It is with great sadness that I acknowledge the passing of the Hon. Milton Morris AO, pay tribute to his remarkable legacy, and pay my respects and offer my condolences to the 17 members of his family who are here today, and the many others in the community who I remember from the memorial service—I cannot guess the exact number.
Milton passed away peacefully in his sleep on 26 February 2019. I remember calling Kay, because she was my go-to to get to Milton, and she told me how many calls she had had in the last couple of days before he passed. She said it was almost like they all had heard the train whistle—people knew.
He was actually the first politician I met in Maitland. In fact, he was probably one of the first 10 or so people I met there. Shortly after I moved to Maitland we moved into a house that was right near the Donaldson coalmine that was starting up at that time. Milton Morris was part of the community consultation process. I think probably a lot of my views about living in a coalmining community came from Milton in relation to understanding impacts, ensuring that people had information and that proper monitoring was in place, and that there was a place for good operating mines in our community.
Much has been, and will be, said about Milton in this place. We will reflect on his lengthy parliamentary career, his full-time service and his council service, but the landmark legislation that came into effect during his time as Minister for Transport is obviously well-trodden ground. His vision and tenacity saved lives in our community and our State and that is a proud record.
But I also want to talk about his contribution as a man to our community, as the member for Maitland and someone who was very much a man of his family and his faith.
Milton first joined the Parliament 1956 and retained the electorate of Maitland for a record term of 24 years, and being four years in, I know that is a long legacy to look up to. During his tenure as a parliamentarian he was Minister for Transport for 10 years.
I have to say Milton would challenge the current Minister for Transport on the speed of travelling to Sydney these days. I think he might say it was faster under him because there are still lots of people in the Hunter who have fond memories of that fast train to Sydney.
He is remembered as the Minister who halved the New South Wales road toll in a 10-year period while the number of registered motor vehicles more than doubled.
He is remembered for: introducing the compulsory wearing of seatbelts; bringing in the use of P-plates, helping our new learner drivers to be more confident before they were on the road unmasked like anyone else; having a licence point system; bringing in radar speed detection; and introducing the breathalyser.
He is also remembered for allowing women to become bus drivers and for granting Maitland's first-ever female taxi driver, Una Farley, her licence.
Milton saved lives but he also advocated for innovation and equality. It is a proud record for any transport Minister.
As mentioned, Milton had other portfolios. In 1975 he served as Minister for Lands and Forests and in 1976 as Minister for Decentralisation and Development. He was so effective as a Minister that in 1977 he received telephone calls from 12 of the 30 State Liberal Party members asking him to stand for the positions of leader or deputy leader of the State Parliamentary Liberal Party.
I am sure he probably had an easier time than some of the current leadership contenders given it was not posted on social media. But Milton did not entertain the idea of being a leader or deputy leader for one reason: his commitment was to the people of Maitland and to his family.
The newspaper of record in his electorate, the Maitland Mercury, sought comment from Milton at that time. His response was clear: "The cold facts are that to be leader of the parliamentary party, I'd have to live in Sydney and there would be considerably less appearances in our electorate than would suit me."
Holding the transport Portfolio was a realisation of his childhood dream. Both sides of his family had strong links to the railway and it was somewhat inevitable that his career would lead him down that track. And in a way it did, for Milton to become the State's highest rail authority as the Minister.
Milton's tenure as Minister for Transport is yet to be surpassed and, ultimately, it was his decision to step away from the portfolio. I am sure all of us in this place would love to have that opportunity.
The then New South Wales Opposition Leader, John Mason, said that, upon his election in 1978, he asked Milton to name his job in the shadow Cabinet. Milton, however, had reached the point in his career where he wanted to be free-ranging and not tied down by any specific responsibility.
"His words of counsel and his advice are carefully weighted and heavily relied on," Mr Mason told the Maitland Mercury. "I don't know of any member whose words are more closely listened to."
Part of the reason for this is that Milton was renowned for working with whomever he needed to work with in order to achieve the outcomes for his electorate and the State. In 2011 this was documented in the Newcastle Herald's feature article "A life of perpetual motion". I pay tribute to the journalist, Helen Gregory, who compiled such a comprehensive record of Milton's career. She wrote:
Morris ensured that local MPs announced any transport matters in their own electorates. He decided to let Labor Member for Newcastle and good friend Arthur Wade make the announcement about the installation of traffic lights at the Nineways in Broadmeadow. It was the first time traffic signals had been used to control the number of roads that converge at the site.
The Liberal Party and the local branch complained about the important announcement being left in the hands of a local member.
I can see the Minister smiling—it is not the same as the Victoria Street station but that is for another day. The article continued:
Then-Premier Robert Askin drew Morris aside after a cabinet meeting to inform him of the complaints.
Mr Morris said:
'The day the Liberals win the Newcastle seat they will make the announcements, the local member in these days is supreme.'
According to Mr Morris, Mr Askin replied:
'You did what I'd do', and nothing more was said of it.
Milton was truly a gentleman and showed true respect for our electorates and for our communities, the people who elect the MPs to this place.
