Peter Khalil: I’m also pleased to add my condolences for the late John Sidney McCain III, who passed away on 27 August at the age of 81. John McCain served his country, the United States of America, for 60 years, six decades, in various forms of public service—a remarkable record. As we’ve heard from previous speakers, he was undoubtedly a man of immense courage and conviction. It’s probably true to say that this courage and conviction was forged in his experience as a naval aviator in the US Navy and in particular the events of 26 October 1967. We’ve heard much about their significance in the weeks since his passing. As other speakers, including the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, have described, it was on this day that McCain was flying a bombing mission over North Vietnam in his A-4E Skyhawk and was shot down by missile over Hanoi. He fractured both arms and a leg when he ejected from the aircraft, and he nearly drowned after he parachuted into Truc Bach Lake. He was pulled ashore and was beaten and bayonetted by North Vietnamese forces before being transported to Hanoi’s main prison, Hoa Lo Prison, nicknamed ‘the Hanoi Hilton’, where he was to spend two excruciatingly painful years in solitary confinement. He refused a North Vietnamese offer to release him, which was largely, as we’ve heard, for propaganda purposes, given his father was an admiral. He then remained a POW until 1973.
We often ask what drives a person to carry on in those dark moments that he would have faced. By his own admission sometimes he was unable to carry on, but he has said publicly many times—and we heard during the eulogies at his funeral from many of his friends, family and colleagues—that what kept him going through those darkest moments was his faith in his country, his faith in his fellow servicemen and servicewomen and his faith in God. It’s difficult to understand or even imagine the pain he would have gone through during those dark years.
Within a decade of his release he’d been elected to the US House of Representatives. Some might comment that he has gone from that terrible experience into politics, which is also a very difficult experience, as we know, but probably a walk in the park for John McCain, given the resilience that he’d built up from what he had been through and how his courage was forged in those years. He gained a reputation as a foreign policy hawk, yes, but also as someone who was willing to go it alone to be a maverick. He became a six-time senator in Arizona, as we’ve heard, a position he held until his passing. He was also a presidential candidate in 2008 and, more importantly, a statesman—which is very rare in today’s politics. He was also a great friend of our nation—truly one of the greatest champions of the Australia-US alliance of the past 70 years.
I mentioned his tilt at the presidency in 2008. Of course, history records that Senator McCain did not succeed in his attempt to become President of the United States. He was beaten by the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama. But it was actually President Obama, who was once a fierce political opponent of Senator McCain, who put it so eloquently when he eulogised at the memorial service, saying:
John McCain and I were members of different generations, came from completely different backgrounds, and competed at the highest level of politics. But we shared, for all our differences, a fidelity to something higher—the ideals for which generations of Americans and immigrants alike have fought, marched, and sacrificed. We saw our political battles, even, as a privilege, something noble, an opportunity to serve as stewards of those high ideals at home, and to advance them around the world. We saw this country as a place where anything is possible—and citizenship as our patriotic obligation to ensure it forever remains that way.
We’ve heard from previous speakers about the character of John McCain in those difficult moments, as we would know, in politics, in the middle of a campaign, no less than a presidential campaign. We’ve heard this story time and time again. A voter at a town hall meeting said she couldn’t trust Obama because he was an Arab. Well, there’s nothing wrong with being an Arab. And John McCain knows that and throughout his career always fought on the side of individuals regardless of their race, their ethnicity or their gender. Whether they were an Arab, a Muslim or an Asian, it didn’t matter to John McCain; he treated people based on their character. In relation to Barack Obama, he said to that lady, as we’ve heard, ‘No, ma’am, he’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.’ In fact, I think that’s what politics should be all about—that example that he set for us, that we judge each other based on the content of our character, on what we do and what we say, and on our actions, rather than the parts of us that might form our identity based on the colour of our skin, our gender or our religion or our faith. These things are important, but they are not to judge each other by. These are things that we have and we cherish, as John McCain cherished. But he judged and treated others based on their character and the content of that character.
He believed deeply in American power as a force for good in the world. He believed the US had unique responsibilities to lead in the world, both through action and by example. So he supported strong alliances, a robust military and the promotion of democracy and human rights in places around the world where they were lacking. Where there were freedom fighters, he was there. He was supportive. On that basis, the US-Australia alliance was particularly significant in his mind. In remarks he made to the US Senate Committee on Armed Services, he described Australia as:
… one of America’s oldest friends and staunchest allies. We are united by ties of family and friendship, mutual interests and common values, and shared sacrifice in wartime.
That has a personal resonance for me because my wife is American and we met in Iraq in the middle of a war. So I understand those bonds that have been forged between Australia and the US very much at a personal level.
John McCain had a deep and enduring affection for our country, for Australia. It was inspired by his father—a submarine commander based out of Perth during World War II. Of his father, he said in April last year:
I can’t tell you the times he would tell me about what an incredible experience it was for him and the hospitality of the Australian people and the great affection and respect back then he had for the Australian military.
That was said on what was to be his last visit to Australia. I note, too, that he visited our parliament during that visit. I and many of my colleagues here had the opportunity and the honour to meet with him on several occasions. He actually addressed the Labor Party caucus, which was a fantastic experience. A number of MPs on both sides of politics got to sit down with Senator McCain to have a really robust discussion about our place in the world and our alliance, and the challenges that we face in the Indo-Pacific. It was a real joy to have that conversation with someone with such great experience. Then and at other times, he said of our alliance, ‘This alliance between our countries is more important than ever, because we have fought and sacrificed side by side for a long time, and it is a unique relationship in that respect.’ Cameron Stewart, who writes for The Australian, last week described John McCain as Australia’s closest friend in Washington. That’s probably true. We haven’t had a better friend than John McCain in the US. Indeed, he was one of our closest friends, if not the closest friend that we’ve had. So we will miss him. Vale John McCain. May he rest in peace.