The Hon. Michael Rueben Egan AO (1948-2024), who died yesterday, was the longest serving NSW Treasurer, 1995 to 2005. His ministerial career and terms in the NSW Parliament (MP for Cronulla, 1978-1984; Member of the Legislative Council, 1986-2005), and subsequent achievements, including as Chancellor of Macquarie University, 2008-2019, foretold a grand sendoff, a State funeral.
But he decided to be buried simply at the Woronora Memorial Park, Sutherland, adjacent to where his parents are in the Catholic section of the cemetery, with priests at the graveside, but no earthly bother otherwise.
This had a family precedent. When his mother, Jean née Brown (1923-2016) died, the notice in the Sydney Morning Herald read: “At Jean’s insistence, she will be buried without fuss or ceremony and, again at her request, without mourning.”
This might imply a shy, retiring disposition at the heart of the family. There was no such modesty. Jean, a livewire, dynamic personality, whose fabled fashion shop in Caringbah, and her white house, manicured lawns and sprightly flower decorations on the Kingsway, Cronulla, were landmarks in the Shire. She lived the motto ‘life is celebrated with the living, not the dead’.
Egan was born in Coogee, Sydney, on 21 February 1948, the son of Jean and Stanley Joseph Egan (1910-1959), who served as a sergeant in the Royal Australian Artillery from 1939 to 1948. They married in 1942 and Michael was their only child. As a stubborn youngster, Egan insisted on a Catholic baptism, deeming his Anglican christening insufficient. Reared in Caringbah, then Cronulla, young Egan from third grade onwards went to St Patrick’s College, the Christian Brothers school in Sutherland. He completed a BA at the University of Sydney. He joined the ALP in school shorts, in 1964, aged 16.
When Egan was elected MP for Cronulla, aged thirty, on his fourth attempt (he also stood in 1971, ’73, and ’76), his parliamentary speeches, interjections, and buoyant turns of phrase, marked him as a future star and, potentially, a favourite of NSW Premier Neville Wran. But in NSW Labor politics, getting ahead is hard scrabble. He knew luck mattered as well as determination to win friends in the party and beyond.
A strong sense of social justice, business acumen, and a flair for the theatrical Egan inherited from his mother. She was an elegant, cheerful, generous, and kindly lady, a single parent after the premature death of her husband.
Fit, gifted with dark good looks, curly hair, dominating dark-rim spectacles (in those days), he cut a lithe, hungry look, if a little on the short side. In the 1980s and 1990s, Egan was one of the “big guns” at NSW ALP Conferences. Memorably he once said: “the physical distance between having your ear to the ground and your head buried in the sand may not be great, but that difference makes all the difference.” One measure of his career is that Egan was always mindful of that insight.
Egan began active politics on the ALP Left, thinking Head Office too conservative, but he never had any allegiance to Marxist elements in the ALP, and from the start he was instinctively wary of local Labor Supremo (and secret communist) Arthur Gietzelt who dominated Shire politics in the day. Employed as an Industrial Officer in the national office of the Australasian Meat Industries Employees Association, he was in good company. Future Keating staffer and noted journalist John Edwards, author of acclaimed biographies of Curtin and Keating, was a contemporary, also for a time employed by ‘the meaties’.
In the Whitlam years, until the government’s defeat, Egan worked with Les Johnson, MP for Hughes, an electorate then based on Sutherland and surrounding suburbs. Then came public service, as a Complaints Officer in the State Pollution Control Commission. Involvement in politics taught him to greatly respect Whitlam’s contribution and almost seamlessly he came to identify with the NSW Right, believing the best of that tradition lay in innovative, practical, reforms, alert to public sentiment as well as seized by the determination to make a difference to ordinary people’s lives.
He believed personal leadership mattered. In one of his first speeches in the NSW Parliament, he said Ministers had to take responsibility for their actions, and not hide behind public servants: “The task of a Minister is …to make the difficult decisions of government, [not] to leave them to independent public servants while he jumps up and down on the back seat of a ministerial car.”
He had the gift of the gab, the verbal jab too, but not in a pawky way, he was good-humoured and, mostly, widely respected across both ‘aisles’ of his politics, with the ALP Left, and with his Liberal and National party opponents.
