Raised in a Housing Trust home in Mount Gambier, the son of an ex-serviceman and a Japanese war bride who instilled working class and Catholic values with their brood, a young Rob Lucas didn’t have any idea what he wanted to do when he left school.
Talented athletically and academically, he was awarded a scholarship to study science at university in Adelaide, initially harbouring a vague notion of becoming an industrial chemist and inventing something that would “get rid of flies permanently”.
While such a feat would have certainly made him a household name (and hero) with most Australians, his life took a much different path and instead he has achieved recognition as SA’s Treasurer and its longest-serving politician currently in Parliament.
Now, almost 40 years after being first elected to the Legislative Council he is preparing to call it a day at the next State election. Declaring he has “loved every minute” of the journey, the seasoned politician who describes himself as “an average Church-going Catholic punter” admitted he would leave with one big regret.
“I fought against voluntary euthanasia off and on for 30 to 40 years and one of my disappointments is that as I leave the door I lost those last votes,” he told The Southern Cross.
“For the first maybe 25 to 30 years, in the Legislative Council people of my view were successful in defeating, sometimes very closely, the bill. But we knew for the past five years that the vote was ultimately going to be determined in the House of Assembly.
“When it was passed it wasn’t a shock as I could see the changing nature of our community, but I would have preferred it happened after I left.”
Rob, who attends Mass at either Dulwich or Burnside churches, said throughout his political career he had voted on conscience issues based on his values and religious beliefs, including opposing the legislation allowing late term abortions.
“I’ve said this in the House when addressing social conscience issues that I think we are all a product of a combination of our families, schooling and the values that we learn along the way,” he explained.
“Most of us take a reasonable chunk from how we have been brought up…my Dad and Mum were church-going Catholics, at school you had to go to church, and they were all significant influences on me. As you mature some people reject it but in my case I took a good chunk of it with me.”
Born in Japan in 1953, Rob’s mum Yvonne (Yoshiko) was one of the first Japanese war brides to arrive in Australia in January 1954. She had met his dad Bob when they were both working in the British Commission Forces’ army camp in Japan.
Rob speaks fondly of his late parents, relaying how they had three wedding ceremonies in Japan – one in a registry office, one celebrated by Catholic priest Fr Joe Phillips (who later was a long-serving priest in the Port Pirie Diocese) and one recognising the Buddhist traditions of his mum.
Yvonne converted to Catholicism when they married and the family were regulars at Mass at the nearby St Mary’s Church in Mount Gambier. Rob and his three siblings attended St Mary’s Primary School until the end of Year 3, with Rob flourishing at all sports and academically at Marist Brothers’ Agricultural College (now Tenison Woods College).
His dad worked as a linotype operator at The Border Watch newspaper and Rob recalled how Bob was often in pain having broken his back once during the war and again after tripping over a toy. While he didn’t know what he wanted to do after he left school, young Rob knew it had to be something where he would love going to work every day.
“I’ve been very fortunate in that respect, I’ve lucked into an occupation and I’ve loved every day of it for all its ups and downs and ins and outs…it’s something I have enjoyed all the way through.”
After graduating from university with a science degree majoring in statistics and maths he accepted, with some reluctance, a job as a research officer with the Liberal Party. In a way he felt he was joining the enemy as at the time Bob was a rep for the Printing and Kindred Industries Union and Rob had always been encouraged to vote Labor. However, the annual $5000 salary sweetened the deal and he made his way to an office at the then Liberal headquarters on North Terrace.
In the lead up to the 1982 State election good friend and Federal Senator, Robert Hill, talked to him about running for a spot in the Upper House.
The Legislative Council appealed to Rob as there he could “represent the views of the entire State”, rather than being tied to those of a particular electorate as a member of the House of Assembly.
“The other difference in the Upper House is you spend more time on policy and committee work and that was really the bit I enjoyed,” he explained.
“I thought I would give it a whirl and if I was successful ‘great’ because I loved politics, but I really didn’t see a long term career in it.”
Four decades later “and with a lot more grey hair” he said it has been an amazing journey, although he ruffled some feathers in the Catholic Church along the way.
Of note, his support for the casino and introduction of the pokies did not (and still does not) sit well with some members of the Church.
“My faith gives me a foundation of a belief system. Some of the elements have been reflected in votes, some others might not have been,” he said.
“At the time there were archbishops and priests opposing my views on gambling. A lot of the nuns still stop me in the streets and are still critical of my views of the introduction of poker machines.”
He recalled being at a function and listening to Archbishop Faulkner speaking against the introduction of pokies.
“He was clearly making a point because I was there and I didn’t take any offence. He was entitled to represent his views, that were different to mine, but yes, there was a bit of pressure and heat!”
Voting pressures aside, Rob believed the worst days in his stellar career were when the Liberal Party lost State elections.
“I was always the representative of the party on the election night telecasts,” he said.
“I would go out to the ABC at Collinswood and sit through the night having to put a brave face on as we lost another election, particularly the ones where you were convinced you had a really good chance of winning like in 2002 and 2014.
“Those are gut wrenching, disappointing nights when all of a sudden you know you’re saddling up for another four years in opposition.”
Serving as State Treasurer for two terms has also tested his mettle. In 1997 he was called in to steady the ship after the State Bank collapse and now in his second stint under the Marshall government he has been dealing with the financial repercussions of a global pandemic.
“If you’d said to me 40 years ago I would be bringing down one and two billion dollar deficit budgets and doubling the State’s debt…being told we have to spend more, go in to deficit more and borrow more to save jobs and businesses…
“Ideologically it was an anathema to me to head down that path, but one of the things we’ve learnt from the global pandemic is you have to do what you have to do. Essentially you have to adapt and be flexible.
“The world’s changed, circumstances change and policy response have to change.”
Handing down his final budget in June and with an election looming early in 2022, the 68 year old is now looking forward to life beyond politics.
It will allow him to spend much more time with Marie, his wife of 43 years, their four adult children and four grandchildren.
Travel, resurrecting a long-lost interest in golf and possibly sitting on some boards and committees are also on the table.
But before all that can happen there is an important task at hand for the self-confessed “magpie”.
“I am a hoarder and I’ve collected nearly 50 years of materials…I have papers I wrote as a research officer with the Liberal Party back in the 1970s,” he grimaced.
“I’ve had two goes at culling them and now I have 200-250 boxes of papers. Out of those boxes there’s probably only four or five that are going to be of any use.
“Marie is saying, don’t think you are bringing one of those boxes home… So I guess retirement will have to include sorting through some of that!”