Breaking the mould: John 'Wacka' Williams calls time on political career

JOHN 'Wacka' Williams does not fit the traditional mould of a politician.

Before his 11-year career as a Nationals Senator, he'd plied his trade as a pig farmer, a truck driver, a hardware store owner and a shearer.

The way he entered the political landscape bucked the modern trend and the location of his office is out of step with most of his colleagues.

Even his nickname, so widely used it appears countless times in Hansard transcripts of parliament, has an origin that's as unique as it is unexpected.

"When I was about three years old, my mum would give me a bath and dry me off, then I would run to my room naked. My dad would be listening to the radio and yell out 'Wacko' as I ran past," Mr Williams said.

The name stuck and followed him all the way to the velvet red carpet of the Senate, where he carved out a niche as one of the most respected politicians in Parliament House and a veracious champion of the nation's underdogs.

Northern Tablelands MP Adam Marshall recalls how Wacka entered politics.

"He started off his career in a very unusual way by challenging a sitting Senator, Sandy Macdonald, at preselection to take his spot in the Senate," Mr Marshall said.

"At that time it was very unusual - and still is. Typically people who want to go into the Senate to represent our State for The Nationals wait for a vacancy to appear.

"In typical Wacka style he said, 'I'm not very happy with what Sandy has been up to so I'm going to knock him off and take his spot'. He was a truck driver and as he drove his trucks around New England and the state he was busily making phone calls to achieve his goal.

"From memory he defeated Sandy Macdonald 37 votes to 28 or 29 at that preselection some 12 years ago."

Despite the fact Mr Marshall and Wacka had "disagreements about various policies" over the years, the Northern Tablelands MP said he had nothing but the "utmost respect and regard for him as a person and as a politician".

"He's a guy that is unlike so many people in public life - the political machine of Canberra hasn't changed him and in modern politics, that's very rare," Mr Marshall said.

"The way he always carried himself, the way he passionately and doggedly followed issues, most notable the banking and financial sector royal commission.

"He can safely say that many lives have been improved by his time in politics and he's a good example for others to follow."

FIGHTER: Wacka championed many causes over his career.

FIGHTER: Wacka championed many causes over his career.

A champion of many causes, what Wacka is undoubtedly best known for, is his decade-long fight for a royal commission into the wrong-doings of banks.

Seven months into his first term, Wacka was deeply affected by meeting a group of retirees who had lost their savings in the Storm Financial collapse.

When he was asked why he was so determined to bring about a royal commission, he had a simple answer.

"I knew there was wrong-doing being carried out, and those people had to be brought to account, because you can't cheat people," he said.

Time and time again his request for a royal commission was rebuffed by people on both sides of politics, including numerous Prime Ministers. But at the end of 2017, his dogged determination was vindicated, and the royal commission that followed shocked Australia.

"Halfway through the royal commission, the job was done in my opinion. It had highlighted so much wrong-doing and embarrassed many institutions, who must now try to restore their reputation by doing the right thing.

MONKEY BUSINESS: John Williams, Nigel Scullion and Barry O'Sullivan have some fun in the Senate with their best monkey impressions.

MONKEY BUSINESS: John Williams, Nigel Scullion and Barry O'Sullivan have some fun in the Senate with their best monkey impressions.

In typical Wacka fashion, when asked about his crowning glory, the jewel in his political crown, he gave the credit to other people.

"There were two Nationals MPs that did the muscle up," he said.

"We always had the numbers in the Senate, the House of Representatives is where it wouldn't pass. In 2016, Labor said it would support the royal commission after opposing it for years and years.

"When Labor and some of the crossbench said they supported it, we only needed two more votes."

When George Christensen, the Nationals MP for Dawson in far north Queensland, gave his backing, Wacka picked up the phone.

"I called Llew O'Brien, the Member for Wide Bay, and I said 'Llew, I want you to muscle up. I want you to come out tomorrow and say you support it'," he said.

"To his credit, he did. That gave us the numbers."

While his battle with the banks was never personal, he knew first hand the devastation being on the wrong side of the banks could bring. In the 1980s, he lost his family farm after dud financial advice from the Commonwealth Bank.

It was experiences such as these - like his decision to publicly reveal he'd been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2017 - that made Wacka widely respected.

BACK TO HIS ROOTS: Luckily Wacka never lost his skill with the clippers, as he plans to go back to his farm.

BACK TO HIS ROOTS: Luckily Wacka never lost his skill with the clippers, as he plans to go back to his farm.

New England MP Barnaby Joyce said it was experiences like that, that made Wacka the politician he was.

"These days, politics is full of people who have never had a real job," Mr Joyce said.

"He's been a farmer, he's been a small business owner, he's been under the financial pump with the bank.

"The broad brush of Wacka was always that he had empathy, because he has lived through experiences that the majority of Australians have actually experienced."

On a humorous note, Mr Joyce said as the Senate whip, Wacka was the fastest vote counter he'd ever seen

"That's because he was used to counting sheep - at his farewell in Tamworth, he sheared a sheep," Mr Joyce said, with a chuckle.

Luckily the farmer-come-politician never lost his skill with the clippers, because in his own words, Wacka's post-political life will involve "going home to the farm, buying more food to feed hungry sheep and hoping for spring rain".

"I'm looking forward to some quiet time after politics," he said.