Senate debates

Monday, 24 November 2014


Withers, Rt Hon. Reginald (Reg) Greive

3:32 pm

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

It is with deep regret that I inform the Senate of the death on 15 November 2014 of the Rt Hon. Reginald Greive Withers, a senator for the state of Western Australia from 1966 and 1968 to 1987.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Employment) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

That the Senate records its deep regret at the death, on 15 November 2014, of the Right Honourable Reginald Greive Withers, a former senator for Western Australia, places on record its appreciation of his long and highly distinguished service to the nation and tenders its profound sympathy to his family in their bereavement.

Today the Senate pays tribute to an extraordinary parliamentary career and the coalition says a very fond farewell to one of its heroes. Reginald Greive Withers was born in Bunbury on 26 October 1924, so he had attained the venerable age of 90 when he died on 15 November this year. He grew up in Bunbury, his father, Fred, being the Labor member for Bunbury for 23 years, and, rather than Reg being the black sheep in the family, he described his father as being the 'red' sheep. He was educated at Bunbury state school and Perth Technical College. He joined the Royal Australian Navy and saw active service from 1942 to 1946 in corvettes, including lengthy spells on convoy duty in the Mediterranean. He was discharged with a rank of coder.

Having grown up in a Labor household, it might have been expected that Reg Withers would have followed his father into state politics. However, on returning to Western Australia, Withers became frustrated with the regulations and restrictions in postwar Australia. He said: 'I spent four years fighting against that sort of tyranny and I saw Menzies and the Liberals fighting against it here. So I joined the Liberal party.' He studied law at the University of Western Australia with assistance under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme and practised in Bunbury, first as a solicitor and then at the bar. He was a member of the Council of the Law Society of Western Australia from 1955 to 1965 and a member of the Bunbury Municipal Council, his first foray into local government. He was also active in the Anglican Church, serving on the Bunbury diocesan council.

He became involved in politics at branch level and served on the executive of the Liberal and Country League as state vice-president from 1958 to 1961 and then as state president from 1961 to 1965. In 1966, Reg Withers was appointed to a casual vacancy in the Senate caused by the death of the then Defence minister, Sir Shane Paltridge. He became Government Whip in the Senate in 1969 and from 1972 was Leader of the Opposition in the Senate.

His well-known nickname was the 'Toecutter'. But, as his press secretary at the time, Russell Schneider, has written, to his friends it was a term of amused affection, to his enemies, the height of derision—toe-cutting being the methodology inflicted on enemies of a particular gang in New South Wales in the 70s to gain information from other criminals. It was asserted they never had to reach double figures before the information sought was gleaned from the unwilling participant.

It would be fair to say that he played his politics hard, but the man himself was nothing like the image that some like to portray. He was a man who was very practical and modest. He was proud of his naval service but never boasted about it. He was typical of that class of parliamentarians from both sides who saw service in World War II and whose guiding light was to help develop the Australia they fought to protect. They were a noble group of men who had done their duty and knew it and found no need to remind everyone.

Reg Withers used to say to his staff and his colleagues: 'Never crow in victory nor whinge in defeat.

That was how he approached politics. He did not like political correctness and stood for old-fashioned values. He was politically tough but gentle and compassionate in private. He was a very shrewd judge of character and gave great loyalty. When it was not returned, he was simply disappointed.

One of his closest friends in the Senate was Senator Pat Kennelly, who was Labor's deputy Senate leader for many years and who was a wily Irishman. He gave Withers this advice: 'Stay in the chamber as much as you can. Learn the procedures. At some time, knowing how this place works may be very important.' Those words were very prophetic and, I might add, they are still valuable words of advice to any senator.

Although the Whitlam government, elected in 1972 without a majority in this place, had a trying time dealing with this chamber, it is often overlooked that Reg Withers, as Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, had matching challenges. Not only did he have to placate his backbench but he had to deal with a large group in the Senate party room who were unhappy when Malcolm Fraser replaced Bill Snedden as leader. It is important to note that, in the so-called supply crisis of 1975, Withers successfully held a team together despite some strong personalities who had shown their willingness to cross the floor on other matters including, for example, men such as Senator Reg Wright from my home state and Senator Ian Wood from Queensland.

