NEWMAN, Jocelyn Margaret (1937– 2018)
Senator for Tasmania, 1986–2002 (Liberal Party of Australia)

Jocelyn Margaret Mullett (later Newman), was born in Melbourne on 8 July 1937, the eldest of three surviving children of Lyndhurst Mullett, solicitor, and his wife Margaret, née Maughan, a comptometrist. She was educated at Mont Albert Central School and Presbyterian Ladies’ College. At the University of Melbourne she was active in student politics, co-edited the student newspaper, Farrago, was elected ‘Miss University’ in 1958, and graduated in law in 1961. Jocelyn married Kevin Newman, an Army officer, on 1 July 1961 in Melbourne. They had a son and a daughter.

Army postings, resulting in twelve moves in fourteen years, were disruptive for the Newman family. In addition, the restrictive army life could be exasperating: Jocelyn was unimpressed by ‘the rank structure, white gloves, [and] generals’ wives’, and she recalled that ‘at times I felt I had wasted years of education and experience and that life as an army wife, mum and housewife left me unfulfilled’. Kevin’s year of service in Vietnam (1967–68) was especially stressful. Jocelyn feared for his safety, and she was conscious of hostility in the community from those who were opposed to the war. She later said: ‘I can hardly bear the thought of reliving those days’. In 1973 the family moved to Hobart where Kevin, by now a Lieutenant Colonel, took up an appointment as Commander of the 6th Military District. Although she was articled to a solicitor during a posting in Canberra, and practised in her father’s firm in Melbourne during Kevin’s Vietnam posting, Army life and family commitments prevented Jocelyn from fully pursuing her legal career.[1]

In 1975 Kevin Newman gained Liberal Party pre-selection for the House of Representatives division of Bass, based in Launceston, and resigned his Army commission. With Kevin’s victory in a by-election on 28 June, the Newmans’ life achieved some stability with a family move to Launceston. Kevin became Minister for Repatriation in December 1975. Jocelyn also joined the Liberal Party, and after the ‘frantic razzle-dazzle’ of the campaign, took up the role of representing her husband at meetings and social functions in the electorate. She ‘wanted to help the community in a more meaningful way’. She became well-known in Launceston as chair of the local National Trust, and as a founder of the Trust’s Old Umbrella Shop, member of the Northern Regional Child Protection Assessment Committee as well as the Launceston Church Grammar School Board, and officeholder of the Florence Nightingale Association. She was also deputy chair of the Association of Independent Schools of Tasmania. Jocelyn helped establish a women’s shelter, despite much community opposition, as she had done in Hobart. She also spent much time working on the family’s mixed farm at Kindred. The couple later ran a guesthouse, and were co-purchasers of Launceston’s Old Bakery Inn, which they refurbished as a boutique hotel. [2]

Poor health forced Kevin Newman’s retirement from Parliament in October 1984. Jocelyn had twice previously been asked to stand for the Tasmanian Parliament, but had declined due to family commitments. When Liberal Senator Peter Rae announced his resignation from the Senate in early 1986, Jocelyn Newman defeated twelve male candidates for nomination as his replacement. She was choosen as a senator by the Tasmanian Parliament on 13 March 1986, an event that excited her: ‘I think I was born to do the job’. Only Shirley Walters and Jean Hearn had preceded her as female Tasmanian senators. When asked by a journalist if she would like to be a minister, she replied: ‘Yes, the Minister of Defence’.[3]

Newman’s first Senate speech foreshadowed the issues that would dominate much of her parliamentary and ministerial career: ‘My Party stands for the free citizen—his initiative, understanding and acceptance of responsibility’. Rejecting the ‘doctrine of the all-powerful state’, she argued that the ‘heavy involvement of government in all our lives inevitably leads to heavy taxation, which in turn leads to dishonesty, avoidance and evasion’. She saw the main responsibilities of government as the maintenance of a strong defence system, protection of the rule of law, and upholding the Australian Constitution. Citing the Franklin Dam issue, she expressed ‘deep concern at the increasing trend of the Government to manipulate the Constitution to its centralist advantage’. Although social security was of great importance, the ‘welfare State does not know best’. She quoted Dame Enid Lyons’ first speech in the House of Representatives in 1943: ‘I know so well that fear, want and idleness can kill the spirit of any people. But I know too that security can be bought at too great a cost—the cost of spiritual freedom’.[4]

