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John Charles Kerin (1937–2023)

from Sydney Morning Herald

John Kerin, by Darren Boyd, 1991

John Kerin, by Darren Boyd, 1991

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-678

Like many politicians who enter public life to address the key issues they encountered in their early years, John Kerin tried to help with the hardship of rural life, as well as a commitment to the less advantaged.

Kerin, who died on March 29 aged 85, grew up on a struggling farm at Yerringbool, near Mittagong. He was obliged to leave school at 15 to help his father, Joseph, in cutting wood for a living.

He swung an axe for seven years, sometimes up to 10 hours a day, then set bricks and helped on his parents’ chicken farm, while studying at Picton Evening College.

When he went into public life, handling ministerial portfolios including primary industry, energy, resources, transport, trade, overseas development, communications and then as treasurer, he never lost his common touch, never succumbed to ideological extremism and took the restrained, pragmatic approach to the myriad of problems that came his way.

Once touted as a future Labor prime minister, he lacked the showmanship and flamboyance of some of his contemporaries, such as Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. But nobody dismissed him as anything other than a solid, reliable, servant of the nation.

John Charles Kerin was born at Bowral on November 21, 1937, the eldest of three sons of Joseph Sydney Kerin, and Mary Louise (nee Fuller). Kerin went to Hurlstone Agricultural High and Bowral High, but left school to help on the farm which was afflicted with the scourges of tomato gluts, chicken disease and apple rot.

He helped his father re-establish the family’s poultry farm and orchard. As an axeman, he cut pulpwood for CSR, paling logs, mill logs and, on his account, “thousands and thousands of bloodwood fence posts”. At the Bowral brickyards, he set 6,000 bricks a day in the kiln. He calculated that each day he shovelled about 64 tonnes of dirt.

He was intellectually active, taking issue with the Vietnam war, which so appalled him that he joined the Australian Labor Party. He undertook a correspondence course with the University of New England, became a Bachelor of Arts, then began a Bachelor of Letters degree.

In politics, he undertook the job of campaign director for Bob Whan, a research officer with the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (BAE) in Canberra, who was standing for the seat of Macarthur, south of Sydney. Whan did not win the seat, but Kerin joined BAE as a research officer in dairying, horticulture and grain marketing. Then he decided to have a go at Macarthur himself.

Kerin won Macarthur in the December 1972 general election which brought Gough Whitlam into office. Seen as one of Whitlam’s “whiz kids”, Kerin became junior secretary of the ALP caucus committee on natural resources encompassing agriculture, which brought him face-to-face with dark passions that could arise in the rural industry.

He lost Macarthur in the 1975 election that put Whitlam out of office, and returned to work, with BAE, rising to the position of principal resident economist. Not finishing his Bachelor of Letters degree, he did gain a Bachelor of Economics degree from the Australian National University.

When Gough Whitlam retired from politics in 1978, leaving the outer western Sydney seat of Werriwa vacant, Kerin stood for it as the Labor candidate and won. He re-entered parliament as a rural man by origin, a Labor man by persuasion and an urban electorate politician by choice.

In 1980, he was appointed shadow spokesman on primary industry, a portfolio he carried into government when Bob Hawke led Labor to victory in 1983.

Kerin went on to play key roles in policy relating to economic reforms, particularly the gradual abolition of most tariff protections on agricultural imports, the latter bringing him into conflict with primary producers. The pragmatist in him came to the fore when he said: “Horsehair amulets, snake oil, the entrails of chickens and buckets of money cannot replace the meat of substantial policy analysis and substantial policy action.”

Kerin’s first wife was Barbara Elizabeth Large, with whom he had a daughter. The couple divorced in 1981 and in June 1983 Kerin married Dr Raye June Verrier, a parliament researcher. But public life remained very demanding, and in this Kerin’s pragmatism was fully tested.

The Japanese prime minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone, told the Hawke government that Australia would not suffer any reduction in its beef exports to Japan. The Japanese government then did exactly that and made an agreement with the United States. Kerin had to fly to Japan to try to sort that out.

The federal government felt it necessary to restructure the dairy industry so it could operate without subsidies from the government, and Kerin went to Echuca to face angry dairy farmers. Local police told him they could not guarantee his safety.

Kerin, with his dry humour, became renowned for trying to inject some rational discussion into such situations. In 1987, energy was added to his agriculture portfolio. Rick Farley, executive director of the National Farmers Federation, sang Kerin’s praises.

