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Brian Harradine – a one-off who played the power of one to the max

Brian Harradine was a deeply polarising figure, who wouldn’t compromise on his values. AAP/Alan Porritt

Brian Harradine, who has died aged 79, was one of the most powerful independents in the Senate’s history. A tough and driven operator over a long career outside and inside parliament, he profoundly influenced the course of both Labor and Coalition politics.

In the 1960s Gough Whitlam put his leadership on the line over him. John Howard three decades later depended on him for the part-sale of Telstra and passage of the Wik native title legislation, only to be rebuffed over the GST.

Harradine was responsible for the ministerial veto on the importation of RU486 - removed by parliament soon after he retired from the Senate in 2005 - and for Australian foreign aid for many years being banned from funding family planning involving abortion advice.

He also ensured the Howard government gave gold-plated treatment to Tasmania.

A product of deep Catholicism, Labor roots and his adopted state, when Harradine had a pivotal balance-of-power position in the Senate he did not flinch from using it to promote his causes and his constituency (but not to pursue the trapping of public life).

His manner was usually mild but he could, mostly in his younger days, be a fiery orator, in the old Labor style.

He was a deeply polarising figure, whether arousing the fury of the industrial and ALP left in the 1960s and early 1970s, or the outrage of many women in the 1990s and beyond.

Harradine would never compromise on issues touching his fundamental religious values (such as the sanctity of the life of the unborn), or his enduring commitment to protection for working people. But where these weren’t at stake, he was a horse trader and a cross trader, understanding and playing the numbers, believing power was a commodity to be spent, hunting for bargains on the political sale table.

Born in Quorn, in northern South Australia, Harradine began his working life on the railways. “My grandfather was the water man at the Finke on he Ghan track,” he told an interviewer in 2004. “And my first job was on the east-west line to Kalgoorlie and back, and the Ghan up to Alice Springs and back.

"We parted company when I was a conductor on the train, when I let passengers off at Anna Creek instead of William Creek, at a siding, and they had to wait for the southbound in an inhospitable area.

"I went to the PMG department, which is ironic, because it was the engineering division thereof, which ended up as Telstra.”

Moving to Tasmania in 1959, he worked for unions, notably the Clerks Union. He climbed the ladders of Labor’s industrial and political wings, becoming secretary of the Tasmanian Trades and Labour Council, a vice-president of the ACTU and a member of the ALP’s federal executive.

In 1968, in the thick of the bitter Cold War, post-ALP split battles, he alleged “the friends of the Communists intend to try and silence me” because they knew he would support Whitlam on party reform. This triggered a crisis in which Whitlam threw open the leadership, holding his position in a ballot against left-winger Jim Cairns by only 38 votes to 32.

Controversy continued within the ALP around Harradine for years; in 1975 he was expelled and won a Senate place as an independent in that year’s “dismissal” election.

His faith gave him sustenance and a certainty that brooked no compromise on core beliefs. He said in 2004: “The greatest foul-up that’s happened to me over a period of time is when I’ve been confronted with challenges and thinking, ‘Well, how am I going to get out of this?’ Or, ‘Wow am I going to deal with this real problem?’ Instead of saying to Jesus, ‘How are we going to turn this into good?’”

Harradine’s vote was critical for a slab of the Howard years - from 1996 to 1999 he and Labor “rat” Mal Colston held the balance of power - and this was when he extracted many concessions, while also drawing his lines in the sand.

John Howard writes in Lazarus Rising that Harradine, while supportive of many of the government’s positions on social issues, “remained at heart a real Labor man when it came to industrial relations. It was in other areas that I was able to find [him] not only a genuine negotiator and helper of the government in office, but on particular issues a strong supporter.”

Howard’s agreement to the anti-abortion demands came early on.

Harradine would not let a full sale of Telstra through but agreed to partial sale, in return for loads of telecommunications, environmental and other benefits for his state. He gave in and dealt with the government on the Wik land title legislation, disillusioning Aborigines but saying he did not want a “race-based” election to be called.

The GST debate was his most electric moment in the Senate. The government did all it could to win him, with concessions relating to pensioners and his demand on a separate issue about the youth allowance.

Howard wrote that although Harradine had kept his counsel during the 1998 election, “I remained moderately optimistic, without there being anything on which to base that optimism.”

His hope was misplaced. Harradine rose in the chamber to declare “I cannot” support the GST, forcing the prime minister to negotiate with the Democrats - who were assuming the balance of power - on a cut-back package that has critics today lamenting the exclusions. Harradine saw it as a regressive tax discriminating against the poor.

Former Labor senator Chris Evans describes the Harradine style and skill. “He was wily - in negotiations you were never sure where he was going to settle.” And in the chamber, “he had a sense of the dramatic. He would start his speech and it would be five minutes in until you knew where he was going. We were sitting on the edge of our seats.

"A very capable operator - he was able to get the maximum benefit from his vote.”

And that was especially why his supporters and his detractors felt so strongly about him.

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