BULL, Thomas Louis (1905–1976)
Senator for New South Wales, 1965–71 (Australian Country Party)

Thomas Louis Bull, grazier, was born at Wagga Wagga on 7 September 1905, the fourth of five sons of Henry James Bull, grazier, and his wife Charlotte Roberta, née Tresilian. Educated in a one-teacher school at Gobbagaula, near Narrandera, and at Wesley College, Melbourne, he became a partner in his family’s pastoral properties in the Narrandera district. In 1948 he bought Yarramundi, a 5000-acre (2000 hectare) sheep and cattle run fronting the Murrumbidgee River near Euroley. On 11 March 1937 he married Jessie Mary Hendry, a teacher, at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Macquarie Street, Sydney. By the time Tom enlisted in the Australian Military Forces on 20 April 1942, the couple had two children. Joining the 17th Battalion Volunteer Defence Corps (VDC), he worked his way through the ranks and on 29 July 1944 was commissioned lieutenant. He was discharged on 1 October 1945.[1]

Tom Bull’s knowledge of wool and meat production, his grasp of finance and administration, and his readiness to act according to the dictates of his conscience, made him a formidable advocate for rural interests. Active all his adult life in producer organisations and Country Party politics, he was at his most effective on committees. He was adept at eliciting the views of others, and was widely admired for his quiet, gentlemanly demeanour, his patience and tolerance, and his abhorrence of personal vituperation. He was big framed and solidly built with a massive, almost completely bald head, which contributed to his imposing physical presence. His face wore a genial expression, but he could be tough, determined and resolute in defence of strongly held beliefs. He was an avowed free trader, an elder of the Presbyterian Church, and an enthusiastic Rotarian. Even opponents were quick to concede that he was a ‘tremendous fellow’. [2]

Bull served continuously as a director of the Narrandera Pastures Protection Board from 1943 until his death. Board chairman from 1948 to 1950, 1955 to 1957 and again from 1972 to 1974, he represented the south-western boards on the New South Wales Council of Advice from 1956 to 1967. He was president of the Graziers’ Association of Riverina from 1959 to 1962, and vice-president of the Australian Woolgrowers’ and Graziers’ Council from 1960 to 1962. As president of the council from 1962 to 1965, he worked to unify the wool industry, securing support from the Australian Wool and Meat Producers’ Federation for the establishment of the Australian Wool Industry Conference in 1962. In 1964 he was appointed OBE.[3]

Secretary of the Narrandera branch of the Country Party from 1945 to 1966, and vice-chairman of the Riverina federal electorate council from 1956, Bull was a successful candidate for New South Wales at the 1964 Senate election. He took his place on 1 July 1965. Already a member of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, he began his first speech by endorsing increased expenditure on the Vietnam War, which he justified on the conventional ground that it would prevent ‘the penetration of militant Communism through South East Asia’. He then traversed the economic problems confronting primary producers, and especially wool growers, who faced production costs, ‘probably unparalleled in the history of the industry’, and who also suffered diminished production through the effects of drought.[4]

Bull continued to comment frequently and authoritatively on the impact of government economic management on the rural sector, though a certain ambivalence in his speeches was probably due to changes in Country Party policy in the mid-sixties, which saw a revision of party policies to include not only the ‘wool bloke’, but also the ‘minerals bloke’, and to make the party as a whole less ‘country’-minded. Bull believed that subsidies, like tariffs, ‘destroy efficiency and initiative’; they were a ‘palliative’ to be used only ‘to tide an industry over a difficult period’. While he admitted to having earlier opposed a ‘conservative reserve price scheme’ for wool, he came to fully support it to stabilise prices in a depressed market, and insisted that growers should pay an increased levy to the Wool Board to fund promotion and marketing. At times, he was critical of his own party. On protection, he repeatedly called for ‘a systematic review of tariffs’, which targeted industries that ‘contribute little or nothing to our overseas credit position by way of exports but add to our high cost problem ‘by forcing up wages and domestic prices.[5]

