First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 30 October 2013, http://www.smh.com.au/comment/obituaries/michael-maher-mp-puts-his-heart-and-soul-into-bettering-lives-20131029-2wdzp.html, and, unedited, as The Model, Modest, Local Member: Michael Maher, Voice, November 2014.
Michael Maher was greatly admired across the political spectrum as a diligent, local MP who saw the vocation of politics as serving the people. The representation of his constituents was not a chore to be endured but high politics, and 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.
Michael John Bernard Maher was born on July 11, 1936, in Haberfield to a staunch Irish Catholic, Labor-voting family, the son of Clem Maher and his wife, Marie (O’Connor). He joined the ALP at 15. After leaving school he joined the public service and studied part-time at the University of Sydney. He graduated in law in 1965, along the way defeating Bronwyn Setright (now Bishop) in student elections. He later completed an arts degree and a masters in history.
Maher was always interested in politics, with several relatives who were politicians, including cousin Ray Maher (1911-66) who unsuccessfully stood for Drummoyne in the 1930s, and who was an MP for several other seats from 1959 to 1965, and uncle Roy Jackson, MP for Drummoyne from 1953 to 1956.
In 1968, 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, 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 Dr Margaret Bermingham, a gentle, sharply intelligent, good-humoured lecturer in bioscience at the University of Sydney. They married in 1971.
Once Maher was in Parliament, bureaucrats and politicians were astonished at his 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 was not sitting, Maher would pop into his Macquarie Street offices to get correspondence typed up. 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.
When 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 safe seat for the federal electorate of Lowe. Maher achieved a 9 per cent 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. Maher never returned to public life. Instead, as a solicitor, he served his clients with characteristic relentless dedication to solve their problems.
In political life, Maher saw his greatest achievements in micro terms. 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).
Like the best of that loose coalition once known as the NSW Right, Maher had a streak of independence and voted with his conscience on many issues. He became seriously involved in policy development; Aboriginal affairs and civil liberties were passions.
Michael Maher was buried with his rosary, his Medal of the Order of Australia (awarded in 2000), his Labor Party life membership certificate, and his hat – so often tipped on door knocks throughout his electorates. He is survived by Margaret, and their children Mary, Iona, Fidelma, Anthony, and Brigid, their spouses and six grandchildren.
Michael was one of the most compassionate, detail-focused, sincere people I ever met. He was proud of the little things he did to set people free. Or to make their lives that little bit more comfortable. Some colleagues thought of him as too much immersed in the minor, the small-time stuff that people ask you to do. Maher, however, saw his life as one of service. He put himself in the shoes of those he met.
His children, at various times, Mary, Iona, Fidelma, Anthony, and Brigid, babysat ours, Louise and Amanda. The Easson family had a lot to do with the Mahers, including the incredible Margaret Maher – Dr Margaret Anne Carmel Bermingham (1937-2018), medical research scientist – whose lilting Irish accent added lustre to all she said.
For the family, it must have seemed strange, the beautiful reminiscences of a man long gone. For Michael suffered from Parkinson’s disease and severe Alzheimer’s in his last years. We were remembering the vitality and warmth of a candle long since diminished.
On 5 December 2013, the Federal MP for Greenway, Michelle Rowland, read my obituary into the Hansard of the federal Parliament.