CRICHTON-BROWNE, Noel Ashley (1944– )
Senator for Western Australia, 1981–96 (Liberal Party of Australia; Independent Liberal)

Noel Ashley Crichton-Browne, who was President of the Western Australian Liberal Party from 1975 to 1979, was elected to the Senate for a term beginning on 1 July 1981. He was reelected in 1983, 1984, and 1990, serving as a Liberal Party senator until 9 September 1995 and then as an Independent Liberal, before retiring upon the expiry of his final term on 30 June 1996.

Noel Crichton-Browne was born on 2 February 1944 at Wiluna, Western Australia, one of three children of John Crichton Browne, an engineer with Wiluna Gold Mines, and his wife Margaret Bennett, née Lasscock, a nurse. His early education was at goldfields primary schools until year five, then at the strict Catholic St Ildephonsus College at New Norcia, before moving in 1958 to Scotch College, Perth, where he completed his formal education as a boarder. Upon leaving school he was employed by the Western Australian State Department of Mines at its Southern Cross Mining Registrar’s Office. He became Assistant Mining Registrar at the Pilbara town of Marble Bar, and in May 1968, at the age of twenty-four, he was appointed Mining Registrar. He was elected to the Marble Bar Shire Council, and in 1968 to the position of Shire President. After more than five years at Marble Bar Crichton-Browne moved to Perth, resigned from the Mines Department, and formed a finance and investment company.

In December 1969 he married Esther Grace Stevens, a general and midwife nurse and the daughter of Apostolic Church pastors. The couple experienced sadness early in their family life. Esther miscarried triplets prior to the birth of their oldest child, and although they went on to have four children, their eldest son died in his cot when just two years of age.[1]

Crichton-Browne joined the Perth Central and then the Karrinyup branch of the Liberal Party in the late 1960s. He became an office-bearer in the party, first as president of the Bedford Inglewood Branch, then senior vice president of the Perth and Stirling divisions. By 1972 he was president of the Stirling division, which gave him membership of the state executive, and in the following year he became a state vice-president. He was elected president of the Western Australian division of the Liberal Party in 1975, and held that position until his mandatory retirement four years later.

Having become wealthy through mining and property investments, Crichton-Browne was able to devote himself full-time to the Liberal Party, and worked, he has said, for ten years, including his time as president, with no remuneration, and meeting travel expenses from his own pocket. During this time he worked to build the party membership, using ‘simple cold canvassing’, knocking on tens of thousands of doors, and attending ‘seemingly insignificant Liberal get-togethers in the mining and farming backblocks through to the provincial towns and city’. He claimed to have increased membership to record levels, to have been instrumental in increasing the number of WA branches from around thirty to more than 200, and to have personally formed every branch of the party north of Carnarvon.

Crichton-Browne’s energetic recruitment of members and establishment of branches gave him a strong power base in the party, where local office-holders, particularly from country and far-north areas, had often been recruited by him and owed their office to him. Crichton-Browne formed a close association with Sir Charles Court, Premier of Western Australia from 1974 to 1982, whose views he shared on a range of issues, including the supremacy of states’ rights over the centralising power of the federal government and the importance of resource development for WA. During Crichton-Browne’s presidency, party members began to polarise between those who supported him (the ‘Old Guard’) and those who did not, aligned behind Liberal Party Senator Fred Chaney. In 1981 when Chaney sought to move from the Senate to the House of Representatives by contesting the seat of Curtin, Crichton-Browne was influential in the preselection of Allan Rocher as the Liberal Party candidate. Crichton-Browne felt that, in return, Chaney used his influence with Liberal leader John Howard to spoil his chances of shadow ministerial positions while in Parliament.[2]