He believed it was up to rural industries to make use of scientific research and innovation in an attempt to contain the escalating costs of production. Within his own region, he anticipated that the Riverina University League’s proposed rural university college would encourage better irrigation practice, and was characteristically outspoken about the lost opportunities for regional development when the Commonwealth declined to provide the New South Wales Coalition Government with the necessary matching grants, offering instead to extend access to tertiary education through the establishment of colleges of advanced education.[6]

His opposition to the Constitution Alteration (Parliament) Bill was immediate and unequivocal. The purpose of the bill was to break the constitutional two to one ratio, or ‘nexus’, between the numbers of members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, so that the number of MHRs could be increased without necessarily increasing the number of senators. One of six Liberal–Country Party Coalition senators to vote with the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) against the bill on 2 December 1965, he ‘strongly opposed any increase in the number of parliamentarians’, maintaining it was preferable to make better use of existing members. With adequate clerical and research assistance such parliamentarians could ‘give more time to the really big issues’. Although the bill passed, the referendum on the nexus proposal, planned for May 1966, did not proceed. When a similar bill was introduced into the Senate in March 1967, Bull did not speak or vote on the legislation, but as a member of the nexus vote ‘no’ committee, he participated in the successful campaign for the rejection of the proposed constitutional alteration at the referendum of May 1967.

Bull used the debate on the 1965 bill to further support the establishment of a comprehensive standing committee system. ‘We should’, he said, ‘make more use of the committee system to deal with the various problems that come before the Parliament’. Committees, he considered, should offer ‘advice to the Parliament on matters that they have considered’. At the 12th Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in Ottawa in September 1966, he spoke of how fundamental committees were to the Senate’s role as a house of review. He relished the non-partisan spirit in which select committees did their work, but after serving on the protracted Senate Select Committee on the Container Method of Handling Cargoes (1967–68), he expressed concern at the onerous demands made on senators’ time, and the ‘damaging effect’ extended to officers of the Senate, who were obliged to service select committees in addition to their normal duties. He was convinced that these constraints prevented more than three or four select committees from functioning concurrently.[7]

In 1967 Bull was appointed a temporary chairman of committees, holding the position until 1968. On 25 November 1969 he was elected Chairman of Committees. Bull impressed colleagues on both sides of the chamber with his respect for parliamentary tradition and the dignity of his office. Senator George Georges, at that time a Labor man, recalled how ‘Tom Bull took [him] aside and suggested that aggressiveness was not what achieved most in this place’. Others testified to the fairness of his rulings. His position as Chairman of Committees meant also that Bull became, ex officio, a member of the Senate’s Standing Orders Committee, where he was active in developing proposals for the committee system, which he, with many other senators, had been vigorously supporting. On 4 and 11 June 1970 Bull presided over the Senate’s cognate debate on the alternative proposals for the establishment of these committees, which had been submitted by the Government, the Opposition and the DLP. The debate led to the establishment of the legislative and general purpose standing committees and the estimates committees. Bull was the first chairman of the Standing Committee on Primary and Secondary Industry and Trade, although his defeat at the November 1970 election cut short his term of service. During the valedictory debate prior to his departure from the Senate in 1971, he referred to the new committee system saying that the ‘great changes which have taken place’ would prove to be a ‘most important period in the history of the Senate’.[8]

Bull’s failure to secure re-election had surprised political commentators, who had assumed that any disadvantage from being placed third on the Coalition ticket in New South Wales would be offset by an additional vacancy, brought about through the death in office of Senator Colin McKellar. What they had not reckoned with was a massive swing away from the Coalition parties to the DLP. Although Bull was sorry to leave the Senate at a time of unprecedented rural crisis, he remained active in state and regional affairs, becoming inaugural chairman of the Riverina Regional Advisory Council from 1973 to 1975 and chairman of the New South Wales Pastures Protection Boards Committee of Inquiry from 1974 to 1975. He also maintained his involvement with the Country Party, serving as chairman of the Narrandera branch and managing John W. Sullivan’s successful campaign for the federal seat of Riverina at the December 1975 election.

