FIELD, Albert Patrick (1910–1990)
Senator for Queensland, 1975 (Independent)

Albert Patrick Field was a member of the Senate for a very short period and was on leave for most of it, but he was at the epicentre of historic events that brought down the Labor Government of Gough Whitlam. He is remembered, if only briefly, in virtually all accounts of the dismissal of that Government in 1975, and even to some extent in popular memory, as an example of an insignificant individual who was the tool of the powerful, in a drama he did not understand. He was, according to Whitlam, an ‘individual of the utmost obscurity, from which he rose and to which he sank with equal speed’, and, to a dissident Opposition member, Senator Steele Hall, a means by which an opposition marched ‘on the sleazy road to power … over a dead man’s corpse’. Field was indeed an unsophisticated man but he had strong and clear views, and the events in which he was involved left an enduring mark on the procedures and practices for filling casual vacancies in the Senate.

Field was named Bertie Kelly when he was born at Durrington, Wiltshire, England, on 11 October 1910 to Mary Jane Kelly and William Thomas Field, a soldier and shoeing smith with the Royal Field Artillery, who married two months later at St Osmund’s Catholic Church, Salisbury. In 1924 his parents died six weeks apart: his mother from cancer on 1 June, and his father on 11 July from tuberculosis. Of their seven children, some, including Bertie, had been placed in orphanages for short periods before that, and in November Field was sent to Gordon Boys’ Home, Woking, Surrey, where he remained until his discharge in July 1926. He later commented that the home was run on ‘very strict’ lines, and that he found school ‘cruel too in those days’. He ran away at least once.

On 22 July 1926 he left for Australia aboard the SS Berriman with his brother Frank. In Australia, Pat, as he was known, became an itinerant worker, jumping trains to travel through New South Wales and Queensland. He worked in the Newcastle coalmines and as a machine operator for Mount Isa Mines, and was employed on sheep stations at Dubbo, Cobar and Bourke. By the time of his enlistment in World War II, Field was living in Queensland and had become a truck driver. After training as a cook, he was attached to a number of army units in Queensland and New Guinea from March 1943 until December 1945, spending some months in hospital with recurrent illness.

After the war Field trained as a French-polisher and, when work in the furniture trade was scarce, drove trucks for the Brisbane City Council. Field was of above average height, with thick black hair and a pencil moustache, and enjoyed ballroom dancing. A leading soccer referee, he was an office-bearer of the Queensland Soccer Football Referees Association (including as president in 1956) and a life member. On 28 October 1957 Field married Jessie Gorle, née Schabe, at the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, Brisbane. Jessie died in 1971.[1]

On 3 September 1975 the National-led Queensland Government, headed by the fiercely anti-Whitlam Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, nominated Field, under section 15 of the Australian Constitution, to replace Bertie R. Milliner, an ALP senator who had died on 30 June. Bjelke-Petersen had already invited the Labor Party to submit a list of three nominees from which the Queensland Parliament could choose, but the party would agree to nominate only one, Dr Mal Colston, who had been a candidate at the previous Senate election. To some later observers, this was ‘returning one provocation with another … right in principle and wrong in precedent’, because in 1962 the state party ‘had agreed to submit two names to replace a deceased senator and the state Parliament had chosen one’. But Bjelke-Petersen had not been premier in 1962, and it does not seem obvious that he would have accepted any official nomination from the party in 1975. Bjelke-Petersen then stated that he would invite nominations from anyone who was a financial member of the ALP. Field applied and was accepted after being vetted by the Premier’s press secretary. At this time he was employed as a French-polisher in the Public Works Department at the Ipswich Road workshops, and was president of the Queensland branch of the Federated Furnishing Trade Society. The debate in the Queensland Parliament on Field’s nomination to the Senate was protracted, lasting for more than four hours and involving some thirty speakers and interjectors, but the result was no surprise. Though some Liberal Party members, including the party’s leader, Deputy Premier Sir Gordon Chalk, voted in support of the ALP candidate, the Premier’s nominee was supported by a vote of fifty to twenty-six, and thus the certificate presented to the Senate in Canberra on 9 September bore the name of Field as Milliner’s replacement.[2]

