OBITUARY: by Nicholas Tonti-FilippiniNews Weekly
Farewell, Brian Harradine
, April 26, 2014
Australia’s longest-serving independent senator, Brian Harradine, died in Hobart surrounded by his family on Monday, April 14 at the age of 79. He served in the Australian Senate from 1975 to 2005 as an independent, representing the state of Tasmania. He was known as the “father of the Senate”, having become its longest-serving member.
Brian Harradine was born on January 9, 1935, in Quorn in the Flinders Ranges in the north of South Australia. In 1959 he moved to Tasmania where he became secretary of the Tasmanian branch of the Federated Clerks Union. He was later elected secretary of the Tasmanian Trades and Labor Council from 1964 to 1976.
By virtue of his position he was appointed as a delegate from Tasmania to the ALP national executive, but was targeted by the Left which moved for his expulsion.
In the 1960s, the then Labor opposition leader, Gough Whitlam, tried to save Harradine from expulsion, in a move headed by Ray Gietzelt. Harradine was eventually expelled from the ALP on fabricated evidence in 1975.
He thereupon stood as an independent for the Senate and won comfortably in the 1975 election and thereafter until he decided not to contest the 2005 election. By then his health was beginning to fail.
Between 1994 and 1999, Senator Harradine was fortunate enough to hold the balance of power in the Senate. I was consulted by him before, during and after that period. I knew Senator Harradine as a man of immense integrity. He did his best to represent Tasmania and people who were disadvantaged. He remained loyal to his labour roots and his Catholic sense of justice and concern for the poor and for morality. He never compromised on his principles.
That was most evident both in relation to major decisions in which his pivotal position in the Senate mattered, such as the sale of Telstra, Native Title legislation and the introduction of the goods and service tax (GST). The irony was that though the government of the day would make concessions to Tasmania and to Senator Harradine’s other interests while the Senator was still making up his mind on how to vote, at the end of the day he voted according to his conscience, and not according to any supposed deal.
That was never more evident than in the GST vote when the Howard government offered him concession after concession. In the end, however, he voted against imposing a regressive tax on his grandchildren and their children.
He worked tirelessly to defend human life and dignity and moved a Bill in 1985 to prohibit human embryo experimentation. That led to a Senate inquiry chaired by Labor Senator Michael Tate, which made a number of recommendations including that the proper relationship to the embryo in law should be one of guardianship.
I was either visited by Brian Harradine or called to his office on many occasions during his time in Parliament, frequently receiving phone calls requesting notes for questions to be asked before the Senate Estimates Committee and other matters. The senator knew how to use Senate estimates to apply pressure to government policy and rarely failed to take the opportunity to follow up a shoddily-prepared answer. He was testimony to the Power of One as journalist Michelle Grattan would later express it.
He was a friend of pro-life causes, especially taking on issues such as the protection of women immigrants at risk of forced abortion on return to their country of origin. He campaigned strongly against the abortion drug RU486 and would have been horrified to learn that, later, the Labor Health Minister Tanya Plibersek not only ensured its availability in Australia, but she did so without heeding the manufacturer’s recommendation that the second phase be administered under supervision. In what has transpired, it reflects a return to backyard abortion with women lacking monitoring or support, miscarrying at home and risking severe haemorrhage. As elsewhere, the result will be deaths of healthy Australian women.
Senator Harradine was a strong supporter of my work in bioethics. I was one of many others, such as Melinda Tankard Reist and Jeremy Stuparich, both of whom worked much more closely with him and who will grieve his passing. In recent times he maintained support for a scholarship fund for graduate students at Melbourne’s John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family.
There are now several graduates from developing countries who owe to Brian Harradine their studies in Australia and the positions they now hold, working with the Church in their home countries in bioethics and marriage and family programs.
Senator Harradine showed how public life can be lived fully and effectively without compromising one’s own personal values. His integrity and his willingness to mentor politicians were his hallmark.
I recall an instance in which the then Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the National Party and another National Party minister came to meet Harradine and me on an issue in the senator’s office. Their question was whether the issue at hand was a matter of conscience.
As a philosopher, it still seems strange to me that anyone, let alone a public figure, would allow someone else to, in effect, be their conscience. But it indicated the respect with which the senator was held.
Brian Harradine is survived by his wife Marian, who nursed him for the past few years, and the 13 children who are the result of two families coming together when, as widow and widower, they married.
Professor Nicholas Tonti-Filippini is a bioethicist and associate dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, Melbourne.