Bert Collins turns 105

Mr CLARE (Blaxland) (16:30): Bert Collins was born in 1916, the year after the Anzacs landed at Gallipoli; the year that they arrived on the killing fields of the Western Front; and the same year that the Labor Party tore itself apart over conscription back here at home. That was the year that Bert was born, the youngest child of Florence and Maurice. His dad, Maurice, was a bootmaker, and Bert kind of followed his dad into the clothing game. When he was 16, Bert got a job at Farmers department store—what we now know as Myer—and he worked there for most of the next 50 years. As a young bloke, though, Bert’s real passion was dancing. He was a great dancer. He was a ballroom dancer. He won lots of competitions with the woman who would end up sweeping him off his feet, Peggy Harmon. I kind of imagine Bert’s life back in those days as a bit like a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie.

But that all changed when the war came, when Bert did what so many other young men did—what my own grandfathers did. He signed up and got shipped off to New Guinea to fight the Japanese. Bert was one of the lucky ones because he made it back, and after the war he went back to the same department store, but he never forgot his mates. Every Anzac Day you could reliably find Bert on George Street in Sydney, marching with his regiment, marching for the mates who couldn’t—the ones who never came home and the ones we’ve lost since. And he’s still doing it.

In a few days time, Bert will turn 105. He is one of the oldest surviving members of the greatest generation. He’s also the oldest member of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, the SDA—he’s still a member; he’s been a member now for about 90 years—and he is also the oldest living member of the great Australian Labor Party. And he’s my mate. I’m lucky to have him. We’re all lucky to have him.

He’s a gentle soul. When he turned 100, I asked him, ‘What’s the secret to a long life?’ He said, ‘Don’t eat too much, and be nice to everyone.’ That’s good advice for all of us, particularly in this building. He’s a tough old bugger. He had a heart attack and survived that. He had a stroke and survived that. Recently he got stage 4 metastatic melanoma, and he’s beaten that. A bit over a week ago he fell over, and he’s been in hospital, but he’s okay. He got discharged from hospital today and, as I speak, he’s just got back home. He still lives at home, in Bankstown, on his own. Peggy has gone. She died more than 20 years ago. Only photos on the mantelpiece of them dancing still remain.

Last year Bert didn’t get to march on the Anzac parade on George Street. There was no march. It was just one of the many things that COVID took from us. But it’s back this year, and so too will Bert be. It’s going to be a smaller parade this year. At this point, it’s likely that only about 500 veterans will be able to march. But Bert will be one of them, marching for the same mates he’s been marching for now for over 75 years.

A bit later this year, Bert will also finally receive life membership of the party that he so dearly loves. He joined a bit late. He joined after he retired at the age of 65. But he always voted Labor and still does. He voted for John Curtin. He voted for Ben Chifley. He voted for Whitlam. He voted for Hawke. He voted for the local boy, Paul Keating. He voted for Rudd and Gillard. And he promises me that he’s not done yet. He’s determined to live to see another Labor government, and I hope so too. So happy birthday, my old friend.