CHANEY, Frederick Michael (1941– )
Senator for Western Australia, 1971–93 (Liberal Party of Australia)

Fred Chaney’s first speech to the Senate on 25 September 1974 was, for him, ‘a long awaited opportunity’, and he spoke with the assurance of one who had found his vocation. Chaney had visited Parliament many times as a schoolboy and as a law student with his father, Sir Frederick Chaney, who was the MHR for Perth from 1955 to 1969 and Minister for the Navy in the Holt Ministry from 1964 to 1966. Sir Fred and his colleagues taught the young man that politics could be an honourable profession, and he recalled Senator Shane Paltridge ‘proselytising’ the ‘virtues of the Senate’. As well as developing ‘a respect and affection for Parliament’, Chaney ‘developed the same feeling for the principles of liberalism. In particular I came to believe that good communities are based on the strivings of free individuals and not just on good programs’.

Frederick (Fred) Michael Chaney was born in Perth on 28 October 1941, the second of seven children of Fredrick Charles Chaney and his wife Mavis Mary, née Bond; his parents, who met as schoolteachers, provided their children with ‘a very secure base’. Young Fred Chaney’s voracious appetite for reading and his enjoyment of music were stimulated through his education by the Christian Brothers at Aquinas College, Perth (1953–57). At Aquinas he distinguished himself as a debater with his ‘talented and spirited repartee’, and his ‘strong Catholic social justice streak’, derived from his family, was further developed. Chaney notched seven distinctions in his matriculation year and was awarded a General Exhibition and Commonwealth Scholarship to the University of Western Australia.

At university Chaney served as a student guild councillor, and was a prominent member of the law students’ Blackstone Society, and of the Liberal Club. Professor John Legge’s course in Pacific and Asian history was ‘life changing’ for Chaney, and ‘opened up for me the understanding that we have privileged lives in Australia, and that there are huge issues we must address beyond ourselves’. Legge advised him to finish his law course and complete his articles before seeking to change the world. Chaney graduated as a Bachelor of Laws in May 1962, completed his articles with Northmore Hale Davy & Leake, and was admitted to practise as a barrister and solicitor on 23 December 1963.

On 18 April 1964 Chaney married Angela Clifton, a fellow UWA graduate. Inspired by John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps, the Chaneys spent two years (1964–65) in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea (PNG), where the first of their three sons was born. Working as a Crown prosecutor, Chaney also served as secretary to the Select Committee on Constitutional Development in the PNG Legislative Assembly during 1965. While he was impressed by the ‘level of dedication’ of the majority of Australian public servants, Chaney experienced colonialism first hand and saw racism at close quarters. Finding racism abhorrent, Chaney realised that he could not live in a colonial environment. Returning to Perth, Chaney resumed his legal career, which included acting as in-house solicitor to the mining partnership of Lang Hancock and Peter Wright during 1968 and 1969.

Although Chaney’s interest in Aboriginal affairs had begun at school, he became seriously committed while working on a wheat farm in Tambellup during university vacation: he saw that Aboriginals were ‘excluded from the town’, while Aboriginal women were sexually exploited. Chaney was one of the lawyers who established the Aboriginal Legal Service Western Australia (ALSWA) in 1973, and he was also a co-founder of the Legal Advice Bureau in 1972.

Chaney, who had joined the Liberal Party in 1958, served as a senior vice-president of the WA Division of the party from 1970 to 1974, and in November 1971 he unsuccessfully contested a state by-election for the safe Labor seat of Ascot. Chaney had hoped to gain preselection for a winnable House of Representatives seat, but seeing no opportunities, he decided to nominate for the Senate. He was preselected in third place behind two sitting senators; although he was unlikely to be elected, he considered it to be ‘a foot in the door’. The calling of a double dissolution election in April 1974 transformed Chaney’s prospects. With ten senators to be elected instead of five, he was in fourth position on the Western Australian Liberal ticket, and was placed to win a seat. Chaney was the ninth WA senator elected on 18 May 1974, and he was sworn in the Senate on 9 July 1974.[1]

