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Leahy, Kevin John (1949–2020)

by Tom Stephens

Kevin Leahy, 2004

Kevin Leahy, 2004

* Eulogy Delivered by Hon Tom Stephens OAM JP at the Funeral Service of Kevin John Leahy Snr 1st July 2020 — Fremantle, Western Australia

You will, I am sure, appreciate it is a sad honour given me today to deliver this eulogy for our friend Kevin Leahy, whose family has contributed so much of the text. I hope I can do justice to their outstanding efforts; and, on behalf of all of us, pay appropriate respect to the life of Kevin John Leahy Senior.

Life is sometimes compared to a race. For someone like Kevin, with his lifetime interest in horse racing, it seems like an appropriate analogy. That race began for Kevin here in Fremantle on the 17th January 1949.

To understand Kevin you have to understand a bit of his family history. Holding the starters gun that day were two proud and loving parents, in Kevin and Dorothy Leahy. The first part of Kevin’s race was shared with his older sister Cheryl and his younger brother Garry. Those of us who know this family story know that Kevin was a very lucky man. He was on the track with two stayers. Kevin’s siblings — Cheryl and Garry — stayed close and supportive throughout his entire life — in good-times and in bad — to this very day. And I know that I speak for all of us, but most especially for Kevin’s kids, in acknowledging just how impressive that loyalty and support has been. And we salute you both for it.

Kevin’s was a close-knit Palmyra family. His Dad was born in Freo; his Mum “Dot” was from the large Geraldton “Crabbe” family. Kevin’s Dad served in the Army during WWII and at war’s end took up work in the transport and maritime industry, where his waterfront nickname, “the ghost”, invites some imaginative speculation.

We’re told that Kevin, as a youngster, was a smart but very lazy student, who attended Bicton Primary and then the local John Curtin High School, where he was an extremely good, but surprisingly lazy footballer. South Fremantle chased him relentlessly for a try out. Eventually they even sent a taxi to collect him. Having made him run with the team the 3kms from Fremantle to Bruce Lee Oval, he was violently sick all the way back and vowed to never return. Nonetheless, Kevin became a passionate Dockers supporter.

Throughout much of his young life he managed to play football, squash and later quite a lot of golf. Clearly he was much fitter back then. During his working years, no Friday afternoon was wasted at work; instead it was golf and socialising; for these were things of great importance to Kevin.

His first job was as a clerk at the State Housing Commission; however, in 1969 he transferred to the Crown Law Department, and this is where he first met up with Fred Riebeling. The two of them went on to have somewhat parallel careers as Clerks of the Court around regional WA; and then for adjacent seats they both went on to serve together with distinction in the State Parliament.

A major milestone in Kevin’s life — other than meeting Fred — was when he married Susanne Brosnan on 4th July 1970. Sue is from another local Fremantle family, with important connections: in their case, to the racing industry.

Kevin and Sue’s first child, Kevin John Jnr, was born in February 1972. Quickly followed by Jodie Susanne in 1973.

This young family of Kevin & Sue, and their first two kids, moved up to Kalgoorlie in 1973 where Kevin had been appointed the Assistant Clerk of Courts.

Third child, Ryan Norman, arrived in 1975; prematurely, after an emergency RFDS trip to Perth.

This expanding family moved on to Roebourne, where — in 1976 — Kevin took up the challenging role of Clerk of Courts and where fourth child, Daniel Patrick, was born in 1979.

These Roebourne years were important formative years for the family and for Kevin, gifting them all a network of friendships and life-time links, including with many local Aboriginal families.

These links and friendships helped shape a family with warm, open, and comfortable social relationships, who have always “felt at home” with a very wide cross section of the Australian community. It was also a time when Kevin first went into business, an important theme on which we expand a little later.

However, the family was soon on the move again. First to Narrogin in 1980, to be closer to family in Perth. However, the cold drove the family back north, and within 2 years they were living in Carnarvon, where Kevin stayed put, for nearly 40 years, until earlier this year poor health forced him, reluctantly, to Perth.

Kevin was passionate about Carnarvon and the Gascoyne region generally. Completely one-eyed. Everything about the place was bigger: the people were better; the sun was brighter; the bananas were sweeter; the prawns were tastier, and — just sometimes — the horses were faster.

Kevin was always able to find things in the Gascoyne about which he would boast: “Mount Augustus was the biggest rock in the world” — he would say; “bigger than that mere pebble over at Uluru”.

There was only one Gascoyne problem I heard Kevin go on about — occasionally with good humour. It wasn’t the heat, or the flies or the constant wind; but rather that the Gascoyne had too many squatters! At election time, when the postal votes were eventually counted, the figures regularly proved this feeling was pretty mutual.

