Retirement hasn’t slowed this political warrior. Music, social justice and community all play a vital part in Rod Mackenzie’s life.
Blake, a miniature black poodle, yaps excitedly, breaking the idyllic scene at Geelong Grove as residents play pétanque under the shade of the trees, beside gardens brimming with flowers.
“He’s a great little chap, but a bit too smart for his own good sometimes,” says his owner Rod Mackenzie, who with his wife, Pauline, has lived at the Australian Unity retirement community for nine years.
Rod, officially known as The Hon. Roderick Alexander Mackenzie OAM, is a former plumber who helped build the Casey station in Antarctica in 1968 and 1969 and spent 13 years in State Parliament.
His study in the couple’s neat villa reflects long-held interests and passions – Antarctica, Parliament, social justice and history, to name a few. Framed photos of a young Rod at Casey station sit beside books on Antarctica and history.
“Not long after I turned 15, in 1949, I began work as a plumbing apprentice. My dad had been through the Depression and said ‘you’re going to get an apprenticeship because the only people who get a job in a depression are people with a trade’. Like most 15-year-olds then, I did what my father said,” Rod says.
Rod credits his upbringing – a mother who cared about community and six months of National Service in the Royal Australian Air Force in 1954 – for his varied interests and commitments.
“Mum was all about helping people, being part of the community and in that hut during National Service there might have been a boy from Toorak who went to Scotch College and a boy from the bush. All of a sudden you learnt about relying on one another, about sharing. You learnt discipline and how to respect authority,” Rod says.
Born in Melbourne in 1933, Rod moved with his family to Geelong in 1937. When war broke out, his father joined the army, and later owned a grocery store in Forrest, a small town on the edge of the Otway Ranges.
“I had an idyllic boyhood. It was like Huckleberry Finn,” says Rod. “We made fishing rods and would pack a lunch and go away for the day. It gave me a lifelong love of the bush.”
After being elected to Parliament in 1979 as the Labor member for Geelong Province, Rod went straight to the front bench as Shadow Minister for Public Works. In 1983, he became the Minister for Conservation, Forests and Lands and initiated what is now the National Landcare Program. As Minister for Forests, Rod spent 40 hours non-stop at the Forests Commission into the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires that claimed 47 lives in Victoria.
He was president of the Legislative Council from 1985 to 1988.
Rod and Pauline married in 1986, creating a blended family of his son and two daughters and Pauline’s two daughters.
Their adult children include a Country Fire Authority officer who trains volunteers and received an Order of Australia last year for services to firefighting; a general practitioner; a medical typist; a human resources manager and an artist. They have seven grandchildren.
Rod became an independent backbencher in 1988 and was defeated at the 1992 election. In 1999, he was awarded the Order of Australia for his services to the Geelong community and his services in Antarctica.
Rod is a member of the Combined Refugee Action Group (CRAG) and advocates for the rights of all asylum seekers and refugees, writing letters to influential media and lobbying politicians on refugee issues.
When the Mackenzies downsized from their family home in Ceres, a rural community outside Geelong, they went straight to Geelong Grove.
“It recaptures the old community spirit; the street was your community, there was no traffic and people knew each other and cared for each other,” Rod says.
In retirement, Rod plays pétanque, sings in a group that entertains aged care residents, supports a refugee group and is an occasional columnist for the Geelong Advertiser.
As a life member of the Geelong Highland Gathering, the Geelong Animal Welfare Society, Dying with Dignity Victoria and the Queenscliffe Maritime Museum, he continues to put the community front and centre.
Lobbying Dying with Dignity
Voluntary euthanasia has spurred ongoing debate in Australia, with organisations working to promote appropriate legislation.
Rod is an ambassador for Dying with Dignity Victoria and a frequent spokesman for law reform in this area. “I became involved with the Voluntary Euthanasia Society following an experience with the prolonged death of my wife’s mother,” he says.
He counts as one of his greatest achievements the passage of the Refusal of Medical Treatments Bill after almost eight years of lobbying various health ministers.
“My casting vote saw this legislation that I had lobbied for since 1980 passed into law,” he says.