Bob Ellis (Image via https://rtrfm.com.au)

A very moving tribute by former federal MP Craig Thomson for the man who was his unwavering friend and supporter, the esteemed IA contributor, Bob Ellis.

'It’s a question of words in the end — how well we say I’ve loved you all my life, ………. Words that say thank you adequately, so long, farewell, it’s been a privilege.' *

I THOUGHT it best when talking of my friend Bob Ellis to quote him at the start. Because in writing, no one could convey a truth, an emotion, a feeling or an idea more powerfully. To say I feel ill equipped to write about Bob is an understatement. So my piece will be personal. As I sit at my computer, tears flowing, I want to talk about the Bob Ellis that I knew.

I didn’t know Bob as long as many, and certainly there were friends of Bob’s that were closer to him than me. There have been many words written about Bob’s undoubted contribution to literature, the arts in general and politics. I am not equipped to do that justice nor do I want to blandly repeat the deserved platitudes of others or respond to the snide condolences of the jealous, shallow and narrow-minded.

But I do want to talk about Bob  my friend. He was an important one who appeared like great friends do at the times you need them the most. He was there shoulder to shoulder with me for the worst of times, which I think tells you a lot about his humanity, spirit and, strangely, his optimism. He was also there for some good times too.

Unlike those who have known Bob for a lifetime, I knew Bob for ten years. However, I think the last ten years of my life could be measured in dog years and so Bob seems to have been with me forever.

Bob was determined once he heard I was standing for what was once considered the bellwether seat of Dobell (one I think thankfully the ALP will win handsomely at the coming election), to help.

At every election, there is the draw of the ballot. This procedural ritual is conducted by the good officers of the electoral commission in a typically bland and “public service like” sterile room with an equally unexcitable electoral officer.

In 2007, Bob decided, along with the father of the Greens candidate and me, to attend the draw for the ballot sheet of Dobell. No 1 on the ticket is thought to add a small but in close elections important vote percentage courtesy of the “donkey vote” and we were there to hopefully see this outcome.

There where ten candidates for the election albeit the contest was really between the incumbent liberal member and myself. Name after name were drawn out in silence with neither of the two candidates names coming out. It got down to ninth of tenth  the last two spots on the ballot paper. My name was called out at No 9 and Bob leapt in the air fist pumping, his deep resonating voice bellowing in triumph. His leap put NSW Premier Fahey’s famous Olympic announcement leap to shame.

Never in the history of elections probably anywhere in the world has coming No 9 on a ballot paper of 10 been so celebrated. But that was Bob. Heart and soul into everything. There were no brakes on his commitment, his support or constraints on his joy. Of course we had to go to the Grand Hotel at Wyong to celebrate.

'It’s more common now for the family to say things, and for old friends to tell funny stories, and some old home movies to go up on the screen, or a pre-recorded message to be played, keep the faith, life is joyous, comrades, to break through the grief and get the survivors back, as it were, to home base, to that calm of mind where life goes on.'*

In my first year in Canberra, Bob would come visiting to my office with ideas, plans and career advice. All was well meaning, heartfelt and genuine — some were political suicide but I valued his judgment and above all his sense of right and wrong.

In my first months, I called upon my party and the new government to incorporate dental care into Medicare, and provided the costings of such a model to the media. I wasn’t popular with the prime minister or his health minister, Nicole Roxon. But it had been my position before the election and Bob reminded me of that.

He argued that with a huge majority and a government destined to be in for years, early action on important issues was needed to change Australia. So I took his advice and despite the expected dressing down I got, Bob had been right to urge me to stick to my beliefs.

 

'We are not here very long, and that which we love goes from us faster than we expect. And we are always caught on the hop by the death of one we had long meant to visit, and now, quite often, it is too late.'*

As my world came crashing down and my family became targets of a campaign to have me leave parliament so that the minority government would fall, Bob strode into my battles. He wrote thousand of words in my defense and made me understand that, despite all that we were facing, staying in Parliament and supporting a progressive government was in itself a massive victory over those that sought a different path for our country.

