Senate debates

Wednesday, 21 June 2017


Walters, Ms Mary Shirley

3:37 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 18 June this year, of Mary Shirley Walters, a senator for my home state of Tasmania from 1975 to 1993. I call the Leader of the Government in the Senate.

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

That the Senate records its deep sorrow at the death, on 18 June 2017, of Mary Shirley Walters, former senator for Tasmania, places on record its appreciation of her service to the Parliament and the nation and tenders its profound sympathy to her family in their bereavement.

Shirley Walters was born on 31 August 1925 in Sydney. She was the second of the three daughters of Eric and Mary Harrison. She was, in every sense, a daughter of the Liberal Party because she had a deeply political upbringing. Most of her childhood and early adult life took place in the shadow of her father's significant parliamentary career.

Eric Harrison—or Sir Eric Harrison, as he became—was elected as the member for Wentworth in the other place in December 1931. He was later to become the deputy leader of the United Australia Party and he was the first ever deputy leader of the Liberal Party, serving from the formation of the party in 1945 until his retirement from parliament in 1956, making him, until Peter Costello overtook his record, the longest serving deputy leader of the Liberal Party. Sir Eric Harrison held a number of significant ministerial positions in five non-Labor ministries: The Lyons government, where he was Minister for the Interior; the Page government; the first Menzies government; the Fadden government; and the great postwar second Menzies government, where he held a number of defence related portfolios, among others.

As a young girl, Shirley Walters experienced her first taste of politics by her father's side, campaigning from the back of a truck along the streets of his inner Sydney seat. As a young woman, she witnessed close hand her father's career as a senior cabinet minister. After completing her schooling, Shirley Walters found employment in the accounts department of the Rural Bank, but soon found that work unfulfilling, so she left the bank to begin nursing training at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, where she worked until her marriage to Dr David Walters in 1949. Shortly after their marriage, the couple relocated to Hobart, where Dr Walters established an obstetrics practice.

All her life, Shirley Walters was politically engaged and deeply committed to community service beyond politics. However, it was only in the 1970s she would become active as a professional politician. The 1970s was a decade of rapid and—in the eyes of many—radical social change, epitomised, perhaps, by the election of the Whitlam government, which left many conservative Australians concerned for the future of the nation and most Australians astonished at the folie de grandeur of Mr Whitlam. Reflecting in her valedictory speech on her inspiration for entering politics, Shirley Walters recalled quite clearly that she had had a driving force, and that driving force was Whitlam. We knew that something had to be done at that time, because great changes were occurring very quickly and very radically, and people were frightened. So, in 1975 Shirley Walters answered the Tasmanian division of the Liberal Party's call for preselection nominations for the forthcoming Senate election.

At the double dissolution election following the dismissal on 13 December that year, Tasmania returned five Liberal senators of the 10 Senate places then available. Shirley Walters was elected the fifth. This made her the first woman ever to represent Tasmania in the Senate. Such was her popularity within the Tasmanian Liberal party and the wider community, that, as Senator John Watson remarked on the occasion of her valedictory, it soon became apparent that the No. 1 position was for her. She would go on to lead the Tasmanian Liberal Senate ticket at the 1977 election as well as securing the safe second position on the Tasmanian Liberal Senate ticket for both the 1983 and 1987 elections.

Throughout her nearly two decades long Senate career, Shirley Walters was a forceful and articulate advocate for her adopted state of Tasmania and also for issues of conscience and moral issues, which she held dear. She was proudly, unashamedly, a moral conservative. In her first speech to the chamber she remarked that, 'The people of Tasmania are now looking forward to the Liberal government for the equality that our Constitution affords us.' Although she remained a loyal stalwart of the party throughout and beyond her time in this place, she never shied away from what she believed to be her fundamental commitment to the people of Tasmania, crossing the floor on a total of 14 occasions throughout her career. The Fraser government in particular, was a government notable for a large ginger group of Liberal Senate backbenchers, of which Shirley Walters was one. Most notably, she voted against the Constitution alteration bills of 1977 and, in particular, the Constitution Alteration (Simultaneous Elections) Bill of 1977, which would have required that all elections for the Senate be held simultaneously with elections of the House of Representatives. She believed that that would have diminished the power and authority of the Senate as well as being inimical to the interests of a small state like Tasmania, the Senate being, in her firm opinion, as the founding fathers had ordained it to be, the states house. In the debate on the bill on 24 February of that year she declared herself to be 'totally opposed to this bill' and 'firmly committed to the independence of the Senate and the unhampered voice of the smaller States'. She observed:

The Senate is the most significant part of the federal structure. We remember from the great crisis of 1975 how the Senate demonstrated its power to reject a money bill. That power is fundamental and the way it is used depends upon the judgement of the Senate from time to time. These steps—

that is, the proposed constitutional amendment to require the simultaneous election of both houses—

represent the gradual undermining of the Senate preparatory to its abolition.

