CONDOLENCES – Former Senator Siegfried Emil (Sid) Spindler

Senator BARTLETT (Queensland) (3.59 p.m.)—I join very strongly in lending my support to this condolence motion for former senator Sid Spindler. What an incredible contribution he made, not just to this Senate in six short years but also to politics more broadly, to political debate, to society and to his family. The contribution by his family at his funeral service, held just last week in inner Melbourne, indicated just how proud they all were of his life, his contribution and his achievements.

When the Senate has condolence debates one often goes back to look at people’s first speeches in the chamber to see some of the things they talked about, and a few people have referred to that. They have also referred to how frequently Sid spoke in this chamber—more frequently than anybody else. I thought I would look at his final speech, and in doing so I discovered that, perhaps as an indication of how frequently he spoke, he actually gave two final speeches because one was not enough for him. On top of that, after his so-called final speeches he gave a few more speeches on other matters that were before the Senate at the time—he just needed to put his remarks on the record. During his last couple of weeks in the Senate he spoke on issues as diverse as gun control, drug law reform, the situation in Bougainville, Medicare, Customs legislation and issues, migration laws and civil liberties in general, as well as proposing Senate committee enquiries.

What was clear in his final contributions was how important he saw the role of the Senate itself. Indeed, I think it is fair to say the Democrats have always focused on the Senate’s role and on Senate processes as a means to an end and as a means of ensuring that the ends achieved are as positive and as beneficial as possible.

I think it is important to emphasise that, while we are marking the end of an era with the passing of Sid Spindler and with the end of Democrat representation in this chamber at the end of June, we are also approaching a time when the Senate will once again return to a situation where it is not dominated by any single party—where the crossbenches will have a say on crucial issues and no one party will have control. I think it is important to emphasise just how crucial it is to get the Senate back to doing that job. Senator Minchin was right: it is often forgotten just how immense the task can be for people from smaller parties if they really want to properly do the job of looking, as he said, at every clause in every bill—certainly where there is a balance of power scenario in play—and assessing whether or not they should be supported, opposed or amended and improved. That really is part and parcel of our task here.

For all sorts of reasons that key role has been degraded in recent years. It is absolutely pivotal, as the Senate moves into a new era in more ways that one come 1 July, that that key role is restored. People could do worse than look back at the contribution made to that role by Sid Spindler—not specifically at his personal views, his policy views or the amendments he did or did not get up but at the way he went about it. Having said how hard it is for the smaller parties, I would appreciate it is even more difficult to be in a position like Senator Fielding, where you are a sole player, if you like, in positions of sometimes immense responsibility. So I provide that totally unsolicited advice and thank him for his presence in the chamber and for his support for this motion.

When looking at the two last speeches that Sid Spindler gave in this chamber, what came through more than anything was the absolute importance of the Senate processes working as effectively as possible and the fact that, even where people disagree quite strongly on issues, they can work together effectively when they actually seek to do so. I really hope the Senate can get back to functioning in that way because, frankly, in the last few years it has not done so anywhere near as much as it should.

The issues that Sid Spindler worked on in his life, let alone during his six years in this chamber, which is really quite a short period, were just far too numerous to note in any one speech that I could give here—earlier I rattled off about 10 issues that he addressed in just his final two weeks in this chamber. But there is no doubt that he gave key priority to the situation facing Indigenous Australians. Often it is the case that more recent immigrants to this country can more immediately see the enormity of the inequality and the importance to the future of the nation for all of us—the nation that they have migrated to and chosen to become a part of—of addressing that inequality. It seems to me that sometimes more recent migrants can be more conscious of the importance of that than people whose families have been here for a few generations. After his time in the parliament, Sid remained an incredibly strong voice in putting those issues forward—as he had been prior to his time here.

His role in the formation of the Australian Democrats has been referred to in passing by previous speakers, but I think it needs to be put on the record that, along with a few other people apart from Don Chipp, he really did play an absolutely central role. Understandably the focus has always been on the role of Don Chipp, and he needs to be lauded and acknowledged as the key player, but there are a few others without whose enormous effort and vision the party would not have got off the ground. Sid Spindler is one of those absolutely pivotal individuals.