Kevin did, however, have at least one thing in common with most squatters: he too loved country racing. As an enthusiastic horse owner for almost all his life, he enjoyed travelling to race meetings. And he was happy to boast that his horses won the Carnarvon Cup in 2002 & 2010. However, I don’t think he ever rang me when his horses lost.

Kevin easily formed friendships: so many of these were local friendships in Carnarvon. Some of these immediately come to my mind: like local pilot Len Paggi; and Aboriginal Legal Service liaison officer, the late Norm McMahon; and plantation owner Marko Gaspar, through whom Kevin became an enthusiastic member of the local Carnarvon Yugoslav Unity Club.

You will know that there were many more organisations and friendships and links.

Kevin had arrived in the North West when the ALP did not hold a single seat; we had lost all of them! Nonetheless, Kevin — who was born a “true believer” — joined the local Carnarvon Branch of the Australian Labor Party and – always the optimist — he’d soon agreed to run as the Labor candidate for the local seat of Gascoyne; at the 1986 state elections.

Many years back, from 1953 to 1974, Gascoyne had been held by Labor’s Danny Norton — one of Kevin’s local mentors. However, on Danny’s retirement, the seat had fallen into the hands of the Liberals, and was secured with the skilful work of Ian Laurence. In Kevin’s first run he was unsuccessful.

Ian Laurence’s retirement in 1987 delivered a by-election, and Kevin — never daunted by a big task — threw himself straight back into the contest. However, on the crucial Saturday before the vote, Kevin and family were rocked by the sudden death of his father. I was with Kevin when he got this news and I learned from this shared experience how important his father and his family were to him.

Coincidentally, some years later Kevin was with me when I got the news that my own father had died suddenly in Sydney. We both did what much loved sons do: headed straight home to look after our mums. Unsurprisingly, Kevin lost that by-election, which was held the week of his Dad’s funeral; and long term local identity Dudley Maslen was elected.

On Kevin’s third attempt in 1989 Kevin was successful in defeating Dudley and winning the geographically expanded seat to become MLA for Northern Rivers.

Winning this seat went completely against the state-wide trends at the time; and it was a huge credit to Kevin and to the then Premier and State Labor Leader, Peter Dowding, who is with us here today. The two of them — Kevin and Peter — despite the advice and wisdom of party office, would not give up on this seat.

Peter was still out campaigning in Meekatharra in the very last week. Peter and Kevin could take great credit on election night when this seat was declared for Labor.

True to form, Kevin was able to add a few new boasts to his repertoire: for he now represented the biggest iron ore mine in the world at Mount Whaleback and held one of the biggest seats in WA. It included the Gascoyne and Murchison regions, as well as Newman and Jigalong in the southern Pilbara.

Kevin’s expanded electorate was now spread over a very vast landscape, with a diverse community and a broad range of different interests, not all easily accommodated. Resource sector, environmental concerns, Aboriginal interests, plantations, businesses, and a large number of towns and some small communities.

The task of winning this seat and holding it was no secret: it required, and it got from Kevin, dedicated, intelligent, and compassionate, hard work.

Kevin worked incredibly hard, and happily, serving that vast electorate for the next eight years. Keep in mind that this was an electorate where the distance between the two main towns, from Carnarvon to Newman, was 1000kms!

Kevin was supported in that work by great office teams, led by Carleen Sieradzki in Carnarvon and Lesley Morris in Newman. And with beaut volunteer support teams throughout the electorate: loyal Labor supporters or — just as importantly — Kevin Leahy supporters, who came out to help with the many tasks associated with parliamentary service.

Kevin and I worked very closely over these first 13 years of his involvement in electoral politics. Amongst the hard work, we had some great fun and some very good times. We both enjoyed people; we liked meeting up with the characters across these remote landscapes. For this terrain had shaped some precious gems: in places like SANDSTONE, USELESS LOOP, GASCOYNE JUNCTION, JIGALONG, WILUNA, CUE, MT MAGNET, and MEEKATHARRA.

The characters with their nicknames and faces and family names and given names all come back in an amazing swirl: each little town had their own Snowy or Curley or Bluey or Dodger. And Kevin got to know them all and which one was where and what it was that made them tick. Meanwhile, my job was to make sure that they were all on the electoral roll; and “to get ‘em out to vote”! An easy task when it was for Kevin!

Amongst my tasks as Kevin’s self-appointed political mentor and his campaign manager, was to encourage him to give up his naturally self-effacing ways and to seek some media publicity for the work he was always doing. We’d been bashing about the back-blocks of the Murchison for a week or so, in a campervan, with the young Rupert Posner — then a media student who’d been invited along for the ride.