Crichton-Browne was preselected in third place on the Western Australian Liberal Party Senate ticket for the federal election of October 1980 behind sitting senators Reg Withers and Peter Durack. He looked unlikely to win the seat, but he conducted his own campaign in which he ran ten days of saturation television advertisements using a slogan that a vote for the Australian Democrats was effectively a vote for Labor, on the basis that Hansard showed that the Democrats voted with the Labor Party eighty per cent of the time in Senate divisions. When he narrowly won the fifth and final seat over Australian Democrats candidate Jack Evans, the Democrats appealed to the High Court sitting as the Court of Disputed Returns, contending that the Liberal Party advertisements had contained untrue or incorrect statements. Among other things, they argued that the Democrats had voted with the Liberals in the Senate chamber on the voices, not counted in Crichton-Browne’s totals. The High Court found that sections 154 and 161 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1924 (relating to misleading electors) pertained only to the act of voting, such as how to fill in the ballot paper, but not in regard to influencing the decision to support a particular candidate at an election. The content of the advertising was never tested. This important precedent for federal elections has left the question of the parameters of advertising a contentious domain of electoral law.[3]

Crichton-Browne’s first speech in the Senate revealed some of the political motivations and concerns that would occupy him during his time there. While professing support for the federation and the federal system, which had brought about the Senate and his place in it, he was ‘opposed to the centralising of power in Canberra’. He described recent resource development in Western Australia and its contribution to the Australian community as a whole, and criticised the economic management of recent governments, including the Fraser Government, whose policies in regard to interest rates, tariffs, taxes and wages policy had, he felt, been detrimental to resource development and particularly to mining interests.

In December 1982 he crossed the floor to vote against the Taxation (Unpaid Company Tax) Assessment Bill 1982 which sought recovery of taxation avoided under the so-called ‘bottom of the harbour’ schemes. He felt that those investors who were not aware they were breaking the law should not be penalised, and opposed the retrospective component of the bill. Crichton-Browne repeatedly argued for the restoration of the exemption from taxation on income from gold mining, and for prospectors who transferred rights to companies to mine their discoveries.[4]

As a member of Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Recreation and the Arts, he participated in an inquiry into the potential of the Kakadu National Park Region. When the committee published its report in 1988 recommending wide-ranging restrictions on mining and other commercial activities within the park, Crichton-Browne together with then National Party Senator Julian McGauran (Vic.) and Liberal John Panizza submitted a minority report of over one hundred pages dissenting from many of the findings of the committee and addressing what they saw as wasteful management of resources and unrealistic demands on mining companies. In the Senate Crichton-Browne said that the recommendations of the majority report ‘reek of prejudice, are fraught with distortion and fail on the central point of honesty’.

Crichton-Browne was conscious of the possible effect of Aboriginal land rights claims on mining. He had argued that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage (Interim Protection) bills of 1984 and 1986 were defacto land rights legislation, and disputed the definitions given of ‘Aboriginal tradition’ as ‘anything any Aboriginal has ever done for whatever reason and for whatever time’. In 1993 he strongly advocated that the Coalition vote against all clauses of and proposed amendments to the Native Title Bill, criticising National Party senators for agreeing to some amendments, and describing the legislation as ‘beyond redemption’ and ‘bad and corrupt legislation’. He was a constant and stringent critic of the administration of Aboriginal affairs.[5]

Crichton-Browne was deputy chair of the Environment, Recreation and the Arts Committee during a high profile inquiry into the use of performance enhancing drugs by Australian sportsmen and women in 1988–1990 (the Drugs in Sport inquiry). He was an active member of the committee, and frequently led interrogations of witnesses at committee hearings. One consequence of the Committee’s two substantial reports was the creation of the Australian Sports Drug Agency, to randomly test at all sporting events in Australia. Crichton-Browne pledged to continue to campaign for the International Olympic Committee to take responsibility for out-of-competition testing of athletes.

A conservative on social issues, Crichton-Browne voted against the Sex Discrimination Bill in 1983 and said in 1986 that he thought the Affirmative Action (Equal Opportunity for Women) Bill was ‘paternalistic and demeaning’ and ‘social engineering’. He spoke against the Family Law Amendment bills in 1983 and 1987, saying that he was opposed to easy divorce.

