10 Year anniversary of Harradine’s “I Cannot” GST speech

At 3:07 pm on Friday 14th May 1999, Senator Brian Harradine rose to address the Senate.

As with this week ten years later, it was just after a federal Budget had been delivered – Peter Costello’s third.  Unlike this week, discussion over the content of the Budget had been quickly subsumed by speculation over whether the GST – the defining issue of John Howard’s government at the time – would manage to pass the Senate.

The irony of the debate occurring in the Senate on the GST legislation in that week in May 1999 is that everyone assumed that the one person who wasn’t participating – Brian Harradine – was the one that would decide the fate of all that was before us.  As a small example, on this day 10 years ago, I had spoken thirteen times – mostly on housing related amendments, but also matters relating to the treatment of acupuncture, counselling and complementary medicine.  Brian Harradine not only did not speak, but also had not voted in any of the many Divisions that had been called on various amendments that had been moved during that stage of the debate.

The fact that the Senate was having a relatively rare Friday sitting in May to debate the GST legislation and a massive raft of amendments, shows the political and time imperatives the government attached to the issue.

I have particularly strong memories of that moment ten years ago.  Partly because I was the speaker immediately before Brian Harradine rose to his feet, and partly because of all the unforeseen and dramatic things that flowed on as direct consequence of what he said. 

Immediately preceding Brian Harradine’s speech, I was speaking to a Democrat amendment dealing with the application of the GST on residential aged care accommodation.

As I was doing so, I was struck by the sudden appearance of huge numbers of journalists from the Parliamentary Press Gallery in the viewing area reserved for them in the Senate.  This was particularly striking because even though the equivalent space in the House of Representatives fills up every day for the vaudeville of Question Time, it is a very rare day for more than two or three of them to appear in the Senate, even though the Senate sits just one floor directly below the offices the Press Gallery inhabit.

To have thirty of them suddenly file in without warning as I was part way through my thirteenth speech for the day on a fairly technical (though of course extremely important to those affected) amendment  was somewhat unsettling. Eventually, even my notoriously dysfunctional political antenna sensed that perhaps they were anticipating something, so I diverted from my incisive arguments to say

“It is an important amendment that the Democrats have moved—sufficiently important, I note, for the press gallery to be suddenly filled with people, so it must be an important matter. I hope that, with the enhanced audience, Minister, you might be able to address the couple of questions I have raised in relation to your amendments.”

Whereupon Brian Harradine rose to speak.

Not only had the Press Gallery viewing area filled up, but so had the Senate chamber, as word had got around that Harradine was about to speak! Very few of those watching knew what he would be announcing, but everyone knew it would be significant.

Ever since the 1998 election, when John Howard had managed to be narrowly re-elected (despite receiving less than 50 per cent of the two party preferred vote), the major political issue was whether he would be able to get his GST (Goods & Services Tax) passed by the Senate.  The unpopularity of this tax had been a key reason why Howard had nearly achieved the rare feat of losing government after just one term, only 30 months after the deeply unpopular Paul Keating-led Labor government had been drummed out of office by a baseball bat wielding electorate.

Because those Senators elected in 1998 did not take office until 1 July 1999, Brian Harradine held the sole balance of power up until that time – a role he filled only due to the Mal Colston saga, (an extraordinary story in its own right, but one for another time).  On 1 July, the Democrats would have sole hold over the balance of power.

It was an almost universally assumed, including by everyone in the Democrats, that the stated positions of the Democrats and the government on the GST were much too far apart for there to be any prospect of an agreement being reached.  Brian Harradine was seen by all parties and all pundits as being the only plausible path for the GST to pass the Senate.  This was highlighted by the frequently repeated view that the government needed to get his agreement prior to July 1.

Certainly amongst the Democrats Senators and staff there had been almost universal assumption for months that Harradine would reach some sort of deal prior to July 1.  I had certainly often said so, and also heard it stated frequently by virtually everyone else I had contact with over the preceding months – sometimes with resignation, sometimes with contempt, sometimes with admiration and sometimes with anger, depending on who was speaking and perhaps what mood they were in at the time.

The fact that no one in the Howard government had approached anyone in the Democrats at all at any stage since the election the previous year also showed how confident the government that they would be able to reach an agreement with Harradine.

I have no way of knowing for sure, but if I had been able to take bets at the time I would be very confident that the vast majority of those present as Harradine rose to speak on that May afternoon ten years ago were expecting him to announce his willingness to support a GST in one form or another.

