When former deputy NSW Premier John Watkins says that he has enjoyed a fortunate life it isn’t a platitude. His gratitude for his family, a trifold-career of service, and even his eight-year journey with Parkinson’s disease is evident.
Last year the 63-year-old current chair of Mary MacKillop Today was battling a steep decline as a result of the neurological condition – to the point where, from the original sign of a slight tremor in his hand, it was becoming difficult to walk or play with his grandchildren.
Extreme fatigue made daily naps a necessity and he had “all the usual panoply” of symptoms, such as loss of fine motor control, trouble swallowing and with balance.
But most disconcerting was the uncontrolled movement of his left arm which seemed to have a will of its own.
“I was on a downhill run and it was accelerating, and while it was distressing for me it was more so for my family,” the father of five told The Catholic Weekly.
His neurologist recommended deep brain stimulation, requiring an operation to permanently attach a device similar to a pacemaker to both sides of his brain.
At first he baulked but he underwent the procedure in January last year and it has given him a completely new lease on life and control of his symptoms.
“If not for that I would not be here working for Mary MacKillop Today,” he said.
“[Author]Albert Facey said it first, but it’s true: that I’ve enjoyed a very fortunate life, a very lucky life, and still do,” said John who said he appreciates as a gift every opportunity he has had to create a family with his loving wife Deborah and also to forge a successful political career followed by a career in the not-for-profit sector.
John resigned from the NSW Parliament as Deputy Premier in 2008 before taking the helm at Alzheimer’s Australia (NSW). Until recently he was chair of Calvary Health Care and is a member on the board of Catholic Professional Standards.
In 2015 he joined forces with the Sisters of St Joseph and lists as one of the highlights of his life overseeing the merging last year of Mary MacKillop Foundation, Mary MacKillop International and the Josephite Foundation into Mary MacKillop Today.
Mary MacKillop Today’s biggest work is in Timor-Leste where John visited Railaco Leten, one of that country’s poorest districts, earlier this year.
There, he discovered the need for its education and health projects is “incredible”.
“The Timorese people are very aware of their culture, very aware of their history and gee it’s been tough,” he said.
“They are beautiful people working hard to provide for their families and they really value the bond with Australia, despite the fact that Australia has not treated them well in recent years, particularly in the Timor Gap negotiations.”
The work of supporting Timor-Leste’s rebuilding efforts through literacy and teacher-training programs is a natural fit for the one-time Minister for Education.
John grew up in Sydney, the fourth of eight children and the first in his family to go to university.
He taught secondary English, religion and some legal studies at Mercy College at Chatswood, Brigidine College, St Ives, and St Joseph’s College, Hunters Hill, before his election as the state’s member for Gladesville in 1995. He joined the Labor party at age 29, driven by a desire to help the less fortunate.
“I went to a Catholic school and my parents were very faithful people, but my teachers impressed on me the strong need for social justice and I’ve always had that in my back pocket,” he said.
“Just the need to help people, a simplistic 18-year-old’s view that if you have the capacity, do what you can for other people and stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.
“That’s always driven me and still does.”
Unsurprisingly John has great admiration for St Mary of the Cross MacKillop and the “amazing” women who continue her work today.
“She was a great Australian saint; a feisty woman who saw what needed to be done and just did it. She would have said [that] despite the challenges thrown at you, you just get on, you see something, and you do something about it,” he said. “That’s pretty good advice, I reckon, and what I tried to do. You don’t do it for reward, you do it for love of good outcomes.”
He said teaching was “great fun” and admits he sometimes misses it, but has never considered returning, arguing that in life, it’s better to keep moving forward. It’s probably this approach which has seen him through the other most significant event of his life, his experience of Parkinson’s.
“Parkinson’s has coloured my view of things and I think I’m a much better man than I was before,” he said.
“It sounds a bit odd to say this but it’s a privilege to have it, in a funny sort to way, because you can’t have it and not be made humble. Humility, I think, is the most important and often-ignored quality, especially for politicians.
“I found I’m much more tolerant, much more understanding of others, I hope much more forgiving and more humble than I was before and that’s been a very important thing to happen especially in this stage of life. I have to say I’ve met with quite a few people who have Parkinson’s and they are an impressive bunch. It seems to impact them similarly.”
While he did pray for a good outcome from his life-changing treatment, John said the means and ways of God are beyond him.
“I’m pretty practical like my dad. He was a very practical man and a man of great faith,” he said.
“I think you live your life as well as you can and you pray and if it all works out it works out [but] there are no guarantees.
“Faith in action is important I think, and that’s why I’m still involved in Mary MacKillop Today, because while prayer is fine, and action is fine, you’ve got to combine the two.”