Former senator Brian Harradine dies aged 79

Harradine was a singular politician, complex and straightforward. Australia may never again see an independent use his pivotal Senate vote for so long and with such effect.

He combined conservative Catholic pro-life and family values with old-fashioned Labor concerns for battlers and a ruthless determination to extract every last dollar for Tasmania.

He shunned publicity and scorned the politics of personality, looked like a stick insect and was never eloquent, yet he held his Senate seat for 30 years, a record for an independent.

His values were firm, his organisation superb and his negotiating style maddening.

John Howard, in a tribute on his retirement in 2005, caught the essence of this style: “He had the great skill of leaving you in total doubt when he left the room as to precisely what he had agreed to in the course of negotiations.

“But you never felt he had misled you because somehow or other you felt that his understanding of the subject embraced matters that totally eluded you.”

Others called him the fox, rat-cunning and the consummate deal-maker.

Brian Harradine, who died on Monday aged 79, was born in South Australia on January 9, 1935.

The former seminarian went to Tasmania in 1959 as a as an organiser for the clerks union and, like other notable mainlanders – late premier Jim Bacon, retired Greens leader Bob Brown – succumbed to its magic and stayed.

He rose through the union and ALP ranks, becoming secretary of the Tasmanian Trades and Labor Council, a member of the ACTU executive and the ALP state executive and a delegate to federal executive.

He also became enmeshed in factional wars that were exacerbated by the split.

The left-controlled federal executive repeatedly refused to accept him because of his allegedly close links with the groupers, an action that infuriated Gough Whitlam and nearly cost him his leadership.

In 1975 the executive expelled Harradine from the party. He’s said that he went quietly to avoid federal intervention in the Tasmanian branch, which continued to support him.

He ran for the Senate as an independent that year and won a seat comfortably. His initial victory came mainly from disaffected Labor, although his base gradually broadened.

However, he probably couldn’t have lasted 30 years in a mainland state. The intimacy of Tasmania, he had acknowledged, was important.

The point of his last years in the ALP is that he survived the white hot passions and hatreds of one of the most turbulent periods in Labor history. None of the pressure that came later could touch this experience.

Another critical element, that meshed with his catholicism, was his family.

He and his first wife Barbara had six children. Two years after she died in 1980 he married Marian, a widow with seven. When he retired there were 31 grandchildren.

Over the years when he held or shared the balance of power in the Senate, Harradine’s main activities fell under three broad heads: wins for Tasmania, attempts to mitigate the impact on battlers, and efforts to enshrine human life.

The two part-sales of Telstra exemplify the first. Tasmania got $183 million for Harradine’s vote for T1 and $170 million for T2. For years Howard smarted from the grief he got from envious mainland premiers.

The GST was in the second category. Howard and Treasurer Peter Costello negotiated hard but couldn’t budge him.

His speech declaring his opposition was vintage Labor – tax had a social as well as an economic dimension, the true test of a civilised society was how it treated its most vulnerable and the regressive nature of the GST, promised compensation notwithstanding, failed that test.

His stand was ultimately irrelevant because then Australian Democrats leader Meg Lees and some of her party finally supported the GST, though for a time he appeared to have doomed it.

He fought stubbornly to curb abortions and prevent human embryo research. He was behind the toughening of anti-porn laws and the effective ban on the abortion drug RU486, which was overturned after he’d retired.

His abhorrence of China’s forced abortion program was emphasised when he boycotted President Hu Jintao’s address to parliament in 2003.

Then there was Wik, the 1998 native title legislation. Harradine negotiated a compromise on the highly divisive measure, but finally agreed to the bulk of what the government wanted.

It was a rare blink which infuriated many Aboriginal groups. He said he did it to avoid the greater evils of a race-based election.

Harradine maintained that holding the fate of important legislation placed too much on the shoulders of one person.

His solace was the bush.

After a hard week in Canberra he’d recharge his spirit by going up the Tasmanian east coast with Marian and sitting under the stars in a small boat or climbing in the Blue Tier.

His love of the wilderness was almost the only thing he had in common with fellow Tasmanian senator Bob Brown.

Yet in the 1960s, when he was the state’s trade union boss, he refused conservationists’ pleas to use his industrial muscle to try to save Lake Pedder because he feared the impact on jobs.

Later he opposed federal intervention to save the Franklin River.

Harradine suffered a stroke in March 2005. That confirmed what he’d probably already decided – to retire when his term ended in the middle of the year.

That was also when the Howard government gained a majority in the upper house, prompting one of Harradine’s last pieces of advice: “He (Howard) needs to remember that there is a Senate and that it has proper functions as a house of review and a house which holds unelected bodies accountable for the expenditure of public money.”

His respect for and knowledge of the upper house and its procedures were immense.

He used the position that the Senate’s numbers sometimes bestowed on him to exploit and manipulate; but also, in his unique way, to ensure that major government legislation was scrutinised by an intelligence with a bedrock of firm principles which was beholden to no political party.


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