News has come through today that former Victorian Democrat Senator, Sid Spindler, a key figure in the founding of the Democrats back in 1977, has died after a fairly long battle with cancer.
Sid was 75. He was born in Poland, experiencing the horrors of Nazi occupation and World War II. He came to Australia as a seventeen year old in 1949 – yet another example of the immense benefit Australia has gained from migrants.
Sid was only in the Senate for six years – from 1990 to 1996 – before retiring voluntarily, but he achieved an enormous amount in that time, as well as before and after. I first met him in 1990, when I was an advisor for Senator Cheryl Kernot. She and Sid were both entering the Senate at that time. Out of all the politicians I’ve known and seen since then, he was probably the hardest working, which makes it hard to single out just a few of the many areas he was active in.
He played a key role in convincing Don Chipp to come on board as part of a new party and pulling together people from other smaller parties from that time such as the Australia Party. He was a senior advisor to Chipp and Janine Haines, Chipp’s successor as party leader, through the 1980s.
He was heavily immersed in Indigenous issues during and after his time in the Senate. In 1991, he played a big role in the final version of our initial Native Title laws, and was active after leaving the Senate in the Defenders of Native Title, as well as providing practical support to Aboriginal people, particularly in the area of education.
Sid Spindler also worked on child labour issues and conditions faced by outworkers and people in industries affected by tariff cuts. His work against the exploitation of children included an ongoing involvement with Defence for Children International.
He was the pioneer of legislation aimed at removing discrimination on the grounds of sexuality from our federal laws. He was successful in the 1990s in changing our laws to make it unlawful to discriminate in employment on the grounds of sexual preference. He also introduced proposed law changes in 1995 which led to a comprehensive Senate Committee inquiry which demonstrated the extent and impact of discrimination. The changes he first proposed then are finally likely to come to fruition later this year.
He also strongly defended the rights and value of migrants and refugees, and stood up against those who opposed migration, including a few within the Democrats who tried to push the party to adopt an anti-migration policy. At the very start of his first speech in the Senate, he nominated our “essentially cohesive and harmonious multicultural society” as Australia’s most significant achievement.
His wartime experiences undoubtedly influenced his strong passion for justice and against war, and made him starkly aware of the dangers of racism and demonisation of others. He stated that his early days were also responsible for his “suspicion of chauvanistic prejudice masquerading as patriotism, and for my intense opposition to all forms of totalitarian compulsion.”
I was grateful to receive his encouragement and assistance last year when I was trying to get re-elected. Having put so much effort into establishing and building up the party over so long, he naturally hoped the Democrats would recover electorally from their loss of public support. However, as a true democrat he was interested in supporting and working towards positive progress on issues, rather than just supporting the party for its own sake. He continued to work hard on those goals right until the end of his life.
It is somewhat ironic that at the time Sid Spindler died, a newspaper was publishing irrelevant muckracking about a current Liberal Party Senator, Eric Abetz, having a great-Uncle who was active in the Nazi Party. The smear that Sid was a member of the Hitler Youth was used against him in the media more than once – including by former Victorian Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett – conveniently ignoring the fact that every child who lived under the Nazi regime was automatically a member of this body (not surprising for people living under a totalitarian regime). It seems cheap shots based on prejudice and malice will outlive Sid Spindler (and probably the rest of us too, sadly). Putting an end to that sort of dismal behaviour is probably beyond the capacity of any of us, but there is no doubt Sid left the world a far better place for many people as a direct result of his tireless efforts.
UPDATE: Sid Spindler’s funeral is being held at 10am on Friday 7th March at the German Luthern Trinity Church at Parliament Place, East Melbourne. In lieu of flowers, donations would be appreciated towards a Just Society Fund.