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Wily Harradine delivered for Indigenous Australians


Brian Harradine

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 7.30 Report: 'It looks, on the face of it, in this penalty shoot-out situation, Brian Harradine's won four-nil. Full credit to Senator Harradine for having promised us that he was going to hold the line. He's surely held the line. He's held out on a stubborn position.' Thereafter key Indigenous leaders, including Pearson, expressed their disgust at Harradine for selling them short. Harradine was not the one who had moved the goal posts.

It took some years for Harradine's critics to concede that he had improved Howard's land rights package more than was originally hoped for. Seven years after the Wik debate, when Harradine was retiring from the Senate, Andrew Bartlett, Deputy Leader of the Democrats, made this acknowledgment of Harradine's acumen on Wik: 

The agreement he reached on the Wik legislation was one of the few cases I would point to where John Howard was bested in negotiations. Whilst the legislative merits of the Wik agreement were less than ideal, the sort of race election, focused on Indigenous people, that our country would have faced in 1998 if that agreement had not been reached would have been far worse even than the one we endured in 2001.

Paul Keating, who had done a fabulous job delivering the 1993 Native Title Act, Parliament's response to the uncertainties and possibilities opened up by the High Court's Mabo decision, was very upset with Harradine and anyone with access to him, including me, whom he labelled 'the meddling priest'. 

Three years after Keating's law was enacted, Labor was out of office and the High Court had expanded some of the uncertainties and possibilities of native title in the Wik decision. In his 2011 Lowitja O'Donoghue Oration, Keating said the native title amendment law of 1998 'arose from the Coalition Government's so-called Ten Point Plan, a plan facilitated in the Senate with the support of Senator Brian Harradine under the advice of the Jesuit priest, Frank Brennan'.

He then said: 'As a Catholic, let me say, whenever you witness the zealotry of professional Catholics in respect of Indigenous issues, invariably you find Indigenous interests subordinated to their personal notions of justice and equity: because unlike the rest of us, they enjoy some kind of divine guidance.' This was reminiscent of Ben Chifley's remark about Bob Santamaria and the Groupers: 'One of the most dangerous individuals you could have in public life was a religious fanatic.' Chifley thought 'the religious fanatic is worse than the political fanatic'.

Keating was on to something when he spoke of Indigenous interests and notions of justice and equity. But personal notions of justice and equity do not count for much in the public square of a pluralist democracy like Australia unless those notions can be rendered comprehensible and adoptable by other citizens who do not share your religious or philosophical world view. Harradine understood this very well. He was assuredly a very canny politician. But I never knew him to claim any sort of divine guidance when making a political decision. 

History vindicated Harradine's political judgment in the Wik debate. Not even Keating has ever seriously suggested that Kim Beazley's chances of winning the 1998 election would have been enhanced by leaving Wik unresolved. If Wik had not been resolved prior to the re-election of the Howard Government in 1998, Howard would have told Harradine after the election that all deals were off.

Harradine and the other non-government members in the chamber of 'unrepresentative swill' would then have needed to assess the possibility of forcing changes on a strong new government with a fresh mandate to limit Aboriginal rights in the wake of a Wik election.

Once Harradine lost his position holding the balance of power, I visited him in his parliamentary office and gave him a feather duster I had purchased in Indonesia. With delight, he placed it on his wall. He was looking forward to the rest and recreation of retirement in Hobart and amongst the Tasmanian wilderness. Now he rests in peace. He was a good man, a fine Catholic, and a very canny politician. And, God bless him, he got Wik right. 


Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ AO is professor of law at the Australian Catholic University and adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Brian Harradine, Wik, Indigenous land rights, Senate



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Existing comments

Thank you Father Brennan for this very fine and worthy tribute to Brian Harradine - a great man, yes, and a great Catholic Christian as well.

Father John Fleming | 15 April 2014  

What a wonderful tribute to Brian Harradine! Yes, God bless him, he was a good man, a fine and decent man. And God bless the Tasmanian electors who gave him to the Australian people for so long.

Paul | 16 April 2014  

So important to be reminded of all aspects of a life well lived. Thanks for those reminders

Pat Rayner | 16 April 2014  

A wonderful Australian and Catholic of courage and commitment. It will probably be a long time before we see another such in power. I expect, Fr Frank, that in his eternity Brian Harradine is a rooster once more.

john frawley | 16 April 2014  

As an ecumenical staffer in Tasmania during the '90s, I had a reasonable level of contact with Senator Harradine and his office. In my observation, he was one of the first significant politicians of any persuasion to realise the destructive nature of Hansonism for the Australian community.