As Michael Gordon wrote in The Age the next day, “the expectation of those who rushed in to witness the speech was that Harradine was about to blink, just as he had blinked on the 30 per cent health insurance rebate and Wik last year.”

Instead, after teasing everyone with his lead-up, including an endearing (to me anyway) reference to his wife, Harradine moved towards the core of the matter:

The question now in my mind is whether it is inherently regressive to such an extent that it should not be supported. The GST burdens the poor and those with the least capacity to pay. It discriminates against the poor and the pensioners who are living a hand-to-mouth existence and spending the bulk of their income on the necessities of life—food, clothing, rent, heating, power, bus fares and so on.

I have always been conscious of the fact that the true test of a civilised society is how it regards and treats its most vulnerable. But I do not claim here a monopoly on moral judgments in respect of this. I do not criticise the government, and I do not reflect upon the government or on any of its members. I just happen to believe that the inherently regressive nature of the GST does not achieve that test. The regressive nature of the goods and services tax is why compensation is invariably needed to secure its passage wherever it is introduced throughout the world. The government’s genuine attempt to compensate and to lock in that compensation is something to be commended, but it cannot be guaranteed.

But one thing can be guaranteed, and that is that the goods and services tax, once enshrined in legislation, will never be removed. Decisions we make now on this issue are not for the next three years; we are making decisions here that will affect generations.

As the various Government Ministers present began slumping in their seats as they became sure what was coming, the clock ticked to 3:26 pm and Brian Harradine said

The question that I have to ask myself is whether I am going to be a party to imposing an impersonal, indiscriminate tax on my children, my grandchildren and their children for generations to come.

 I cannot.

A couple more paragraphs followed, including apologies to various members of the government and the quaint assertion that he now knew “his name will be mud”, but that was that. Various short speeches from all sides followed (some more gleeful than others) assuring the Senator that everyone still respected him  (including one or two who hadn’t exuded overly respectful pronouncements in the preceding weeks) and the Senate adjourned.

Immediately following Harradine’s announcement, the pronouncements flowed forth from most commentators and many inside and outside the government that the GST was dead.  As Senators flowed out of the Senate that afternoon following the dramatic announcement, the media lay in wait to get their views.

The views expressed then by Democrat Senator Andrew Murray were widely shared. The Australian of the next day reported his comment that the GST was “gone. It’s finished. They (the government) haven’t got the numbers. It’s dead – stone dead.”

The reality turned out to be very different of course, but that’s a story for another time.

Brian Harradine’s full speech can be read at this link.

(cross posted at my Crikey blog)

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  1. “a role he filled only due to the Mal Colston saga, (an extraordinary story in its own right, but one for another time)”

    Tell us this one too, Daddy! I remember some of it, but would like to hear it from the point of view of someone who knows much more about it than I ever did. And it’ll be a good story to re-use in your autobiography :-)

  2. The reality turned out to be very different of course, but that’s a story for another time.

    Yes Indeed. What a remarkable chain of events that speech unleashed. I had only just joined the democrats a matter of weeks before and very soon I wondered what I had done. Up until days before the infamous deal I was letterboxing democrat leaflets to the effect that the democrats would oppose the GST on food. I know you voted against it Andrew and I greatly admire you for that. Thanks for reminding me about the 10 year anniversary of Harradine’s sppech. I rmemmber it clearly and itt does bring back a lot of memories for me.

  3. A deeply complicated man, Harradine. Perhaps more than anyone else in that cohort of representatives he exemplified for all to see that conflict between personal convictions and political savvy that those in parliaments have to wrestle with. (Not saying you didn’t all have to wrestle with it, Andrew, but in Harradine one felt there was a dreadful struggle going on.) It looked to me as if he did wrestle with it to the cost of his own well-being, as I sat in my chair at home. I wonder how it seemed at closer quarters. I strongly disagreed at the time, and still do, with his decisions on restricting funding for organisations providing birth control services for women ins dreadful situations of poverty and illness overseas, but on the GST … well, I admired him at the time, as much for the fact that it seemed he was genuinely trying to weigh up what was best for the nation (from his unique point of view) as for standing up to bullying from the Tories..

  4. Andrew:

    Peter Costello mentions this incident in his book.

    The coalition up till this time had not spoken to the Democrats and were relying on Harradine’s vote to get it over the line.