Chaney’s first speech to the Senate contained a number of ideas that became themes during his sixteen-year Senate career. He was concerned at the acceleration of the Commonwealth takeover of state functions, the growing power of a central bureaucracy and the destruction of local initiatives. Chaney was first and foremost a federalist and vigorously defended the role of the Senate in a bicameral system. Power, he believed, should rest as nearly as possible with the people who are directly affected by the decisions that are being made by government. He argued that it was self-evident that a centralised bureaucracy must in time become unresponsive to the grassroots desires of the people. Coming to Canberra ‘from the very edge of the continent’, Chaney considered ‘affluent’ Canberra to be ‘quite unrepresentative of Australia’ and ‘a most unfortunate environment for our Public Service’. Chaney believed that demands by the electorate for increased government services could not be achieved without foregoing other areas of consumption:

We have got to get away from the ridiculous fiction that social welfare and education are obtained at no cost to the individual. There is a cost for every government program. We have to learn to relate our payment of taxes and charges to the services we actually receive.[2]

In his first term Chaney was closely involved in debate on the Whitlam Government’s Family Law Bill and Racial Discrimination Bill. He congratulated the government on the introduction of the Racial Discrimination Bill, but regretted the need for it, illustrating from personal experience the discrimination he saw as a young solicitor in Western Australia. Chaney adopted an argument put forward by Professor Arthur Bonfield of the University of Iowa, that the very existence of legislation against racial discrimination affected prejudice: people usually accept law and eventually this also affects their private attitudes. To that extent, law was an integral part of education to eliminate prejudice. During his time as Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, this insight underpinned Chaney’s approach to negotiating legislation affecting Indigenous people.

During the supply crisis of late 1975, culminating in the Governor-General’s dismissal of the Whitlam Government on 11 November, Chaney spoke frequently and firmly in support of the Senate’s right to refuse supply. Shortly after the December election—which saw the Coalition parties, led by Malcolm Fraser, secure a crushing victory—Chaney took responsibility for re-organising the government party committee system, in an attempt to formalise consultation between backbenchers and ministers. Chaney believed that party committees had multiple roles to play, including examining proposed legislation and developing ‘new and longer term policies’. In 1976 Chaney and his friend and colleague, Senator Alan Missen wrote jointly to Prime Minister Fraser proposing human rights reforms, including the establishment of a human rights commission and freedom of information legislation—measures which were eventually carried through in Fraser’s final term of office. Chaney served as Assistant Opposition Whip in the Senate (1974–75), Opposition Whip from April until November 1975, and Government Whip from December 1975 until February 1978.

During his first term in Parliament, Chaney became concerned about the ‘great volumes of legislation being processed with limited time for parliamentary scrutiny’. Speaking in February 1978, he referred to the success of the Senate’s Regulations and Ordinances Committee and asked ‘Why do we not subject all legislation in this Parliament to the sort of scrutiny that is given to delegated legislation?’ Chaney decided to take up ‘the idea of a Scrutiny of Bills Committee … to draw attention to legislative proposals which infringed civil liberties’. Chaney’s idea was adopted by Senator Missen and recommended by the Senate’s Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee, of which Chaney was a member, later that year. The Fraser Government rejected the proposal, and Chaney—by then a member of the ministry—found himself in the ’embarrassing position of having to come into the Senate to defend a decision which I totally disagreed with: to oppose the establishment of the committee that I had advocated’. However, ‘It was not my role to incite rebellion and I did not’. Missen was one of seven Liberal senators who crossed the floor to ensure that the committee would be established, a result which gave Chaney ‘great pleasure’.[3]

Ian Viner was appointed Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the second Fraser Ministry and introduced land rights legislation into the House of Representatives in June 1976. Chaney complemented him in the Senate. It was a most effective partnership as illustrated by the passage of the historic Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Bill in December 1976. For Chaney, the bill was ‘probably the most significant item that I have seen the Senate deal with’. He recognised that ‘in measures such as these’ there was a ‘large degree of bipartisan support’ that reflected broad community endorsement.

Chaney’s first ministerial posts were as Minister for Administrative Services, and Minister Assisting the Minister for Education, from August until December 1978. Prime Minister Fraser then appointed him to succeed Viner as Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, in December 1978, a post he held until November 1980. Chaney was also Minister Assisting the Minister for National Development and Energy (December 1979–November 1980). Nine months before taking the Aborginal Affairs portfolio, Chaney had designated Aboriginal self-management as the ‘main thrust’ of the Commonwealth’s approach to its responsibilities. Self-management was ‘a most desirable approach to what has been Australia’s most difficult policy area in the history of our country’. Chaney, who received firm support from the prime minister, believed that the Fraser Government brought a new level of respect in dealing with Aboriginal people.