Rupert and I came up with a media idea, to let people know that Kevin was out bush working hard, moving around between Meekatharra, Cue, and Magnet. We were on our way to Yalgoo when we knocked out a press release for Kevin and had sent it off, when no sooner ABC state-wide radio rang to say they would like to interview Kevin about the subject of his media release: “the wildflowers of the Murchison”.

The expert interviewers were soon trying to extract from Kevin the botanical names of the various flowers that he was seeing all around him. He was standing in carpet-loads of colour. Kevin simply told the interviewer: “there are pink ones, and blue ones, and lots of white ones”. However, Kevin stole the live interview with his closing line: “I reckon people should just come up to the region and find out the names for themselves”!

Understandably, after the interview, Kevin wanted to kill me. He never liked talking about stuff that he knew nothing about. And he didn’t like others doing it either. Kevin had a great detector for “bull-dust”. He could pick a fraud from a mile.

Kevin knew, that I knew, nothing at all about horse racing — despite my signature cattleman’s hat. So he would regularly take me to every horse race going.

Where he seemed to perversely enjoy watching me lose my money. I made my bets, placed in response to the attractive names of the horses. It was not a winning formula. However, I had calculated that if I went to the racetrack with Kevin, where he was clearly comfortable and picking up loyal supporters and many willing voters, then he would at least return the favour and come with me to the places where I was comfortable and did well: but I never ever got him into any of those many outback churches.

Although, somewhat predictably, over a beer or a cup to tea, Kevin enjoyed meeting the ministers, the nuns, and the priests, that worked the same patch. And they too became his friends and unlikely supporters.

Altered electoral boundaries left Kevin with a politically more difficult and ultimately impossible challenge in 1996 with the seat of Ningaloo. Kevin lost that race. Or as he would say: “he came a close second”.

We, also, almost, lost our friendship, as I had again been his campaign manager and I had no qualms in sending him out door-knocking in the 44 degree temperatures typical of the regular February/March WA election months. Kevin did not complain; ……well, not much!

In truth, I think Kevin was silently suffering with the amount of time that his parliamentary work required him to be away from his beloved family.

Kevin was replaced in the seat by Liberal Rod Sweetman. However, Kevin was never far from politics, and he generously made himself available to add some good grace to the ALP upper house Mining & Pastoral ticket at the 2001 elections.

The end result of which was that when I resigned my own seat in the Legislative Council in September 2004, Kevin was appointed to the Parliament, again serving the region with distinction until May 2005.

Throughout his term and beyond, Kevin generously mentored and supported candidates and aspiring parliamentarians; he was loyal in his support and expected nothing more in return than loyal service to the community.

Kevin was at times disappointed. But he was a huge fan of those who worked hard: people like Fred Riebeling and Alannah MacTiernan were top of that list for Kevin.

Community service came naturally to him. So in 2001 he took up membership and then the Chair of the Gascoyne Development Commission, a role he relinquished in 2008.

Kevin also served on the boards and committees of various local community groups: including Carnarvon’s Sweeter Banana Co-operative and of course with the Carnarvon Racing Club, where he was an active member and a proud but — as far as I could see — a regularly impoverished owner of various racing horses.

Kevin’s friends from the racing industry — like Peter Daly and his Brosnan inlaws with their racing connections — will all be able to chat on endlessly over a cup of tea later about the ups and downs of Kevin’s involvement with horses and racing. All I know is that it brought him a lot of fun and some great friendships.

Kevin was made a Life member of the Carnarvon Race Club and none of us were surprised to hear that at the recent Carnarvon Race Day the track fell silent out of respect for Kevin when the sad news of his demise came through. Black arm bands — on riders and punters — quickly spread out around the track as people gave visible expression to their grief, and their respect for Kevin and their appreciation of his tireless contribution to Carnarvon and WA country racing.

When Kevin was once again a single man, he was very fortunate to have met Claire Dwyer; this was in July 1998. I caught only a few glimpses of this happy time as Kevin was again able to enjoy another new happy phase of his extended family life.

Memory tells me that I first saw Claire, sitting on the upper veranda of the Gassy; she was playing softly on her guitar and singing very sweetly. Anyway, Kevin and Claire were soon together, and had bought and moved into their plantation in February 1999.

Buying the plantation was an odd purchase, as neither of them were ever known to be any good at gardening. And, as I have mentioned, Kevin did not even know the botanical names of the wildflowers of the region.

But Kevin seemed to think he knew a lot about fruit and vegetables. However, every time Claire heard him start up a tractor, she wondered what he was about to destroy.