As a member of the Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority (NCA), he participated in a review of the powers and performance of the NCA, resulting in the 1991 report Who Is to Guard the Guards? In response to claims that secrecy provisions in the National Crime Authority Act 1984 could prevent the provision of evidence to the Committee, Crichton-Browne introduced a private senator’s bill to clarify that statutory provisions do not affect the law of parliamentary privilege (including freedom of speech in Parliament) except by express words. The bill did not progress when it became clear that the government would generally adhere to the principle that a generic statutory secrecy provision does not affect parliamentary inquiries.[6]

Crichton-Browne was secretary to the shadow cabinet from May 1989 to April 1990, under Andrew Peacock’s leadership. He indicated that he would not take a shadow ministry under John Hewson, preferring to seek the position of Deputy President of the Senate (and, he hoped, eventually President). An unsuccessful candidate for Deputy President in August 1990, Crichton-Browne was elected Deputy President and Chairman of Committees unopposed on 17 August 1993. He had made a study of procedure, and advocated strict standards of behaviour in the chamber; in November 1988 he had given notice of a motion (never debated) to require senators to ‘affect a proper standard of dress’ and proposed standard punishments for senators repeatedly using unparliamentary language. He was a well-regarded Deputy President, Senator Gareth Evans saying that he exercised his responsibilities ‘with wisdom, judgment and even-handed good humour’, and Democrats Senator Cheryl Kernot that he was ‘fair and impartial and conducted [him]self with dignity’. Crichton-Browne held firm views on the role and power of the Senate as a states’ house; Tasmanian Independent Senator Brian Harradine said of him in 1990: ‘Of all of us, Senator Crichton-Browne has been the defender of this institution’.

While he was in Canberra Crichton-Browne organised regular dinners, following Wednesday sittings. At first limited to his fellow senators from Western Australia, other Liberal Party senators later took the opportunity to confer informally.[7]

During his years as a senator, Crichton-Browne maintained his influence in the Western Australian Liberal Party. He continued to travel in country areas to attend branch meetings and he had strong support on the State Executive and the Council of the party, where Senate preselections were determined. From 1975 to 1996 he was election campaign director for Liberal Party elections in Western Australia, employing professional advertisers and pollsters, and claiming credit for winning ‘every single seat north of the 26th parallel’. In 1991 divisions within the party deepened over a conflict for preselection for the state seat of Floreat, when Crichton-Browne’s opponents within the party supported an Independent candidate, Dr Elizabeth Constable, who had left the party when she was denied preselection, and who ultimately won the seat. As a consequence, in 1992 Crichton-Browne engineered the replacement of parliamentary leader Barry MacKinnon with Richard Court (son of Sir Charles), and subsequently ran the election campaign that saw Court elected as Premier. Crichton-Browne denied rumours that he intended to displace up to half of the sitting WA Liberal Party federal members at the next election; in later years he did acknowledge that he had been instrumental in displacing Senator Peter Durack in 1992, and he did claim credit for ‘placing’ a range of WA Liberals into parliamentary seats, including Chris Ellison and Ian Campbell.

In the week prior to preselection meetings of the State Council in March 1995, an anonymous pamphlet (a ‘dirt-sheet’) disclosing that Crichton-Browne’s wife Esther had more than five years earlier taken out a restraining order against him (never served), together with some criticism and allegations concerning his nomination for pending Senate preselections, was circulated to members of the Liberal Party. Crichton-Browne nevertheless won first place on the Liberal Party WA Senate ticket on 25 March. Facing a media furore, and reminded by party members of the possible effect of a serious division in the WA party in the year leading up to a winnable federal election, party leader John Howard asked for and received Crichton-Browne’s resignation as his representative on the state executive. On 30 March Crichton-Browne made a short statement in the Senate conveying his wife’s request for privacy, and on 3 April he resigned his position as Deputy President of the Senate, ‘in the interest of the Liberal Party and my family’. He was subsequently persuaded by John Howard to forego his preselection and undertook to retire from the Senate at the end of his term in June 1996.

