leader of The Nationals said, despite being a right-handed tennis player with a powerful forehand, a strong slice backhand and quick reflexes, he kicked with his left foot and was a left-handed golfer. I have to say that up until today I had always wondered who used the tennis court, which has now vanished, in the back gardens of Parliament House, but it is clear that Bill got great use out of it.

He was larger than life in the Wimmera but he also left a sporting legacy for the state. In fact Rod Laver Arena, or Melbourne Park as it was then known, would likely not be here if it had not been for Bill, because it was Bill who persuaded Peter Ross-Edwards at the time to support John Cain in getting it through the Parliament, including the upper house. Bill really understood that an international tennis event in Victoria required the building of a new centre because Kooyong was not big enough and not central enough.

Sport played a huge part in Bill's life, but to see him through that prism alone I think would be an injustice. There was hardly an organisation in the Wimmera that he was not involved with in some way, and those who knew him well remember him as a true country MP who attended absolutely everything. As the member for Lowan shared today, he was an incredible mentor to many National Party MPs.

He was particularly passionate about Wimmera Legacy, and he actually named it as one of the organisations that he was most proud to be involved with. But most of all I think Bill really understood the importance of community, of treating people equally. He was tough and charismatic. He dreamt big, and he was fierce for his community and for country people. His achievements, particularly during his time as the Minister for Agriculture as well as Minister for Corrections and Minister for Police and Emergency Services, are too many to name, but there are a few that are worth noting today.

During the gun reform debate that followed the Port Arthur massacre it was Bill who stood alone at a meeting of police ministers to point out that farmers simply had to have access to certain classes of firearms for animal welfare and for pest control. He held out on that debate and he won. His focus on ensuring that legislation gave due consideration to the lives of country people was also reflected in his work as the Minister for Agriculture. His instructions very clearly to his department were that they were there to make a dollar or save a dollar for the farmer. He was very focused on keeping farming viable through investments in research and development, and he had a really great empathy, having come from a farming family, for the challenges of farming life. I think one of his greatest achievements was his role in removing stamp duty from family farms. He really recognised that the key to getting people to hand over the farm to the next generation was removing stamp duty.

He did, as has already been well said, know how to have a laugh. I had a chat to Bill Baxter, who, like others, recalls that nearly every speech he gave or every deputation he led always started with a joke. In Bill's words, some were good and some were bloody terrible. He will be remembered not just as a champion of the Wimmera but as a champion of country Victoria and as a champion of our party. As his daughter Alicia said:

Leave today not mourning but asking, as Dad did, 'Are we giving life our best shot? We only live once, but if we play our cards right, once should be enough'.

I think Bill played his cards right and he gave life its best shot. Last year, when he was interviewed by the Wimmera Mail-Times he said:

If someone told me I was going to die tomorrow, I would say, 'I've had a good life'.

And he had a good life indeed. I extend my deepest condolences to Bill's large family but most particularly his wife, Ivy, and his children, Katrina, Shane, Simone and Alicia. Rest in peace, Bill.

Motion agreed to in silence, honourable members showing unanimous agreement by standing in their places.

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