Jocelyn Newman never regarded herself a trailblazer. She was in so many respects a quintessential quiet achiever.
Born in Melbourne on 8 July 1937, the eldest of three children of solicitor Lyndhurst Mullett and his wife Margaret, Jocelyn was educated at Presbyterian Ladies College, and then the University of Melbourne.
Jocelyn was one of only a handful of women studying law at the University of Melbourne in the 1950s. After graduating in 1961, she went on to practice family law and came to learn much about the plight of women and children facing domestic violence.
In 1961 Jocelyn married Kevin Newman, an army officer who would make history by winning the Bass byelection in 1975, which heralded the end of the Whitlam Government only months later.
They had two children, Campbell and Kate. Kate would become a senior Commonwealth public servant, while Campbell would also make history when he led the Liberal National Party to victory in the Queensland state election from outside parliament. He would also serve as the Lord Mayor of Brisbane.
Jocelyn gave great support to Kevin’s political career, representing him at meetings and functions in the electorate while Kevin was in Canberra. She was also very active in community organisations, including chairwoman of the National Trust in Launceston, member of the Northern Regional Child Protection Assessment Committee, and a director of the Launceston Church Grammar board.
But a life in parliament beckoned. Following Kevin’s retirement from politics in 1984 due to ill health, Jocelyn sought and won the Federal Senate casual vacancy following the retirement of Peter Rae in 1986. She defeated 12 men at pre-selection and was confirmed by the Tasmanian Parliament on March 13, 1986.
Jocelyn came to the federal parliament with broad policy interests, but her real passion was defence and defence personnel. She worked tirelessly to bring focus to issues impacting serving and retired men and women in the defence force, including housing, health, and family support.
Her efforts saw her elevated to shadow cabinet in the health portfolio by John Hewson in April 1993.
Later that year, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer and successfully treated. However, she stood down from the shadow ministry in May 1994 following a second, unrelated diagnosis of breast cancer. During her treatment Jocelyn continued to serve, demonstrating her legal skills and fierce independence by insisting on rewriting the standard release form prior to undergoing general anaesthesia, to more clearly outline and limit the nature and extent of the authorisation.
Following her recovery Jocelyn was invited to re-join the shadow cabinet by Alexander Downer, but initially declined. Downer then made her an offer too good to refuse; defence. For Jocelyn this was an ambition realised, and she relished the opportunity to develop and launch the coalition defence policy ahead of the 1996 election. By the time of the poll, John Howard had resumed the Liberal leadership and retained her in the shadow defence portfolio. She visited defence facilities across the country and consulted widely with industry and leading defence policy analysts as she finalised a fully costed and comprehensive policy that was favourably received.
The March 1996 election swept the Coalition to power and Jocelyn had every expectation of serving as Defence Minister. Jocelyn received the much anticipated call from John Howard in the days after the election, only to discover that Howard had other, and as it turned out bigger plans for her. She was to assume responsibility for the largest and one of the most sensitive portfolios in the Commonwealth, Social Security.
Social Security had been considered an area of vulnerability for the new conservative government. What was not known at the time is that the portfolio would assume even greater importance following the 1998 election, which heralded the introduction of the GST and the need to compensate those on fixed incomes, and the wholesale redesign of the family payments system.
Jocelyn would be at the centre of one of the most significant reforms undertaken in many years, and quickly overcame the disappointment of missing out on defence by giving her all to the challenging, complex, and issues-rich environment of social security.
Jocelyn developed an excellent working relationship with her department. She understood that quality policy advice and the best possible range of policy choices was fundamental to good government. She was willing to make tough choices, but only after carefully considering the potential consequences. She took this approach throughout her five years in an exacting portfolio.
She was at all times a team player. Her careful consideration of options and consequences, and her forceful advocacy, contributed to robust budget choices by the Treasurer and Howard Government.
The sound, responsible decisions taken by Cabinet then gave the Howard Government more fiscal headroom in the coming years, a major contributor to its many future political opportunities and achievements.
Jocelyn Newman sadly passed way on April 1 at the age of 80 following a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. She never regarded herself a trailblazer, but many others believe that she was.
Despite her contribution to public life, she once said her greatest achievements were her 38-year marriage to Kevin, her children, and her grandchildren. She was much loved by her family and friends, and widely acknowledged as a good and decent woman who gave everything her best.
Who among us would not be content to have that said of us at the end of our journey?
- Rod Nockles was Jocelyn Newman’s chief of staff and senior adviser. Mrs Newman will be farewelled with a state funeral on April 13 in Canberra. Former Prime Minister John Howard will deliver the eulogy.