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Wily Harradine delivered for Indigenous Australians

  • 16 April 2014

I pay tribute to the great Tasmanian Catholic warrior, Brian Harradine, who died on Monday. He did some wonderful work in the Australian Senate, the chamber which Paul Keating once famously described as 'unrepresentative swill'. I was privileged to encounter Harradine up close during the 1993 Mabo and 1998 Wik native title debates in which he exhibited the finest integrity and commitment to Aboriginal rights.

The Wik debate was a poisonous political cocktail: a 4–3 decision of the High Court being considered by an unsympathetic Howard Government and a Senate where the Catholic Harradine had the balance of power. Harradine wisely retained the services of Sydney barristers John McCarthy QC and Jeff Kildea to advise him during the Wik debate. 

The Wik legislation came back to the Senate for consideration three times. It is rare for government to present a complex bill to the Senate more than twice. As prime minister, John Howard needed the approval of conservative state premiers, especially Richard Court in Western Australia and Rob Borbidge in Queensland, before he could agree to any of Harradine's demands. 

Armed with compromise proposals formulated by key Aboriginal leaders and their legal advisers, Harradine met with Howard several times during the second Wik debate. The compromise failed. Harradine phoned to tell me, 'I was talking to the wrong person; the Prime Minister doesn't have the authority to make the deal. But he'll come back a third time.' 

A Queensland election followed. Borbidge lost office, and Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party won 11 seats in the Queensland Parliament. The canny Harradine picked the moment. With Borbidge out of the equation, he thought Howard would be more open to persuasion. With One Nation having done well, he thought Howard very unlikely to risk a double dissolution election where One Nation would get the balance of power in the Senate. He thought Howard had no option but to negotiate more favourably for Aboriginal interests.

He went back to Canberra with his list of demands.

Harradine successfully negotiated significant improvements to the lamentable Howard package. The key plank of the improved package was drafted by lawyers for the National Indigenous Working Group. It was the wily Harradine, who third time around in the Senate, rather than giving in, managed to deliver in spades on the compromise previously accepted behind closed doors by key Indigenous leaders and their advisers. 

At the time, Noel Pearson told Kerry O'Brien on the ABC