Minister Viner foreshadowed the creation of the Aboriginal Development Commission in the House of Representatives in October 1978 and Chaney delivered on that commitment. Senator Neville Bonner, during his second reading speech for the Aboriginal Development Commission Bill in November 1979, told the Senate, ‘for the first time in history an Aboriginal is introducing a Government measure into the Parliament … It places in the hands of Aboriginal people important instruments for their own advancement’. Bonner and Chaney had worked closely on the 1976 land rights legislation introduced by Viner, securing a number of alterations within the Coalition’s committee system.

Following a lengthy community consultation process, and with several dozen amendments, the Aboriginal Development Commission Act 1980 was passed in April. As Chaney noted in his second-reading speech, this was a landmark piece of legislation: the first all-Aboriginal commission; the first time a departmental function had been handed over to a commission; the first time that an elected body that represented Aborigines nationally—the National Aboriginal Conference—had received statutory recognition and, most significantly, the first recognition of the dispossession and dispersal of the Aboriginal people.

The principal aim of the bill was to make available land and finance to Aboriginal communities. The Senate debate was predominantly bipartisan and special commendation was given by all sides to Chaney for his role in developing a piece of legislation with, in the words of the Leader of the Australian Democrats Senator Don Chipp, ‘ultimate patience, compassion and consultation with the Aboriginal communities’. The passage of the legislation typified Chaney’s participatory management style.[4]

Chaney was a persuasive speaker: ‘cogent, fair-minded, unpretentious, and given to addressing the issues’. He could argue both sides of a question with skill and cool passion. In the Senate, where he strove more for consensus than division, he often acknowledged the merits of an opposing case while at the same time building his own with evidence drawn from a range of sources that reflected his wide reading—in case law, in parliamentary records, in academic literature. He also had an impish sense of humour.

Chaney, whose independence of mind was valued by Malcolm Fraser, succeeded Senator Margaret Georgina Constance Guilfoyle as Minister for Social Security in November 1980, in the fourth Fraser Ministry. Although this portfolio took him into the Cabinet, economic and political constraints reduced opportunities for bold initiatives. One of the government’s first post-election measures was the establishment of Phillip Lynch’s ‘Razor Gang’, a ministerial committee formed to make drastic spending cuts and reduce public service numbers. In such a context there was no appetite for ‘politically difficult’ social reform, and coping with a rising demand for social services during an economic recession put Chaney’s department under pressure. Chaney’s attempt to reduce middle-class welfare by introducing a means test for pensioners aged over seventy was rejected. He did, however, succeed in obtaining a fifty per cent rise in the family allowance in 1982, the first rise since it was instituted in 1976.

The resignation, in January 1981, of Victor Garland, Liberal MHR for the Perth seat of Curtin, resulted in a by-election for the safe Liberal seat. Chaney nominated for pre-selection, but he faced an array of forces allied against him. Chaney’s relations with the dominant right-wing faction of the Western Australia Liberal Party were hostile, and he also fell out with Charles Court. Chaney’s views on Aboriginal policy aroused deep antagonism within the WA party. He was regarded by some as a ‘fierce Left Winger’ and labelled ‘Red Fred’. During the Curtin pre-selection battle, the slogan ‘Anyone but Chaney’ emerged and the more conservative Allan Rocher won the pre-selection and the seat.

Malcolm Fraser called a snap election in February 1983 and on 5 March the ALP, led by Bob Hawke, won power with a twenty-five seat majority. Fraser resigned the Liberal leadership immediately, and in the resulting contest Andrew Peacock was elected leader, defeating John Howard, who was then elected as Peacock’s deputy. Chaney was elected Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. The contest between Peacock and Howard began seven years of leadership instability and an internecine struggle between the two men that was not resolved until John Hewson was elected leader in April 1990. For much of that time, Chaney continued to build on the wide respect that he enjoyed in Parliament, in the party room and in the electorate at large for his civility, principles and integrity. He was generally regarded as the most likely candidate for the Liberal leadership behind Peacock and Howard, but his failure to win House of Representatives pre-selection in 1980 had damaged his prospects.