From 1981 to 1984, as Chair of the NSW Public Accounts Committee Egan authored landmark reports on, and audit reviews of, government programs. He was destined for the Ministry, until narrowly defeated in 1984 as MP for Cronulla. A strong personal vote was not enough to sandbank him from the big anti-Labor swing that year. Labor has never come close to winning Cronulla again.
Egan then worked for the then NSW Minister for Health, then Transport, and later Premier of NSW, Barrie Unsworth, who was a great mentor. Selected to invigorate Labor in the Upper House, he served in the NSW Legislative Council from 1986. Bob Carr was one of his champions. In Opposition Egan, in a daring act of invention styled himself as the ‘Chair of the NSW Waste Watch Committee’, getting much more attention than any of the sleepy performers among his colleagues. That role attracted great media attention in his imaginative criticisms of the then Greiner and Fahey governments. In 1990, he was narrowly defeated in a ballot of colleagues as Deputy Leader of Labor in the Legislative Council. In 1991, however, he was clearly the deserving leader of the ALP, and Leader of the Opposition, in the Chamber. Success came with resentful opposition from less talented characters along the way.
Everything seemed to prepare him for the most important role of his life, NSW Treasurer. Treasury officials admired his hands-on management, which drew on the talent around him, and in a probing, collegiate manner, he asked questions as to how the state’s resources could be better managed. He was ably assisted by a strong ministerial staff and Egan personally sponsored the public service career of Michael Coutts-Trotter, who went on the be Secretary of Premier & Cabinet, as well as, now, secretary to the NSW Treasury.
As Treasurer in the Carr government, Egan was responsible for safeguarding NSW’s AAA credit rating. He relentlessly focused on introducing market tests for government enterprises. He delivered nine balanced budgets on a net lending basis, eliminated Government net debt; and fully funded the Sydney Olympics. Not everything went smoothly, but Egan is remembered as the engine of reform innovation in the NSW government. He favoured electricity privatisation in Carr’s first term as Premier, but union opposition put a stop to what he saw for NSW as a lucrative bargain: high prices for selling electricity generation assets in exchange for reinvesting in transport and social infrastructure. He supported Premier Morris Iemma’s abortive efforts along the same lines in 2008. Egan always thought: “if we do not do this, the Tories will. And they will skewer the priorities away from where it matters most.” In frustration, he resigned from the ALP when John Robertson became NSW Opposition Leader in 2011 and rejoined when “Robbo” lost his role in 2014. Egan was still smarting over Robinson’s actions in 2001 when the latter was Secretary of Unions NSW of a blockade of the NSW Parliament over workers’ compensation law reforms.
As for priorities, in politics, it’s an advantage to have a memory and aptitude to complete the unfinished.
On Egan’s urging, in 1987, Premier Unsworth offered Cardinal Clancy full funding for the completion of the spires of St Mary’s Cathedral as part of the Bicentennial. But His Eminence hesitated, preferring a public appeal from parishioners, emphasising the building was built from the pennies and threepences donated by the working poor. When Egan was Treasurer, the Expenditure Review Committee of Cabinet granted $5m to cover the outstanding funding deficit, matching funds already raised, to enable the spires to be finally completed in 2000.
The back-to-school bonus that Premier Unsworth tried to introduce in 1987 and resisted in Cabinet, was then introduced by Egan with little fanfare in 1995, in his first Budget.
Post politics, chosen by his peers on the Macquarie University Council as Chancellor, he proudly drove changes, sponsored a new Medical Faculty, and initiated a building program which transformed the appearance of the university. Attending 268 graduation ceremonies, he conferred almost 40,000 degrees usually with charm, alacrity, and wit. The Graduation Hall was renamed Michael Egan Hall in March 2022. On that occasion, the University awarded its longest-serving Chancellor an Honorary Doctorate.
Egan was hard on himself, assiduously working in public roles until kidney problems and diminishing health made that impossible. He was grateful for the many kindnesses of staff at the Wolper Hospital, Woollahra, where he lived his last days.
Intensely private, Egan is survived by his life companion Byron Addison.
A note prepared by Byron Addison helped me to think about what to cover in the obituary:
The Honourable Michael Egan AO died on the …
Michael Egan entered politics in 1978 and ended up serving as the NSW Treasurer for ten years, a longer period than any Treasurer before or since, and in later years held a number of other roles the most significant of which was as Chancellor of Macquarie University.