Newman was elected to the Senate for Tasmania in the double dissolution election of July 1987, and she was first on the Liberal Party ticket and the first senator elected for Tasmania in 1990 and 1996. Between September 1988 and March 1996 she held various shadow portfolios including defence science and personnel (1988–92), status of women (1989–93), veterans’ affairs (1990–93), the aged (1992–93), family and health (1993–94) and defence (1994–96). From 1993, as a consequence of her appointment as shadow minister for family and health, she was a member of the shadow cabinet. Despite the ‘frustrations’ of ten years on the Opposition benches, she claimed that this period gave her invaluable experience in the analysis of issues and the development of alternative policies. Above all other matters, Newman peppered ministers with defence questions—’the primary duty of any government’—and, in particular, the conditions of service and the living conditions of service families. Described as ‘a latter day Boadicea in the cause of defence families’, she spent much time at military bases, talking to personnel and their families, and often criticising what she saw: ‘Service families are living in slums while their Ministers are working in palaces’.[5]

Another key policy area for Newman was the place of women in society. She was a foundation member of the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) in 1972, but resigned in 1975 in opposition to WEL’s stance against the dismissal of Gough Whitlam’s Labor government; she believed the organisation should be politically neutral. Earlier in 1975 she had applied unsuccessfully for the post of women’s adviser to Whitlam: ‘It wasn’t party political for me, it was simply doing something for women’. She frequently pointed out structural inequalities and examples of the needs of women being overlooked, such as the lack of extensive child care facilities for the use of young families, or the lack of a Medicare rebate for breast screening. It was indicative of the status of women that Senate chamber chairs were ‘not designed for female shapes’, and that only three of 102 nominees in the fields of business, law and public service for Australia Day or Queen’s Birthday awards in 2000 were women. Newman’s views on the status of women were linked to her belief in the importance of personal responsibility. Accordingly, she believed in equal opportunity rather than affirmative action:

I am wholly convinced that every citizen in this country deserves an equal opportunity in life. That does not mean having their paths smoothed for them every inch of the way. Citizens need an equal opportunity to start and then they have to proceed on their own merit. It is offensive to women to be given artificial advancement and particularly to be lumped in with disadvantaged minorities as though women themselves are in a minority.

As a member of the conservative Lyons Forum she shared many of the views of its members: for example, she was against legal recognition for same-sex couples, and believed that women in the defence forces should not participate in combat roles. However, in line with her beliefs about personal choice, Newman was also a firm and consistent supporter of women’s right to abortion.[6]

Newman’s public image was one of competence and hard work. Obviously self-confident, she was one of five candidates to contest the deputy Liberal Senate leadership after the 1987 election. Defeated by Austin Lewis, she expressed her belief that her party ‘will eventually recognize my abilities and the leadership potential I believe I have’. In 1993 she initiated and chaired the Senate Select Committee on Public Interest Whistleblowing. There was occasional speculation that Newman might move to the House of Representatives in order to seek a senior party position.[7]

Newman mirrored many of her Tasmanian predecessors in the Senate in her keenness to protect the island state from centralist mainland government. In 1987 she criticised the Hawke Government’s Lemonthyme and Southern Forests Bill as a denial of ‘the rights of Tasmanian people to choose the way in which they manage their environment’. She called for affordable air fares across Bass Strait, and for the review and maintenance of the freight equalisation scheme, and lamented the federal government’s placement of the Australian Institute of Sport cycling program in South Australia rather than using existing facilities in Launceston. Newman believed that ‘the heavy hand of centralist power’ seen in the treatment of Tasmania through the Grants Commission was inequitable: ‘as a Tasmanian I am getting to the stage of waking up in the morning and wondering what the Government has done to us today’.[8]

In her first Senate speech Newman had spoken of ‘the toll which high office takes in this country’ and which led to her husband Kevin’s retirement. Apart from her concern with his chronic lung problems, Newman’s own health problems affected her career and changed her approach to life. In November 1993 she had radical surgery for uterine cancer, and in May 1994 she resigned from the Opposition front bench following the discovery of breast cancer requiring more major surgery. She later noted that her mother, her sister and a grandmother had all suffered breast cancer. In the years following many women who had experienced mastectomies would approach her to talk about the issue. She hoped that by discussing her battles with cancer publicly, she might encourage other women to have regular health checks to detect early cancers.

