Horsham's Bill McGrath reflects on a live well lived

HORSHAM’S Bill McGrath never dreamed a football career would lead him into the political sphere.

Mr McGrath grew up in Minyip and was a natural footballer, whose talent led him to playing in the Victorian Football League.

“In 1957, the Minyip coach at the time had been selected to play in a VFL side against Melbourne,” he said.

“He came out to see me and said, ‘I'm not going play, but you bring your bag over and I'll get you a game.

“I ended up playing and representing the Wimmera.

“You always talk about a lucky break in life, and that was one of mine.

“Ron Barassi and a few other guys were there, and that led me to playing two practice games with Melbourne in 1958.

“They were just about the top side at that time, and I wasn't going to make it there.

“In 1959 I played practice games with South Melbourne, and then played full season with them that year.

“I would leave the farm on Thursday at lunchtime, drive the Holden ute down to Melbourne, train, play, and drive home on Sunday.”

From there, Mr McGrath embarked on a coaching career, which yielded a handful of premierships and took him back to Minyip, among other places.

“I finished my football career at Minyip at age 38, and that led to me coming into politics,” Mr McGrath said.

The year was 1979, and Mr McGrath and his wife Ivy were running the farm they had built when National Party members Bob King and Bernie Dunn arrived at their door.

Mr McGrath had build a reputation as a strong leader through his football days.

Still, the two men’s suggestion of using his skills to run for the seat of Lowan came completely by surprise.

“I said, ‘Oh look, I don’t know. I was actually thinking of building a motel as an adjunct to the farm, and I had certainly never thought of selling the farm,” Mr McGrath said.

“As the saying goes, one of the best investments you can make is land because they're not making any more of it.

“Jim McCabe held the seat of Lowan at that stage, and had for some time. But I decided I’d give it a go.”

Mr McGrath said the campaign trail that followed allowed him to meet countless people – and ended with him winning the seat in the 1979 state election. 

“Jim got 46 per cent of the primary vote, and I got 32 per cent, but the Labor preferences put me ahead by 254 votes,” he said.

“I didn’t know a lot about politics, but I had very good support from Bob, particularly in that first 12 months.

“I remember visiting Wimmera hospitals with Health Minister Bill Borthwick about six months in, and as we were driving around I said, ‘I’m not sure where I’m going in this’.

“He said, ‘I was in politics for five years before I understood what was going on'.”

Mr McGrath retained the seat – which later became Wimmera after a redistribution – for the 20 years.

He became Shadow Agriculture Minister and later Agriculture Minister in 1992.

During his time in government, Mr McGrath advocated to establish Wimmera Base Hospital.

“In 1992 when I was in cabinet, the late Marie Tehan was the Health Minister at the time, and I said to her it was about time Wimmera Base Hospital was funded,” he said. “The government announced the funding that year.”

Mr McGrath had the agriculture portfolio until 1996, when he became the Corrections Minister, and Police and Emergency Services Minister.

“Pat McNamara was the Police Minister until 1996, and he promised $5 million for a new police headquarters for Heidelberg,” Mr McGrath said.

“The man he promised it to lost his seat, and then I went across to the police portfolio.

“I asked Premier Jeff Kennett what to do with the $5 million, and he said ‘I don't care what you do with it'.

“That's when we decided to use that to build one-man police stations and residences across Victoria.”

Mr McGrath retained the police, emergency services and corrections portfolios until his retirement in 1999.

“There were a lot of good times,” he said.

“My political career was very rewarding to me, and I hope it was rewarding for the electorate.”

But life had more service left in Mr McGrath yet.

A few years after retiring from politics, he was approached by Wimmera legatees.

“They wanted a couple of ‘young’ blokes to help run Wimmera Legacy,” he said.

“I was in my 60s at the time.

“I joined, and I had 10 Legacy widows assigned to me. It was my responsibility to call on them once a month, and ensure they were in control of everything they needed to be.

“From those 10, I have five left.”

Mr McGrath said his work with the organisation – which supports hundreds of widows and widowers in the region who are suffering financially or socially after the death or serious injury of a spouse – was an honour.

“I have met a lot of interesting people, and there are a lot of stories within the Legacy widows we care for,” he said.

“I've been in Lions and other community organisations, but being a Legatee and helping those widows has probably been the most rewarding of all the service sectors I've worked in.

“If someone told me I was going to die tomorrow, I would say, 'I've had a good life'.”