Throughout his seven years as the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Chaney carried a heavy workload. He was his party’s principal economic spokesman in the Senate, and he also had responsibility for major shadow portfolios: resources and energy (1983–84), industry, technology and commerce (1984–87, 1988–89), employment and industrial relations (1987–88) and industrial relations (1989–90). Chaney did not regard those years in Opposition as wasted. In his view, the Hawke Government’s economic reforms, which ‘laid the framework for a more open economy’, had their origins in the ‘dry’ economic policies previously advocated by some Liberal parliamentarians, including John Howard and Chaney. Chaney took pride in the fact that the Coalition, for the most part, supported the changes initiated by Hawke, Treasurer Paul Keating, and Industry Minister John Button.

Chaney continued to visit Indigenous communities, and comment on policies in that area, notably in 1989, when he acknowledged that the introduction of self-management to Aboriginal communities had been mishandled. Governments had failed in their duty to provide essential infrastructure and services, resulting in ‘extraordinary burdens’ being placed on local communities, ‘often guaranteeing the failure of both community efforts and individual efforts’.

By May 1989 Chaney’s formerly close relationship with John Howard, who had become Liberal Party leader in September 1985, had broken down. Chaney believed Howard could not win the next election, but was shocked when he learned with seventy-two hours notice that Peacock would challenge Howard for the leadership and had the numbers to succeed. Chaney came under intense pressure to lend his support to Peacock’s ascension. Against his obligation of loyalty to Howard, Chaney was reminded that for the good of the party, he should play his part to ensure that Peacock’s victory was comprehensive. For Chaney, the decision was agonising. The reputation he had built over a decade and a half counted for nothing when he decided to cross from the Howard to the Peacock camp, without warning the former. To one side it was an act of treachery, to the other an act of political expediency. Having been promised support for the deputy leadership if Peacock was successful, as he was on 9 May 1989, Chaney was elected Deputy Leader of the Opposition and remained in that post until the return of the Hawke Government at the March 1990 election. In that election, Chaney won the newly created House of Representatives seat of Pearce in north-eastern Perth, having resigned from the Senate on 27 February 1990.

‘I committed my own assassination’, was Chaney’s wry summation. He regretted standing for the deputy leadership. Chaney was mortally wounded politically as he was no longer trusted by either the Howard or the Peacock camps, and he was never close to John Hewson. Under Hewson’s leadership, Chaney held the shadow portfolios of environment, and sustainable development and environment, until August 1992 when he announced he would not contest the next election; thereafter he was a shadow minister without portfolio, but with responsibility for marketing the party’s Fightback! manifesto. Announcing his retirement from Parliament, he said ‘I want to have a normal Australian life. I’ve earned a bit of peace and quiet’.

Assessing Chaney’s effectiveness as a politician, Paul Kelly thought him an ‘excellent communicator but too precious’, and ‘riven by a confusion—he sought power but paraded purity. He failed to perceive that politicians who offer to uphold such standards invite retribution from colleagues if they fail their own test’. Chaney was probably temperamentally unsuited to the gladiatorial arena of the lower house. Senator John Button, Chaney’s opposite number in the Senate between 1983 and 1990, ‘liked Chaney and respected him for his ability, and genuine concern about Australia’. According to Button, Chaney ‘suffered from commonsense, a much underrated virtue in politics’. Malcolm Fraser, speaking in 2011, recounted that Indigenous people still told him that Chaney and Ian Viner were two of the best ministers in the Aboriginal Affairs portfolios. The key to this, Fraser believed, was that Chaney took the role seriously and accorded Aboriginal people consideration and respect beyond that of most politicians.

On leaving Parliament Chaney undertook a two-year research fellowship in the Graduate School of Management at the University of Western Australia, looking at the administration of Aboriginal Affairs policy. He became a part-time member of the National Native Title Tribunal in 1994, full-time in 1995, deputy president in 2000 and retired from the Tribunal in 2007. Chaney regarded this work as his ‘most important contribution to a better society’, as it established ‘a new culture of agreement and negotiation with Aboriginal people as stakeholders’, something he had striven for throughout his parliamentary career.

