It’s good that Brian Harradine’s life is being remembered, and his work brought enduringly to the attention of the many who should be interested, through Keith Harvey’s crisply written and well researched monograph. A fine man and a great servant of Tasmania deserves no less, especially as he represented an important political and cultural tradition, and—as a balance-of-power senator—had more impact on our parliament and its laws than just about any other backbencher so far.
This review appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Harradine was a serious Catholic, who briefly studied for the religious life, and who came deeply under the influence of the National Civic Council, though possibly more its union mainstay, John Maynes, than its moving spirit, B.A. Santamaria; and consequently—despite for a time being a member of the breakaway Democratic Labor Party—became a leading union official in Tasmania.
Soon enough, he joined the ALP; and, before he was thirty, was elected head of the Tasmanian Trades and Labour Council. In 1968, he was chosen to be one of that state’s two delegates on the ALP’s national executive. Before he could take his seat, though, perhaps incautiously, he’d written a subsequently published letter predicting that he’d be blocked by the “friends of the communists”.
At the time, Gough Whitlam was the new federal Labor leader, and under the banner “party, people, policies”, was trying to reform the ALP and make it electable—and in the process, was trying to restructure the leftist Victorian branch. Fittingly, Harradine’s principal accuser, senior unionist Ray Gietzelt—who in 1975 finally succeeded in having Harradine expelled for his NCC links, on the basis, Whitlam attested, of “perjured evidence”—was subsequently revealed to have been a secret Communist Party member for much of his active life in the Labor Party.
Rather than appeal against that decision, with the odds stacked against him, Harradine left the Labor Party—despite remaining for many years the national president of the shop assistants’ union—and was elected an independent senator for Tasmania. He was re-elected five times, three times with a Senate quota in his own right, a feat unmatched by any other independent senator in this country. He owed his longevity, not to barnstorming campaigning but to diligently attending to Tasmanians’ individual and collective needs and to personal contact with thousands of people who very largely sang his praises.
On at least two big occasions, Harradine shaped nationally critical legislation. The first was the Wik legislation, designed to make workable the High Court’s 1997 decision that pastoral leases would not, in themselves, extinguish the native title that the earlier Mabo decision had found to have survived the sovereignty of the Crown. The Howard government had promised to legislate “bucketloads of extinguishment” but had to get its bill past Harradine. In the event, Harradine managed to preserve the native title holders’ right to negotiate with pastoral leaseholders, their key demand, by telling the world that he had “blinked”, and thus allowing the Prime Minister to claim that a political loss was really a political success.
In this sense Harradine was a very rare species indeed: a politician almost entirely devoid of ego, more than happy to “stoop to conquer”, and never needing to exaggerate his own importance.
Later, in a bid for Harradine’s support for the GST legislation, the Howard government announced a wide range of extra benefits for families and for young people. Even so, Labor man and unionist at heart that he was, Harradine closed his gracious speech acknowledging the government’s goodwill with the famous line: “I cannot”. Equally graciously, and in a sign of matching political integrity, John Howard kept these concessions because he maintained that they’d improved the legislation.
It’s worth noting that Harradine never engaged in horse-trading, at least of the crude “if you give me some of what I want, I’ll give you some of what you want” type. Still, it was striking how benefits for Tasmania could improve his attitude to those bills to which he had no principled objection.
On one occasion as Health Minister I needed his help: to secure Senate passage of the extended Medicare safety net legislation, to reimburse 80 per cent of the actual cost of procedures, once people’s total Medicare out-of-pockets had exceeded $1500 a year. As a clearly beneficial move, at least to people facing high medical expenses, this should have been easy for him to support—as it did indeed become, once I’d offered a special benefit to health services in Tasmania, namely (from memory) a PET scanner for the Royal Hobart Hospital.
There was another occasion when his work intersected with mine. In 1996, at about the time Harradine supported the partial privatisation of Telstra—but not, of course, as a trade-off—the Howard government amended the Therapeutic Goods Act to provide that certain drugs, among them the abortifacient RU486, could only be imported into Australia with ministerial permission. This double requirement, to get Therapeutic Goods Administration plus ministerial approval, had meant the virtual non-availability of this drug.
This never seemed to be an issue while Michael Wooldridge and Kay Patterson were ministers; but it became one after I was made Health Minister and subsequently declared that 100,000 abortions a year was a “national tragedy”. Apparently it was thought that I might not rubber-stamp any TGA approval. As it happened, I was never put to the test, as a rare private member’s bill, brought by a cross-party group of female senators, was given parliamentary time and overwhelmingly carried. I suspect this episode may have reinforced my (unmerited) reputation as Captain Catholic! And as being suspect on “women’s issues”, despite subsequent support for a “fair dinkum Paid Parental Leave scheme” which some of my RU486 critics thought irredeemably tainted by association.
As it happens, I still think that there are far too many abortions; and that we still badly need a parental leave scheme that pays most mothers their actual salary for six months at least, if successful middle-income women are to have more children to enjoy the absolute blessing of life in Australia; and if the only demographics to reproduce themselves are to be other than the very rich and the welfare-dependent.
So what should we say of Brian Harradine? That he was one of that earlier (and better) type of senator who (GST-excepted) saw the Senate as a house of review rather than a house of rejection. That he was widely respected by both Labor and Liberal ministers. That he conducted himself with unfailing personal courtesy. That he didn’t attend events he disapproved of on principle (such as parliamentary tributes for dictators such as the Chinese president) just because it was the “done thing”. That he was easy to disagree with but impossible really to fault.
Certainly, a parliament with more Harradines would add lustre and honour to our public life. Let’s hope this highly readable volume encourages more like him.
by Keith Harvey
Connor Court, 2023, 98 pages, $19.95
The Hon. Tony Abbott was Prime Minister of Australia from 2013 to 2015. This was his speech to launch Brian Harradine, the twenty-first in the Connor Court series Australian Biographical Monographs