Vale to three of the greats

It is sometimes argued that Australia's greatest generation were those born in the two decades before World War II. Three of that “greatest generation” passed away this week.

The flamboyant satirist and comedian Barry Humphries joined my good mates the social justice giant Father Bob Maguire and WWII veteran Laurie Larmer in the queue for the pearly gates. All three men lived lives of remarkable note.

Humphries was of course the creator of Dame Edna Everage, the most famous housewife in the world, well before the Real Housewives came along, and a resident of Moonee Ponds, my neck of the woods.

In fact, just a few metres from my Moonee Ponds electorate office is Everage Street, named after the grand dame, where locals have been laying flowers since news of Humphries' death.

Something I would love to see is a statue of Dame Edna, to watch on as locals shop on the eponymous street. After all, she put the suburb on the cultural map of the world.

On a less theatrical, but no less dashing, note, on Wednesday I will farewell a man I have had the honour to call my friend for decades, and an Australian who deserves our thanks, Laurie Larmer. His funeral being held the day after we've honoured those who have served and those still serving is fitting.

On Tuesday I represented the Prime Minister at Melbourne's dawn service. Anzac Day is many things to many people.

For some it is being with mates they serve or served beside and the once a year two-up. For most it is a day tinged with the sadness of loss.

Standing in the pre-dawn stillness at the Shrine of Remembrance in a moment of solemn reflection, I thought of the young men who were about to go ashore at Gallipoli unsure of their fate but sure of their mission. And I thought about my recently departed mate Laurie, who was just a teenager in 1941, a Moonee Ponds lad, when he signed up to fight in WWII.

I want to tell you Laurie's story. It's remarkable and his legacy would go on to be recognised with France's highest military award, the Legion of Honour.

At the tender age of 18, Laurie joined the Royal Australian Air Force and became part of England's Royal Air Force 51 Bomber Squadron, which played an integral part of the Allied push to liberate Europe.

The air war over Europe was the most dangerous theatre of operations for Australians in WWII. More than one in three members of the RAAF serving in Bomber Command paid the ultimate price for fighting fascism and defending democracy. In total, 4100 Australians died in skies over Europe and never made it home.

Laurie knew he was one of the lucky ones.

But there was always an ache in his heart. While making no apologies for answering the call of his nation, he did not glorify war because he knew the true collateral damage of battle was the loss of innocent lives. And he never forgot his RAAF comrades whose burials he could never attend.

At the age of 92, on the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, and in a sign of this man's humility and character, Laurie wrote to the lord mayors of German towns he had bombed to say that he deeply regretted what had happened.

Not the need to defeat Hitler, but the sad loss of civilian life it entailed. The response was overwhelming.

The mayors replied, expressing their deep respect for Laurie's words. His letter was used extensively in schools in those towns as a lesson on the futility of war and the fragility of peace.

Laurie was a lifelong Labor man and one of my staunchest supporters.

He was the embodiment of Labor values and he lived them every day.

Another of the “greatest generation” was lost to us last week with the passing of Father Bob Maguire at 88.

The rebel with a wicked sense of humour, who would poke fun at those in power but never stopped fighting for those without it.

Father Bob became somewhat of an unlikely celebrity when he joined up with his favourite sparring partner, John Safran, on late-night radio to talk all things religion and ethics.

When asked to comment on Bob's death Safran said that the Catholic priest was “somehow kinder and funnier” in private than in public. “As wise as Buddha” and welcoming of all, including the “unloved and the unlovely” because in Bob's eyes, you didn't have to like people to love them.

I met Bob in 1983 when I was 15 and doing a social-work program at school. I got to spend a week with him, getting out and meeting kids who lived on the street. I watched him show them respect and understanding - two things you could tell were not usually afforded them.

I could not help but be affected by Father Bob's kindness, caring and advocacy for the downtrodden and the outcast. My interaction with him in my youth and the bond I developed with him over the course of time has been a driving force in my own determination to speak for those who have no voice.

I can only aspire to be as selfless and devoted to the cause as Bob.

It was with great sadness then that I say vale, Father Bob Maguire, Laurie Larmer and Barry Humphries, and offer my sympathy to their families and friends.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday 26 April 2023.