    After jostling for a number of concessions he stood his ground and voted against the bill.

    A fine man and the correct decision. Many of our senior members were proud and are still today on the stand he took.
    This year we face a more menacing tax than the GST ever was. The ETS (or slave tax as some call it in Europe) will, if implemented in any way, be far more of a concern to future generations of Australia.
    A tax that will effect everything we do, consume and even down to how many children we are allowed to have.

    Who will be todays version of Harridine and stand their gound against this blight on society.

    The Green Myth

    Dolphins says: I strongly disagreed at the time, and still do, with his decisions on restricting funding for organisations providing birth control services for women ins dreadful situations of poverty and illness overseas,

    Dolphins dont ever confuse birth control with abortion.


  5. Tony, whether you like it or not, abortion is legal in some circumstances in Australia. We are lucky enough to have safe family planning choices of many kinds available to us. Whether you like it or not, some women in developing countries don’t have access to the contraception which would stop them getting pregnant at all. When their poverty or illness (many with AIDS caused by their unfaithful husbands) leads them to make the reluctant decision to abort the unwanted babies they can’t support, 13 per cent of them will end up dead. Many children are left to starve or lead miserable, short lives because they have no mother left to care for them. One of hte most powerful ways to combat poverty is to enablewomen to control their fertility .. and since Harradine, in overseas aid our country cuts back on the same services that our own people can safely access. Shame!

  6. TONY -“Dolphins dont ever confuse birth control with abortion.” I think you’ll find, that the agreement was not to provide assistance to any overseas family planning group that also offered information on abortion. This meant, that even forms of contraception were also denied. A woman dies somewhere in the world every 12 (used to be, probably less now)minutes through child birth, miscarriage, abortion or some preventable and hideous condition, that means undernourished and very small young women are in labour sometimes for days – their babies usually die, and the women end up with horrific fistulas that make her incontinent – both bowel and bladder. She’s forced to live in squalor, away from her family due to the awful smell! An Australian couple (both doctors-she is now in her 80’s -her husband is deceased) spent their lives caring for these women. They offer support and advice after a successful operation has reversed this awful health tragedy. The aim is to train midwives in isolated areas! We could also ensure that they have proper nutrition!

    There are probably other Family Planning outlets that could also engage in this essential work, but thanks to the dogmatic attitude of Bush/Howard, how much money was denied these types of vital health needs. If advice on abortion, and possibly contraception was part of their health provisions, they didn’t receive any money.
    It’s OK in Queensland, or NSW or ? in your middle class lifestyle to be so moralistic. I doubt Brian Harradine ever visited one of impoverished areas, or saw for himself the agony and years of suffering through lack of money, or the misery and poverty brought about by fatigued women, old before their time due to too many pregnancies!
    Thankfully, common sense has prevailed, both in the US and Australia! About time too!

  7. Dolphins:

    I think the worst form of poverty is lack of moral fibre.

    There is no morality in murdering unborn babies. Then they have absolutely no chance of survival.

    Instead of pushing abortion, I suggest you become a Project Partner through World Vision or another aid agency. That’s a very powerful way of helping entire communities.

  8. Lorikeet, you really take my breath away. I am not ‘pushing abortion’, but am stating a fact … our nation’s contribution to family planning of all kinds is greatly distorted by Sen. Harradine’s single-handed, religion-based intervention into overseas aid efforts designed to assist women in poor countries to get good information about family planning, and yes, that includes abortions WHEN IT IS LEGAL IN THAT COUNTRY.

    Secondly, you have no need to lecture others on “lack of moral fibre”. You, along with Sen Harradine, clearly have no idea what forces drive a woman into considering an abortion, or maybe you’d like them to live in your own faith community, where presumably such situations never arise. Women in poor countries love their children as much as anyone else, but sometimes have to make a choices between very harsh alternatives. Your sermon on moral fibre is irrelevant and insulting. This gets back to my original point about Sen Harradine’s principled stand on the GST … I admired his courage, but didn’t agree with many of his ideals, because he was not elected, in my view to push his religious views onto people who do not subscribe to them.

    Lastly, you seem not to realise that somoene might be in favour of informing a woman of her rights in the country she lives in, and at the same time might also contribute to NGOs working for the support of women and their children .. perhaps even by service in the field, where such situations are faced in real life, not in some fairy land where a bit of ‘moral fibre’ will fix everything up.