As has been mentioned, he was involved in the Australia Party prior to the Democrats, from 1972—it was good to see a few other people from that era at his funeral in Melbourne. As he said himself on the record in this chamber, he first approached Don Chipp as early as 1972 to float the idea of him getting on board with the Australia Party. It took a range of circumstances and events before that came about in 1977. It shows the benefit of perseverance and of sowing a seed. Even if somebody says no initially it can bear fruit down the track, and he played a key role in continuing to explore those sorts of options. It is worth noting, given the circumstances and history of the Democrats, that it was formed when the Australia Party—which had been around for some years and had tried out a different participatory ethos and a different approach to politics—chose to collapse itself, in effect, and become part of another party. It is an interesting historical parallel given the situation the Democrats are now in 30 years down the track.

Sid Spindler also specifically pointed out, in some of his final speeches, the enormous impact on his family of his pursuing his passions with determination. As he said, while he preferred the words ‘determination’ and ‘single-mindedness’, many others, including his friends, colleagues, staff and certainly his family, would sometimes be inclined to use the term ‘pig-headedness’. But, to quote him, the inevitable result of his determination, single-mindedness or pig-headedness—perhaps all three—was that the children got short-changed. As he said, he knew—and he even knew originally—that he was depriving them and himself of the time, friendship and personal closeness that they should have had and that he would have loved. I think it was very clear from his funeral service just last week that despite the acknowledgement that he and they made about the time he spent apart from them because of his passions in politics—towards social change and social justice—he still made an immense positive contribution to their lives. The pride that they felt in his being their father was very evident in that wonderful funeral service.

It is worth noting—because it is often forgotten, but he noted it—the contribution that staff make. Like all of us, he needed the contribution and support of hard-working and loyal staff. He specifically singled out Bev Irving, who was his staff member from the day he started until the day he finished. It was pleasing to see her also, along with some other former staff, at his funeral service. I was a staff member for other Democrat senators—Cheryl Kernot and then John Woodley—while Sid Spindler was a member of this chamber, and I think it is fair to say that all of us felt a bit sorry for Sid’s staff because whenever the rest of us were able to go out for dinner on an occasional Wednesday night, it was always Sid’s staff who had to work back. Our people worked us a bit hard—Cheryl was not exactly an easy taskmaster either—but by comparison the rest of us got it easy. That would seem unfair except that, if he made his staff work hard, he made himself work even harder. So, whilst he worked them hard, it was acknowledged and recognised by them as to why—it was not capricious; it was because of his determination to try and cover as many issues as possible and do his job as effectively as possible.

It is a fact that has been acknowledged that it did have an impact on his health. One of the reasons, amongst others, that he retired after a single term was that he had worked himself so hard that it had a significant impact on his health. He recognised the impact, also, on his family and others. Whilst it was only six years in the Senate, I think it is fair to say he probably got more out of that period than many of us would manage in the double the time or more.

I want specifically to note, apart from his strong commitment over many years to Indigenous Australians, the strong voice Sid Spindler also gave over many years to the importance of multiculturalism and the importance of defending the rights of migrants. As a migrant himself he was very conscious of this. He was, of course, one of so many examples of the migrants whose enormous contributions have made and continue to make Australia the country it is. He played a positive role—one that I supported—in taking the position that was controversial within the party in regard to migration. Where others sought to take a position of limiting migration intake, he always highlighted the positive role that migrants played—the impossibility of singling out and saying we should support refugee intake but somehow oppose other migrants coming here. He took a position that I shared on that, and I think it was one that has been demonstrated, over a long period of time, to have been the correct position. That also links across to his strong sense of social justice; it was a recognition of the ease with which migrants can be exploited, whether by labour laws or by workplace conditions, and economically or socially discriminated against. He played a strong and effective role in speaking out against that.

