BAUME, Michael Ehrenfried (1930– )
Senator for New South Wales, 1985–96 (Liberal Party of Australia)

Throughout his long career in both Houses of federal Parliament, Michael Baume was seldom far from controversy. Quick-witted and hard-working, with a flair for publicity, Baume was a relentless, effective and often ruthless opponent inside and outside the chambers. He was a close friend and ally of John Howard, for many years acting as his ‘numbers man’ in the Senate. Although he was amply equipped for ministerial duties, Baume served as a parliamentary secretary for less than a year, but his official roles give little indication of his importance to the federal parliamentary Liberal Party.

Michael Ehrenfried Baume was born on 6 July 1930 in Sydney, the son of Alan Charles Baume, a journalist, and his wife Elizabeth (Peggy) Constance, née Gibbons. He was educated at Lindfield Public School and North Sydney Boys’ High School, and graduated as a Bachelor of Arts (1951) from the University of Sydney. Baume married Ann Brigid Tancred on 26 February 1963; they had three sons and were divorced in 1987. On 23 June 1990, he married Toni Martin Green Down; Baume’s second wife was a member of the State Executive of the NSW Liberal Party. His time in the Senate overlapped that of a cousin, fellow Liberal, Peter Baume.

Michael Baume had a varied career in the media and business before entering federal Parliament in 1975. A journalist for many years, he began his career with the Australian Financial Review in 1954, and became that paper’s investment editor in 1963. He joined The Bulletin in 1966 and was its finance editor for three years. He was also a radio commentator on finance for the ABC for six years. In addition to his radio work, Baume was a panellist on the ABC television game show ‘Would You Believe’ from 1969 to 1974.

Baume was an active sportsman, playing soccer and grade cricket. He also had a lifelong love of and involvement in the arts. He was a councillor of Musica Viva, music reviewer for the Sydney Daily Telegraph, and his book The Sydney Opera House Affair (1967) related the early controversies surrounding the iconic landmark. His business activities included directorships in The Rothbury Estate winery and the meat processing and export company Tancred Brothers.[1]

In 1974 Baume became very active in the Liberal Party, becoming President of the Shellharbour branch and a member of the NSW State Council. In the following year he was preselected as Liberal candidate for the NSW federal seat of Macarthur, which he captured from future Hawke Government minister John Kerin in Malcolm Fraser’s landslide victory of December 1975.

In 1968 Baume had joined the well-known Sydney stockbroking firm, Patrick Partners, as research manager. Next year he became a staff partner. In February 1975, following his preselection for Macarthur, Baume sought to resign from the firm. Instead he was given leave without pay until the end of June. In July 1975 Patrick Partners ‘collapsed sensationally’. Shortly after his arrival in Parliament, Baume came under intense attack from Labor Opposition members, who raised questions about his legal fitness to retain his seat. They asserted that he was disqualified from Parliament because of the bankruptcy of Patrick Partners, as under section 44 (iii) of the Australian Constitution a person who is an undischarged bankrupt or insolvent is incapable of being chosen or sitting as a member of the federal Parliament. Baume asserted that he had ‘never been an owner or part owner of that business. I was … a staff partner employed on a salary and having a fractional profit share’. The Leader of the Opposition, Gough Whitlam, attacked Baume’s credibility, asking: ‘Is the Prime Minister prepared to condone the conduct of his colleague from Macarthur? … The only stockbroker in the Parliament cannot be trusted’. Although a Labor motion seeking to refer the matter to the Court of Disputed Returns was unsuccessful, Baume remained under attack through 1977. Labor never let the matter rest, frequently reminding Baume of the affair in unflattering terms throughout his parliamentary career. Twenty years later, in his valedictory speech to the Senate, Baume related that the attacks he endured as a result of the Patrick Partners affair ‘put some iron in my soul’, after which ‘there was nothing I felt the Labor Party could do to me that hurt’.