Some writers suggest that the opposition parties in the Senate were about to break at the end of 1975. Russell Schneider, the former press secretary to Reg Withers, has told me that the senators who would ordinarily be likely to break ranks were the very ones who understood the magnitude of deferring the vote on the supply bills and supported Withers in this tough strategy. Withers also admired the strength of the female senators; he said to a colleague: 'The only man in this place are the women.' I dare say you would not be allowed to say that today. One has to admire the professionalism of Reg Withers in keeping his team together at that time. Michelle Grattan aptly headed a profile of Reg Withers with the words: 'A cool man in a hot seat'.

When Malcolm Fraser asked Withers on 11 November 1975 how long it would take, hypothetically, to secure passage of the supply bills, Withers said he thought it could be done quickly if that is what was required. The tactic of deferring the money bills, rather than defeating them outright, was Senator Withers' tactic. He, who so self-deprecatingly referred to himself as 'a bush lawyer from Bunbury', outsmarted the dapper QC Whitlam.

After Fraser was commissioned as Prime Minister, he instructed Senator Withers to have coalition senators accede to the money bills. The government leader in the Senate at the time, Senator Ken Wriedt, had unaccountably not been told of the events at Yarralumla and so, when the Senate resumed after lunch, Senator Withers said to Senator Wreidt: 'What about those bills—will you move them or will I?' Senator Wreidt moved the third reading and they passed on the voices—Wreidt believing the coalition had buckled.

There has been much written about whether the coalition was right to use its numbers to make life difficult for the Whitlam government. Senator Withers had actually lived through the war of attrition that Labor senators waged against the Holt, Gorton and McMahon governments. On at least 170 occasions, money bills had been voted against by Labor senators; but they did not have a majority in the Senate. The intent was there, if not the numbers. Indeed, Mr Whitlam indicated Labor's intention to block the coalition's money bills. This is studiously avoided by those who seek to decry the coalition's commitment to removing the most dysfunctional government Australia had experienced up until that time. Indeed, Whitlam's own words during the attempt to defeat these money bills were:

…we will vote against the bills here and in the Senate. Our purpose is to destroy … the government.

They were Mr Whitlam's own words; it is interesting how that is so often forgotten in commentary on the events of 1975, in which Senator Withers played such a very important role.

The day after the dismissal the caretaker ministry was sworn in and Senator Withers was given four ministries: capital territories, Special Minister of State, media, and tourism and recreation. Honourable senators may recall that one of the conditions Sir John Kerr imposed on the caretaker Prime Minister was that there be no administrative changes until after the double dissolution election, so all ministers were sworn to portfolios held by their Labor predecessors. During that double dissolution campaign, Senator Withers was asked: 'And what does the minister for media do?' In his normal, disarming way he said, 'I have no idea and if we are elected I hope we get rid of it.'

After the December election, Senator Withers was given the role of Minister for Administrative Services and continued as leader of the Liberal Party in the Senate. In 1977, to mark the Queen's Silver Jubilee visit to Australia, Reginald Grieve Withers was appointed to Her Majesty's Privy Council—a very rare honour and one bestowed on only a handful of senators since Federation. He was, in fact, the last Australian so honoured. After his sacking from the ministry he quipped: 'Malcolm might think I am neither right nor honourable but the Queen thinks otherwise.'

His demise from the ministry in 1978 is judged by many—including myself at the time—to have been wrong. It was the result of a bizarre royal commission finding that Senator Withers' passing contact with the Commonwealth Chief Electoral Officer about an electorate's name in Queensland was somehow 'improper'. It is important to remind the Senate that the contact was purely about preserving the name of the seat of McPherson for the electoral division rather than changing the name to Gold Coast. It was not a material conversation about the redistribution itself or about boundaries, and it was in line with the views of the parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters that said, 'where possible, names should be maintained'.