Chaney was co-chair of Reconciliation Australia from 2000 to 2005, and continued to serve as a director afterwards: ‘The thing I have felt most uncomfortable about, most often, is the rank injustice, the unfairness, that is the lot of so many Aboriginals in Australia. Not for them the land of the fair go; we have made them foreigners in their own land’. Chaney served as Chancellor of Murdoch University from 1995 until 2002. In 1997 he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for his services to the Parliament and to the Aboriginal community ‘through the establishment of the Aboriginal Legal Service and mediation with the National Native Title Tribunal’. In 2006 he was appointed chair of Desert Knowledge Australia, a statutory corporation of the Northern Territory, and in January 2014 was named Senior Australian of the Year.

Chaney left the Liberal Party in 1995, believing that his work with the Native Title Tribunal and, subsequently, with Reconciliation Australia, ‘required engagements across party lines and without political involvement’. Writing in 2013, Chaney said that since 2000—the year of his appointment as co-chair of Reconciliation Australia—’I have been totally non-partisan’. Although retired from Parliament, Chaney maintained his role as a thoughtful and original contributor to public debate. As well as continuing to reflect upon developments in Indigenous policy, he has spoken on themes of parliamentary integrity and reform, the role of the Senate, and the decline of liberalism.

There is a plaque on each of the doors leading to the reception centre at Aquinas College on which is engraved: ‘As you take your next step remember the Aboriginal people who first walked this land’. That such a citation appears today, unthinkable when Chaney was a student, is recognition of the political and cultural change in relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians that has occurred since he entered the Senate in 1974. Chaney has worked tirelessly over four decades to advance that change.[5]

David Hough

[1] This entry draws on interviews conducted by the author with Chaney, as well as with several of his colleagues and contemporaries. CPD, 25 Sept. 1974, p. 1418; Age (Melb.), 26 June 2004, p. 7; Fred Chaney, ‘Vice-Chancellor’s Invitational Lecture’, published in CATLyst, Issue 4, Jan. 2010, pp. 4–7; Transcript, ABC Radio, ‘Encounter’, 29 July 2007.

[2] CPD, 25 Sept. 1974, pp. 1418–23.

[3] CPD, 22 May 1975, p. 1801; G. S. Reid & Martyn Forrest, Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament 1901–1988: Ten Perspectives, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1989, p. 26; Malcolm Fraser & Margaret Simons, Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, The Miegunyah Press, Carlton, Vic., 2010, p. 381; Speech by Fred Chaney at the Alan Missen Memorial Dinner, University of Melbourne, 13 Aug. 2005; CPD, 23 Feb. 1978, p. 3; Fred Chaney, ‘The Operation of the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills: 1981–1991’ in Ten Years of Scrutiny: A Seminar to Mark the Tenth Anniversary of the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills, Canberra, 25 Nov. 1991, p. 25.

[4] CPD, 7 Dec. 1976, p. 2762, 15 March 1978, p. 605, 21 Nov. 1979, p. 2629, 23 April 1980, p. 1743–5; Angela Burger, Neville Bonner: A Biography, Macmillan, Artarmon, NSW, 1979, p. 141.

[5] Speech by Nicholas Hasluck at the Fred Chaney Farewell Dinner, Oct. 1992; Fred Chaney, ‘Where have all the Liberals gone?’, speech at the Alan Missen Memorial Dinner, 13 Aug. 2005; CPD, 31 Aug. 1989, p. 662; Paul Kelly, The End of Certainty, new edition, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 1994, pp. 103, 467–86; Age (Melb.), 8 Aug. 1992, p. 3; John Button, As It Happened, Text Publishing, Melb., p. 217.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 484-490.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, WA, 1974–90 (Lib)

MHR, Pearce, WA, 1990–93 (Lib)

Minister for Administrative Services, 1978

Minister Assisting the Minister for Education, 1978–79

Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, 1978–80

Minister Assisting the Minister for National Development and Energy, 1979–80

Minister for Social Security, 1980–83

Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, 1983–90

Senate Committee Service

Joint Committee on Prices, 1974–75

Select Committee on Foreign Ownership and Control of Australian Resources, 1974–75

Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, 1974–78

Standing Committee on National Development and Ownership and Control of Australian Resources, 1975

Joint Select Committee on Aboriginal Land Rights in the Northern Territory, 1976–77

Standing Orders Committee, 1976–80, 1983–87

Committee of Privileges, 1978

Appropriations and Staffing Committee, 1983–90

Procedure Committee, 1987–90