Crichton-Browne still had the support of many within the hierarchy of the party. On 1 April sitting member Allan Rocher, a close friend of Howard, was displaced as the candidate for his seat of Curtin at the next federal election by Ken Court (brother of Premier Richard Court); on 8 April, the member for Moore, Paul Filing, was similarly displaced by Paul Stevenage, a Young Liberal known to be a supporter of Crichton-Browne (Rocher and Filing won their seats as independents at the 1996 election). At the Western Australian Liberal Party Conference on 30 July, former Senator Reg Withers, who had run on a platform of unifying the party, was defeated in an election for the state presidency by David Honey, a perceived protégé of Crichton-Browne. Crichton-Browne mooted a return to the Senate ticket, but a lewd remark to a female journalist during the conference gave Crichton-Browne’s enemies the excuse they needed to oust him from the party. Following sensational reports in the media and disgusted reactions from some Liberals, Crichton-Browne’s most stalwart supporters, David Honey, and the Court family, distanced themselves from him. WA Liberal Party members of federal Parliament formed a group to demand his expulsion. On 4 August Howard told Crichton-Browne he could no longer participate in activities of the parliamentary Liberal Party. Crichton-Browne refused the request of the WA state executive that he resign, and on 9 September 1995 he was expelled from the Western Australian Division of the Liberal Party.[8]

During the remainder of his time as a senator, which he served as an Independent Liberal, Crichton-Browne used his opportunities to speak in the Senate to refute accusations against him in the media and in state and federal Parliament, and to uncover the origins of the smear campaign against him. Feeling that the media had been complicit in his downfall, he used estimate committee hearings to cross-examine representatives of the ABC, and on 15 November 1996 he incorporated into Hansard a 54-page document rebutting the grounds and process of his expulsion from the Liberal Party.

In April 1998 Crichton-Browne pleaded guilty in the ACT Magistrates Court to two counts of defrauding the Commonwealth, and was fined eight thousand dollars. A young woman had travelled with him as his ‘wife’ (from whom he had long separated) to Broome and Sydney in June 1996.

After leaving the Senate Crichton-Browne continued to exert influence in the WA Liberal Party; he assisted his friend Ross Lightfoot (WA) to obtain party endorsement for the casual vacancy in the Senate caused by the death of Senator John Panizza in 1997, and claimed credit for the entry into federal politics of Julie Bishop and David Johnston. He was associated as a lobbyist with former premier Brian Burke, and included in Western Australian Corruption and Crime Commission investigations into possibly unlawful attempts to influence local and state politicians on behalf of business interests, but he was not charged. In 1998 he was the subject of WA Parliament Privileges Committee inquiries in relation to leaking of committee information, but also addressing alleged defamation against him; in 2000 the Committee of Privileges recommended that responses by Crichton-Browne to remarks made about him in the Senate by Senator Sue Knowles (Lib., WA) be incorporated in Hansard. He was a frequent contributor to Western Australian newspapers, and to online media including Crikey, on political and election matters.[9]

While in the Senate a good part of Crichton-Browne’s abundant energy was expended in conflicts within his own party. The circumstances of his retirement overshadowed his achievements as a senator, which included diligent and well-respected work as Deputy President and in committees.

Harry Phillips

[1] Noel Crichton-Browne, typescript ‘Political Notes’, 2012, supplied to author [Political Notes].

[2] CPD, 9 May 1995, pp. 22–5; Liberal Party of Australia, Today, Sept. 1975, p. 3; Australian (Syd.), 10 Dec 1994, p. 29; Political Notes.

[3] Evans v Crichton-Browne [1981] HCA 14; (1981) 147 CLR 169.

[4] CPD, 16 Sept. 1981, pp. 783–7, 19 Nov 1982, pp. 2600–3, 24 Oct. 1984, pp. 2395–8, 6 Dec. 1988, pp. 3554–8, 3602–4, 5 June 1986, pp. 3447–9, 2 April 1987, p. 1793.

