Jim McKiernan

Irish-born former WA senator dies, aged 73

Cavan-born Jim McKiernan has died at the age of 73. 

Cavan-born Jim McKiernan has died at the age of 73. 

Former Labor Senator for Western Australia and proud Cavan-man Jim McKiernan died at his home in Perth on Friday after a long battle with cancer. He was 73.

WA Labor paid tribute to the Irish-born parliamentarian, who represented his state in the Australian Senate from 1985 to 2002.

"Sad news for the WA Labor family today, with the passing of the great Jim McKiernan," they posted.

"A unionist, a great parliamentarian, and one of the great senses of humour in politics.

"From Cavan, Ireland to the Dillingham shipyards in Fremantle, to the Senate in Canberra, his story is one of a working class kid made good, and a life well lived. Our thoughts are with his family and loved ones. Vale Jim."

The third of eight children of James and Mary (Maisie) McKiernan, Jim left school at age fourteen to help support the family.

He worked as a petrol pump attendant and an abattoir worker before emigrating to England. In 1969, having gained a trade qualification as a first-class machinist, he migrated to Perth,  taking advantage of an assisted passage scheme.

He took on a position as a machinist/fitter and turner at Dillingham Shipyards in Fremantle, where he remained for the next four years.

He joined the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) which later became the Amalgamated Metal Workers' Union (AMWU). In 1976 he was appointed as the AMWU's first full-time education officer in Western Australia,.

He joined the Australian Labor Party and became increasingly immersed in politics.

He put his name forward for preselection to run for a Western Australian Senate seat and in the 1984 half-Senate election, McKiernan was elected to Canberra.

After his first marriage to Jean ended in divorce, McKiernan married Jacqueline (Jackie) Watkins, a sitting member of the Western Australian Legislative Assembly who held the seat of Joondalup (1983–89) and, later, the seat of Wanneroo (1989–93).

McKiernan was re-elected to the Senate in 1987, 1990 and 1996, the latter two from the top of the ALP ticket.

During his time in Canberra, he agitated to remove references to the Queen from the oath or affirmation of allegiance to be made by new Australian citizens.

The passage of the Australian Citizenship Amendment Bill 1993 brought this campaign to a successful conclusion and many Irish permanent residents became Australian citizens as a consequence. According to those closest to him, it was his proudest political achievement.

One of his roles was as returning officer for the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party (1990–96) a role which famously saw him preside over and announce the results of both leadership ballots held between Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, in June and December 1991.

During these contests McKiernan was a vocal Hawke supporter and a critic of Keating, effectively precluding him from a ministerial post under a Keating-led Government. In his final days, Hawke gave him a call to wish him well.

McKiernan became an early victim of Section 44 of the Constitution when he was forced to give up his Irish citizenship before the 1990 election.

He said in 1999: “Regrettably in the late ‘80s I had to, on advice, relinquish my Irish citizenship. It was something I didn't particularly enjoy doing at the time, but it was something I had to do in order to hang on to my job.”

McKiernan remained in the Senate until his retirement in 2002.

He used his valedictory speech to reflect on his personal experience of migration. He stated that his generation of Irish were 'born for the road' and that, in his case, fortune had smiled upon him, in both England and Australia.

According to his parliamentary biography, "His fellow senators lauded his contribution to and expertise in the field of migration and noted the assistance his staff had provided when negotiating difficult migration processes. They also noted that he had brought a great sense of humour to the chamber and had been one of its outstanding characters, with his unorthodox taste in ties drawing considerable comment."

He is survived by his wife Jackie, his and her children Steven, Donna, Jimmy, Lisa, Kim, Kate and Ben, their partners as well as 14 grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

A celebration of his life will be held at Pinnaroo Memorial Park on Monday, August 20 from 3pm. His coffin will be draped in an Irish tricolour and the Eureka flag.