Condolences - The Hon William D McGrath

Hon. William Desmond McGrath

Mr WALSH (Murray Plains) (12:10:11) — I join the Premier in the condolence motion on William Desmond McGrath, more commonly known to all of us as Bill. Bill was born on 3 December 1936, and at that time his family lived at Swanwater, near St Arnaud. He was the sixth of seven children. He was born to a devout Catholic family, a faith that he maintained his whole life. The McGrath family moved to Minyip while Bill was still at school and he completed grades 7 and 8 at the Dunmunkle East School, where he met Ivy Smith, who he was later to marry and spend his whole life with.

At 14 Bill left school to work on the family farm. As everyone knows, farm work in those days was a lot more physical than it is today. Lumping bags of wheat and shearing sheep — something that was a passion of Bill’s — helped him to develop the phenomenal strength that he was known for, particularly throughout his football career. Those early years on the farm taught Bill much about the cycle of good and bad seasons as well as how to manage the risks of farming and maintain something as a reserve for the bad years. He had a theory of a seven‑year cycle of agriculture between good and bad seasons. It was this knowledge and his ability to seize the moment, which he did a number of times throughout his life, that saw him expand his farming operations during a series of poor seasons when others would not dare expand, which led to his very successful business career as a farmer. He took particular pride in his wool clip. He loved his sheep, and he won the Wimmera district champion merino fleece in 1975 and 1976.

Like many country people, sport played a big part in Bill’s life — tennis in summer and football in winter, and later golf and bowls. He represented the Wimmera in A‑grade tennis at Kooyong, and he teamed with Charlie Krelle and Max Woodwood to win many, many doubles championships throughout the Wimmera. Such was their prowess at that time, which was well before professional sport, that the Dunlop sports company provided them with free rackets for a number of years as a promotional tool. What is interesting about Bill is that he was a right‑handed tennis player and he wrote right‑handedly but he was left‑footer at football and a left‑hander at golf. Some people would have found that challenging.

Bill started his football career in 1953 at the age of 16 with the Minyip reserves. At that time there was no junior football, and players started in the reserves. Ex‑North Melbourne coach Laurie Icke was his coach at that time, and Bill credits Laurie with his development as a footballer and also his big opportunity in football. In 1957 Laurie was selected to play for the Wimmera against a visiting VFL team at Horsham. But Laurie manipulated it: he warned Bill that he was going to pull out at the last minute and that Bill could play in his place, so Bill took his gear along that day and got to play in the match. As I said before, he was someone who seized the moment and always made the most of any opportunity. He played well that day and the next morning as he came out of church, Melbourne Football Club officials, including Ron Barassi, were lined up to ask him to come to Melbourne and play with Melbourne.

In 1958 he played two practice matches with Melbourne but felt his commitment had to be to the farm. He went home again and promised to come back in 1959 and do a preseason with Melbourne. In the intervening time he had a change of mind and ended up in 1959 at Albert Park oval playing for South Melbourne Football Club, as the Premier said. The very first match he played was the first match of the 1959 year. Collingwood had won the 1958 premiership. Bill said that he went there for the unveiling of the premiership flag and that the Collingwood crowd was very loud. He said it was one of his football highlights that South Melbourne actually beat Collingwood that day. There will be a lot of people in this room who are very happy that Collingwood got beaten that day.

He played that season with South Melbourne but felt that his farming commitments meant that he should return home to the farm at Minyip. Many would say it was also that he wanted to return home and marry Ivy Smith, who he did marry that next year and who Bill described as the best person he had ever known.

He had a very successful coaching career, including a double premiership at Donald, with both the seniors and the reserves winning that particular year. He coached Watchem to two premierships out of three years. He coached Minyip, Warracknabeal, the North Central Football League, the Wimmera Football League and the Victorian Country Football League team. I actually met Bill when he had his second stint coaching the Watchem Corack Football Club as a 16‑year‑old when I played my first senior games of football. I can tell the house that he was a formidable footballer. When Bill’s chin was out and that determined look was in his eye, not too many people stood in his way and got away with it. He was a very, very vigorous footballer, and very tough, and he made sure his physical presence was felt on the football field.

