The Model, Modest Local Member: Michael Maher

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Michael Maher (1936-2013)

Michael John Bernard Maher, politician and solicitor, was greatly admired across the political spectrum as a diligent, local MP who saw the vocation of politics in pastoral terms, as serving the people. Thus the manifold representation of his constituents was no mere chore to be endured and given minimum attention so as to play in the great game of politics. For Maher, high politics was ancillary to the essential, noble tasks of representing the public. He was a model, modest member – but never to be under-estimated because of that.

In political life, Maher saw his greatest achievements in micro terms. Politics was local and personal.

Maher was born on July 11, 1936 in Haberfield to a staunch Irish Catholic, Labor voting family, the son of Denis (Clem) Maher and Marie O’Connor. He joined the ALP at 15. After leaving school he joined the public service and studied part time. This was in the 1960s when Sydney University ensured staff and resources were readily available to working students undertaking a first degree. He graduated in Law in 1965, along the way defeating Bronwyn Setright (now Bishop) in student elections. The latter’s ‘beauty before brawn’ ticket failed to rouse the necessary votes. He later completed an Arts degree and a Masters in History.

Michael was always interested in politics, with several relatives who were politicians, including cousin Ray Maher (1911-1966) who unsuccessfully stood for Drummoyne in the 1930s, and who was an MP for several other seats from 1959-1965, and uncle Roy Jackson (1895-1964) MP for Drummoyne from 1953-56.

After a close contest against aspiring Liberal John Howard in 1968, Reg Coady, the Labor State member for Drummoyne entertained retirement. But he wanted Maher to succeed him. He held on at the 1971 election and then, before the 1973 contest, aged 37, Maher stood and, despite a statewide swing against Labor, won by 378 votes; Maher subsequently achieved an astonishing two-thirds of the primary vote in several subsequent State elections, known as the Wranslides.

At his side was the Irish-born and educated Dr Margaret Bermingham, a gentle, sharply intelligent, good-humoured, common sense soul, lecturer in BioScience at the University of Sydney, whom he married in 1971. They were to have five children.

As an MP, bureaucrats and politicians were astonished at Maher’s relentless pursuit of cases on behalf of his constituents. Seeking consumer protection laws for people ripped off by dodgy insurance agents, supporting migrants settling in Australia, pursuing housing for impoverished pensioners, pouring his soul into winning small victories for people set upon by the system was an immensely time-consuming effort. Most days, even when Parliament wasn’t sitting, Maher would pop into his Macquarie Street offices to get correspondence typed up by the Parliamentary pool. Transport Minister Peter Cox called him the Minister for Bus Stops as he was always pushing route changes and extra stops on the public transport that he himself assiduously utilised. He enjoyed the company of the many Italian, Maltese, Greek and other communities in his electorate.

When the former Prime Minister Billy McMahon retired from public life in 1982, a by-election loomed for his federal seat and Maher was persuaded to give up his now decidedly safe seat for the federal electorate of Lowe. Maher achieved a big 9% swing to capture this previously safe Liberal seat.

After winning again in the 1983 and 1984 elections, a torrid campaign in 1987 saw Maher narrowly defeated. Paul Keating lamented that a man of such talent had not been a Minister. But Maher was never to return to public life. Instead, as a solicitor, he served his clients with characteristic relentless dedication to solve their problems.

As an MP, bureaucrats and politicians were astonished at Maher’s relentless pursuit of cases on behalf of his constituents.

In political life, Maher saw his greatest achievements in micro terms. Politics was local and personal. But he also played an immense role in co-drafting the Heritage Act in NSW, and ensuring that Labor modernised; his preference vote secured the election of Neville Wran as NSW Labor Leader in 1973. (Maher voted for Kevin Stewart, against Pat Hills, with his preference vote going to Wran). Maher had a streak of independence and voted with his conscience on many issues in internal and public debates. He got seriously involved in policy development; aboriginal affairs and civil liberties were passions. He had a Pope Francis-like insight into what was important between State and Church.

For a long time, Maher was struck by Parkinson’s Disease which over a decade left him terribly debilitated; his wife Margaret was constantly devoted; she was his advocate and carer. Their love is an example to us all.

He passed away on September 29, 2013 in the care of St Mary’s Villa, Concord. He was buried with his first communion rosary beads, his Medal of the Order of Australia, his Labor Party life membership certificate and his trademark hat, so often tipped on door knocks throughout the electorates he served. In Gaelic, the congregation asked Ar Dheis D Goraimh A Ainm Usal (may his noble soul rest in God’s right hand). He is survived by Margaret, and children Mary, Iona, Fildema, Anthony and Brigid, their spouses and six grandchildren.