Skip to main content

Remembering Moses (Moss) Henry Cass

The Hon Mark Dreyfus QC MP
Speech

State Memorial Service

Footscray Community Arts Centre - Melbourne

Introduction

Thank you for the invitation to be here today to here to pay tribute to the life and legacy of the great Moss Cass.

I also acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging.

Moses Henry Cass, who was 'Moss' to almost everyone who knew him, and now to history as well, was a man of conviction, of courage, and of vision.

Moss made an enormous contribution to our country as a bold reformer and as a passionate advocate for the many causes he believed in.  Many of the changes he championed were seen as radical at the time, and yet many of those changes were adopted and are now accepted as part of our nation's fabric. In particular, Moss made an enormous contribution to our country as a pioneer of reforms to protect and preserve Australia's precious natural environment.

But I will come back to the many parliamentary contributions Moss made little later.  First, I want to say a little about his life prior to parliament, which gave early indications of his character and capacities, and of the great contribution he would later make as a member of the Federal Government.

Early life and medical career

Since Moss's passing earlier this year, I have often thought of all the changes he would have seen in his 95 years.

Born in Narrogin in West Australia's wheatbelt in 1927 to Jewish parents, Ben and Esther, he witnessed almost a century of social and environmental changes.  Many of those changes didn't just happen around him; in many cases he was there in the vanguard.

For example, it isn't often that you get to use the term 'pioneer of heart surgery' in a speech about a political giant known particularly for his work on environmental law and policy, but that is part of the story of Moss Cass.

Moss's father, Ben, was a medical doctor and his son Moss and brothers followed in their father's footsteps into the field of medicine.

In the 1950s, the young Dr Moss Cass and his wife Shirley lived in London, where he worked as a registrar, and was involved in developing open-heart surgery techniques.

When Moss returned to Australia, he had the skills and insight as a medical scientist to help construct Australia's first heart-lung machine in his work as a research fellow at Melbourne's Royal Children's Hospital.

He was passionate about medicine and access to health care, and his advocacy in this area influenced a number of federal health policy committees in the late 1960s.

He also ran the Trade Union Clinic and Research Centre here in Footscray, which provided workers with free medical treatment and preventative healthcare.

Political career

Moss's contributions to medical policy and practice alone would have been an admirable life's work.  But it was as a Minister in the Whitlam Government that Moss truly shone, and that he will always be remembered for.

Moss was elected as the Member for Maribyrnong in Melbourne in 1969, and remained so until 1983.

Prime Minister Paul Keating famously said that when you change the government, you change the country.  And just over two weeks ago, the people of Australia embraced the need for change by electing a new Commonwealth Government.  This is an exciting time for those who believe in the work of reform.  For those who believe that the Federal Government must always strive to do better for the people of Australia, and that the future can indeed be better than the past.  I have been feeling that excitement over these last weeks, and I felt it with particular force when I was sworn in last week to once again serve as the Attorney-General of the Commonwealth.

And preparing my speech for today I have been wondering if, 50 years ago this year, when Moss was sworn in as the first Commonwealth Minister for the Environment and Conservation in the newly elected Whitlam Government, he felt a similar rush of excitement as the newly elected representative for the change the Australian people had just chosen.  Because Moss certainly delivered change during his years as a Minister in the Whitlam Government, from 1972 to 1975.  And the change he delivered was, without any shadow of doubt, change that has improved our nation.

On 13 November 1974, when Moss was serving as Australia's first Environment Minister, he gave a speech in Paris to a meeting of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in which he said:

"We rich nations, for that is what we are, have an obligation not only to the poor nations, but to all the grandchildren of the world, rich and poor. We have not inherited this earth from our parents to do with it what we will. We have borrowed it from our children and we must be careful to use it in their interests as well as our own."

For Moss, the protection of the environment was not some minor matter, subordinate or incidental to the long-established functions of the federal government since the time of Federation.  Rather, through the force of his passionate advocacy, in which he channelled many of the important themes in the environmental awareness that was then rapidly growing in Australia and around the world, Moss helped to elevate environmental protection to a core function of the Australian Government.

I have always understood our responsibility for stewardship of the natural environment with refence to the Jewish concept of tikkun olam – 'repairing the world'.  I don't know if the concept of tikkun olam directly informed Moss's worldview and environmental advocacy, but his words that I have read to you sound to me entirely consistent with the concept of responsibility for care of our world that runs through many Jewish writings, and that Moss would have been familiar with.

Informed by his view that this world is not our inheritance to exploit for our own interests, but rather a charge we hold in stewardship for our children, Moss championed and ultimately passed in 1974 The Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act.  This pioneering legislation brought about changes to the legal fabric of the nation by mandating the use of environmental impact statements to inform federal government decisions on proposals significantly impacting the natural environment.

Of course, our national environmental laws have evolved in the decades since, but I feel the lasting contribution Moss made was far more fundamental than the specific laws he fought to pass almost fifty years ago.  What Moss envisaged and then successfully fought for was a critical change in the Australian people's understanding of the Commonwealth Government's responsibilities for the nation; responsibilities that were recast to incorporate environmental protection.

The power of this fundamental reform is revealed in the fact that while given effect during the great reforming era that defined the Whitlam Government, it was not abandoned by the Conservatives when they later took power.  Indeed, it was Senator Robert Hill, Environment Minister in the first Howard Government, who oversaw a comprehensive review and re-write of Australia's environment laws in the form of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.  That Act was a worthy successor to Moss's first environmental impact legislation, and embodied many of its key objectives.

And now, more than two decades later, as the pressures on our natural environment change and intensify, that legislation is itself due for substantial reform. And I am thrilled that one of our new government's most brilliant, passionate and committed Ministers, the Honourable Tanya Plibersek MP, has been entrusted with that important task as the incoming Minister for the Environment.  I know Moss would have been delighted to know it is Tanya who the Prime Minister has entrusted to continue in the role that he pioneered five decades ago.

Moss's parliamentary work for the environment went beyond legislative reform.  He was also instrumental in early work to preserve the Great Barrier Reef, Fraser Island, and the area of the Northern Territory that became Kakadu National Park. He also established the National Parks and Wildlife Service and supported grassroots environmental organisations by increasing federal government grants to these groups.

And Moss was not only a visionary in the field of environmental law.  Moss fought for social change in other areas too, with the passion and compassion he was known for, and often against considerable resistance.

He advocated for abortion law reform and the decriminalisation of homosexuality.  He had new and progressive ideas on how to reform areas such as education, health, multiculturalism as well as the media landscape, which he pursued when he was briefly Minister for the Media in 1975.

Indeed, despite being Minister for the Media for less than a year, he got a lot done. He was responsible for creating the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), which strengthens and celebrates Australia's multicultural character, and which still entertains and informs so many in the Australian community today.

Moss also issued what were then called 'experimental radio licences' to increase broadcasting diversity, putting in place the foundations of the community radio sector that so many of us tune into now.

During his brief time as Minister for the Media, Moss also proposed the establishment of a national press council, which was implemented in 1976 when the Australian Press Council was established by the Fraser Government.

Closing

As I hope I have made clear in my brief words today, the contribution Moss made as a parliamentarian was truly prodigious.  And for those of us who serve now, it is also inspiring.

Moss' work laid the foundations for future generations of Australians and future Australian Governments to understand the importance of caring for our environment, and for striving to build a more just and accepting Australia.

We are deeply thankful for Moss's courage and vision, and for his dedication to causes he believed in, and fought so passionately for.

He has left this world a better place.

Thank you.