In the wake of this finding by the royal commission—that Senator Withers had somehow acted improperly—Fraser removed Withers from the ministry. He was deeply affected by this demotion, which many felt was a disproportionate response. Indeed, years later, Senator John Button described this sacking in Hansard as 'most unfair'. No less a person than former High Court judge Ian Callinan much later wrote about the royal commission that 'as it unfolded, it became more and more obvious that no-one had done anything wrong'.

Allan Reid, Australia's greatest political journalist, deconstructed the royal commission's findings in an article in The Bulletin of the 22 of August 1978. It seems that the royal commission felt compelled to find a wrongdoer, although the purpose of the royal commission—to see if anyone had tried to influence the outcome—was found to be groundless. And I might quote from Alan Reid's article in The Bulletin of 22 August 1978:


who was one of Withers' departmental heads and a public servant of the highest repute and proven integrity—

had no doubt about the propriety of his action. He had referred to his copy of the Electoral Act and told Withers: 'Section 22 of the Act says you cannot influence a commissioner in the performance of his duties under the Act. The commissioner's duties are only concerned with boundaries. They give names for identification by custom. Parliament decides the names. So I've no worries. I know I am certain that it would be proper to ring Frank Coleman'—

the chief distribution commissioner—

So, here is a minister (Withers) who:

        Yet that minister, according to Mr Justice McGregor, is guilty of an impropriety. I just can't see it.

        One cannot help but agree with Mr Reid's very logical and unassailable analysis. To have his ministerial career ended in this manner was unjust and denied the government one of its better, yet understated, performers.

        The royal commission's decision was incomprehensible. The consequences were reprehensible. More importantly, in the eyes of the court of public opinion he was vindicated, when he was elected to the 1998 Constitutional Convention as a no-republic delegate, where he strongly supported the current constitutional arrangements, and he was also vindicated in 1991, when he was elected Lord Mayor of Perth, a role he carried out with great flair for three years.

        It is a sweet-sour experience and honour for me to move this motion. When I first met Reg Withers, he was leader of the government in the Senate some 36 years ago. Being young and impressionable, I was in absolute awe of the man. I was introduced, through my involvement in the Australian Liberal Students' Federation and his son Simon Withers, who is now the Mayor of Cambridge in Western Australia. We served together on the Australian Liberal Students' Federation executive.

        When I met him, Senator Withers was warm and welcoming. Never did I imagine I would be a successor in title of the great Reg Withers and have the honour of paying this tribute. I still recall the meeting in Old Parliament House. It being after 5 pm, spirits were offered, along with a roll-your-own—to be smoked indoors of course. His un-PC sense of humour was genuinely funny, sincere and without malice. I recall an exchange seeped in genuine fondness between Senator Bonner and Senator Withers, which I simply would not be able to repeat today, especially for fear that I would set the Greens into apoplexy if I did. Their banter was something to observe. They were genuine, they were sincere and the bonds of friendship were there for all to see.

        I recall being at the Withers residence in Western Australia—later, after his unfair demise—and I could not help but notice that all the door plaques that he had gathered throughout his career that bore witness to his great achievements were screwed on the inside of the door of the smallest room in the house. When I discreetly observed what I had seen and commented that this might not be the most dignified of places, he said through that permanent disarming smile that he had, that he thought it was the most appropriate place for them.

        His philosophy was practical. I recall Simon and I discussing changing some rules about some constitution about something. Reg overheard the discussion and simply said: 'Learn the rules. Don't bother changing them. Then play to win.' It was a great honour for me to have personally known the Rt. Hon. Reg Withers.

        To his wife of 61 years, Mrs Shirley Withers, I offer the sincere condolences of all government senators, as I do to his children: Simon, who follows his father's local government interest as the Mayor of Cambridge in Western Australia; to Nigel and Rowena, and their families, especially all the grandchildren. On behalf of the coalition, I extend the sympathy of all coalition senators. Australia can be thankful for the Rt. Hon. Reg Withers' service to our nation.

        3:52 pm

        Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

        I rise to support this condolence motion on the passing of the Rt Hon. Reg Withers, a distinguished former member of the Senate. I extend the opposition's deepest sympathy to his family and his friends.