Bob Faser | 16 April 2014  

Thank you, Frank, for your fine tribute to Brian Harradine. The integrity and political acumen he brought to the Wik debates and negotiations was characteristic of all of Brian's life as a Senator. In private life, that same integrity was evident in his relationships with his wife, Marian, and the large family that became the Harradine-Sheehan clan upon his second marriage. His faith and love of God, family, country and the world, expressed with gentle strength, was the the bedrock of his life and his work for a more just world. A great man at rest.

Corrie van den Bosch | 16 April 2014  

Thank you, Frank. Brian Harridine was a man of deep faith and of commitment to justice and equity. He operated in the public square, and worked to translate his principles in terms that resonated in our pluralist democracy, particulary in Tasmania. He set a very high standard of integrity as a politician, and worked tirelessly for constituents and for the common good. We are all the better for contribution. May he rest in peace.

Denis Fitzgerald | 16 April 2014  

Frank, Very well spoken, he was a great man

Matt Casey | 16 April 2014  

OK So Brian Harradine removed his shoes and socks to dance with members of Cape York's Wik people outside Parliament House in Canberra in 1998. And Father Brennan rightly noted other political achievements of singular note. Yet one detects a certain gloss over his signature Catholicity in other justice issues dear to God also. Harradine opposed abortion, stem cell research, same-sex marriage, and pornography. He secured a ministerial veto on importation of the abortifacient RU486 and a prohibition on Australian overseas aid financing family planning that included abortion advice. Not forgetting his passionate defence of the sanctity of human life and the importance of family.[NB:Survived by his13 children and stepchildren]. Hobart’s Archbishop Julian Porteous said Mr Harradine, was an active member of Chigwell’s St Monica’s church, and was strongly loyal to his faith Give us more of his caliber and unashamed Catholicity!

Father John George | 16 April 2014  

Brian Harradine was a man of integrity who knew how to operate in the basically amoral world of politics. He could give a straight "No" as he did to the GST in 1999. There are few of his mettle in the current federal parliament. Perhaps Andrew Wilkie, another Tasmanian, comes closest to the mark. Would we had more of his ilk there now. Wisdom seems to be in short supply in current Australian politics.

Edward Fido | 16 April 2014  

How apt is that headline: "Wily politician delivered for indigenous Australians". Wilyness and being a politician were only the public face of Brian Harradine. I believe that Brian Harradine would consider his private life, his two marriages, his blended family, his devotion to his church greater achievements. However it is fitting to recognise how he exercised his political skills and his moral courage for the good of others in the wider Australian community.

Uncle Pat | 16 April 2014  

Sen Harradine was the right man, at the right place, at the right time. He followed his conscience, and maintained his integrity, for which we should all be most grateful. Requiescat in pace.

Walter P. Komarnicki | 16 April 2014  

Well said. I was saddened to hear of Senator Haradine's death, but delighted in recalling all he had accomplished for Australia in his time. May it continue to bear fruit.

Beth Bowman | 17 April 2014  

Fr Frank, if only our other Catholic brethren in Parliament could share Brian's passion for righting a moral wrong. RIO Brian

Yindin | 17 April 2014  

Here is my tribute to Brian Harradine the day before his state funeral at the Cathedral in Hobart: http://www.acl.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/2014-04-22.2999-01-01.the-political-spot-20140422.mp3

Frank Brennan SJ | 22 April 2014  

Enjoyed the read but flinched at your final epitaph "a fine Catholic". Far too narrow + partisan for such a generous man

Paul Simpson | 28 February 2016  

Very heartening to hear David Marr (no great fan of the late Senator Brian Harradine) say on ABC Insiders (25/3/2018) that Harradine ‘did do some wonderful things and the best thing he did in the Senate by horse trading was great things for native title.’ How true, and how long it has taken for this to be acknowledged. Politics is a complex business. Listen at 56:25: http://www.abc.net.au/insiders/sunday-25-march-full-program/9584708

Frank Brennan SJ | 25 March 2018  

When Ellen Fanning asked Paul Keating how he convinced Brian Harradine in 1997-8 to vote down the media changes which John Howard wanted, Keating answered, ‘He was an intelligent guy. He understood the stuff and he had a good social heart.’ Sometimes it takes 20 years for the truth to out. See http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/paul-keating-slams-nines-takeover-of-fairfax/10041072

Frank Brennan SJ | 26 July 2018  

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