Earlier in the year, the convention of replacing a deceased senator, or one who had resigned, with a representative of the same party had been abandoned when the New South Wales Parliament replaced Lionel Murphy with Cleaver Bunton; but Bunton was an avowed independent and proved to be a supporter of the Government on many occasions. In contrast, Field, who had been a member of the ALP, and now described himself as ‘Independent Labor’, was known to be a strong opponent of the Whitlam Government and was expected to act accordingly once in the Senate, including by voting against the Government on the vital issue of the passage of supply. His appointment was a crucial move for those seeking to bring down the Whitlam Government, as it reduced the Government’s numbers in the Senate by one (even when Field was absent, as later was the case) and gave the Opposition the ability to defer the consideration of the annual appropriation bills rather than having to vote against them outright.[3]

Though represented in sections of the media as an unlikely candidate for public office because of his humble background, plain style and lack of public recognition or notable achievements in his career, Field had shown political ambition for some time within the sphere accessible to him. It was his identification with the Labor cause to that time that was the reason both for Bjelke-Petersen’s nomination of him and for Labor’s outrage at his acceptance of the nomination. He was, as the debate on his nomination in the Queensland Parliament showed, quite well known to senior Labor figures as a middling level member who had tried and failed to win advancement within the party for some years. According to Bjelke-Petersen, Field was a current member of the party, had been president of the Morningside branch and was a delegate to the state conference in 1974. Queensland Labor leader, Tom Burns, denied that Field was a member of the Morningside branch, other Labor members adding that he had unsuccessfully contested preselection for municipal and state office as a Labor candidate.

It can hardly be said that Field was simply a political careerist seeking advantage by switching parties at the cost of sharp criticism from his former allies. In the first place, no one, including Field himself, thought that his career as a senator would last long. One Labor member of the Queensland Parliament predicted, accurately enough, that in future he ‘certainly will not be part of the A.L.P. team, and there is no indication that he will be a member of the official National-Liberal team’. Field answered, in response to a media request for an estimate of his chances of re-election, that he ‘would say none’. He might have had some thought of serving the balance of Milliner’s term until 1979 and could not have foreseen the double dissolution that followed so soon in November 1975. Labor’s anger was directed less at Field than at the Premier who had discovered and promoted him. Speakers for the ALP in state and federal parliaments at least affected scorn and pity for Field, rather than anger. For his part Field showed some steel or at least fortitude in justifying his betrayal of his party, attributing it largely to his antipathy to what he regarded as Whitlam’s anti-Christian attitudes. Field claimed that Whitlam supported ‘homosexuality, incest, abortion and pornographic literature’.[4]

In the Senate Labor prepared a challenge, alleging that Field had vacated his public service position too late, infringing section 44(iv) of the Australian Constitution. However, with party numbers tied at twenty-six all, the Opposition provided a pair for the deceased Milliner and the motion to refer the issue to the Senate’s dormant Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications was lost. When Field took his place in the Senate on 9 September, all Labor members, except the party’s Leader in the Senate, K. S. Wriedt, walked out as the acting Usher of the Black Rod escorted Field into the chamber. Wriedt ‘sat stiffly at the main table with his back to Field when he was administered the oath of office amid rows of empty benches’, and Field ‘later confirmed that no Labor member or Senator spoke to him that day’. He showed his eagerness to participate only a few minutes after being sworn when he received the call to direct a question without notice to Wriedt as Minister for Agriculture. The question was in effect a follow-up to a question asked by the National Party’s Glenister Sheil a few days before and Wriedt briefly evaded an answer. That was Field’s first and last contribution as a senator, apart from his appearance in two divisions the following day. He attended only the next two sitting days, on 11 and 30 September, before a further challenge to his appointment under the Common Informers (Parliamentary Disqualifications) Act 1975 opened him to the danger of a fine of $200 per day for each day he sat after the originating process was served. He was persuaded to seek leave of absence for the duration of the challenge, a move supported without opposition in the chamber on 1 October 1975. The legal costs involved in defending the case caused him, he said, ‘much distress’.

The dismissal of the Whitlam Government on 11 November ensured that he never retook his seat. Field’s nomination for the Senate election following the double dissolution of December 1975 was unsuccessful. He secured only 2909 primary votes (0.3 per cent of the total), and his final tally on the tenth count rose only to 3189, well short of the quota of more than 95 000 for the ten elected senators, placing him fifteenth in the field of forty candidates. Colston, his opponent of three months before, was elected in eighth place.

