Walking on the wild side of Senate history

As Australians digest a menu of new senators who appear as disparate as the crowd on a Saturday night at the Birdsville races, some of the patrons armed, it's worth remembering that the Senate has long produced wild surprises.
By · 14 Sep 2013
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14 Sep 2013
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As Australians digest a menu of new senators who appear as disparate as the crowd on a Saturday night at the Birdsville races, some of the patrons armed, it's worth remembering that the Senate has long produced wild surprises.

Consider Steve Fielding of Family First: a party he fitted well, having been born one to a family of 16 children. Elected to the Senate in 2004 with less than 2 per cent of the vote in Victoria because of preference deals, just like the new crop of senators from so-called micro-parties, Fielding became known for bizarre stunts and a startling ability to deliver arguments that had, often, no more than a tenuous grasp on logic.

He once blamed divorce for contributing to climate change.

It seemed curious - he was a climate-change sceptic. But there it was: family break-up, he maintained, meant people going their separate ways, using more resources and increasing their carbon footprint. "Mitigating the impacts of resource-inefficient lifestyles such as divorce helps to achieve global environmental sustainability and saves money," he burbled.

Perhaps his most memorable utterance came while he was arguing with himself over whether to support then-prime minister Kevin Rudd's economic stimulus package.

He was, he moaned "torn between two hard places and a rock".

The Greens weren't taken terribly seriously in the early days, either. The first of them in the Senate was Jo Vallentine, of Western Australia. An enthusiastic peace activist who was once arrested while marching on the Pine Gap facility near Alice Springs, she seemed unable to make up her mind precisely whom she wished to represent as a senator.

She won the 1984 election as a Nuclear Disarmament Party candidate but even before taking her seat, resigned from the party and served as an independent. By 1990, she emerged as the first WA Greens senator, but resigned for health reasons before completing her term.

Soon after, two WA Greens found their way to the Senate: Christabel Chamarette in 1992 - the year prime minister Paul Keating dismissed the Senate as "unrepresentative swill" - and Dee Margetts in 1993. They became known as "the Gumnut Twins".

Senator Vallentine, it happens, is the aunt of Mary Jo Fisher, who years later became a Liberal senator for South Australia.

Senator Fisher gained a national reputation as an eccentric in March 2011 when she turned the floor of the Senate into a dance studio, grinding out the Hokey Pokey and the Time Warp, complete with pelvic thrusts, while delivering what passed for a speech denouncing the government's climate change policy.

Senator Fisher's political career dissolved into something far less amusing when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after being charged with shoplifting.

The Australian Democrats provided a few oddballs over the years, none more so than the Queenslander Andrew Bartlett. He was given on occasion to dress as a Goth, complete with black-painted fingernails and a sweeping cloak. There remains a famous photo of him in purple shirt, mascara, eye shadow and lipstick, holding a freed chicken following a raid on a battery farm in 2000.

Yet Senator Bartlett rose to become leader of the Democrats, and influenced important policy. By then, however, he was losing a personal battle with the bottle. Shortly before Christmas 2003, having imbibed at a Liberal Party function held just outside the Senate chamber, Bartlett was accused of making off with five bottles of wine.

Liberal senator Jeannie Ferris (now deceased) retrieved the stash, but Bartlett, apparently unimpressed and clearly sozzled, grabbed Senator Ferris by the arm and hurled abuse at her. Unfortunately for him, a video of some of his antics was captured within the Senate chamber.

He apologised by presenting Senator Ferris with another bottle of wine and took leave to seek help. The following year, 2004, he led the Democrats to a disaster when the party lost all three seats it was defending, and he and all the Democrats were gone after the 2007 election.

And then there are the old-timers. Never, surely, has there been a more distinctive name in the national upper house than Cleaver Bunton, though the Senate president in the early 1970s, Sir Magnus Cormack, might be a contender.

Cleaver Bunton wasn't elected at all and didn't last as a senator for nine months. But he surprised everyone.

A big man who could pull a football out of the sky when he was young - though he always said he couldn't kick like his brother Hayden, a legend of Australian football - Cleaver was an alderman of the Albury City Council for almost 45 years, 31 of them as mayor. In 1975, the most turbulent year in Australian politics, he received the call to higher office.

Labor's Senator Lionel Murphy had resigned to move to the High Court.

Convention dictated that Murphy be replaced by another Labor appointee, but the Liberal Party, working itself up to putting a spoke in the wheels of Gough Whitlam's government, decided that convention be damned.

The Liberal premier of NSW, Tom Lewis, announced that Albury's Cleaver Bunton was his state's choice to replace Murphy. Bunton wasn't a Labor man - and was scorned by that party as a Liberal lickspittle - but to Tom Lewis and his colleagues' chagrin, he turned out not to be a Liberal, either.

To the towering rage of his Liberal sponsors, he insisted on behaving as an independent. Despite expectations that he would vote with Malcolm Fraser's opposition to block the Whitlam government's supply bills, he refused to do so.

Bunton, however, didn't save Whitlam, who was dismissed later in the year by governor-general John Kerr.

Years later, this correspondent lived over the back fence from the Bunton home in Albury, and old Cleaver still mourned that he'd never got the knighthood he thought had been implicitly offered by premier Lewis. He was, however, made an Officer in the Order of Australia in 1975. He'd been made an Officer in the Order of the British Empire in 1954 and a chrysanthemum was named in his honour.

Yet another unconventional ring-in, Albert Field, a French polisher, was sent to the Senate from Queensland by Joh Bjelke-Petersen to help destroy the Whitlam government. The weird machinations that led to Senator Field's appointment creating the constitutional crisis that led to the dismissal remain too convoluted to repeat in detail - Field was absent from the Senate, a "pair" not provided, and crucial votes were thus skewed.

Albert Field was a senator for a little more than two months, was never elected and hadn't given his first speech. But his name remains notorious, and Whitlam judged him as "an individual of the utmost obscurity, from which he rose and to which he sank with equal speed". The poor fellow's misused life ended in 1990.

The new crop of "micro-party" senators would appear to have a way to go to match the weirdness, the drama and the tragedy that has come before them, whatever the political classes might say about their fitness to serve.
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