On behalf of my family I thank all those who have extended their sympathies and best wishes following the loss of my Dad. The following is a small part of my remarks at his farewell.
“Eric Fitzgibbon – he’s one of us”. It was the perfect campaign slogan for our father.
“He’s one of us” had previously been used by other candidates but along-side Dad’s name it seemed to magically capture who he was and what he stood for.
And it sent the message he wanted to send – that he knew what it was like to struggle. That he understood the lot of working class people and those on income support, and he was the bloke keen to give people a hand-up.
There can be no doubt that our father’s working class childhood both drew him to politics and shaped his political views. It also drew him to the Australian Labor Party. He loved his Party and all it stands for.
They are the same views he took to the 1968 Council election and the same views he used to challenge and shape community opinion through the newspaper column he penned in those days for the Cessnock Eagle under the pseudonym "Aquila".
Back then Dad lamented the fact that Cessnock was neither reaching its full potential nor serving its mainly working class people well. He was determined to drive positive change and was particularly keen to address the lack of social and recreational opportunities for the City’s youth.
All politicians have to constantly strive to strike the right balance between what's right and what's popular. Driving significant change is never without its political risks. Dad understood that only too well by the time he was elected Cessnock’s Mayor in 1980.
He took that risk on projects like the new Sulo Bins, the Mt View retention basin, the purchase of the old Kurri Co Op Store, the basketball stadium, and of course, the sale of the Cessnock Sportsground.
History treats Eric Fitzgibbon kindly on all of these issues including the Sportsground – a proposal which finally came to fruition more than 25 years later.
But sadly, it cost him both his position as mayor and his seat on Council.
So after 18 years as an elected official, Dad’s political career appeared over.
But then came along the 1984 electoral re-distribution and with it, an additional parliamentary seat in need of a candidate.
A hotly contested pre-selection followed and it was not one without controversy with Dad being accused of – amongst other things - buying local Party votes by arriving at the homes of voters with a six-pack of beer under his arm.
It had a happy ending – for Eric Fitzgibbon anyway. He won the preselection and he did so without the support of the Party machine which was backing another candidate – although the Party machine’s boss at the time – Graham Richardson - was sympathetic and gave him an unofficial helping hand.
The 1984 election was not a happy election for the Labor Government. Bob Hawke had gone to the polls early and while he retained government, things didn’t quite go as planned. Labor lost a swag of seats and while Dad secured Hunter, it was a tough campaign and a relatively tight local outcome.
The result left him with a political margin of just 2.4 percent but by 1993 it had grown to almost 14 percent.
It’s important I highlight this point because he was very proud of it – over four elections his margin grew from 2.4% to 3.6%, then to 8.4% and finally to 13.9%.
Our father went to Canberra with no objectives other than to hold his seat and to improve the lot of those he represented - the people he loved, empathised with, and championed.
He never held any ambition to be a minister, but didn’t mind telling them how to do their job and did so to further the interests of his electorate.
In any case his political margin demanded he give his full and undivided attention to his electorate – and he did so, with energy, enthusiasm, great skill and absolutely.
He attended every function and every meeting. Whenever someone had a problem he was there for them. Mum shares the credit for his success, more often than not she was by his side – they were a formidable team.
Eric Fitzgibbon – he was one of us, and we will miss him terribly.