RICHARDSON, Graham Frederick (1949– )
Senator, New South Wales, 1983–94 (Australian Labor Party)
Graham Frederick Richardson, whose words over the telephone or across restaurant tables would make and unmake several political careers including his own, was born in Sydney on 27 September 1949, the only surviving child of Frederick James Richardson, a senior clerk in the Postmaster General's Department, and his wife Catherine Maud (Peggy), née Graham. He grew up in Allawah and Kogarah, typical postwar suburbs where life found much of its meaning in the innocent pursuit of a greener lawn, a bigger car and better television reception. This comfortable hearth, together with a mild Catholic faith reinforced by attendance at St Raphael's Primary School and Kogarah's Marist Brothers College, conferred in him a lasting conviction that politics was partly about giving people like his neighbours a little more of what they wanted. His grasp that politics was also about gaining and wielding power came from the unexpected elevation of his father to state secretary of the Amalgamated Postal Workers' Union in 1965 and the fight that ensued against a coalition of unforgiving opponents. He was appalled but also excited by the glimpse of how strength stacked up against weakness and loyalty against betrayal, and 'most of all, I learned about persuasion'. A year later, shortly after his seventeenth birthday, he joined the Labor Party's sleepy Monterey branch.
Peggy Richardson worked as her husband's office manager and Fred Richardson depended heavily on her canny political judgment. Fred's enemies organised her sacking in October 1965, an event which made front-page news. Graham 'saw for the first time how the media can completely destroy a relatively peaceful suburban existence'. The sacking, he thought, was 'incredibly unfair, and it created great family upheaval'. Just a few weeks later, he nearly died following a car accident; the aftermath was severe facial scarring, plastic surgery and depression. Richardson regained confidence by joining the local Catholic Youth Organisation, where he displayed a natural talent for the stage. In deference to the wishes of his parents, he began a law course at the University of Sydney in 1969. Bright but unfocused, his indifference towards academic studies deepened after his mother's death later that year, and coincided with a growing passion for Labor politics.
Richardson shared the outlook of Paul Keating, Kerry Sibraa and other ambitious young subalterns of Labor's tribal, tough-minded right wing which backed his father and dominated the NSW party and trade unions. In 1971, at Sibraa's initiative, he took a job at state party headquarters. Badly dressed and uncoolly gregarious, a hamburger in one hand and a milkshake in the other, he seemed an unlikely recruit. But he plunged willingly into the hack work of starting new local branches and reviving dead ones, of giving his party its best chance of winning by-elections and his faction of winning party ballots. The great advantage of the experience, he reflected later, was discovering 'the two things that matter—how to fight the Liberals, and how to fight the Left'. He also discovered doing business in restaurants, to the lasting detriment of his waistline, and valuable mentors in John Ducker, who dominated the state party, and ACTU president Bob Hawke. In September 1976, after helping Ducker lever Geoff Cahill from the post, he became Labor's NSW state secretary. Two years later, by backing a simple election strategy and extracting donations from big business, he helped secure the landslide return of Neville Wran's Labor Government to Macquarie Street. Graham Richardson was already a young man to watch.
On 18 April 1973, at Marist Brothers College, Richardson married Cheryl Ruth Gardner, whom he had met when working briefly in a solicitor's office. Within eighteen months they had a son, and a large mortgage on a house in Ramsgate; a daughter came four years later. By then Richardson's salary, supplemented by a bridging loan and Cheryl's salary, provided by a local party figure—Danny Casey—not only tided them over but allowed them to move to a larger house in Killara on Sydney's North Shore. 'Magnificent it's not, but it's nice', he commented. As a rising executive always on the telephone, not to mention a keen golfer and proud father, Richardson fitted in with prosperous neighbours unlikely to support the Labor Party.
He soon stood out though. As state secretary he was referee in a battle fought for the party's inner Sydney branches between a new middle-class left and an old working-class right. Some combatants packed their branches with friends or fellow drinkers and falsified membership and attendance records. Joe Meissner, secretary of the Enmore branch who had been in gaol for stealing sub-machine guns, was among those accused of branch-stacking and rorting the books; so too was Danny Casey, who was also being scrutinised by the Woodward Royal Commission into Drug Trafficking. Some of the accused threatened violence; some branch meetings ended in scuffles. Sympathetic toward the old roughhouse ways he believed had once sustained the party, Richardson umpired loosely and thus made 'a very big mistake on my part'. In July 1980 the Left's Peter Baldwin, who was reporting irregularities in Meissner's branch, was beaten almost to death, and images of his pulped face revolted the public. Richardson helped the police as they tried and failed to bring Baldwin's attackers to justice, but he opposed calls for police investigation into branch-stacking and book-rorting. The left demanded Richardson's resignation; for some people his name would forever conjure up the scuffles and scandals of what became known as the Enmore case.