When speaking against the Euthanasia Laws Bill 1996, which sought to prevent the Northern Territory, the ACT and Norfolk Island from passing laws allowing euthanasia, she referred to her husband’s illness: ‘Someone I love very much will very likely die from choking to death. That thought is with me always. It cannot but help influence my views’. In the same speech Newman described her radiation treatment in 1993 as ‘excruciatingly painful’, and her cancer surgeries occasions ‘of deep soul-searching’. If ever she was to be faced with a long and painful death: ‘I wish to have the right to knowingly choose the time of my death and the circumstances in which I die. Even more so, I passionately want to have that right for those I love’. The Australian praised Newman’s ‘thoughtful and moving’ contribution to the debate.[9]

In 1994 Leader of the Opposition Alexander Downer invited Newman to return to the shadow ministry. Initially, she declined—until he revealed that he was offering her the defence portfolio. Her return to the frontbench came just four months after her second cancer diagnosis. Having written and launched the Opposition’s defence policy for the March 1996 election, Newman expected to become Minister for Defence after the Coalition’s victory, and was disappointed when Prime Minister John Howard offered her the Social Security portfolio. The disappointment was soon followed by ‘shock and apprehension’ when she considered the size of the task that confronted her: ‘I was well aware that it was complex, political dynamite, and in need of reform’. She also became Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women, a position she held until October 1997, and again from October 1998 to January 2001. She was the second Tasmanian woman to be appointed to a Commonwealth Cabinet.

Newman worked hard at mastering her new portfolio, which included responsibility for child care, public housing, family services and disability matters, and comprised forty per cent of the federal budget. A critic spoke of her as warm and compassionate, but said that her reactions to social problems were influenced by ‘decades of conservative ideology’. Newman showed her ability to master the large workload and institute change. Within two months of taking office she spoke of simplifying the welfare system, and this remained a focus of her time in office. She regarded the creation in 1997 of Centrelink, the national welfare delivery agency and ‘one-stop shop’ for federal welfare services, as central to her aims, noting that it was ‘very much my baby’. She oversaw the introduction of the family tax package, reforms to child support legislation and measures to combat domestic violence and assist its victims, and took particular pride in introducing amendments to the youth allowance. Newman also expressed her determination to reduce ‘welfare dependency’, to eradicate ‘rorters’ and to improve children’s futures by working to keep families together. She presided over a tightening of benefits, and was attacked over changes to the funding of child-care centres, for cuts to the funding of a number of community and women’s groups, and for appearing harshly reactive to criticism. At the end of her Senate career, she believed that she had restored ‘public confidence in the social security system’.

After the 1998 election Howard increased Newman’s responsibilities, with the creation of the new portfolio of Family and Community Services. She acknowledged the size of her load: ‘I asked for another pair of shoulder pads; my shoulders weren’t quite big enough’. She assumed the expanded workload with enthusiasm, the major focus being a comprehensive reorganisation of the entire welfare system. To the frustration of the Minister, progress on welfare system reform moved slowly. During 1999 there was serious Cabinet disagreement over the direction of welfare reform, with some of Newman’s colleagues anxious to limit costs. Newman had announced that she would release a discussion paper on welfare reform when she addressed the National Press Club in September 1999; there was speculation in the press that the paper contained proposals for severe welfare cuts. When Newman did not release the paper it was claimed that it had been suppressed at the behest of the Prime Minister. The Senate made an order that Newman table the paper by 12 October, and when she did not comply, voted to censure her. The paper, or a version of it, was eventually presented to the President of the Senate on 9 November, although Newman claimed public interest immunity in respect of some documents and information for subsequent hearings of the Community Affairs References Committee on the paper’s proposals for changes to the welfare system. A welfare review commissioned by Newman in October 1999 resulted in the McClure Report in 2000, proposing a simplified income support structure in which citizens receiving government assistance would be expected to reciprocate by meeting some responsibilities, in a ‘mutual obligation’ system.[10]