Baume’s abilities were recognised by his appointment as Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer, John Howard, in May 1982, a position he held until the Fraser Government’s—and Baume’s—defeat in the March 1983 election. Baume continued working for Howard as a senior adviser after the loss. A member of the NSW State Executive of the Liberal Party in 1983–84, he was considered as a possible candidate for state Parliament. Although this did not eventuate, during this time he made a comment revealing of his temperament and future role: Baume believed that he would be a very effective campaigner against the Premier, Mr Wran, because ‘I seem to have a capacity to irritate Neville Wran, which I enjoy very much’.[2]

With his quick wit and willingness to work hard to unearth potentially embarrassing details, Baume became the Opposition’s most effective gadfly after his election as a Liberal senator from NSW in December 1984, and he clearly relished the role of ‘irritant’ from the time he entered the Senate on 1 July 1985. Six months after becoming Leader of the Opposition in September 1985, John Howard announced the creation of a Waste Watch Committee intended to monitor government inefficiency and waste, and installed Baume as chairman. Baume launched into his waste-watching duties with gusto. Early targets included grants to union and community organisations through the government’s Community Employment Program and the Australia Council. He declared such grants to be ‘a scandalous misuse of public funds’ whereby ‘millions of dollars of grants supposedly for cultural and other non-controversial purposes have been diverted by the Hawke Government to the trade union movement for political and propaganda use’. Other favourite Waste Watch targets were public service disability claims, the Australian Research Council and cost overruns at New Parliament House. No misdeed was too small to spark Baume’s public outrage, eagerly reported by the media, as evidenced by his successful campaign to have a cappuccino machine transferred from Old to New Parliament House.

Baume was a frequent and effective speaker in the Senate. While he ranged across many issues, his background in business and finance made him well placed to criticise the government on economic matters. His first speech—his first words, aptly, were ‘This is no place for the faint-hearted’—consisted largely of a detailed attack on the government’s economic policies. Seen by journalists as ‘easily the best known of the Coalition backbenchers’, Baume was elevated to the shadow health portfolio in April 1987. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, this was ‘a justified reward for an outstanding performance as chairman of the Opposition’s Waste Watch Committee’.[3]

Only days before the federal poll in July 1987, Baume muddied the electoral waters when he contradicted the Coalition’s income tax policy by saying that promised cuts would be phased in over three years rather than in the first year. Although Baume and other senior Coalition figures quickly sought to portray the statement as a misunderstanding, Labor seized on it as revealing their opponents’ ‘real’ policy, with Treasurer Paul Keating declaring that Baume’s ‘burst of honesty has cast doubt on Mr Howard’s entire tax cut plan’.

What Baume himself called his tax ‘gaffe’ could not have helped his party’s chances, but the Coalition faced a number of difficulties in 1987. One was the quixotic ‘Joh for Canberra’ campaign, in which populist Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen seriously compromised the Coalition’s message. Baume responded by savagely attacking ‘the folly of an irresponsibly ambitious old man’. Another problem was the negative perception of Coalition policies, for which Baume blamed the media. He had launched occasional attacks on the media for years, and in 1987 accused it of distortions regarding the Coalition’s tax and health policies and, more broadly, biased treatment of the Opposition’s election campaign. Claiming that some reporting displayed ‘either incompetence or mendacity’, Baume’s campaign-within-a-campaign gained considerable publicity.

Baume was dumped from the front bench in a reshuffle after the election. His time on the backbench was not long. From September 1988 until May 1989, he served as secretary to the shadow cabinet. Described as ‘as loyal to Mr Howard as Tonto was to the Lone Ranger’, Baume and other key Howard supporters were caught napping by Andrew Peacock’s successful leadership challenge in May 1989. Bitter at what he termed the ‘political thuggery’ of some of Peacock’s supporters, Baume lashed out at his fellow conservatives in an interview, saying ‘they used the word D-day, now I presume they mean D for divisive, D for disastrous, D for deceitful and I think unfortunately, D for defeat’.[4]

The replacement of Andrew Peacock as Liberal leader by Baume’s friend and fellow NSW ‘dry’ John Hewson in April 1990 resulted in Baume’s reappointment as secretary to the shadow cabinet. He was also appointed election strategy coordinator, with the role of improving links between parliamentarians and the wider party. He held the secretary’s position for only a month, before Hewson appointed him shadow minister for arts, heritage, sport and youth affairs.

As arts spokesman, Baume took a particular interest in the functioning and governance of the Australian National Gallery. When the original architect of the gallery launched a bitter campaign against major renovations to his design, Baume upbraided him in the Senate, citing detailed problems with ‘a disastrous building’ in regard to aesthetics, ease of use by visitors and staff, and even the ability to keep the rain out: ‘What concerns me is the arrogance of the original architect who is offended that this monument to himself is being turned into what he was supposed to design in the first place—an art gallery.’