That was her warning. It is not to be forgotten that in those days the abolition of the Senate was the longstanding policy of the Australian Labor Party. The referendum was held on 21 May 1977, and although the yes vote was strong across the nation, with 62.2 per cent of ballots cast in favour of a yes vote, it was defeated by its failure to achieve the double majority required by section 128 of the Constitution. It was narrowly defeated in Queensland and Western Australia, but in Tasmania, where Shirley Walters led the campaign against the proposal, it was defeated by a whopping 158,818 votes to 82,785 votes—a margin of more than 30 per cent. So, we may say of Shirley Walters that one of her very important legacies was to be at the forefront of the salvation of the Senate, or at least the power of the Senate, from that obnoxious proposal of Mr Fraser's government.

In her maiden speech, Shirley Walters spoke of Tasmania's unparalleled natural beauty but equally of the acute economic challenges facing what she called the south island of Australia. Although many remember her for her staunch social conservatism and her defence of traditional family values, she could just as powerfully hold forth on an immense variety of diverse issues, from health policy to the complexities of the Tasmanian Freight Equalisation Scheme and rising cost of living pressures. Indeed, such was her capacity to speak on a wide variety of topics that former senator Cheryl Kernot, teasingly no doubt, once referred to Senator Walters's unparalleled ability to speak on anything, for any length, at any time, the later the hour the better.

Senator Walters quickly established a reputation as a formidable and hardworking participant in the Senate committee system. She was chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Social Welfare from November 1980 to February 1983, and thereafter served as a deputy chair of that committee until her retirement. During her tenure as chair and no doubt drawing upon her experience as a nurse she was instrumental in the production of landmark reports on youth homelessness, children in institutional care and drug abuse. She also served as chairman of the Library Bicentenary Publications Committee and as chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Private Hospitals and Nursing Homes.

From 1986 to 1988 Shirley Walters served as the appointee of the then Leader of the Opposition, John Howard, to the board of the Bicentennial Authority, established to oversee community activities commemorating the 200th anniversary of European settlement in Australia. However, she was perhaps best known for her efforts to address community concerns about the depiction of violence and the degradation of women in modern media, including through her ultimately unsuccessful Regulation of Video Material Bill, which sought to prohibit the sale and hire of X-rated content in Australia. Notwithstanding her independent streak, in 1988 Shirley Walters was appointed to the then opposition front bench as shadow parliamentary secretary to the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Howard.

When Shirley Walters retired from the Senate in 1993, she did so as a trailblazer for Liberal women. She remained active in the Liberal Party in her home state for the rest of the life. She had served as a member of the Tasmanian Liberal Party state executive in 1981 and 1982. She continued her activism within the Liberal Party branches in Tasmania well into old age. In 2003 she was awarded life membership of the Tasmanian division, the Liberal Party's highest honour. She regularly attended branch meetings well into her 91st year and would often, I am told, telephone her branch president between meetings to provide her knowledgeable input on a broad spectrum of policy.

I met Shirley Walters. I cannot claim to have known her well, but I can well understand why the word often associated with her was 'formidable'. She was a formidable advocate kept for conservative causes, but through her kindness and intelligence she won the respect of her peers from every section of this chamber. She entered politics, as I have said, in reaction to the Whitlam years and in defence of the great values: love of country, of family, of individual freedom, of respect for the constitution, of small government, the values which had inspired the Liberal Party over the generations. As her opposition to the 1977 simultaneous elections referendum showed, she had a very healthy respect for the powers and constitutional status of the Senate.

In her valedictory speech to this chamber, Shirley Walters said, 'I decided that I really loved my country and that I was going to do something about it.' So she did. She will be sadly missed by all who knew her, but most particularly, of course, by her four children, Rob, Pam, Susie and Jim, her 13 grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, to whom, on behalf of the government, I offer our sincerest condolences.

