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.

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