One of the other things he did in his last few months in the chamber was to introduce groundbreaking legislation seeking to remove discrimination on the grounds of sexuality, from Commonwealth laws. That piece of legislation I was pleased to be able to take over from Sid and put my name to in the late 1990s. It was then transferred to the former Senator Brian Greig’s name before it ended up back in my name and reappeared again in legislation that is still before this chamber. The legislation also, I might say, triggered the first comprehensive national enquiry into the extent of discrimination on grounds of sexuality. That committee report, which was tabled in this chamber at the end of 1997 by the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee, remains groundbreaking. It remains crucial in providing example after example of the human impact of discrimination on the grounds of sexuality. It was the forerunner of and laid the foundations for a similar inquiry that was carried out 10 years later by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission.

Whilst I know Sid was very pleased to see the day when the apology to the stolen generations occurred, I am sure he would also have loved to have been here on the day, which will come I know quite soon, when the legislation that removes discrimination on the grounds of sexuality from all federal laws, is finally passed under this new government. We are almost there. We will get there, and when we do get there an enormous amount of credit must go to Sid Spindler for laying the groundwork, not just through putting in place legislation, but through making the case, out in the community.

I was a staff member for other Democrat senators at the time he was in this place. Before he introduced his legislation I remember the significant rounds of the public consultation that he held. I can remember the ones in Brisbane that he held in the old Commonwealth Parliament Offices in Ann Street. I can remember a whole range of people coming together, outlining why change needed to occur, what the problems were and what the human impacts were. He was not just making a dry legal case, but building the support at community level for the change. It is a shame that it has taken so long, but it will come and he should take a significant amount of credit for that.

The other point I would like to make in closing is on a personal level, to thank him for his ongoing support for me. The last time I had an extended conversation with him was prior to the federal election, which was obviously a difficult one for everybody who was a Democrat and those of us who were seeking to retain our seats—unsuccessfully, of course, as it panned out. He continued to provide personal support and encouragement and advice. It was very direct and real support and I appreciate that, as did Julia, his wife, I might add.

I would also emphasise that whilst he, like all of us who are involved in the Democrats, was disappointed at how things panned out at the last election and the situation that the party has found itself in, as he always made clear—and it was again made clear at his funeral service by his children—political parties of all shapes and sizes and types are just a means to an end. They should not be an end in themselves. We should always remember what we are doing it for: to make the world a better place and a fairer place. There is no doubt that those core goals remained the focus of Sid Spindler’s life throughout all his period in this country and through his rich contribution to Australia, including his time in this parliament. Those goals of social justice, fairness, opposition to totalitarianism and authoritarianism were common threads throughout his life. Keeping those goals in mind is what we need to focus on, not focusing on political parties and vote-gaining for its own sake.

It is a matter of some irony, as Senator Allison referred to, that Sid Spindler got smeared for allegedly being a member of the Hitler Youth purely because he was living in a country that was under Nazi occupation when all young people were compulsorily part of the Hitler Youth. On the one hand he got smeared as being a supporter of the Nazis. On the other hand, I recall in this chamber his being called a communist as well by one member of the Liberal Party. It is ironic in a way. I guess you get those slings and arrows in political debate, but for somebody who more than anyone else had seen firsthand—probably more than just about anyone else here in this chamber—the direct horrors of extreme totalitarian regimes such as he experienced as a young person in Europe, of Nazism, fascism and communist totalitarianism, it is ironic. He was a strong opponent of such extremism throughout his life. It is one of the perversities of politics that someone with his experiences ends up copping those sorts of attacks. It is an example not just of how he was shaped by his youth but how he continued to hold strong to those principles in the face of attacks, and his determination continued right through to his very last day.

It is worth noting, I think, that if all of us can say, not just when we leave this chamber but when we finish our time on this planet, that we have made a contribution even half as significant as Sid Spindler’s then we would feel very proud. His family are right to feel very proud of him. I associate myself with this condolence motion and with those words and pay tribute to his contribution. I wish his wife, Julia, and his children and grandchildren well and I know that they are comforted by the many, many fond memories they have. I also seek to incorporate the contribution of my colleague Senator Stott Despoja, who is not able to be here today but wishes to have her remarks incorporated in Hansard.

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