Happily, fifth child Georgie Claudette was born to Kevin and Claire in Carnarvon on 26.07.2002.

Kevin was endlessly proud of his kids: all of them. He was happy to tell me about what was going on in their lives and took great delight in seeing them all get on so well together.

BUSINESSES
In addition to his family life, and his parliamentary and community service, Kevin had a great interest in business. It was while he was in Roebourne that – together with a good friend, the local Post Master Bob Saunders – they bought the local TAB.

During his time in parliament, Kevin purchased the Hubble Street Store, which all the family helped run.

Around 1990 Kevin and some partners purchased Kickstarters Roadhouse; he bought the partners out a year later and was soon drawing on the support of family and friends to make that into a successful venture.

He and son Kevin went into The Gascoyne Hotel together in 1996.

As the local Avis hire car licence holder, Kevin became the welcoming face of Carnarvon to people arriving at the local airstrip.

By 2009 Kevin was running the plantation on his own, but with his involvement in an “Ice truck” adventure, he was able to give Georgie another of those treats that I am told she loved, when Kevin used to pick her up in the truck. However, I am told others didn’t particularly enjoy having their fences destroyed by Kevin’s questionable driving.

After two major floods and suffering poor health, Kevin reluctantly moved off the plantation and in to town.

Kevin enjoyed his family; he loved their company; he loved watching their lives unfold and seeing the paths they took.

Kevin enjoyed the arrival of the kid’s partners: Len, Emily & Maria. And of course the arrival of the grandchildren — Holly, Remo, Ava, Imogen, Shealsy and Jack - all brought great joy.

It’s true that Kevin enjoyed travel, and he was able to tell of this enjoyment with details from times in Hong Kong and London and Paris and indeed all around the world. However, nothing brought him as much pleasure as the simple joy of being back home and near his family.

Indeed, Kevin took great pride in describing how well the kids were doing; and how well they got on, with each other and with their lives in general. Kevin knew that the kids too were having their ups and downs. But he was forever the optimist, as well as a realist. And he was forever grateful for their presence in his life.

In turn, Kevin’s kids are just as appreciative of his presence in their lives.

Brought together again: with Kevin Jnr down from Exmouth; Jodie down from Karratha; Ryan in from Germany; together with Daniel and Georgie, who both live here in Perth. The kids remind us: their “Dad was just as happy and comfortable debating in parliament and talking with his constituents as he was running a game of country two-up with an excited mob of punters who could be equal parts disappointed and elated”.

When they were quite young, Kevin provided the kids “with a lot of giggles, backyard cricket battles, or some other torturous game he’d just made up; sometimes board or card games” that he never just let them win! “You have to earn it”. They “all matched him, eventually”.

Kevin “gave them licence” basically, to do what they wanted; whether he thought they would fail or succeed, he knew they would learn something, nonetheless.

As the kids got older the challenging games became conversations, “debates one could never win”. Even when Kevin knew that he was arguing a lost cause, he would grin and keep going. Because he loved a good senseless argument almost as much as a valuable meaningful one. Just so long as it was good spirited. And as much as the kids sometimes hated those debates, they suspect that quite possibly it could be these debates that might be among the things they come to miss the most.

Kevin came and stayed with Anne and me a couple of years back, when things were going a bit rough for him. Typically, whenever I asked him how things were, he simply answered “good”.

When I visited him in Carnarvon a while back, things again looked to me like they had taken a tough turn; but again he said: “Life’s good”.

When Kevin got crook earlier this year I rang him in the hospital and he told me that he was “cactus”, but he was “happy”; he’d had a good life and his kids were doing pretty well; and nothing was more important than that.

A few weeks back I visited him in his Melville care facility and he persuaded me: that he wanted for nothing; that his life was good; he was on the mend and he was settling into a new regime and would be around for a few more years yet. So I shared Kevin’s self-assessment widely with his former parliamentary colleagues.

Needless to say we were all somewhat surprised, as well as very saddened, to hear on the 19th June that Kevin’s racing days were over.

To quote the Good Book — something Kevin would never knowingly do, despite his whole life living out its bests precepts: Kevin “fought the good fight; he finished the race; he kept the faith”. 2 Timothy 4-7

We are joined in showing our appreciation of the good life Kevin led. To acknowledge his public life; professional life; community life; and — most importantly — his family life, I invite you join me in a standing ovation — for Kevin!

Original publication

  • Obituaries Australia, 3 July 2020

Citation details

Tom Stephens, 'Leahy, Kevin John (1949–2020)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/leahy-kevin-john-30550/text37870, accessed 14 August 2020.

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