He was a life member of the Minyip football club and a life member of the Wimmera Football League, and he was actually selected in the Donald hall of fame as their coach for that particular hall of fame. Those who know the football league there would understand that Alan ‘Darky’ Dunstan, who was the mayor of that particular area and a passionate Donald supporter, was the person who actually recruited Bill to come to Donald and win those premierships. Darky would have been looking down on the service the other day and would have had a smile on his face about what Bill did for Donald.

A lot of people talked about Bill’s bent nose and when that happened on the football field. Unfortunately that is one of those myths. It was actually his granny who, when he was 18 months old, was dressing him when he fell off a chair in the kitchen. That is how he got that bent nose; it was one of those myths that grow up through football.

In 1979 Bill was asked by Bob King, the federal member for Wimmera, to run for the then Country Party against the sitting Liberal member, Jim McCabe — and those were the days. His sporting prowess, his success in sport throughout the Wimmera, meant that he had a very high profile, and it was a very vigorous three‑cornered contest for those that can remember three‑cornered contests in country Victoria. Bill went on to win, with positive preference flows out of that, and subsequently went on to win many elections after that, increasing his majority. In 1979 he was elected as the member for Lowan. The seat of Lowan was in place until 1992 when it was abolished, and Bill was elected as the member for Wimmera at that time — from 1992 through to 1999 when he retired.

Some of the folklore about Bill that was spoken about at his funeral included how his ute always had a lot of dents in it. Bill was a very good sheep person but probably not the best machinery person in the world. Part of the folklore of Bill’s election campaigns was that his children, particularly Shane, who was on the farm with him, were always very prepared to actually hand out cards for Bill to make sure he was re‑elected and did not actually come back to the farm and start breaking machinery again. I am told — I am not sure if it is true — that there was actually an ad at one stage that Shane ran saying ‘Please elect Dad so he doesn’t come home to the farm’.

In that parliamentary career he was on the Public Bodies Review Committee for those of us who remember the Public Bodies Review Committee, the Conservation of Energy Resources Committee, the Natural Resources and Environment Committee and the Library Committee, and he was shadow Minister for Agriculture from 1990 through 1992. I next crossed paths with Bill when Ian Baker was the minister in the last years of the Kirner government and they were repealing what was then called the Tomato Processing Industry Act 1976. As tomato growers we were actually governed by legislation in how we set prices. Ian Baker was hell‑bent on deregulating that, and Bill assisted us in trying to defeat that bill, unsuccessfully. I can remember spending many late nights in this place, when it used to sit until 2 o’clock or 3 o’clock in the morning in those dying years there, with Bill going through that particular legislation.

Bill was Minister for Agriculture from 1992 to 1996. One of the things that was also commented on at the funeral was that Bill’s joke telling probably was not the best strength he had in making speeches. Again, part of the folklore is that at one particular stage his office actually dispatched someone down the street to buy a new joke book because they felt that Bill’s jokes were a bit off at times and probably did not hit the mark correctly. At the funeral I was talking to Mike Taylor, who was Bill’s departmental secretary through that time. I said to Mike that I would blame him, as the secretary, for Bill’s jokes, but he took exception to that and did not believe it was his fault through that particular time.

After being Minister for Agriculture Bill then served as Minister for Corrections and Minister for Police and Emergency Services. In his term there was the tragedy around Gary Silk and Rodney Miller, something he had to deal with, and also the burnover of the fire truck at Linton, where there were five fatalities. Bill, as most ministers have in those portfolios, had some challenges to deal with in those particular portfolios.

Can I thank Fr Peter Hudson and Fr Justin Driscoll for the service they ran. I think it was absolutely appropriate to Bill, particularly Fr Justin, who actually quoted from a book by Morris West, A View from the Ridge, which is about looking back in life and looking forward, and he spoke about how Bill would look back from the ridge. He had a very successful life. He was a great family man; he was very dedicated to his family, very dedicated to his community and very dedicated to his church — and looking forward from the ridge, he would be looking forward to spending the rest of his time with his God. I think that was a fantastic homily delivered by Fr Justin, who is actually a great‑nephew of Bill’s.

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