PRIMMER, Cyril Graham (1924–2003)
Senator for Victoria, 1971–85 (Australian Labor Party)

Cyril Graham Primmer was born on 19 April 1924, at Warrnambool, Victoria, the eldest of eight children of James Primmer, a shearer, and his wife Annie Florence, née Duncan. The family lived at Mailors Flat, ten kilometres from Warrnambool. When Cyril was six his parents purchased a sheep and dairy farm at Kirkstall, a small town twenty kilometres west of Mailors Flat. Cyril received his early education at state schools at Kirkstall and Koroit. At his mother’s insistence, he undertook two years further study at Warrnambool Technical School.

Cyril Primmer was called up for service in the Citizen Military Forces on 10 June 1942; transferring to the Australian Imperial Force on 21 August 1943, he served as a cook with the Australian Survey Corps in New Guinea, at Lae and Bougainville. On his discharge from the Army with the rank of Corporal in September 1946, Primmer returned to Kirkstall and worked on the family farm. He married Lorna Alice Floyd at Port Fairy, Victoria, on 10 June 1947; over the next five years they had a daughter and two sons. In about 1950, with help from his parents, Primmer purchased 102 acres of land at Kirkstall and started his own dairy farm.

Primmer ‘didn’t really start to think about politics until after the war’, when he was established on his own farm ‘and I started to read’. His books came from the country loans section of the Public Library of Victoria. Influenced by such writers as Bertrand Russell, Beatrice Webb, Gandhi, Karl Marx, and Aneurin Bevan, Primmer decided to pursue his ‘commitment to a socialist philosophy’ through the Australian Labor Party. He also joined a class on public speaking.[1]

At the same time Primmer was active in the community of Kirkstall, including as captain of the fire brigade, president of the local RSL, and president or secretary of the local hall, school and library committees. He was a member of the Victorian Dairy Farmers’ Association, taking up the position of secretary to the district council. In 1956 he was elected to the Belfast Shire Council, choosing to stand as an Independent; he continued as a councillor until 1971, and served as shire president (1958–59, 1967–68).

Primmer joined the ALP in 1954 or 1955, around the time of the Labor Party Split, and tensions and hatreds were keenly felt in his rural community. Shots were fired at his farm, and the tyres of his car were let down. Attending the first Labor branch meeting after the Split, Primmer ‘settled into the president’s chair at the front of the room and laid a shotgun on the desk’. Primmer held the posts of secretary and president of the Kirkstall branch of the ALP. He also served on the party’s state electoral council, and the Wannon federal electorate assembly. He was a delegate to country conferences and to the state annual conference.

An unsuccessful candidate for election to the Victorian Legislative Council in 1961, Primmer stood in 1963 and 1966 for the federal seat of Wannon against the sitting Liberal member Malcolm Fraser. Unsuccessful in both contests, he fared no better when placed third on Labor’s Victorian Senate ticket for the 1967 half-Senate election. Primmer eventually won election to the Senate in November 1970, having secured second position on the ticket. His term commenced on 1 July 1971, and he was re-elected in 1974, 1975, 1980 and 1983. He took the ‘almost unprecedented’ step of setting up his electorate office in Warrnambool, rather than having an office in Melbourne.[2]

In his first speech to the Senate, on 8 September 1971, Primmer said that he hoped ‘to maintain most of my political activity on matters pertaining to primary industry and to people who live in rural areas’. He went on to condemn the harsh treatment of farmers by banks, criticised the Australian Wool Board, and accused the federal government of ‘mismanagement’ of the dairy industry. Despite his focus on primary industry, wider concerns were already evident:

It is a sorry spectacle for me as a humanist knowing that I have curtailed dairy production, to sit in front of a television set at night and see the emaciated people, particularly children, in this world … Huge losses of lives, huge expenditures on bombs and bullets in countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos have done nothing to win us friends or influence people …

In his concluding remarks he told senators that he was ‘deeply perturbed by what I see going on around me in the world today. I am disturbed by the great imbalance between the haves and the have nots’.[3]

Primmer served on a number of parliamentary committees, including as chairman of estimates committees D (1974–75), A (1975) and C (1983–85), and of the Senate Standing Committee on National Resources in 1985. He was a member of the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence from 1973 until his retirement in 1985, and chaired the committee from October 1974 to November 1975; he was also a member of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence (1973–75). Major inquiries by these committees during his membership informed and reinforced his strong left-wing views on national security, defence and foreign affairs.