        Reg Withers lived a long and productive life; he was a man who served his country, his state, his city and his party with determination and distinction. He is usually remembered for his role in one of the most tumultuous episodes in Australian federal politics—the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975. That was an era when many larger than life figures strode the national stage. The nation farewelled Gough Whitlam earlier this month; now, we are farewelling another of the central players in that extraordinary political drama of four decades ago. Yet, it should be remembered that Reg Withers made many significant contributions to public life, both before and after those events in 1975.

        As Senator Abetz has said, he was born in the coastal town of Bunbury in Western Australia's south-west in 1924, attending the Bunbury State School and Perth Technical College before enlisting in the Royal Australian Navy in 1942. During the Second World War, he saw active service as a naval coder. After the war, he was able to study law at the University of Western Australia under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. After graduating, he practised law in his home town of Bunbury and served as a member of its municipal council.

        It may surprise some to learn that Reg Withers' father, Fred Withers, was a locomotive engine driver and a staunch trade unionist and that he served as a Labor member of the Western Australian Legislative Assembly—the 'red sheep', as Senator Abetz described him today. In fact, Fred Withers was the delegate to the Australian Labor Party's 1929 federal conference who moved the famous 'socialist objective' into our party's platform. One might imagine how different the political history of the 1970s would have been if Reg Withers had followed his father into the Labor Party. However, that was not to be, and he joined the Liberal Party. In 1966, he was appointed to fill a vacancy in the Senate and went on to be elected as a Liberal senator for Western Australia six times.

        Like many of the Western Australians who have served in this chamber over the years, he was a strong advocate for the interests of the west. He also brought a business-like and no-nonsense approach to bear and quickly became known as a highly effective political operator in this place. He served as Government Whip in the Senate from 1969 to 1971 and as opposition leader in the Senate from 1972 to 1975. He became highly adept at what some might call 'the arcane art' of Senate procedure, and deployed these skills to devastating effect in 1975. As Gough Whitlam himself wrote:

        It was Senator Withers who first articulated the strategy by which my Government would ultimately be destroyed.

        That was the strategy of blocking supply in this place and forcing a Constitutional crisis, a strategy not only devised by former Senator Withers but also one for which he marshalled the votes needed to implement it.

        The Labor Party's position on those events is well known. But today is not the day to reprise the facts and principles that we would espouse in relation to those events. Suffice it to say, we will never condone what was done in 1975. But we can acknowledge the considerable political skills former Senator Withers brought to bear. We all know that assembling the numbers in this place for a controversial measure—and holding onto those votes—can be challenging, to say the least.

        After the federal election of 1975, Reg Withers became government leader in the Senate and Minister for Administrative Services. But, as Senator Abetz has outlined, his ministerial career was cut short in August 1978 when he was sacked by then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser. That was a move which many of his colleagues on both sides of the chamber regarded as unwarranted and unfair. I understand Mr Fraser himself, in later years, expressed regret over that matter. As well he might, because once Reg Withers had been dispatched to the backbench, he proceeded to cross the floor and vote against government legislation many times—a case, given his background as whip, of gamekeeper turned poacher.

        I was interested to hear Senator Smith last week quote former Senator Withers, explaining why he was willing to vote against his own government on legislation that he believed was contrary to his state's interest. He said, 'It is no use just having one chamber echoing the other. That is a waste of both time and money'—a pertinent remark in light of today's debates about the Senate's role.

        Reg Withers retired from the Senate in 1987, having served more than 21 years. But that was not the end of his contribution to politics and public life. He was elected Lord Mayor of Perth in 1991 and served in that position until 1994. He returned to Canberra as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1998, representing—perhaps unsurprisingly—the monarchists. It is a healthy reminder to those of us here today that there is life after politics in this place and that there are different ways that people can make their contribution.

        Reg Withers passed away on 15 November at the age of 90. After his death, his son, Simon, told ABC Radio that his father was not an ideologically-driven person. He said he was just a common-sense politician who was interested in getting things done. Reg Withers certainly got things done. He made an enormous contribution to the public life of Australia.