In the run-up to the 1993 election, Baume proposed an arts policy based on reducing the levels of public sector bureaucracy in order to increase the funding going directly to arts organisations. For sports, he wanted to decentralise and broaden funding, rather than focusing on a few elite sports. Unfortunately for Baume, these initiatives were overwhelmed by negative reaction to proposals for selective cuts to funding, and the perceived impact of the proposed goods and services tax (GST) on both arts and sport. Baume staunchly defended Coalition policies against strident criticism from high profile figures from the arts and sports communities. Following the election loss he circulated a newsletter that strongly attacked the Coalition’s Fightback campaign and leadership. Baume said that he could not remain shadow spokesman without ‘a basic change away from the negative stance towards the Arts that was an evident factor in the Coalition’s election disaster’. Baume’s widely reported scolding of the leadership earned him relegation to the backbench in a reshuffle that took place soon after the election.[5]

While Baume’s preparedness to criticise his own side of politics was amply displayed during his career, this was mild compared to his treatment of opponents, particularly members of the right faction of the NSW Labor Party, whom he viewed as influenced by ‘standover men and thugs’. His most persistent attacks were directed at the most senior member of the NSW Labor right—Treasurer and later Prime Minister Paul Keating. He criticised Treasurer Keating on a range of issues over the years, but the intensity increased sharply in the months after Keating became prime minister in December 1991, when Baume launched a long-running campaign focused on Keating’s part-ownership of a piggery in the Hunter Valley.

Baume raised a host of issues about the piggery under privilege in the Senate. Among these were accusations or inferences that Keating had misled Parliament and the public about the investment, and had used his official position to influence negotiations with the Danish co-owners. Labor senators responded furiously, disputing the accuracy of Baume’s assertions, accusing him of a smear campaign, and inviting him to repeat his claims outside the Senate. The exchanges received extensive media coverage. When Baume made statements regarding the piggery affair in a radio interview, Keating took the unprecedented step of suing him for defamation in the NSW Supreme Court (the action was later dropped). Undaunted, Baume continued his piggery attack in the Senate, and in October 1994 found a new target in Keating’s purchase of an expensive family home.

While Baume raised matters of substance in his attacks, particularly regarding potential conflicts of interest, he also aimed to inflict maximum political damage on the Prime Minister. In this Baume was successful, and a senior adviser to Keating described the ‘corrosive effect’ on Keating’s ‘political effectiveness and standing’. Keating reluctantly sold his interest in the piggery in March 1994, but Baume continued to pursue the matter, as did other Coalition senators even after Keating left Parliament.[6]

Another high-profile attack was less successful. Baume deeply resented the part played by NSW independent MLA Peter Macdonald in forcing the resignation of the NSW Liberal Premier, Nick Greiner, in 1992. Baume’s revelation, days before the 1995 NSW state election, that Macdonald had understated his taxes, backfired. Macdonald’s transgression was inadvertent, which was accepted by Greiner’s successor as Premier, John Fahey. Fahey agreed that it would not be raised in the election campaign, a point of which Baume said he was unaware. More importantly, the documents on which Baume relied contained Macdonald’s tax file number. Although Baume quickly sought to withdraw the documents when he became aware of this, his initial action created a furore, yielding headlines such as ‘A major clanger from the bucket dropper’, and censure in the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives’ action ignored the convention that neither House should seek to censure a member of the other.[7]

When John Howard regained the Liberal Party leadership in 1995, he did not elevate ‘his chief spear-thrower’ Baume to the front bench. Following the Coalition victory in the 1996 election, Baume was offered the position of Consul-General to New York. He resigned from the Senate on 9 September 1996 to take up his posting in New York, where he remained until 2001.

Baume’s parliamentary career defies easy categorisation. His Waste Watch Committee chairmanship and the Keating and Macdonald episodes gained far more attention than his policy initiatives on the shadow front bench, his effectiveness as a speaker in the Senate and as a member of Senate committees, and his diligence as an Opposition member in using official documents to hold governments to account. In his own mind, ‘my greatest contribution to this place was to add an extra dimension to the use of notices of motion and the tabling of Auditor-General’s reports and government documents as methods of keeping a check on the exercise of increasingly authoritarian power by government’, and he expressed pride that ‘Senate estimates committees have provided me with opportunities to examine questionable government spending programs’. It was Baume’s work in Senate estimates that led to revelations regarding grants to sporting bodies that resulted in the resignation of the Minister for the Environment and Sports, Ros Kelly, early in 1994.