When I was down and felt I couldn’t go on, Bob would help with a quiet word and some sound but often-funny advice. He was never afraid to be associated with me. As many so-called “friends” and even family pulled back, Bob only pushed and supported harder. A true friend, I think, is not someone who is there for the glitz and glamour of success, bathing in the reflected glory, but is someone who will be there when others have turned away.

 

Bob’s optimism also shone through. As the 2013 election approached he was firstly convinced that the ALP “had to support” me and would “run dead in Dobell” so I had a chance. When that didn’t happen, Bob organised supporters and his friends to conduct polling, door knocks and assist me to pull off the greatest victory. Of course it didn’t happen but without that optimism and spirit when in the darkest of places, how else can you go forward?

After the election Bob again was there publically for me. He took me to plays, introduced me to his theatre friends and on one occasion embarrassed me greatly. We went to see the Hansard monologues a play entirely put together with speeches from parliament. Quite rightly, Gillard’s misogyny speech featured, but so did my defense to parliament. When the play finished, I shrunk into my seat hiding as much as I could, Bob stood up from the middle rows of the theatre and in his booming voice said

“ I am here with Craig Thomson and I want to know what he thinks of the play”.

Loyalty at its most public.

In Canberra, we went to the Kingston Hotel, played pool (he was a good pool player), drinking, talking and talking. He was interested in everything about you but you had to know with Bob that it was likely to end up on his blog somewhere, much to my lawyer’s consternation. Once on State of Origin night, while playing pool, the then former PM Rudd walked in.

Bob said:

“Comrade, what do I do? I have just written what a F and C he is and I may be wrong.“

The self-doubt faded as Bob strode over to greet Kevin, calling on me moments later to rescue him from the encounter. Bob was never afraid of confrontation or standing behind the words he so beautifully wrote or as in this case, contemplating he may have been wrong. Bob was strong.

'It’s important, I think, to get it said, and say it soon. To make peace, to kiss it better. No memorial indulgence, no golden chariot pulled by black horses with tossing manes through thinly falling snow will ever be as good as those clear words said, ‘I love you. I’ll miss you. It was good for the world that you were here.'*

Bob told me over a beer at the Ettalong Hotel (a short drive for me and a ferry ride for him), that he didn’t have long and that he needed to complete the work on the Major Michael (Dan) Mori project that he assured me was brilliant while he had time. He lamented that he would like to work on a story about my troubled times but feared there wasn’t enough time.  

“Anyway, that Peter Wicks from Independent Australia will and should do a good job and if you hear of anyone else writing it, tell them I am doing it and that should scare them off while Peter can get going”.

[Editor's note: see Peter Wicks's comprehensive investigation into the HSU affair, "Jacksonville" here.]

Letters to The Age (including Bob Ellis’s) re David Hicks following publication of ‘All the signs of an election-year conspiracy’ 5 March, 2007.

Bob was planning the future beyond his death and it continued to be a future of support for his friends.

 

At Bob’s funeral, I stood with my parents at the back and watched the tributes. They were genuine, generous, heart -felt and well-delivered. Which pretty much sums up Bob Ellis to me. I wish I had known him longer. I wish I had the chance to say another good-bye. I am forever grateful for the time we had. There will be only one Bob Ellis but his life, his work, his spirit and his mind will forever be inspiration for all who read him and for those of us lucky enough to call him a friend. Goodbye Bob, you are sorely missed.

‘His great legacy of service, his inspiration and his loyal friendship will live on forever in the memories of those of us who loved him.’ **

* On Death and Dying, March 1999, by Bob Ellis on Table Talk.

 ** Posted by Bob Ellis 22 December 2015, extract of speech by Bob's great friend, Mike Rann, on the death of John Bannon.

Craig Thomson is former federal Labor and Independent MP for Dobell. 

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