Primmer had been active in the Vietnam Moratorium movement in the Warrnambool district, and in May 1973 he joined a dinner at Parliament House with visiting delegations from North Vietnam and the Vietcong at Parliament House hosted by Whitlam Government minister Dr Jim Cairns. When the Opposition raised Cairns’ action as a matter of public importance, describing it as ‘recognition and condonation … to the northern Vietnam aggression and Vietcong terrorism’ Primmer responded vigorously, characterising ‘the leaders of juntas of South Vietnam’ as ‘some of the greatest fascist despots that this world has seen’. He was ‘quite proud’ to have dined with the visiting delegations ‘because I believe that they represent the aspirations of the people in Vietnam’. A trenchant critic of the intervention of the United States in Vietnam, he argued that the US should be asked to remove its bases from Australia, describing their existence as ‘selling out our rights, our heritage and our freedom to move in any global conflict’.

In 1975 Primmer chaired an inquiry into ‘Australia and the refugee problem’, which focused on the plight of Vietnamese and other refugees arriving in Australia following the occupation of Saigon by communist forces in 1975. In the early 1980s he participated in a follow-up inquiry on Indo-Chinese refugee resettlement, which reported in 1982 that the integration of refugees had improved significantly, although Primmer observed that, while Australia had been willing to take refugees fleeing communist regimes: ‘We have been very reluctant to take people from countries where fascist or extreme right wing dictatorships are the vogue … A great many Indo-Chinese refugees who have come here by boat or in other ways can be seen only as economic refugees’.[4]

Primmer was a persistent and passionate advocate for the people of East Timor. In February 1976, discussing the Indonesian occupation of East Timor in December 1975, he told the Senate that ‘mass genocide has been committed right on Australia’s doorstep by Indonesians’ and referred to ‘neo-fascists’ and ‘extreme right wing militarists’ in Indonesia. His anger was also directed towards ‘the strain of appeasement’ in Australian foreign policy, and what he regarded as ‘a shocking example of bureaucratic cover-up’ by the Department of Foreign Affairs. He accused the Australian Ambassador to Indonesia, Richard Woolcott, of acting ‘virtually as an agent’ of the Indonesian armed forces. In February 1977 he cited allegations of ‘up to 100 000 people being killed and of rape, destruction, torture and, above all, the total suppression of the right of the people to self determination and independence’. Following the Australian Government’s de facto recognition of the incorporation of East Timor in Indonesia in January 1978, Primmer suggested that Australian recognition might have been influenced by the prospect of Australian oil companies participating in exploration of the Timor seabed. Primmer was also disturbed by reports of Indonesian armed suppression of unrest in Irian Jaya. In 1977 he declared Australian acceptance of the Indonesian takeover in 1963 of the area which at the time was called West Irian, to have been ‘a mistake’.

In 1977 Primmer had suggested that a Senate committee should analyse events in East Timor over the previous eighteen months, including the role played by Australian governments. Four years later, the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence investigated ‘the human rights and the conditions of the people of East Timor’, and Primmer served as deputy chairman. When the committee reported in 1983, condemning the Indonesian occupation of East Timor and detailing numerous abuses of human rights, Primmer described its hearings as ‘the most heart rending I have ever participated in’.[5]

On 7 March 1978 Primmer told the Senate of ‘widespread malpractices in the meat export industry’. His principal allegation was that meat of inferior quality had been packaged and illegally stamped as approved for export, without the knowledge of Commonwealth meat inspectors. On the following day, the federal Minister for Primary Industry, Ian Sinclair, said there was ‘no basis’ for Primmer’s allegations. In September 1981 Primmer was vindicated when substituted horse and kangaroo meat was discovered in beef exports to the USA. The Fraser Government introduced legislative countermeasures, and established a royal commission into the Australian meat industry.[6]

Often at odds with senior officers of the Foreign Affairs Department (‘manipulators who hide behind the grey walls of the Department of Foreign Affairs’) during his advocacy of East Timor, Primmer commenced, in February 1982, a campaign to expose what he believed to be criminal activity and cover-ups involving senior diplomats and officers, whom he described as ‘professional liars’. In particular, he targeted Ivor Bowden, Australia’s Ambassador to Iran from 1974 to 1978, whom he accused of embezzlement, and the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Peter Henderson, whom he alleged had covered up this and other financial irregularities. By May 1983 Primmer, whose contribution to debate in the Senate on other matters had declined, had placed more than ninety questions on notice relating to this issue, and had spoken at length about it in the Senate. In December 1983 Primmer also made scathing comments in the Senate about the personal character of the Director of the Australian Security Intelligence Service, who had been a career diplomat.

Ministers in both the Fraser and Hawke governments rejected Primmer’s claims and deplored ‘continued personal attacks’ on public servants, made under parliamentary privilege; it was reported that Primmer had little support within his own party. Investigations by the Department of Finance, the Australian Federal Police, the Ombudsman, and the Public Service Board failed to find any evidence of criminality. The findings of these bodies were examined and affirmed in a report by the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration, published in December 1992.