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 on behalf of the opposition to acknowledge the passing of former senator Mary Shirley Walters, who passed away last week, and to convey, on behalf of the opposition, our condolences to her family and friends. Mrs Walters served in the Australian Senate from 1975 until 1993 and was, significantly, the first female senator to be elected from Tasmania. She was a woman of conservative values, and combined with the encouragement of business as central to employment growth she maintained a strong commitment to supporting families throughout her time in public life. Senator Brandis has outlined in much more detail what I was going to advert too, which it is that she was a woman of very strong Liberal pedigree. Her father, Sir Eric Harrison, was a minister in the Menzies government before resigning to become the Australian high commissioner in London.

Born in Sydney in 1925, Mrs Walters trained as a nurse before her marriage to David Walters. At that point she left the paid workforce to take on, proudly, the role of caregiver in the home. However, she entered politics, spurred on by her negative reaction to the policies of the Whitlam government. Elected in the double dissolution of 1975 that formally swept that government from power following the dismissal, she would go on to be elected again in 1977, 1983 and 1987.

Mrs Walters was well placed to become a consistent contributor on matters concerning health policy and family life during her time in the Senate. This is reflected in her committee service, including the Social Welfare and Community Affairs committees, of which she was a member for virtually the entire Senate career. She recognised the influence she could have on policy from this position. She was not afraid to maintain her strident political positions, even when they conflicted with party policy. She crossed the floor on 14 occasions throughout her career, which seems an extraordinary number in today's world. This inevitably had an impact on her career within the parliamentary party, although she did serve as Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Opposition from 1987 to 1989. She was a loyal Tasmanian and, if you read her speech, she speaks at great length about her home state, saying that it was without doubt the most beautiful of all the states in the Australian Commonwealth and essentially daring anyone who disagreed to have an argument with her.

Honourable Senators:

Honourable senators interjecting

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

I am surrounded by others who are cheering that.

She was also an advocate, as the Leader of the Government in the Senate has said, for the Bass Strait freight equalisation scheme. Interestingly, if you do read her first speech, you can see her advocacy for that ab initio, as it were, from the beginning seeing it as critical to the Tasmanian economy. Unsurprisingly, she championed the rights of the smaller states and the place of the Senate in our constitutional framework as a defender of these rights.

If there were ever any doubt that Shirley Walters stood resolutely behind the values and position she campaigned on throughout her time in the Senate, I think that was put to rest by the then Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Gareth Evans, when he spoke on her valedictory in 1993. He commenced with an honest but friendly appraisal, saying, 'A Liberal reformer she ain't' and describing her as 'a campaigner for every Tory value I deeply deplore'. What I would suggest is that that demonstrates that Mrs Walters was an extremely effective campaigner for conservative values during her time in the Senate. Senator Evans went on to reflect that, despite the terrible things they had said to each other over the years, there was never any malice. He said:

She has believed fiercely in a series of particular political objectives, she has been as tough as nails in this place in pursuing those objectives, but she has always been thoroughly charming and pleasant personally and impossible to hold a grudge against.

I think they are fine words from a political opponent.

In keeping with the assessment of her character by Senator Evans, then Senator Walters spent much of her own valedictory thanking the very many people who had provided assistance to her over her 18-year career. After she left the Senate, she remained active in the Tasmanian division of the Liberal Party and was awarded, as Senator Brandis has outlined, life membership in 2003, of course a very great honour.

Regardless of whether or not she would have accepted the label, Shirley Walters was a trailblazer and she left her mark as a passionate advocate for her home state of Tasmania and for the conservative values that she considered core to the Liberal Party. We again extend our deepest sympathies to her family and friends following her passing.

3:57 pm

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

I rise on behalf of the Nationals in this place to offer condolences and to pay my respect to former senator Shirley Walters, who, sadly, passed away earlier this week. I would also like to associate the Nationals with all the remarks that have come before in the Senate debate.

Shirley Walters made a tremendous contribution to the nation as a nurse, a senator and a mother. She grew up with politics in her family and had remarked that she had campaigned for her father, Sir Eric Harrison, in Sydney when she was a teenager when he was the member for Wentworth. Her time in nursing did draw some interest in this place when she remarked that she had used heroin some years ago—although later did clarify that she was referring to her patients.

As others have remarked, Senator Walters was the first woman to be elected in the Senate from the state of Tasmania, and we pay respect to her for that remarkable achievement at that time in this place. Just like other women who led the way—Senator Tangney, the first ever woman elected to the Senate or, from my own home, my good friend Senator Trish Crossin—these women were role models for their families and communities and for this nation. Shirley Walters showed all Tasmanian women what was possible, and the Senate and the rest of Australia is better for her efforts.