Michael was born in Coogee, but his parents later moved to the Sutherland Shire where they were forced to look for a new school. After a few false attempts, Michael was finally enrolled as the first pupil at St Patrick’s Sutherland. In the register, he was recorded as Michael Egan 001 and, without a word of a lie, Jimmy Bond, as the seventh pupil enrolled was put down as 007, a time before James Bond became a household name. Michael was always proud of his school and the education he received there and the smallest prompt would trigger a rendition of the school song, sung with more enthusiasm than skill.
Michael displayed an interest in politics from an early age and first ran for the seat of Cronulla in 1971. After three attempts, to paraphrase Michael Foot who was a former leader of the British Labour Party, the good people of Cronulla elected him in 1978 and in 1984 the bastards threw him out. He met this with dismay and swore to hunt down the 369 people who had voted against him but he slowly discovered his thirst for vengeance was misplaced and that in fact those 369 should be celebrated as benefactors. The timing of his defeat meant that he was able to take Barrie Unsworth’s place in the NSW Legislative Council when Barrie became leader of the party after Neville Wran’s departure in 1986. If Michael had lost his seat in 1988 his political career may have ended as he would have been one of the many who lost their seats at that time. Timing in politics is of crucial importance and many successful political careers have depended on early reverses. If John Howard had won the state seat of Drummoyne in 1968 he would almost certainly have lost in the Wranslide of 1978, would never have become Malcolm Fraser’s Treasurer, and you might not now know who John Howard was.
Michael was extremely effective in opposition at holding the Government to account through his positions as Shadow Treasurer, Chairman of the Wastewatch committee, and leader in the Legislative Council. In 1995 when the Carr Government was formed he became Treasurer, among other portfolios, a position which he would hold until his retirement from the Parliament in 2005. As Treasurer among other things: he delivered nine balanced budgets on a net lending basis, something his predecessors and successors never came close to achieving; eliminated Government net debt; fully funded the Sydney Olympics; introduced major reforms of government-owned utilities; and oversaw a substantial increase in infrastructure and essential services spending in that period.
Michael was conscious that we live in a fallen or imperfect world and that governments can only govern with the consent of the governed. Government is in part about the allocation of limited resources and in this imperfect world, more spending on health will necessarily mean there is less available for other vital services. This informed his approach to the Treasury and to governing more generally.
In the Legislative Council question time between 1995 and 2005 became a masterclass in the use of whimsy and humour to disarm the opposition. Even his fiercest opponents found it hard not to succumb to the sometimes elaborate flights of fancy inspired by his lost dog, his school days, or the latest book he had read. He was so successful that the opposition stopped asking him any questions and occasionally he would threaten to keep question time going until they did.
Michael always believed in forgiveness and the importance of small acts of kindness but quite late in his life he discovered that his family history had in part depended on both of these qualities. He was a descendant of two first fleeters, Henry Cable and Susannah Holmes but he, and countless other descendants, would never have existed but for an extraordinary sequence of events. The first was that the Home Secretary at the time, Lord Sydney, commuted both Henry’s and Susannah’s capital sentences to transportation. While in prison the two had become close and Susannah bore a child. They were then separated and when she was taken to the ship at Plymouth the Captain would not permit the baby to board as the baby was not on his list. The jailer left with a baby could have done many things but he chose to travel from Plymouth to London with the infant to London to seek Lord Sydney’s approval for the baby to join its mother. To cut the story short Lord Sydney agreed and also gave approval for the father to join mother and baby if he so chose. The gaoler then instead of returning to Plymouth went to Norwich to check on Henry Cable’s wishes and then took Henry and baby back to Plymouth, a round journey of roughly 700 miles in horse and cart, where they were reunited with Susannah Holmes. If Lord Sydney had not been so solicitous about the fate of two convicted felons, and if the jailer had not made such extraordinary efforts to resolve the matter Michael would never have been born.
After politics, Michael held various positions including the Chair of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, Chair of the Centenary Institute of Cancer Medicine and Cell Biology among others. However, the role he enjoyed most was as Chancellor of Macquarie University. During his time as the longest-serving Chancellor, he oversaw substantial changes in the operations of the university and a building program which has transformed the appearance of the university, and he also presided at 268 graduations and conferred almost 40,000 degrees on graduates and it is widely acknowledged that he did so with exceptional warmth, humour, and dignity.