Field’s case left its mark in the successful referendum of 1977 that amended the procedures of section 15 by providing that state parliaments should fill casual vacancies by members of the same political party as departing senators, though it was not explicitly required that party nominees should be endorsed. Also, senators chosen in this way were no longer required to be elected at the next House of Representatives or Senate election, which has made casual vacancies more attractive to party managers as a way of renovating their Senate memberships.[5]

Field formed the short-lived Australian Independent Party, which contested the federal election of 10 December 1977. He received no further favours from the Bjelke-Petersen Government, although he joined the National Party in 1982. Widowed in 1971, living in a rented room and reliant on his war service pension, Field was involved with several anti-communist groups, and worked two days a week as a volunteer in the Conservative Bookshop. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease at the time of his nomination to the Senate, and spent the last four years of his life at the RSL War Veterans Home, Caboolture, where he died on 1 July 1990 of asphyxia by hanging. He was cremated at Mount Thompson in accordance with the rites of the Full Gospel Church. His daughter and stepdaughter survived him.[6]

Geoffrey Hawker

[1] John Wanna, ‘Field, Albert Patrick’, ADB, vol. 17; Gough Whitlam, The Truth of the Matter, Penguin Books, Ringwood, Vic., 1979, p. 60; Field file, ADB, ANU; Albert Patrick Field, Transcript of oral history interview with Patricia Shaw, 1983, POHP, TRC 4900/62, NLA, pp. 1:1–8; Field, Albert Patrick—Defence Service Record, B883, QX46665, NAA; Queensland Soccer Football Association, Official Handbook and Laws of the Game, 1955–61; The editor is indebted to Ted Kearney, Referees Administrator, Football Brisbane.

[2] QPD, 3 Sept. 1975, pp. 387–419, 27 Aug. 1975, pp. 207–35; John Faulkner and Stuart Macintyre (eds), True Believers: The Story of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 2001, p. 279; Federated Furnishing Trade Society, Queensland branch, Committee of Management minutes, 1971–77, Z579, box 4, NBAC, ANU; Hugh Lunn, Johannes Bjelke-Petersen: A Political Biography, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 1984, pp. 216, 221–4.

[3] Graham Maddox, Australian Democracy in Theory and Practice, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, 1985, p. 403; Gough Whitlam, The Whitlam Government 1972–1975, Viking, Ringwood, Vic., 1985, pp. 732–3; Field, Transcript, p. 2:2; Whitlam, The Truth of the Matter, p. 60; Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1988, pp. 540, 542; Paul Kelly, The Unmaking of Gough, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 1994, pp. 320–1; Graham Freudenberg, A Certain Grandeur: Gough Whitlam in Politics, Sun Books, South Melbourne, 1978, p. 373; Senate, Journals, 15 Oct. 1975, pp. 954–7, 21 Oct. 1975, pp. 973–6.

[4] ABC Online, Four Corners, ‘Reflections from the Seventies’, 21 Aug. 2001, viewed 3 Mar. 2009, <>; Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Don’t You Worry About That: The Joh Bjelke-Petersen Memoirs, A & R, North Ryde, NSW, 1990, pp. 134–5; Lunn, Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, pp. 222, 224, 227; QPD, 3 Sept. 1975, pp. 391, 398, 415; ABC Online, ‘Dismissal Anniversary’, Stateline Queensland, 11 Nov. 2005, viewed 18 June 2007, < htm>; Kelly, The Unmaking of Gough, p. 303.

[5] Senate, Journals, 9 Sept. 1975, pp. 905–6; CPD, 9 Sept. 1975, pp. 603–6, 616; Kelly, The Unmaking of Gough, p. 303; Bob Bennett, ‘Candidates, Members and the Constitution’, Research Paper no. 18, 2001–2, CPL, p. 17; Paul Kelly, November 1975: The Inside Story of Australia’s Greatest Political Crisis, Allen & Unwin Australia, St Leonards, NSW, 1995, pp. 107–9; Letter, Field to Chairman of the Senate, 29 Jan. 1976, Senate Registry File, A8161, S325, NAA.

[6] Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 15 Dec. 1975, p. 15, 19 Nov. 1977, p. 12; Sun (Syd.), 19 Aug. 1976, p. 9; Australian (Syd.), 3 July 1990, p. 3; SMH, 27 Feb. 1979, p. 7; Field, Transcript, pp. 1:15, 1:22–3; Age (Melb.), 8 July 1990, p. 8; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 3 July 1990, pp. 5, 18; Australian (Syd.), 3 July 1990, p. 1; Field file, ADB, ANU.

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. 371-375.

FIELD, Albert Patrick (1910–1990)

Peter Luck Productions

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Queensland, 1975