Elected in 1975, she was at the forefront of promoting better outcomes for Australian women and remarked in 1976 that 'if women are disadvantaged then the whole of Australia should be concerned'. I think it is this sentiment that goes to the heart of our responsibilities as senators in this place. We are privileged to get the opportunity to serve the nation. Senator Walters, by all accounts took a very vigorous and honourable approach to her service to the nation.

She was a very practical senator and took a very pragmatic approach to politics, focusing on economic issues for Tasmanians. She was always promoting marketing of Tasmanian made goods and ensuring that that was on people's minds when they made purchases. She was always talking about the vital tourist trade. As we already heard, she had a passion for the wonderful beauty of her country. She often spoke about it as a place to visit and a place to boost the Tasmanian economy. I acknowledge these are still issues that Tasmanian senators—like yourself, Mr President—are still advocating for today.

I do not think you can ever question what she stood up for and what she believed in. Shirley Walters stood up to the senior ministers throughout her time here and was known as the most prolific interjector in this place, with a nickname of 'Foghorn Leghorn'. But I think that, above all else, she was committed to her family, and I would like to pass on the condolences and sympathies of the Nationals to her family. They should be proud of the contribution and life of former Senator Walters. Vale Shirley Walters.

4:01 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In paying my respects to Shirley Walters and my condolences to her family, I want to mention some personal reflections I have of Shirley Walters. I arrived in this chamber as a very fresh, new, somewhat shy senator from way up there in the bush, and I can remember Shirley Walters. She sat, as I recall, in the back row in that second stanza of seats there. As Senator Scullion mentioned—whether she was referred to as 'Foghorn Leghorn' I could not say—she certainly had a voice that would fit that description.

I have to say I was in awe of Shirley Walters, perhaps over-awed and, dare I say, even intimidated. If Shirley Walters said something to me or to the party in the party room, it would be done without question, because you did not argue with Shirley. Listening to Senator Wong's reflections about what Senator Evans, the then leader of the government, said, I can again see her. And she would say terrible things about him, which he took with good grace as he always did. She did not mean them but she was intimidatingly abrupt in the way she spoke.

I was in the Senate for three years with her. The description I always remember about Shirley Walters is that she was ramrod straight. She was ramrod straight in her posture, notwithstanding the fact that, as Senator Brandis mentioned, she did have a car accident, which must have been an inconvenience for her or more. It must have been very difficult for her, but she would never let that be known or accept any sympathy. She often had a walking stick and at times a neck brace. So it was difficult for her to move around. Her mobility was sometimes restricted. It never stopped her crossing the floor, though, when she needed to do that.

Shirley Walters, as has been mentioned, was yet another Liberal first. She was the first woman senator from the state of Tasmania. That was something she was proud of and something that we Liberals are proud of—we have a lot of firsts in those categories. I want to quote from some reflections by a well-known parliamentary observer and political historian, Don Morris. He has written some words about Shirley Walters. He reminded us that when Shirley was first elected to the Senate she said:

I think it would be wrong for candidates to be chosen just because they were women—or not women … I am definitely not a women's libber.

Further, she said:

During my campaign I was frequently asked questions relating to women. I replied then, and I still maintain, that women's issues are Australia's issues and Australia's issues are women's issues and any problems must be dealt with by all Australians. We women are not an underprivileged minority group as the radical feminists would have us depicted. We women in Australia are equal with our menfolk, and only those who would wish to denigrate our sex would have us believe otherwise.

I think they are very telling words from someone who understood the importance of women in public life and led the way of women in this chamber and, indeed, the parliament.

Senator Walters was described, again sourcing Don Morris's work, as:

… a Menzian Liberal. She held a strong commitment to supporting the family unit and to supporting business as a source of jobs and carried these principles throughout her own parliamentary career. Always active in the Senate chamber—

And I can vouch for that personally. She was—

renowned for the frequency of her interjections, she was 'an indefatigable, noisy, wearying campaigner' to those who opposed her, but she was respected across the political divide for her 'dogged determination' …

That is another image I have of Shirley Walters—dogged determination in whatever she did.

She was never afraid of prosecuting an argument, however unfashionable, even within her own party. She has, Mr Deputy President, as you and Senator Bushby would know, received the highest accolade that the Liberal Party can bestow upon anyone by being awarded a life membership to the party. I note Senator Brandis's comment, I think it was, that she still would attend branch meetings and would generously ring the president beforehand to share views. I can just imagine that it would not have been so much sharing views as it would have been her saying, 'Mr Chairman, you must do this, that and the other.' I know I can say that with Shirley, and if she is looking down on me she will not be offended by my saying that she was a very, very forceful person. It was a real privilege for me to have three years serving with her and understanding a lot about different approaches to the Senate. She had commitment to the Senate, commitment to her own state of Tasmania and commitment to Australia. Shirley, may you rest in peace and, again, my condolences to your family.

4:07 pm

Photo of David BushbyDavid Bushby (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to also support the motion of condolence moved by the Leader of the Government in the Senate and to add a few words of tribute to the life and work of the late Shirley Walters, both on my own behalf and on behalf of my fellow Tasmanian Liberal senators, Senator Abetz, Senator Duniam and, of course, you, Mr President.

Shirley was, as has been mentioned, a trailblazer for women in politics in my state, although, as hinted at by Senator Wong, she scoffed at the very description. She was only the 12th woman to be elected to serve in this place and the first woman of any party to be elected as a senator for Tasmania. But in 1975, when she was preselected in a winnable position on the Liberal Party ticket and the Launceston newspaper The Examiner asked her about being a woman going into politics, she responded that she had stood because she felt that she had the skills that would be useful, not because of her gender.

As noted by Senator Brandis, Shirley came from a strong political background. Her father was a significant figure in Australian politics in the first part of the 20th century. After a significant business career, when he stood for preselection for the United Australia Party in 1931 for the seat of Wentworth, the local party could not decide between him and the sitting UAP member, so they endorsed them both. Each stood and won a major share of the vote, with Shirley's father, Eric Harrison, emerging victorious. As has been noted, he became a minister in the Lyons government and went on to become Deputy Leader of the UAP and then the first Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party under Robert Menzies.

She married Dr David Walters in 1949, and they moved to Hobart. They had five children—Rob, Pam, Susie and Jim—and Shirley spent their formative years supporting her husband and bringing up the family. However, she also found time for community activities and was heavily involved in supporting the National Trust.

Although she declared that she was never a women's libber, it is interesting that many of the views that prompted Shirley Walters to stand for the Senate have now become mainstream. For instance, she felt that sex education was important but that it should emphasise the obligations of men, as well as a practical approach to contraception.

For years Shirley campaigned against pornography and was criticised by some at the time for being a wowser, and yet her strong view was that much of it was exploitative of women. In this view, she was well ahead of her time.

She was a strong defender of her state and, as noted already, crossed the floor a number of times when she felt Fraser government measures would be detrimental to Tasmania. However, she never did this in an ambush. She always told the leader of the day and the party room what her intention was, and she did not grandstand on those issues.

In the chamber, Shirley Walters was a frequent interjector, as we have heard from a number of speakers today, and knew just how to get under the skin of her political opponents. But she kept any of that stridency strictly in the chamber, and was ever courteous and friendly outside the field of political combat.

Having been a nurse, she brought to the Senate a strong interest in health care and, in particular, aged care. She and former Labor senator Pat Giles were a formidable pair. In the years of the Fraser government, she chaired the Senate Select Committee on Private Hospitals and Nursing Homes, with Pat Giles as her deputy, and after the election of the Hawke government they swapped places. As a footnote, I note that this was the first committee of the Senate to initially comprise only women senators.

Unlike many, Shirley Walters remained active in the Liberal Party after she retired from the Senate. She was a regular attendee and speaker at branch meetings, as we have heard already, state council and Senate preselection—and I personally remember her asking me challenging questions at my own first preselection in 2007. The Tasmanian Division of the Liberal Party rarely confers the honour of life membership, but, as we have heard today, she received that honour in 2003.

She also supported her husband in his own role as a respected alderman of the Hobart City Council, and of course she enjoyed being a grandmother to 13 and a great-grandmother to three.

Some senators may also know that Shirley's oldest child, Rob, has been a leading advocate for men's health in this country. He is very highly regarded and was the overseas medical officer to the Prime Minister during Julia Gillard's tenure in that office.

I know that her family are feeling her loss keenly at this time, and I send my sincere sympathies to all of them. On a personal note, can I say to all her family how grateful I was for Shirley's wise advice and support, and can I also say how proud they can be of their mother's significant contribution not only to their state but to our nation.

Question agreed to, honourable senators standing in their places.