The media found Baume colourful, and termed him variously a ‘Liberal hatchet man’, ‘an unlikely Rambo’, ‘that garrulous Tory’ and ‘the fastest umbrage-taker in the Parliament’. From Labor, however, he was the target of invective that often went beyond normal robust parliamentary language. Senior government ministers referred to him as ‘somebody who does not understand the rules of civilised behaviour’, ‘a full-time sleaze merchant’, ‘a comprehensive, congenital, compulsive liar’, ‘a grubby piece of political lowlife’, and ‘the greatest smearer ever to enter this Parliament’. Prime Minister Keating called him ‘parliamentary filth’.

Baume was unbowed by the extreme responses he provoked. In a valedictory speech to the Senate, he said:

No doubt people will find different things to remember me by. Some will see no further than their snouts and will think only of pigs. I would say here that I am proud of my performance in revealing—despite a persistent campaign of personal abuse—matters that go to the heart of ministerial and prime ministerial duty and questions of potential for conflict of interest … I strongly defend my actions in this chamber, which have been criticised. On all occasions I believe they were in the public interest. I note that the truth hurts most and I have always spoken what I believed to be the truth. [8]

Baume was considered to be ‘one of the few wits on either side of Federal politics’. Proud that he had never read a speech verbatim, he was quick and often amusingly cutting in debate. He could display a self-deprecating sense of humour, particularly regarding his ‘short, rotund’ figure. His public performances extended to singing the role of the Judge in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial by Jury with the Canberra City Opera in the Great Hall of Parliament House. A music critic noted that ‘he sang it very well, too’.

Baume’s political views were closely aligned with those of his friend John Howard: both were economic ‘dries’ and social conservatives, but both were pragmatic. Baume was thoughtful about politics, stressing the importance of upper houses of parliament ‘to provide a check on the power of executive government’. He lamented what he considered to be the decline of talent in Parliament, and castigated governments of all persuasions for repeatedly refusing to accept the decisions of an independent body, the Remuneration Tribunal, as to what would be a fair rate of pay and allowances for parliamentarians. This encouraged the misconception that parliamentarians decided their own salaries, and allowed the media to hold politicians up to ‘ridicule and contempt’. Although a traditionalist in many respects, Baume’s views were leavened by his understanding of the arts, as demonstrated by his support for ensuring that government remained at arm’s length from arts funding decisions.

Upon his return from New York, Baume remained active in public life and business. He became a board member of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. He was a part-time member of the Superannuation Complaints Tribunal for two years and developed a career as a consultant. Baume continued his association with the arts as a council member of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. He never ceased his journalistic activities, writing occasional articles and reviews and frequent letters to the editor while a parliamentarian, and regular columns for the Australian Financial Review after his return from the US. In June 1999, Baume was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for service to the arts, to the Australian Parliament and to the financial services industry.[9]

Jim Kitay

[1] Peter Baume, ‘Baume—Further Record’, unpublished, 1979; CPD, 27 June 1996, p. 2475; Michael Baume, The Sydney Opera House Affair, Nelson, Melb., 1967.

[2] Liberal Party of Australia, Electorate and Senate Profiles, 1980; Daily Telegraph (Syd.), 15 Dec. 1975, p. 7; G. G. Masterman, Report … on Certain Matters Concerning Patrick Partners: from 1st July, 1974 to 6th August, 1975, Syd., 1976; CPD (R), 16 March 1976, p. 664, 18 March 1976, pp. 786–7, 7 April 1976, pp. 1410–19, 10 March 1977, p. 131, 30 March 1977, pp. 719–21, 31 March 1977, pp. 877–8; CPD, 26 June 1996, pp. 2179–80, 27 June 1996, pp. 2472–5; SMH, 12 March 1983, p. 5; David Barnett, John Howard, Prime Minister, Penguin, Ringwood, Vic., 1977, pp. 199, 247–8, 454, 614–15.

[3] David Barnett in The Bulletin (Syd.), 20 May 1986, pp. 46–7; Coalition Waste Watch Committee, Waste Watch, 18 March 1986, 31 March 1986, 25 May 1986, 16 March 1987; CT, 18 March 1986, p. 3; Australian (Syd.), 12 Jan. 1987, p. 2; 18 Feb. 1987, p. 2; Age (Melb.), 31 Aug. 1988, p. 6; CPD, 18 Sept. 1985, pp. 654–8; SMH, 22 April 1987, pp. 2, 12.