Kay Sharp, AM, who unfortunately cannot be here today, worked with Milton for more than four decades and remembers him as a man of praise, never cruelty. A lot of things get said in electorate offices behind closed doors but Kay said, "In 43 years I don't remember him ever saying anything unpleasant about anyone. Ever. But he had a great sense of humour and an infectious laugh."
Milton was justifiably proud of his ability to get things done without making enemies unnecessarily. Part of his success and enduring respect was fairness. He was known for treating members of Parliament equally, as representatives of their constituencies, irrespective of their political persuasions.
In 1994, in the Hunter Valley Weekend, he reflected: "One of the deteriorations and sad turns in politics today is the bitterness, rancour and personal attacks which are now resorted to in Parliament." He also said: "It's always a quest of how we can best get her or him personally if we can't attack their policies. I served under great Labor premiers, such as Cahill, Heffron and Renshaw, and they never attacked an opposition member on a personal basis, but on policies they could push you through the wringer."
Milton also recognised that while most politicians built resilience to personal criticism, their spouses and families suffered most. These days we often hear talk of new standards in public discourse and conduct. I believe Mr Morris set the standard. He never turned down an interview because he knew just how weak those words "The Minister refused to comment" could look.
On that note I acknowledge the work of the Maitland Mercury and Newcastle Herald journalists who immortalised so much of Milton's life and career, and captured so many of his direct quotes through his generosity in speaking. Milton was something of a media darling, possibly due to his often-quoted line, which is a window to his humble nature, "I have never been misrepresented in the media, but there were times when I read in the morning paper what I wished I hadn't said the night before."
I think we have all been there.
That was his way, he was not one for shirking responsibility or blaming others. Milton was a communicator and a talker but also a listener. His way to hose down looming political trouble on the railways was to catch a train and talk to the passengers with a media pack along for the ride. That is true courage for a politician to do that.
Milton's political career ended in 1980 when he resigned from the Legislative Assembly to stand for the Federal seat of Lyne. Although Milton did not win that election, another door opened and it led to a 30-year chapter he later described as one of the greatest privileges in his life.
In 1981 the Wran Labor Government set up a not‑for‑profit group training organisation called the Hunter Valley Training Company to create a skilled workforce for the construction of Muswellbrook's Bayswater Power Station. HVTC was to provide vocational education and training for a six-year period.
In yet another example of how highly regarded Milton was by both sides of politics, the then Minister for Industrial Relations, Labor's Pat Hills, invited Milton to manage this new organisation. Milton's first response was to decline as he did not see himself fit to manage a company. But he and his loyal, long-time friend and colleague Kay Sharp struck a partnership. Milton accepted the position of inaugural chairman, and Kay accepted the role of general manager.
He even knew how to pass the baton to someone he had mentored with such grace.
The HVTC was the first of its kind in Australia. It became the exemplar for the hundreds of training companies that now operate throughout Australia. Last night I spoke to some colleagues from the trade union movement and they remembered him too and the runaway success of HVTC. There are strong feelings for this man around our State and HVTC is still going strong to this day.
Milton served as founding chairman for 30 years, then became patron in 2011. During that time the organisation helped 22,000 young people get apprenticeships. They helped them do so much more. They gained skills for life and began going down a path towards lifelong employment. What better gift can we give to young people?
Kay, who worked alongside Milton for 43 years, first as his electorate officer and then at the Hunter Valley Training Company, recalls their legacy with pride. She said, "HVTC was to give young men and women from disadvantaged and high unemployment areas around the State the chance to get an apprenticeship."
Kay described how Milton managed to combine his loves of steam and rail and offering opportunities to young people. She also said, "He had the 3801 steam engine completely restored. It took three years and 337 out-of-trade apprentices, but he had it totally rebuilt. We even had to make the rivets. It taught those young people so much."
What a legacy to our tourism industry that was.
Kay said that in addition to Maitland's iconic 3801, the training company also restored the 3830 for the Powerhouse Museum, the James Craig, and the Fort Scratchley cannons. HVTC is still going strong. A couple of weeks ago I was there with the member for Port Stephens, my colleague Kate Washington, and the HVTC Chief Executive Officer, Sharon Smith. Milton's legacy lives on and it is very strong.
On a personal level, Milton was a man with an unwavering moral compass. He staunchly believed that God would provide the opportunities, but it was up to the individual to put the hard work in—and he did. During Milton's youth, work all but dried up for his father, Arthur. The family's home was repossessed and for a year they lived in a tent next to Sandgate Cemetery.
Despite these tough times and his years of hard work, he described himself as someone who had been given extraordinary opportunities. A lifelong Methodist at heart, the story of the Good Samaritan compelled him through its challenge to go and do likewise. His involvement in the church community spanned 46 years as superintendent of Mayfield Baptist Sunday School; 45 years as deacon of Mayfield Baptist Church; 49 years as chairman of Lewis House Hostel; and pastor of Thalaba Baptist Church from 1993 to 2014.
He even drove the Sunday school bus, combining transport with his other great love.
A bit like his political views, Milton was ecumenical. He was hailed as a great friend to St Peter's Anglican Church in East Maitland, where his memorial service was held, and the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. When I was first elected to this place, I remember Bishop Bill Wright telling me of the regular afternoon teas that he enjoyed with Milton.