  9. Dolphins

    Dolphins Says: Lastly, you seem not to realise that somoene might be in favour of informing a woman of her rights in the country she lives in

    The majority of 3rd world country’s have laws prohibating Abortion.

    Dolphins says: Harradine’s single-handed, religion-based intervention

    The abortion debate has split most partys(not counting the extreme green) and most states in this country. The moral issue (not religious) views held by a large portion, and in some states a majority of people makes what your suggesting and even more devisive measure.

    One only has to look at the removal of Bonny Barry(a swing of over 7%) in the seat of Aspley in the recent state election, after she made it clear that she supported the decrimalisation of abortion in Queensland.

    Should you be pushing your moral position onto countrys and women who in most cases find the idea offensive.
    One only has to look at China to see the awful consequences of the one child policy.


  10. Sigh. I should have known we’d get comments about Harradine and abortion rather than about what happened 10 years ago. Ih well – abortion certainly is a divisive issue, and not one where those differences are likely to be fully resolved.

    However, I found the Harrdine inspired ban (and the similar one the USA had until recently) very problematic, even for anti-abortion advocates.

    Because the ban aplied to any overseas development assistance on family planning if there was a likelihood that any of that may go towards providing information about abortion options, it almost certainly meant more unwanted pregnancies as women had less access to any family planning information and support.

    However much one might loathe abortion, the reality is that an increase in unwantewd pregnancies as a result of the ban almost certainly led to an increase in abortions – and abortions that were more likely to be dangerous or unsafe for the woman.

  11. Dolphins:

    I don’t have a “faith community”, nor am I ill informed.

    Can we take it you have no interest in giving material support to women and children in overseas countries? Or knitting warm clothing for disadvantaged children living in frigid conditions e.g. -40 degrees?

    I have no problem with everyone having access to Family Planning, as long as it doesn’t include killing your own child as an option. Unfortunately we have that crap being taught to children as young as 10 in Queensland schools.

    Women in disadvantaged countries have little access to birth control measures due to the political and financial environments in which they live. A lot of them also have a religious faith which would certainly preclude killing their babies.

    I think you should know by now that I sponsored 2 children in Latin America for over 18 years, and therefore know something of these matters.

    They didn’t live in Fairyland and neither do I.

    A bit of moral fibre would fix quite a lot of social problems, starting in our own country. I think the need is fairly great.


    Yes, China’s one child policy led to a thriving abortion industry. If your child died leaving you with none, hard luck!

    Because the majority of people chose to have boys, now a lot of them have no wives … … leading to a thriving prostitution industry.


    Unfortunately we now have a female member of The Greens advocating for the same thing here, even though we have no population explosion to worry about.

  12. Andrew:

    Everyday I wait for this link to update only to find that between 3-4 comments have been deleted.

    It just continues to revert back to 13 comments last dated the 18th.

    They cant be that bad


  13. The problems besetting Iraqi women come to mind both Harradine and Abortion.Strange how,Australians view the U.S.A. as a source to be in agreeance or not with about all sorts of issues.The Rights of Iraqi women just to lead a life useful for themselves,seems well and truly abandoned. All the pain and suffering of them selves and their children,whilst the menfolk maybe killed,injured or missing..swamps me regularly.The problem of Afghanistan and Pakistan is troubling where the onward march of U.S.A. influence,doesn’t generate a lot of love and kindness from me.Somewhere in the future we could see the Taliban and the Russians deciding they are friends,whilst our friend and ally flies its bombers against the living,pregnant and the dead.We could see Pakistan turn a large number of degrees,stop fighting the Taliban and think, why do it…And the Israeli Palestine matter remains a terrible matter to understand as adults, where children become victims excuses reasons and fighters with rocks. In statement agreeance with Harradine perhaps,Lord have Mercy.My feelings about being a living breathing abortion,can now also include , that of not wanting to run marathons back to back!

  14. Maybe Andrew wanted a rest to do something else.


    Andrew already said he deletes plenty of unprintable comments. Some are in reply to what I have said.

    I say “Let ’em rip.” It will show them for the idiots they are. They probably say “f**king whatshername” or worse.

  15. Not sure what you mean Tony – I just published about 5 comments that were sitting in the Spam bin. They’re gone from there because they’re now on this site.

    In any case, I’m interested in civil comments, not a no holds barred verbal slugfest. Life is too short and can be unpleasant enough as it is, without consciously seeking out more unpleasantness.

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