[5] Standing Committee on Environment, Recreation and the Arts, The Potential of the Kakadu Park Region, Canberra, 1988; CPD, 30 Nov. 1988, p. 3195, 15 June 1984, pp. 3193–4, 13 June 1986, pp. 4005–7; Australian (Syd.), 5 Jan. 1994, p. 2, 13 Jan. 1994, p. 3; CPD, 19 May 1993, pp. 856–8.

[6] Standing Committee on Environment, Recreation and the Arts, Drugs in Sport: Interim Report, Canberra, 1989, Second Report, Canberra, 1990; CPD, 9 Dec. 1992, pp. 4550–3, 22 Aug. 1986, pp. 337–41, 7 Sept. 1983, p. 467, 17 Dec. 1987, pp. 3392–5; Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority, Who Is to Guard the Guards?, Canberra, 1991; CPD, 9 Sept. 1991, pp. 1270–1; Harry Evans, ‘Parliamentary Privilege and Statutory Secrecy Provisions’, Papers on Parliament, No. 52, 2009, pp. 25–30; Harry Evans & Rosemary Laing, (eds), Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, 13th ed., Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2012, pp. 65–70.

[7] CPD, 30 Nov. 1988, p. 3142; Procedure Committee, First Report of 1994, Canberra, 1994; CPD, 9 May 1995, p. 3, 27 June 1996, p. 2455, 21 Aug. 1990, p. 1792.

[8] CPD, 9 May 1995, pp. 22–5; AFR (Syd.), 19 July 1991, p. 30; The Bulletin (Syd.), 16 Nov. 1993. pp. 20–1; SMH, 1 April 1995, p. 32; Australian (Syd.), 13 April 1995, p. 9; Political Notes; Australian (Syd.), 23 March 1995, p. 2; WA (Perth), 7 March 2007, p. 7; CPD, 30 March 1995, p. 2647; Media Release, Senator Noel Crichton-Browne, 3 April 1995; Sun-Herald (Syd.), 9 April 1995, p. 5; CT, 1 Aug. 1995, p. 3; Australian (Syd.) 2 Aug. 1995, pp. 1–2; AFR (Syd.), 4 Aug. 1995, pp. 1, 16; SMH, 4 Aug. 1995, p. 1; News Release, John Howard, 4 Aug. 1995; Age (Melb.), 9 Aug. 1995, p. 2.

[9] CPD, 21 June 1995, pp. 1628–9, 26 June 1995, pp. 1731–6, 26 Oct. 1995, pp. 2641–50, 27 June 1996, pp. 2436–8, 2441–2, 15 Nov. 1995, pp. 3044–82; Hansard, Senate Environment, Recreation, Communications and the Arts Committee, 2 June 1995, p. 170, 27 June 1995, p. 340; CT, 9 April 1998, p. 1, 9 July 1998, p. 1; Australian (Syd.), 17 March 1997, pp. 10–11, 8 April 1997, p. 4; Political Notes; News Weekly, 11 Nov. 2006; Transcript, ABC Radio, ‘The World Today’, 14 Nov. 2007; ABC Premium News, 27 March 2008; AAP General News Wire, 24 Nov. 2008; Committee of Privileges, 88th and 91st Reports, Canberra, 2000.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 511-516.

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, WA, 1981–96 (Lib, Ind Lib)

Deputy President and Chairman of Committees, 1993–95

Senate Committee Service

Estimates Committee E, 1981–83, 1993–94; C, 1990, 1992–93

Scrutiny of Bills Committee, 1981–83

Select Committee on Government Clothing and Ordnance Factories, 1981–82

Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, 1981–83

Standing Committee on National Resources, 1983–87

Select Committee on Video Material, 1984–85

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, 1985–87

Appropriations and Staffing Committee, 1987–96

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, 1987–95

Standing Committee on Environment, Recreation and the Arts, 1987–93

House Committee, 1988–96

Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority, 1990–93

Joint Committee on the National Capital and External Territories, 1993–95

Procedure Committee, 1993–96

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS