I rise in this chamber today in deep appreciation of the life of Senator Linda White, who passed away on 29 February while in office. I offer my deepest sympathies to Linda’s brother, Michael, and his wife, Julie, and to Linda’s many friends, her colleagues in the Australian Labor Party, the Australian Services Union and the trade union movement more broadly. I particularly wish to offer my sincerest condolences to Linda’s devoted staff: Ben Armstrong, Ekta Mahal, Amit Aalok, Ned Lindenmayer and Ead Stokes. Linda was so proud of her team and they were proud of her in return. The respect and affection between them was so apparent in the dealings my office had with them and in our work together. I know they are grieving deeply, and I offer them my most heartfelt support not just now but into the future.

Today I join with many people across Linda’s extensive working life and public service to record a tribute to celebrate her extraordinary contribution to our nation and to mourn her terrible loss. Many who knew Linda far better than I have eulogised her 40 years of work and advocacy and illuminated the principles of fairness and equity that underpinned the way she approached her work and her life outside of work.

Linda was a lawyer who commenced her professional life at Maurice Blackburn and then moved to the Australian Services Union, where she fought to improve the wages and conditions of workers right across Australia. Linda’s work led to significant social and legislative reform which extends to literally thousands of people. We all want to make a difference, but Linda White actually, truly, materially did.

Linda led the fight for Ansett workers in the wake of the airline’s collapse, and ensured that workers won back almost all of the $160 million owed to them. I remember that time but I have no memory that Linda was there until I found out that she led it. She fought for and won equal pay for 200,000 community and social services workers, delivering pay rises of up to 43 per cent for some of the lowest-paid workers, many of them women. She championed equal retirement outcomes, family and domestic violence leave, paid parental leave and just so much more. Linda’s activism is the stuff of legend. Her advocacy for women and her leadership in seeing this parliament achieve equal representation of women is storied. She played a big role in securing strong affirmative action targets for the ALP and, as the Prime Minister said this week in his condolence motion, that this current Labor government has a majority of women is in no small part due to the work of Linda White. I honestly have no idea how the ALP works, but I reckon for her to be on the National Executive Committee for the ALP for as long as she was is evidence enough that this woman could probably stare down a charging rhino!

Since her untimely death I have listened to story upon story describing Linda ‘s intelligence, her tenacity and her courage, and I have heard how Linda White’s skills as a formidable warrior were equally matched by her capacity for kindness and her wonderful sense of humour. Linda loved flowers, music, visual and performing arts, and literature. She loved sport. She not only gained joy from a cultural life but, true to her nature, she contributed to making sure that the arts flourished by giving of her strong skills in governance as a board member, director and patron. Linda was a joiner but, more than that, she was an active, generous participant. She was motivated by her love of the arts and motivated by her desire to make sure that they were accessible to all citizens. She was about the democratisation of the high arts.

She, famously, applied her skills in getting the job done from the backstage, no matter where she was. In fact, as the member for Chisholm just said, one of the things I learned about Linda recently was her love of theatre and her early talent in movie-making and, indeed, in production skills in such epic, early Australian comedy genius as The D-Generation. Who knew? Perhaps if Linda had chosen another life she may have been writing the material for Utopia rather than providing part of the subject material! This woman was just incredible!

I met Linda for the first time in September 2022 when, as a new senator, she was appointed as chair of the Joint Select Committee on National Anti-Corruption Commission Legislation and I was appointed deputy chair. We subsequently served together on the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Anti-Corruption Commission until February this year when she, reluctantly, had to step aside to manage her illness. Regrettably, I had but the shortest of experiences in working with Linda. But when she was appointed chair of that first NACC committee, I asked the Attorney-General, ‘Who is Linda White?’ The A-G simply smiled and said: ‘Helen, you will enjoy working with Linda White. You will like Linda White.’ He was wrong about that; I actually loved Linda White. Naturally, though, I went away and checked out Linda White’s CV. It was so impressive! That I had not seen nor heard of her said so much more about me than her—because it did—as I was to learn. It said so much about the humility of Linda—humility is just an attribute that I cannot begin to say how much I appreciate.

When Linda was appointed chair of the NACC committee, this is what she said:

I am honoured to Chair the Committee and look forward to the Committee playing its role in cementing the NACC as a truly independent and effective national integrity body.

In the stewardship of the NACC legislation and then in the joint statutory National Anti-Corruption Commission committee, as I worked beside her I saw that she was curious, committed and observant—a fair and a careful custodian of this historic new integrity body. As other members of that committee would attest, what we saw in this particular government chair was someone who truly was fair minded, someone who was a good listener—loyal, of course, to her government but unflinching in her duties and not afraid to speak truth to power when the moment came that she needed to do that, because she indeed ensured that the National Anti-Corruption Commission got off to the right start. She truly ensured that it would be effective and independent. She said that she would do that, and, in true form, Linda meant what she said.

Linda served on 12 committees in this parliament in the one year, seven months and 17 days of her time in this parliament. But, as we have come to learn and appreciate, she served our nation for so much longer than that. I am deeply, deeply sorry that I will not get to serve with Linda for longer. I’m deeply sorry that my committee work with her has come to its conclusion, but, gee whiz, I learnt so much from her.

Linda was the gift that the broader Australia never knew we had, but she is the gift whose work endures beyond her.

I had the great honour of attending Linda’s memorial service in Melbourne. Much-loved Australian actor Rachel Griffiths AM, friend of Linda and Linda’s fellow board member on the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, was the MC. I’ve got to say not many people will have a farewell attended by a prime minister, a deputy prime minister, senior members of state and federal governments, dignitaries and luminaries of all sorts from across the arts, law, civil society, sport, alongside their many, many friends. And I know I wasn’t the only person in the room who discovered surprise after delightful surprise at the gift of Linda White—the nods of recognition, the chuckles at a revelation of one of her dry one-liners right up to the moment of her final stay in hospital. Perhaps it was the ultimate way for someone like Linda, who was a gold medallist at keeping her cards close to her chest—that it was not until she was gone that we saw the talents and contributions to public life of Linda White that truly was a royal flush. I reckon that would be just the way she’d want it. Unusually that day, for a politician, I found myself not wanting the speeches to stop, because every speech revealed another layer that answered the question I asked of the Attorney-General: who is Linda White?

It was fitting that this incredible, incredible woman’s memorial service was hosted by a Hollywood actor, because the curtain has gone down on a magnificent life, with the audience screaming for more, longing for more. Vale, Senator Linda White. You were a great Australian, and I am so much better for having known you.

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