        On behalf of the opposition, I offer our sincere condolences to his widow, Shirley, and to his children, grandchildren and extended family.

        3:58 pm

        Photo of Nigel ScullionNigel Scullion (NT, Country Liberal Party, Minister for Indigenous Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

        I rise to associate the Nationals with this condolence motion to offer condolences to the family of the late Rt Hon. Reg Withers.

        Reginald Withers entered the Senate in 1966 in a casual Liberal vacancy and then lost his seat later that year and re-entered politics to be re-elected in 1968. He remained in the Senate until his retirement in the 1987 double-dissolution election. Prior to his Senate life, Mr Withers served as a coder in the Royal Australian Navy before studying law and qualifying as a solicitor and barrister. He represented his local community as a councillor on the Bunbury Municipal Council. He returned to local government after retiring from the Senate and was Lord Mayor of Perth from 1991 until 1994. Reg Withers, we have heard today, was also the last Privy Councillor to serve in the Australian Senate and a former State President of the Liberal Party.

        These are the bare facts of his life but we all know that Reg Withers was a key player in the dismissal of Whitlam's Labor government. As Leader of the Opposition in the Senate from December 1982 until the 1975 election, his tough character and belief in Liberal Party loyalty kept opposition senators in line during a time of what must have been intense political pressure.

        I understand that Reg Withers was also a mentor to younger politicians and I note in passing that he even, late in life, participated in one of Senator Smith's preselections. With customary self-deprecation he once told The Age that 'I'm just a boy from Bunbury.' I have often noted in this place that there are those who play up all their qualities and there are those who play them down. I know never to underestimate the latter.

        Reg Withers has been described as Whitlam's nemesis. He is credited with keeping potentially wavering Liberal senators together. As his son Simon stated: 'It was dad who brought Whitlam down. He had to hold those senators together while Gough was rampaging around the country.'

        Instead of rejecting appropriation bills, Reg Withers's strategy was to defer them, ensuring they were available to procure supply under a Liberal government. Meanwhile the Whitlam government slowly ran out of money. It must have required enormous strength of character to keep a loose, nervous, often unhappy and wafer thin coalition of senators to oppose the government for many months until the government finally fell. He did whatever was needed and it was reportedly a close run thing, with several Liberals close to turning. It was claimed that it was this period in which he was anointed the moniker the 'toe cutter'.

        After winning government Reg Withers had but a short time, three years, before Prime Minister Fraser dumped him from the ministry. On this occasion he said:

        When the man who's carried the biggest knife in this country for the last ten years starts giving you a lecture about propriety, integrity and the need to resign, then he's either making a sick joke or playing you for a mug.

        In the ensuing years Reg Withers crossed the floor 11 times, gaining the grudging respect of the tough Labor Finance Minister Peter Walsh.

        Reg Withers was a tough player but he could also be funny. He told the Senate that two lawyers called Harders and Neaves ought to be sacked or immortalised somehow in limericks. He had a go in the Senate:

        A negligent lawyer named Harders,

        Had a head as empty as Mother Hubbard's larders.

        Because he was so lax,

        The Commissioner received no tax,

        And the companies went to the bottom of the harbours.

        He followed straightaway and of Mr Neaves, he said:

        A foolish lawyer named Neaves,

        Was so negligent he encouraged tax thieves.

        Because he was so lax,

        The Act on income tax

        Now has another 80 leaves.

        When former industry minister, Senator John Button made his valedictory speech, he spoke of a conversation he had with Reg Withers in 1976 after the Labor government had been defeated and he had become the Minister for Administrative Services. Button told the Senate:

        In the first conversation we had I said, 'Reg, would it be possible for me to get a new typewriter in my office?' He looked at me and he said: 'I think so You are now where you ought to be, and I intend to see that you stay there. I see no reason why you shouldn't be happy'.

        John Button also said that Reg Withers was most unfairly treated when he was removed from the Fraser ministry. Button recalled another conversation where he said:

        'Reg, you know the line from the T.S. Eliot play: This last thing is the greatest treason, to do the right thing for the wrong reason. That's what happened to you, Reg. And he said to me: 'Who's T.S. Eliot?'

