For six years I sat within meters of the late Senator Brian Harradine. Along with a few Greens and One Nation, the Australian Democrats’ senators sat among the cross benches in the curve of the senate chamber’s horseshoe seating pattern.
From my location, mostly at seat 54B, I was able to study Harradine closely in terms of his exercise of power.
I know very little about Harradine’s early years, his time in the ALP and his defection over the Catholic/Communist split, but one thing was apparent in my dealings with him and that was that his entire ideology was conservative Catholic. That statement would surprise few, but what was surprising was the vehemence with which he used to deny his religious persuasion.
As with most religious crusaders in Australia, Harradine would never make reference to God, Jesus, the Bible, Christianity or the Church. All of his arguments, discussions, view points and values were expressed as secular, civil concerns. It didn’t matter whether he was railing against pornography, abortion, birth control, same-sex marriage, euthanasia or stem cell research, Harradine would camouflage his catholic zeal with the language of every day concern. He saw it as his duty to launder dogmatic Church positions into every day thinking and to normalize religious positions into common, unchallenged acceptability.
At no point did he ever say that all of his positions were Vatican orthodoxy. Harradine may have been an independent senator but he was not an independent thinker.
I recall one particular time in 2000, at a public meeting of the senate’s Legal and Constitutional References Committee in Melbourne, then looking into the issue of Non Violent Erotica (NVE), as the Howard Government looked to sensibly reform commonwealth film classifications in relation to (X) and (R) rated adult material.
Members of the public made written submissions and attended hearings to answer questions from the senate panel, myself included.
A couple of punky-looking lesbian authors, one with pink hair, talked enthusiastically about their erotic writings and the valid place of adult literature in the over 18 community.
Harradine looked on in bewilderment as they explained their craft and its benefit to women’s sex lives before responding with some derisory condemnation of “porn” and its “harmful effects.”
The young women were not going to accept Harradine’s assertion without some push-back, so one of them leaned into her microphone and stated to say, “Senator Harradine, I completely respect your right to hold your religious views, however….” but there was no way she could finish her sentence.
Harradine exploded. Thundering into his microphone in a way that reverberated around the small meeting room he angrily discharged that, “My personal religious views have absolutely NOTHING to do with my views on this legislation!!!”
The two women sat back in their chairs stunned by the volume and fury, perhaps wondering what on earth had triggered such an aggressive reaction. The whole tableau was so absurd I had to bite my bottom lip so as not to burst out laughing, but Harradine had won the point. The women backed off. No-one, ever, would get away with questioning Harradine’s underlying religious motivations.
In the end Harradine succeeded in completely derailing the NVE legislation despite it being introduced by the Howard Government with Labor and Democrats support.
To do this he fear-mongered, appealing to the base prejudices of the National Party with misinformation about the Bill. By showing them copies of video tape which heavily featured interracial sex and male sodomy, Harradine falsely claimed that such tapes would be available to minors at petrol stations if the legislation passed. His deception created a split in the Coalition Party Room and dissension in Cabinet. The legislation was dumped. Moral panic was a favorite modus operandi.
People used to puzzle over how one senator could hold so much power and not just when his vote was critical. Yet to me it was obvious, in that Harradine didn’t see other senators through the prism of politics but the stained glass of piety. He knew that at any given time around 30 percent of Liberals and 20 per cent of Labor MP’s shared his religious moral code. He simply reached out to those MP’s on social and moral issues to agitate within their own parties and frequently they privately thanked him for raising their concerns publicly when party room solidity prevented them from doing so.
And of course he could always rely on the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Union, the reactionary body that acts as a front for the Catholic Church and wields a power in ALP pre-selections. Harradine knew how to push emotive buttons, create delays, buy time and scuttle legislation by using senate procedure and wily tactics. Most of all, he understood numbers.
On many occasions I saw him pull from the small drawer under his chamber desk a map of the senate’s seating arrangement. He had many copies of this image in his drawer and he used it to plot his lobbying tactics depending on what the issue was and how the numbers might look, making notes in the margins. He would pick off senators individually and had a hotline to very senior clerics who in turn could make representations to the MP’s Harradine wanted to target.
However, the most enduring memory I have of Harradine was his sense of theatrics. In this regard he frequently deployed two parliamentary tactics to make himself the centre of attention. The first was never to declare his hand. In moments where his vote was critical he would ask questions, make speeches and generally muse on the topic in the chamber, but never in a way that suggested which way he would ultimately vote. He kept the mystery and savoured it, drawing out the anticipation in the room to maximize the effect.
It was never until the division bells rang summoning all senators to the chamber did Harradine’s position on anything become clear, but even then he milked the drama to keep the government on tenterhooks.
As the division bells rang for four minutes, Harradine would often get up, stroll around the chamber, zigzag randomly and chat to senators on both sides and even stand in the middle of the room and stretch. All eyes would be on him as he meandered between the Yes side and the No side of the voting chamber, the cat toying with the mouse. Only when the division bells stopped and all senators were required to sit did Harradine make his intentions clear.
Sometimes he would up the ante by giving every impression of voting one way, when in fact he would vote the other. Many times during a division I saw him seated at his desk, shuffling paper, tidying his drawer, seemingly reading notes or chatting on his phone and he would string this bit of theatre out for as long as possible before another senator would come over and whisper to him that, perhaps he was on the wrong side of the vote?
Harradine would then express mock dismay, slap his forehead, tut-tut and chuckle to himself and then slowly wander over to the other side of the house. He loved to play the absent minded, elderly, forgetful uncle and many, many senators fell for it. The fact is he was never befuddled and always knew exactly what he was doing. I once described him as being like Derek Jacoby in I Claudius, playing the fool in the brutal Roman Empire in order to be overlooked and to survive. It worked.
From my seat I also had an oblique view through the senate’s left door, a heavy brass entrance with three-inch thick beveled glass. This was the door through which Harradine would enter if he came in for a vote from his office. On many occasions I could see Harradine on the other side of that door, in the reading room, waiting for the very last second to make his entrance. As he waited, he would sometimes hop, ever so slightly, from one foot to the other, with nervous energy. And then, just as everyone thought he might miss the vote, in he would whoosh with dramatic flourish, sometimes as the attendants were in the process of locking the door shut.
All of this behavour was designed to ensure that the government of the day could never take him for granted, predict his moves or ignore him. As such, governments needed to pander to his causes behind the scenes and not just through current legislation. Harradine simply had to make a late night adjournment speech to an empty chamber on a pet topic and days later his grievance would be addressed by the relevant minister. No legislation required. Perhaps the most infamous case was his success in getting foreign aid cut to developing countries if that aid was being used for family planning and contraception.
Although Harradine loved power he loathed responsibility. It was one thing to get what he wanted but when great responsibility was placed on his shoulders he crumbled. He backed down on the GST and supported Wik.
Despite his power and influence his successive election victories diminished with each poll and it’s probable that if he had stood again in 2004 he would have lost. Even so, 28 years in federal parliament is an extraordinary achievement for anyone.
There were very few issues on which Harradine and I agreed and we clashed several times, mostly over superannuation rights for same-sex couples and marriage equality. But I always had a begrudging respect for his tenacity, success and survival.
The Catholic Church still has very strong representation in federal parliament, but none come close to Harradine with his savvy execution of parliamentary procedure, psychological game plans and acting ability. He was unique.
Brian Greig OAM was a Democrats Senator between 1999 and 2005.