Milton was an authorised minister of the Baptist Churches of New South Wales and a registered local preacher of the world Methodist church. His funeral was attended by a number of church leaders from different faiths. His passion for life and belief in God and others were his driving force. At one time he voiced his wish that his epitaph would state simply: "He has done what he could".
What a humble, generous person!
Milton was valued as a gracious and kind gentleman and certainly "did what he could". He was renowned for giving his time and knowledge and he did not hesitate to offer mentoring to those who came to him to learn.
Milton's relationship with another Maitland legend, Peter Blackmore, OAM, is but one example. Mr Blackmore also served as the State member for Maitland in this place and led the city for 22 years as mayor. The two of them met for lunch on a regular basis to discuss the political state of play. Reflecting on Milton's death, Peter told TheMaitland Mercury:
"He was an outstanding man and I am proud to hold him up there as my mentor. I virtually fashioned my political career off Milton Morris."
I, too, am honoured to have counted Milton as a friend and mentor. I have greatly appreciated his kindness to me as a new member of Parliament. He was always ready for a chat when I met him at community events. He was so inclusive and warm. I remember visiting the Polish Association of Maitland for the fortieth birthday of the Polish Millennium Hall; Milton was there. He was an honorary member of the association and loved deeply by its members.
I think it was one of the last official events that I attended with him but I have to say that it really inspired me with the strength of relationships that members of Parliament build with their local communities over years. I enjoyed the chat I had with his daughter Karen at the time, looking back at her life as the child of a parliamentarian.
I visited Milton after he moved back to Mayfield. Kay Sharp, as loyal as ever, met me there and we all chatted for an hour or so about life in politics and those wonderful train trips to Sydney, which I think for him were a real highlight as he met other members from the Hunter on the way—they would all be Labor. We also talked about the friendships he made along the way.
He was humble about the obvious affection with which he was regarded. While his memory was dimming slightly on that day, he was still clear on policy and the right way to do things. He still had very strong opinions on hot political topics. It was a wonderful and very pleasant conversation.
A special moment from that day I remember was him telling Kay, "Write this down. We are going to write a letter to that man"—meaning the then Leader of the Opposition—"that we want her in Maitland".
While it may not have been a good thing for my career in the Labor Party in the current political cycle, who knows? Such is the respect that members on this side of the House have for him. It was a really special moment for me and an evidence of his generosity of spirit.
At his memorial service in Maitland, that generosity of spirit was on full display. There were so many different politicians from different political parties, including, of course, his dear friend Richard Face; the Premier—I thank her for coming; it meant a lot to our community—former Australian Democrat Cheryl Kernot, who grew up in Maitland; former Greens Councillor Wendy White; Federal member for Paterson Meryl Swanson, who was married by Milton and would not forgive me if I did not say that; the current member for Port Stephens, Kate Washington and former member Bob Martin; former member for Maitland John Price; Peter Blackmore; and the current Mayor of Maitland as well as lots of councillors.
All of us were there to honour Milton Morris because in some way Milton had such a great impact on our lives or inspired us to stand for public office, to stand up for our communities, to try to improve our State or our nation.
While we are paying tribute to Milton today, it would be remiss of me if I did not thank Kay Sharp for her work. Milton really understood the importance of our electorate officers and the personal sacrifices they make as they work beside us in our roles as parliamentarians. They are so important to our work. They keep us in touch, help our constituents, smooth relationships, provide wise counsel and support, and help organise that balance between family life and work.
Kay was Milton's ever-loyal deputy. In those days there was only ever one electorate secretary who did everything. Like Milton, Kay Sharp set the standard.
I remember Milton telling me how Kay and he would walk down from his office to the Maitland post office on the Friday of sitting weeks, just to reconnect with the people so they could see him and ask him a question or catch up. As they walked along Kay would remind him who people were and how he—or, in fact, Kay—had helped them.
They had the kind of working partnership that can be so hard to find but one that is so precious once you do. The mutual respect, courtesy and calmness is something that has always impressed me.
Milton's values and character were consistent in every facet of his life. He modelled them as a government Minister, a mentor, a pastor, a father and a husband. He was married to Colleen for 67 years, during which time they welcomed four children—Colleen, Margaret, John and Karen.
Milton farewelled his dear wife in 2013 but their legacy lives on. Their descendants have fantastic family get-togethers, which Milton was always a part of.
They knew Milton as a singer and a music lover, a veggie gardener and chook tender, a camper and a card player.
At times in his life he rode horses and herded cattle. He loved bodysurfing and every Boxing Day he and a good mate undertook a three-day trek from Stockton to Birubi, stopping to fish and swim along the way.
He loved all things rail and all things steam. He was patron of Steamfest and there are many organisations that boasted him as their chief supporter. He was patron of the Mai-Wel Group, the Maitland Gilbert and Sullivan society, East Maitland RSL, the Sydney Tramway Museum and many more.
Everyone loved Milton and we all miss him greatly. I thank his family and friends for coming to Parliament today to help us do the right thing in honouring his memory.