Kevin Newman died on 17 July 1999. Jocelyn Newman had been overseas on government business; she did not reach his bedside before he died. The couple’s contribution to Partners (1999), a book based on interviews with Australian couples, indicates the importance of the marriage for them both, not least in helping sustain each other during their political careers. In May 2000 Newman was hospitalised briefly, and press speculation began to focus on her future, including possible appointment as Governor-General. Nearing the end of the year, she came under pressure to resign her ministry to allow a ministerial reshuffle, and she handed Howard her resignation on 19 December 2000, to take effect in the new year. She resigned her Senate seat on 1 February 2002.[11]

Walking the parliamentary corridors with ‘a purposeful bustle’, Newman was widely recognised as a formidable politician, certain of her views and not easily intimidated. She was frustrated by the lack of loyalty in the party which produced four changes of leadership between 1989 and 1995. Newman could annoy opponents: Labor’s Robert Ray (Vic.) accused her of a ‘penchant for grandstanding’, and when Senator Peter Walsh dismissed her as a ‘stupid woman’, Newman assured Walsh that she would not be intimidated: ‘Bigger and better bullies have pulled my pigtails in the schoolyard and … could not silence me’. She noted that at Cabinet meetings the loud voices of the men dominated and that if she attempted to interrupt, ‘I just sound shrill’. Accordingly, on occasion she was prepared ‘to do a Khrushchev’, by thumping the table to gain attention. She was determined to be heard and it is clear that she achieved this aim, both in government and Opposition.

Newman could be stubborn. When Commonwealth car drivers refused to cross a union picket line at Parliament House in August 1991, most MPs were prepared to walk to or from their cars, including Prime Minister Hawke. Newman, however, sat in her car for seventy-five minutes when her driver refused to cross the picket line. She claimed that she did so to assert the principle that ‘the work of the Parliament and the representatives of the people must not be impeded’. A journalist described Newman’s manner as ‘coolly confrontational’. Known as ‘an absolute workaholic with a frightening eye for detail and logic’, she expected respect from her staff (‘Senator’ or ‘Minister’ rather than her forename). Those who met her exacting standards eventually found their work appreciated. At the same time, she could laugh, and her ‘pleasantness and good humour’ were praised by a political opponent, Senator Christabel Chamarette of the Greens WA. Newman’s Tasmanian Liberal colleague, Senator Eric Abetz, considered her outstanding qualities to be ‘strength, resilience, vision, energy, and a sense of humour, together with a determination that was usually delivered with a withering frown and a few words’.

After leaving Parliament Newman moved to Canberra to be near her daughter’s family. Her son, Campbell Newman, was elected to the Queensland Parliament in March 2012, and as leader of the Liberal National Party, became Premier of Queenland.

In retirement Jocelyn Newman was a member of the Australian War Memorial Council and the boards of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the Breast Cancer Network Australia, the National Breast Cancer Centre and the Advisory Council of Cancer Australia, and was patron of the National Breast Cancer Foundation and Defence Families of Australia. She was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2005 for service to the community; the citation noted her contributions to the development of government policies in relation to social security reform, as an advocate for women’s issues, particularly in the health and welfare areas, and as a supporter of local organisations in Tasmania.

Newman’s career was an important milestone in the struggle for female parliamentarians to gain acceptance by male colleagues. Her battles with cancer also earned her the respect of her colleagues, and sharpened her determination to achieve:

You learn to make every moment count. You appreciate the opportunities you’ve had in the past and still have today. You focus on what’s really worth doing.[12]

Scott Bennett

[1] Author interview with Jocelyn Newman, 16 June 2009; Ross Fitzgerald and Anne Henderson (eds), Partners, HarperCollins, Syd., 1999, pp. 70–84. The NLA holds papers of Kevin and Jocelyn Newman (MS Acc04/176 and MS Acc04/204) and a recording of an oral history interview with Jocelyn Newman by Norman Abjorensen of 29 March 2006 (access restricted).

[2] ‘Profile: Jocelyn Newman’, House Magazine, 29 April 1987, p. 8; Fitzgerald and Henderson, Partners, p. 80; Christine Fraser, Politically Correct: Talking to Twelve Tasmanian Women, The Write Business, Longford, Tas., 2008, pp. 185–207; Herald (Melb.), 14 June 1975, p. 23.

[3] Margaret Fitzherbert, So Many Firsts, The Federation Press, Syd., 2009, pp. 134–5; Mercury (Hob.), 10 March 1986, p. 1, 14 March 1986, p. 9; Sunday Tasmanian (Hob.), 31 Aug. 1986, p. 14; Examiner (Launc.), 10 March 1986, p. 1.

