Vale Helena Carr

House of Representatives, Parliament House, Canberra
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese
Prime Minister

I rise to pay tribute to Helena Carr, who passed away suddenly while travelling in Europe with her beloved husband and life partner, Bob.

Helena did not hold public office, but she was held in great respect and esteem by all who knew her.

Among those who gathered at St Mary’s Cathedral in her memory today were Premier Chris Minns, former prime ministers Paul Keating and Malcolm Turnbull, and, fittingly, a host of former premiers. Not least Mike Rann, who flew from Europe to be present.

Given Helena’s modesty, we can only wonder how she might have reacted.

It was a modesty matched by equally innate talents.

At one point in her impressive career, she was managing director of security printing firm Leigh-Mardon, which at the time had 1100 employees and an annual turnover of $160 million – and that’s in 1990 dollars.

Likewise, her shyness was coupled with a great inner strength. Once, when an overwhelmed Bob was tempted to pack it in as opposition leader, it was Helena who put him back on track.

That didn’t mean she had an appetite for every aspect of political life.

In 1991, amid speculation that Premier Nick Greiner was about to call an election, Helena was told to get ready to stand by Bob’s side.

As Helena recalled to me, she walked up Martin Place praying Nick wouldn’t do it. That particular prayer was destined to go unanswered.

Election campaigns were not something Helena was naturally inclined towards, but she threw herself into it anyway, a happy warrior standing by Bob’s side through all the slings and arrows.

It was a path she kept following, including for the seven years Bob served as Opposition Leader, his decade as Premier, then his period as Senator and Minister for Foreign Affairs.

As a product of Catholic schooling myself, I can only imagine that some of Helena’s strength came from the nuns who taught her.

First at the convent school in Taiping, Malaysia, then at Our Lady of Mercy College in Parramatta, where she was welcomed by the girls and nuns alike. Helena would have been deeply touched that some of the nuns from OLMC attended today’s funeral.

Even after all these decades, it remains remarkable to think Helena was among the first generation of Asian migrants to win permanent residency as the old White Australia policy disintegrated, a process that began under Harold Holt, and finalised under Gough Whitlam.

Indeed, four of her five siblings and their families have settled here.

Helena made friends easily at school and at university, excelled at every undertaking.

We are lucky that Helena chose this country. Malaysia’s loss was Australia’s gain, and Australia’s gain was Bob’s greatest fortune.

Bob and Helena Carr made a whole world together.

Amid the tragedy of Helena’s sudden passing, Bob channelled his grief into a public tribute, a powerful declaration of unconditional love at a time when there is too much hate in the world. In it Bob wrote:

She was the light of my life, the little friend always there. No one ever smiled more, or with more spirit. It is inconceivable I could have won office for my party and held the premiership for over 10 years without the steadiness of her companionship, her sense of fun and her lambent eyes. …

The light has gone out of my life. I know many have faced this challenge, the loss of a life partner, the journey no one wishes. One reason to trying is my sense she is there telling me to go on for her.

Perhaps it’s fitting that the last opera she saw – on that final, perfect day with Bob in Vienna – was Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love.

Wrapped up in the beauty of the music, the great theme at its heart is the triumph of sincerity. And it leaves everyone – cast and audience alike – uplifted into happiness.

So perfectly Helena.

May we all hold on to her glow. And may Helena Carr rest in peace.