        Former Liberal Senator Fred Chaney described Reg Withers as a very complex man with a great affection for history and more capacity to see what was happening in a longer term than his peers. One of my predecessors, former Leader of the Nationals in the Senate, Senator Stan Collard, said that he always admired Withers's knowledge of the standing orders. Collard told the Senate:

        I remember that at a time such as this, when the parliament was about to rise and the then opposition, predictably, was doing what we have been doing for the last week—trying to hold things up—through some quirk and his very good knowledge of the standing orders, he caught the then opposition like a football team, running completely the wrong way, and he had the legislation and us out of this place in 10 or 15 minutes flat. It was a lesson for young backbenchers.

        Reg Withers was a strategic thinker and an authentic career politician. He played a significant role in the nation's biggest historical political drama. He was a colourful character but his mission was always focused on public service. We have lost this great Australian and this complex man and our thoughts go to his family and close friends who realise this the most.

        4:04 pm

        Photo of David JohnstonDavid Johnston (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

        I would like to commence my remarks in this condolence motion by thanking Senator Abetz for his very detailed traverse over the life of a great Western Australian Liberal. Of course, I want to adopt all those remarks as my own and so I will try and be as brief as I can.

        Reg died at home the Saturday before last surrounded by his family, his wife of 61 years, Shirley; and his children, Simon, Nigel and Rowena. Reg was a mentor of mine and during my parliamentary career our paths crossed many trajectories. Indeed, he was present at my preselection way back in 2001.

        His early life saw him serve, as many senators have acknowledged, in the Royal Australian Navy from 1942 to 1946, before returning to Australia to study law at my old alma mater, the University of Western Australia, later working as a barrister and solicitor in the then relatively small town of Bunbury in the south-west of Western Australia.

        As was my experience, Reg became politically aware at the University of Western Australia and joined the Liberal party there. He was President of the WA Liberal Party for four years from 1961 to 1965 before filling a Senate vacancy in 1966. He represented our home state of Western Australia from 1966 to 1987, when he retired from the Senate at the double dissolution election. He served as Senate Government Whip from 1969 to 1971 and became a key member of Malcolm Fraser's caretaker government after the Dismissal in 1975. Many senators have traversed his fabulous parliamentary career as a minister, as whip, as Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and Leader of the Government in the Senate. Again, of course, I adopt those words.

        He went on to become, as many people may not know, the Lord Mayor of Perth in 1991 and for a further four years. He had great vision and insight as to where he saw Perth going. He wanted to sink Perth's CBD railway line and build more apartments in the city. Today that is precisely what is happening. It was a man, as I say, of great foresight. These plans are currently eventuating and Perth is much the better, more vibrant and livable because of it. Notwithstanding his capacity for common sense and wisdom, he was an extremely humble man. As a country lawyer turned Liberal Party president and then a senator for my home state of Western Australia, I felt a close affinity to him. He was, as I say, very kind and generous with his advice and his very wise counsel. He had an outstanding commitment to public service and, of course, to our Liberal Party, its values and its beliefs.

        Reg was and will continue to be greatly admired by all Western Australians, particularly Western Australian Liberals. I seek to pass on, and I will pass on, my condolences to the Withers family and to the wider family, of which there are many. Not only have you lost a loving husband, a father and a grandfather but the nation has lost a great statesman who will continue to be both missed and admired. I am battling to think of a greater contribution to Western Australia of recent times because the dark years of the early seventies were when Western Australia was at its most politically active. Having Reg Withers in this place served my state particularly well, and I thank him for that.

        4:08 pm

        Photo of Christopher BackChristopher Back (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

        Mr President, I rise to associate myself with the motion of the Leader of the Government in the Senate and also the comments made by Senator Abetz and others following the passing on 15 November of one of Western Australia's icons and certainly one of the icons of the Liberal Party in our state, the Hon. Mr Reg Withers. I look forward to attending on Friday the public memorial service to honour his life. At that time I am sure his wife and his family will enjoy the many accolades that will be spoken about him.