[4] CPD, 9 April 1986, pp. 2068–73.

[5] Transcript, ABC TV, ‘7.30 Report’, 10 Nov. 1988; Australian (Syd.) 15 May 1987, p. 6, 25 Nov. 1987, p. 11; Press Release, Senator Jocelyn Newman, 20 May 1988, 23 Sept. 1988; Mercury (Hob.) 6 Oct. 1988, p. 9.

[6] Fitzherbert, So Many Firsts, p. 135; CPD, 1 May 1987, p. 2163, 16 Aug. 1989, pp. 150–4; News Release, Senator Jocelyn Newman, 5 Jan. 1990; Age (Melb.), 16 March 1990, p.18; Transcript of interview, Senator Jocelyn Newman, ABC Radio, 1 Feb. 1991; CT, 7 May 1994, p. 3; Sunday Telegraph (Syd.) 9 July 2000, p. 44; Mercury (Hob.), 20 Dec. 1989, p. 21; Australian (Syd.) 23 Sept. 1996, p. 2; Transcript of Interview, ‘Sunday’, Channel Nine TV, 22 Sept. 1996.

[7] Age (Melb.), 28 July 1987, p. 6; Examiner (Launc.), 20 April 1993, p. 9.

[8] CPD, 24 March 1987, pp. 1243–4, 10 Dec. 1996, pp. 7102–4, 17 March 1988, p. 916, 13 June 1986, p. 3994, 3 June 1986, pp. 3300–1, 12 June 1986, pp. 3943–7, 23 Nov. 1987, p. 2203, 17 March 1988, p. 916; Mercury (Hob.), 13 July 1988, p. 1.

[9] CPD, 30 April 1986, p. 2063; Sunday Telegraph (Syd.), 24 July 1994, p. 4; Sunday Tasmanian (Hob.), 24 July 1994, p. 6; Telegraph Mirror (Syd.), 4 Oct. 1994, p. 11; CPD, 18 March 1997, pp. 1740–1; Australian (Syd.), 26 March 1997, p. 12.

[10] Examiner (Launc.), 26 Sept. 1994, p. 1–2; Fitzgerald and Henderson, Partners, p. 82; Sun-Herald (Tempo), (Syd.), 23 April 2000, p. 55, 12 May 1996, p. 5; News Release, Senator Jocelyn Newman, 26 April 1996; Fraser, Politically Correct, pp. 200–201; Transcript, opening address, AIC Conference 26 May 1997; Australian (Syd.), 19 Oct. 1998, p. 5; Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs, Report on Proposals for Changes to the Welfare System, Canberra, Nov. 1999; CPD, 13 Oct. 1999, pp. 9529–32; Reference Group on Welfare Reform, Participation Support for a More Equitable Society, Canberra, 2000.

[11] Fitzgerald and Henderson, Partners, pp. 70–84; SMH, 2 June 2000, p. 17; Australian, (Syd.), 6 Dec. 2000, pp. 1, 4, 19 Dec. 2000, p. 1; CT, 20 Dec. 2000, p. 2.

[12] CT, 15 June 1989, p. 12; Age, (Melb.), 28 May 1994, p. 9, CPD, 28 Oct. 1987, p. 1391, 24 Sept. 1986, p. 795, 25 Sept. 1986, p. 817; SMH (Good Weekend), 18 March 2000, pp.16–23; Scott Bennett, ‘Parliament House and the Australian People’, Parliamentary Library Research Paper No. 29, 2007–08, p. 29; CPD, 13 Aug. 1991, pp. 132–3, 13 Feb. 2002, pp. 216–40; Sue Williams, ‘Beyond the ordeal’, Australian Magazine, 13/14 May 1995, p. 13.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 366-371.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Tas., 1986–2002 (Lib)

Minister for Social Security, 1996–98

Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women, 1996–97, 1998–2001

Minister for Family and Community Services, 1998–2001

Senate Committee Service

Estimates Committee D, 1986–89; E, 1987–88, 1991–92; B, 1990–92; C, 1993–94

Scrutiny of Bills Committee, 1986–87

Standing Committee on Education and the Arts, 1986–87

Select Committee on the Education of Gifted and Talented Children, 1987–88

Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, 1987–89

Select Committee on Public Interest Whistleblowing, 1993–94

Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, 1995