“He was a farmer himself, so he knows what it’s like, and he has a very good common touch with farmers. He enjoys a lot of respect and he knows the issues very well. He is always very well briefed, always on top of his subject.”

Kerin’s achievements included reform of statutory marketing authorities, a greater emphasis on research and development, and the centralising of services in regional centres. In an international discussion in the United States relating to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, he told delegates that they would have to stop protecting their rural sectors, which brought him into bitter conflict with wool producers in Australia.

Kerin said to the primary producers: “You guys have got to keep on being economically rational, because that gives me greater support in Cabinet and I can hold you up as an example.”

Kerin was also sympathetic to the environmental movement, later taking positions in conservation bodies, but he prided himself on being realistic.

Journalist Brian Toohey wrote of him after one speech when, according to Toohey, Kerin “clearly let his irritation show on the ‘purist’ positions taken by some environmentalists, saying that the ‘middle-class greenies should head back to the cave and eat grass seeds’.”

Uranium mining had been an irksome subject for Labor, which decided that 98 percent of Kakadu National Park should not be mined. When Kerin criticised this, Hawke rebuked him about breaching cabinet solidarity.

Then Kerin fell into the crucible. In 1991 Paul Keating resigned as treasurer in order to contest the prime ministership and Kerin was appointed to replace Keating.

Kerin came in at a time of recession, given little time to prepare the budget and needing to deal with the economic package being put up by then-opposition leader John Hewson.

Hawke himself said. “I don’t think there’s any treasurer in history who’s been thrown into that position under such pressures.“

The Opposition, the media, and Keating himself, hung on every word, homing in on the slightest error. Kerin’s budget speech, described as “steady as she goes”, was seen by one commentator as “a painfully honest assessment of what has gone wrong”.

Journalist Peter Robinson wrote: “Mr Kerin generated headlines like ‘Kerin’s blunder’ and ‘Kerin’s confusing signals’ by the simple act of stating obvious truths in plain language … the media are so conditioned into being used as a government stalking horse that they are no longer able to accept normal English at face value.”

The public was however unimpressed and government stocks fell. Paul Keating had had more flamboyance, even if the message he had to give would have been much the same. A cartoonist depicted Kerin as a small man in Keating’s big shoes, wearing a Superman outfit with the cape dragging on the ground.

Journalist Mike Steketee wrote that he was sure-footed and knowledgeable in the primary industries portfolio, but in treasury he had become far more tentative and cautious, sometimes saying things at odds with government policy or wishes.

Asked at a media conference whether the economy would be “bumbling along at the bottom of the recession”, Kerin replied: “Well, basically, your guess is as good as mine.” During one disastrous media conference, asked about the GOS (Gross Operating Surplus), he asked the journalist what that meant.

When the government did announce a one percent cut in interest rates, Kerin had the chance to grandstand and highlight the announcement, but simply sat in his office and issued a one-page statement. Hawke reportedly decided at that point it was time for him to go.

Kerin lost a lot of his shine but was still valued as a minister. He was given the portfolio as Minister for transport and communications, then in 1992 the portfolio of trade and overseas development.

In this position, he played a key role in preparing the groundwork for the APEC Leaders’ Summit at which the Bogor Declaration was be declared, pledging significant movement towards free trade amongst Pacific economies.

After Labor’s election win in 1993, Kerin was dropped from the ministry, apparently because of Paul Keating’s desire to bring new faces into the ministry, and at the end of the year announced his retirement from politics.

In 1994, Kerin registered a private company, John Kerin & Associates Pty Ltd. He became a member of the Australian Meat and Livestock Corporation, then in 1996 chairman of BioLogic International Limited, and 2001 a board member of Milliton Coal Australia Pty Ltd.

In the following years, Kerin took a number of appointments including being appointed chair of the Crawford Fund in 2010. Its aim was to increase Australia’s engagement in international agricultural research, development and education.

In 2011, he resigned from the New South Wales branch of the Labor Party in protest at what he saw as the increasingly highly centralised nature of control over the operations of the organisation.

He said that the administrative arm of the party had become increasingly involved in policy formulation, leaving little room for meaningful participation by rank-and-file party members. But the following year he re-joined the party in Canberra, saying he felt that local management of the party was more responsive to the concerns of members.

He is survived by his wife, June, and daughter Heidi.

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Citation details

'Kerin, John Charles (1937–2023)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/kerin-john-charles-33325/text41589, accessed 29 February 2024.

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