When Primmer made the allegations outside Parliament, he was sued by Henderson and Bowden. The actions were settled out of court in September 1986, with Primmer agreeing to pay damages and to issue formal letters of apology to Henderson and Bowden, withdrawing unreservedly all the accusations he had made against them. The letters were published in the press, and in Hansard following their tabling in the Senate by a Liberal Party senator in October 1986, fifteen months after Primmer had left the Senate. In 1988 the Senate agreed to a privilege resolution allowing a person who has been adversely referred to in the Senate to seek to have a response, by way of a written submission, incorporated into the parliamentary record. It was the first legislature in the world to adopt such a procedure.[7]

Primmer did not stand for election in December 1984 and his term expired on 30 June 1985. During his fourteen years in the Senate he had seen three double dissolutions of Parliament and three changes of government: ‘I have been on the other side, this side, back to the other side and over to this side again’. In his short valedictory speech, he admitted that ‘some of the faith that I had in the parliamentary system and democracy took rather a sharp blow in relation to the events of 11 November 1975’ and that he had ‘doubts about whether the Parliament or the Government will properly be able to represent the feelings of the great masses of people outside this place’.

Primmer bought back his parents’ farm and lived in the Warrnambool district until his death on 1 November 2003. Divorced in 1988, he was survived by two of his three children; his youngest son died in a road accident in 1975.[8]

Rennis Witham

[1] This entry draws throughout on a transcript of an interview with Cyril Primmer by Tony Hannan, August, 1985, POHP; ‘Questionnaire’ completed 25 Sept. 1982 for Parliament’s Bicentenary Publications Project, NLA MS 8806; Primmer, Cyril Graham, Record of Service, AIF, NAA B 884, VX127291.

[2] CPD, 24 Nov. 2003, pp. 17514–17, 22 March 1977, p. 360; POHP.

[3] CPD, 8 Sept. 1971, pp. 539–43.

[4] CPD, 2 May 1973, pp. 1248–50, 27 Feb. 1979, pp. 289–93, 1 Dec. 1976, pp. 2312–14; Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, Australia and the Refugee Problem, Canberra, 1977, Indochinese Refugee Resettlement—Australia’s Involvement, Canberra, 1982; CPD, 16 Feb. 1982, pp. 32–3.

[5] CPD, 24 Feb. 1976, pp. 149–51, 5 May 1976, pp. 1550–1, 22 Feb. 1977, pp. 264–6, 16 March 1977, p. 2424, 24 May 1977, pp. 1302–3, 11 Oct. 1977, pp. 1248–51, 22 Feb. 1978, pp. 77–8, 28 Sept. 1983, pp. 568–9, 575.

[6] CPD, 7 March 1978, pp. 404–6; CPD (R), 8 March 1978, pp. 507–8, 8 Sept. 1981, pp. 993–7, 21 Oct. 1982, pp. 2380–3; CPD, 8 Sept. 1981, pp. 513–15; CT, 6 Sept. 1981, p. 3.

[7] CPD, 22 Feb. 1978, pp. 77–8, 25 Feb. 1982, p. 477, 9 Sept. 1982, pp. 837–44, 14 Dec. 1982, pp. 3491–3, 25 May 1983, pp. 859–64, 2 June 1983, pp. 1169–72, 13 Oct. 1983, pp. 1562–6, 8 Dec. 1983, pp. 3493–501, 15 Oct. 1986, p. 1270; Australian (Syd.), 3 Dec. 1982, p. 2; CPD (R), 26 May 1983, pp. 1043–6; Peter Henderson, Privilege and Pleasure, Methuen Hayes, North Ryde, NSW, 1986, pp. 162–82; CT, 15 Oct. 1986, p. 7; Harry Evans and Rosemary Laing (eds), Odgers’ Australia Senate Practice, 13th ed., Dept. of the Senate, Canberra, 2012, pp. 95–6.

[8] CPD, 31 May 1985, pp. 2945–6, 2975; POHP.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 394-397.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Vic., 1971–85 (ALP)

Senate Committee Service

Estimates Committee C, 1971–72, 1976, 1983–85; B, 1973–74, 1976–78; F, 1973–74; D, 1974–75, 1978–1980; A, 1975; E, 1980–81, 1984–85; H, 1981–83

Standing Committee on Primary and Secondary Industry and Trade, 1972–73

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, 1973–75

Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, 1973–85

Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, 1975

Select Committee on South West Tasmania, 1981–82

Standing Committee on National Resources, 1984–85