Bull died in Wagga Wagga Base Hospital on 11 August 1976, after a short illness, and was cremated privately. More than 500 people attended a memorial service at St John’s Presbyterian Church in Narrandera. He was survived by Jessie, and their four children. One son, Richard, represented the National Party in the New South Wales Legislative Council from 1984 to 2000.[9]

Donald Boadle

[1] The editor is indebted to Kenneth Park, Wesley College, Melbourne; Records of H. J. Bull & Sons, Bull Bros. and T. L. Bull & Co., T. L. Bull Papers, RW339/55–58, CSU Regional Archives, Wagga Wagga; Bull, Thomas Louis—Defence Service Record, B884, N383128, NAA.

[2] The author acknowledges information received in 1995 from Jessie Bull, Hon. Richard Bull, K. J. Swan and David Glastonbury; CPD, 17 Aug. 1976 (R), p. 7, 4 Apr. 1967, p. 495; Peter Golding, Black Jack McEwen: Political Gladiator, MUP, Carlton South, Vic., 1996, pp. 262–3; Rendle McNeilage Holten, Transcript of oral history interview with Tony Hannan, 1985, POHP, CPL, TRC 4900/90, p. 6:11, NLA, p. 6: 11.

[3] J. B. Driscoll (comp.), Narrandera Pastures Protection Board 1879–1979: A History, Narrandera, NSW, 1979; Report of joint meeting to establish the Australian Wool Industry Conference, 24 Oct. 1962, Bull Papers, RW339/43, CSU Regional Archives.

[4] Australian Country Party, Narrandera branch, Minute book, 1943–74, RW2104, CSU Regional Archives; National Party of Australia Records, MS 7507, box 20, NLA; CPD, 2 Sept. 1965, pp. 341–5, 4 Apr. 1967, p. 495.

[5] Don Aitkin, The Country Party in New South Wales: A Study of Organisation and Survival, ANU Press, Canberra, 1972, pp. 70–1; CPD, 28 Aug. 1969, p. 468, 23 Sept. 1965, pp. 606–9, 31 Oct. 1967, p. 1895; Narrandera Argus, 28 Apr. 1960, p. 2.

[6] CPD, 29 Aug. 1967, p. 319, 11 May 1967, p. 1360, 12 May 1967, p. 1457.

[7] CPD, 1 Dec. 1965, pp. 1963–5; Senate, Journals, 2 Dec. 1965, p. 426; Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, Official report of the 12th Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference, 1966, p. 117; Bull Papers, RW339/10, CSU Regional Archives; CPD, 2 Apr. 1968, pp. 510–11.

[8] CPD, 25 Nov. 1969, pp. 6–7, 17 Aug. 1976, p. 9, 4 June 1970, pp. 2047–74, 11 June 1970, pp. 2342–67, 12 May 1971, p. 1721.

[9] Daily Advertiser (Wagga Wagga), 23 Nov. 1970, pp. 1–2, 24 Nov. 1970, p. 1, 13 Aug. 1976, p. 3; CPD, 17 Aug. 1976, pp. 5–10; Narrandera Argus, 12 Aug. 1976, pp. 1–2.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 3, 1962-1983, University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney, 2010, pp. 425-428.

BULL, Thomas Louis (1905–1976)

Parliamentary Handbook

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for New South Wales, 1965–71

Chairman of Committees, 1969–71

Senate Committee Service

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, 1965–69

Select Committee on the Container Method of Handling Cargoes, 1967–68

Select Committee on Medical and Hospital Costs, 1968–70

Standing Orders Committee, 1969–71

Standing Committee on Primary and Secondary Industry and Trade, 1970–71