[4] Age (Melb.), 8 July 1987, p. 1; AFR (Syd.), 8 July 1987, p. 4; Australian (Syd.), 9 July 1987, p. 10; SMH, 27 July 1987, p. 12; CT, 25 Sept. 1976, p. 2; Australian (Syd.), 18 June 1987, pp. 1–2, 22 June 1987, p. 7, 24 June 1987, p. 13; CT, 11 May 1989, p. 10; Transcript, ABC TV ‘A Current Affair’, 16 May 1989.

[5] Damien Murphy in The Bulletin (Syd.), 20 July 1993, pp. 28–31; CPD, 17 Oct. 1990, pp. 3265–70, 30 April 1992, pp. 2006–9; Media Release, Senator Michael Baume, 10, 12, 18, 22 Feb. 1993; Baume’s Bulletin, March 1993; SMH, 24 Feb. 1993, p. 23, 8 April 1993, p. 6; AFR (Syd.), 16 Feb. 1993, p. 7.

[6] Media Release, Senator Michael Baume, 18 Nov. 1986, 2 Dec. 1986; CPD, 7 March 1989, p. 527, 1 June 1992, pp. 3209–12, 16 June 1992, pp. 3649–54, 3659–61, 17 June 1992, pp. 3794–5, 18 June 1992, pp. 3958–9, 4040–51, 19 June 1992, p. 4115, 12 Nov. 1992, p. 3227, 1 Feb. 1994, pp. 26–30, 2 Feb. 1994, pp. 198–201, 10 Feb. 1994, p. 703; Age (Melb.), 20 June 1992, p. 2, 28 June 1992, p. 9; CT, 5 Dec. 1992, pp. 1–2, 23 Jan. 1993, pp. 1–2; Statement, Prime Minister the Hon Paul Keating, 22 Jan. 1993; Media Release, Senator Michael Baume, 3 May 1994, 2 March 1995; CPD, 10 Oct. 1994, pp. 1296–7, 1308–9; Don Watson, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, Knopf, Syd., 2002, p. 467; CPD, 11 July 1998, pp. 5763–5, 25 March 1999, pp. 3341–2, 28 April 1999, pp. 4435–8.

[7] CPD, 23 March 1995, pp. 208–9; CPD (R), 30 March 1995, pp. 2507–11, 2525–8; SMH, 25 March 1995, p. 6; AFR (Syd.), 31 March 1995, p. 2.

[8] Wayne Errington & Peter van Onselen, John Winston Howard: The Definitive Biography, MUP, 2008, pp. 212, 242; CPD, 27 June 1996, pp. 2472–5; Transcript, Estimates Committee D, 2 April 1992; CPD, 3 Feb. 1994, pp. 334–9; Sun-Herald (Syd.), 11 June 1989, p. 154; CT, 5 April 1986, p. 2, 28 Dec. 1988, p. 17, 6 May 1989, p. 17; SMH, 25 March 1995, p. 35; CPD, 16 Sept. 1992, p. 955; 17 Oct. 1994, pp. 1767–8, 22 March 1995, p. 1914, 18 June 1992, p. 4045; CPD (R), 18 Oct. 1994, pp. 2210–13;Transcript, ABC Radio ‘PM’, 11 Oct. 1994.

[9] CPD, 27 June 1996, p. 2474, 31 May 1990, pp. 1575–6; SMH, 22 April, 1987, pp. 2, 12, 13 Nov. 1986, p. 7; CT, 15 Oct. 1990, p. 16; Transcript, ABC Radio ‘World Today’, 27 Oct. 1989; Australian (Syd.), 13 July 1989, p. 12, 29 Dec. 1990, p. 1.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 87-92.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

MHR, Macarthur, NSW, 1975–83 (Lib)

Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer, 1982–83

Senator, NSW, 1985–96 (Lib)

Senate Committee Service

Estimates Committee E, 1985–89; D, 1986; B, 1987, 1990; C, 1992–93

Scrutiny of Bills Committee, 1985–87

House Committee, 1987–88

Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings, 1987–89

Joint Standing Committee on the New Parliament House, 1987–89

Environment, Recreation, Communications and the Arts Legislation Committee, 1994–96

Environment, Recreation, Communications and the Arts References Committee, 1994–96

Appropriations and Staffing Committee, 1996

Joint Committee of Public Accounts, 1996