        I have to differ somewhat from my colleague Senator Johnston. He commented that Bunbury was a relatively small town. Indeed, I grew up in Bunbury. I was there from the mid-1950s until the mid-1960s. I did not know him, but my father, who was a bank manager in the town, certainly did, and I do recall his name at that time. I think his first foray into local government was when he was a member of the Bunbury City Council. There were some luminaries on that particular council—not least of course Dr Ern Manea, who went on for many years to grace the city and, indeed, our state.

        Reg Withers cast an enormous shadow over federal politics, particularly from Western Australia. He was a mentor to so many people who came up through Liberal ranks, from students and eventually parliamentarians. As has been said, he remained an active member of preselections—with a few acerbic comments and some advice here and there that one would be very unwise to have ignored. Rather than repeat the comments of others, I think for history it is important to record, without going into political partisanship, just how important from our side—and I can understand others having a different view—the circumstances were in 1975 that led to the events that had their finality on 11 November that year.

        Its genesis, of course, was an attempt by the then Minister for Minerals and Energy to bypass the Treasury-approved Loans Council process to borrow some US$4 billion for the purpose, I would say, of nationalising the resources sector and also for some projects associated with rail transport and others. That $4 billion in 1975, according to the Parliamentary Library only this afternoon, would translate into $17.65 billion today. Of course, today if anybody tried to go outside the approved Treasury process to borrow, there would be the same outrage that there was then. History records that, rather than go through European or United States approved borrowing processes and facilities, the attempt was made to access Arab petrodollars through one Tirath Khemlani. Remember that, at that time, the price of oil had gone up a multiplier of four times between 1973 and 1974, so the Arab world was flush with cash.

        History records that by May of 1975 these attempts—which had prior to that time been secret—were made public, and the then Prime Minister, Mr Whitlam, directed Mr Connor to cease any further negotiations with Mr Khemlani and his troops. Mr Connor did not do that; he continued discussions behind the scenes. All of this Mr Withers, in his position as Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, would have been aware of as a result of some excellent work done by others, including Mr Phillip Lynch. It did cause the then Prime Minister to sack his Treasurer, Dr Cairns, in July of 1975. Then in October of 1975 it became publicly known that Mr Connor had continued trying to negotiate with Mr Khemlani. It was at that time that Mr Whitlam had no option but to sack Mr Connor.

        I give that historic perspective simply because they must have been incredibly difficult times in this parliament. It must have been very difficult for the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate—knowing what was going on—to, as others have said, keep the troops together. Indeed, as I understand it, there was a motion moved in the Senate which would have had the effect of Mr Whitlam going to the people to get a validation for the actions that had been taken with regard to the Arab loans affair. If I remember correctly the words that were read, the motion was that the loans affair was an example of extraordinary and reprehensible behaviour. History, of course, records that Mr Whitlam did not accede to that motion.

        At a time like this, one should reflect on the public service that all of us do provide to this place—by those coming from the Northern Territory, Queensland and Tasmania and by us from Western Australia. We know what the cost is. We know that families suffer. It is bad enough today when we have a direct flight from Canberra to Perth, but in days gone by, when a journey from Perth to Canberra would have probably taken the best part of a weekend, the likelihood of people getting home at all for weekends would have been slim. We know that the burden on families and the sacrifice on families are incredible.

        There is no doubt at all that history records—and I think it has been stated today by Senator Abetz and Senator Wong—that a wrong was visited upon Reg Withers in relation to the outcome of the royal commission, and that must have weighed heavily on him and, no doubt, his family when that event took place and its consequences played out. But, as Senator Johnson has said, Reg Withers went on to become Lord Mayor of Perth at a very interesting time in its development—and it was pleasing to see the comments of today's Lord Mayor, Ms Lisa Scaffidi, paying tribute to Reg Withers' contribution to the development of our city.

        In conclusion, I do look forward to the opportunity to attend the service on Friday during which the life of Reg Withers will be played out for those of us who did not know him well. I have no doubt at all that his family will be justifiably proud of the contribution he made in this place.

        4:15 pm

        Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

        I also would like to rise to associate myself with the comments of the Leader of the Government in Senate, Senator Abetz, and others. Of course, today we note the contribution not just of a senator but also of a Senate leader and a lord mayor of Perth. It is not possible to understand politics in Western Australia without learning of the significant contribution of Reg Withers and, as we have heard from others, of his father as well. Reg Withers was a great champion of Western Australia and of the Australian Senate—which I think are two of Australia's greatest virtues. I have had an opportunity to speak briefly in the adjournment about Mr Withers' contribution. I will not reflect on that again but I will just remind us of how extraordinary his early entry to the Senate was—and, I would add, an early demonstration of his tenacity.

        When Reg Withers came to the Senate it was a historically interesting event when we reflect on that today. Many will be unaware that, prior to 1977, section 15 of the Constitution required that senators appointed to fill a casual vacancy had to subsequently be elected at the next general election as a mean of confirming their appointment. Reg Withers was chosen by the parliament of Western Australia in February 1966 to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Sir Shane Paltridge, who was the Minister for Defence in the Menzies government. When the new Prime Minister, Harold Holt, called an election in November of that year, November 1966, it meant that Senator Withers had to face the people. Unfortunately for Senator Withers, despite the strong result for the Liberal Party overall, the Senate vote in Western Australia fell. Of course, what that meant was that Senator Withers was defeated after only nine months in the Senate. That could have been the end of the story but, showing the resolution and tenacity for which he has become famous, Reg Withers fought his way back and was re-elected as a senator for Western Australia at the half Senate election in 1967. And, as they say, the rest is history.

        I would like to use this opportunity to share with the Senate and to share for the record the comments of Mr Bill Hassell, a former state president of the Western Australian Liberal Party and a former parliamentary leader of the Western Australia state parliamentary party. He described Mr Withers as 'a public figure but a private man'. It is interesting to hear how those outside of politics observed the events around 1975 and, more particularly, Reg Withers' contribution. Mr Hassell writes:

        What is not so well known outside politics is the vital role played by Reg Withers in getting the Liberal Senators to maintain their stance in blocking the Supply Bills. As in all cases in politics where tough decisions are needed and made, and where the heat goes on as it certainly was going on then, there are doubters and waverers, those who lose their nerve, those who fall over at the gate, and some who creep around in the background seeking to be 'reasonable' and accommodating when what is needed is a firm and unwavering position. Such was exactly the position faced by Reg Withers at that critical time.

        Mr Hassell went on to say:

        His huge achievement was to keep the team together, to keep the Liberal Senators committed right through to the end in the face of all the doubts and doubters, the weaklings and the 'underminers'.

        So it was a very powerful contribution, and I think it is worth echoing Mr Hassell's comments.

        Finally, Mr Withers was a significant player at the Constitutional Convention many, many years later. Certainly, for myself and many Western Australians who were opposed to the Australian Republican model that was put, Mr Withers played a very, very significant role in the official 'no' campaign that we waged in Western Australia. Mr Hassell went on to say:

        Reg Withers was the Chairman of the NO campaign committee which oversaw my work and the campaign. I know he started out with considerable doubts as to working with me, and I had my reservations about how we would get on. The years of sparing had left a mark.

        But as the campaign got underway I quickly found him to be a magnificent supporter of the cause and of the work being done, the wise and quiet voice in the background who smoothed things over and who used his contacts to help garner the essential funds and support we needed.

        When it was all over I wrote to him to thank him and mentioned that I had felt at the beginning that he had held considerable doubts about working with me, but that I appreciated all he had done both generally and personally to support me in the work of the campaign. An extraordinarily generous reply was forthcoming in which he acknowledged what I had said of the beginning and that his opinion too had been transformed by the events of the campaign.

        So not only was Reg Withers a significant political man; he was also a man of great generosity.

        I am sure I join with many others in extending our sympathies to Mrs Shirley Withers and their children, Simon, Nigel and Rowena, and their families.

        Question agreed to, honourable senators standing in their places.