Bruising criticism at the NSW state conference in 1981 made Richardson ponder quitting his post. He chose to step up, not down, taking the place of the ageing Tony Mulvihill on the Labor NSW Senate ticket for the next federal election. He then helped secure his future, and a reputation for machination, by destroying support for a struggling leader. Polling found Bill Hayden unpopular with undecided voters. The opposite was true of Bob Hawke, now sitting in Parliament. Naturally inclined toward his mentor, Richardson also knew that his faction's power would grow if it backed Hawke and Hawke won office. Richardson set to work, having the polling results read out loud to Hayden and nudging key Hayden supporters like John Button. Hawke became Labor's parliamentary leader on the day the 1983 election was called. A month later Labor was in office, Peter Barron, a close friend of Richardson, was Hawke's key adviser, and the 'short, very brash, tough-talking and super-confident' thirty-three year old was a senator.
He was powerful from the start. With Victoria's Robert Ray he united most of the parliamentary right to outweigh the left, place its favoured sons on the front bench, and restrain some of the increasingly painful economic and welfare reforms that soon absorbed Paul Keating, now Treasurer, and Hawke's other economic ministers. In helping divide Caucus into disciplined, cross-state factions he thus reduced the number of arguments about policy and promotions while also increasing their bitterness, and created a powerful counterweight to Cabinet. He was a master at factional leadership, at making deals and dispensing favours, and at twisting arms and opening doors and ears. He breezily warned the ministry whenever some policy or other made backbenchers uneasy or risked an electoral backlash. He was also happy for reporters to deliver these warnings for him. Media reports of a November 1986 speech in Singleton, NSW, where he accused the government of losing touch with voters, helped Labor recover from an onset of electoral complacency.
'It's not pragmatism', he once quipped when his philosophy was challenged, 'I much prefer to be described as being rational'. It seemed rational to reform the electoral system, and through the winter of 1983 he sat with Robert Ray on a joint select committee on electoral reform to plan how to make voting easier and elections fairer. One way was to make rules for funding election campaigns. By now a master at attracting substantial donations, Richardson knew better than most the risks of 'governments being bought by those who make large, and mostly secret, contributions to party funds'. Parliament enacted most of the committee's recommendations, legislating for an independent electoral commission, the choice of voting for parties as well as individuals, public funding for election campaigns, disclosure of some big donations, and a larger Parliament—the last measure exploited by Richardson and Ray to win support for the reforms.
Richardson's power was constrained by suspicions about the Enmore case and his connections with some of the suspects and other men and women of imperfect reputations. 'I rise for the third time in just over one year', Richardson told the Senate in May 1985, 'to defend myself against scurrilous allegations'. This time the allegations centred on supposed photographs, never produced, of naked politicians being entertained on a 'love boat' by Joe Meissner's girlfriend. Eighteen months later he was responding to questions by Liberal senator Chris Puplick, inspired by a tape which seemed to record assurances of help given to one of the Enmore suspects. 'I am sick of it', Richardson exploded, 'I will now destroy the accusations and the accusers once and for all'. He spoke savagely for half an hour or more, verbally punching and weaving in a feat of oratorical infighting that only the victor of a hundred party conference debates could have attempted.
The accusations lingered nonetheless, surviving their subject's unexpected embrace of principle. In April 1986 Bob Brown (Greens, Tas.), a leading voice for conserving wild places, showed Richardson a patch of Tasmanian wilderness. The pragmatist who usually hid his sentimental streak was struck by the beauty and fragility of what he saw, and by the commitment of those pledged to defend it. 'I thought they were terrific and they were all the things that I wasn't', he later said. He stayed true to the cause, at the cost of some of his inbred pragmatism and distaste for the progressive middle class, because what seemed right was also useful. Embracing green politics would help win support from minor parties and independent candidates like those now holding the balance of power in the Senate and whose preferences would decide the result of coming elections.
His power and his conviction ensured that a week after the July 1987 election Richardson took responsibility for the environment and the arts as one of Hawke's junior ministers. Six months later he entered Cabinet as Minister for Sport, Tourism and Territories as well. He handed over most of his factional duties and began to seem a different man: 'more earnest, genuinely interested in issues, less frenetic in style'. 'I've played the bad guy long enough', he told Hawke, and surprised the adviser he recruited from a green group by remarking: 'I want to be the minister for saying yes'. As arts minister he mobilised stockbroker Rene Rivkin, whose maverick brilliance and raffish ways impressed him, to solicit donations to the National Gallery. But his focus was always on the environment and securing a green alliance.
Protecting forests was his immediate aim, and he had two powerful weapons in hand. Having ratified the World Heritage Convention in 1974, the government could oblige the states to protect land it listed. It could also throw money at anyone who lost their livelihood in the process. Hawke had already promised to list the ancient rainforests of northeast Queensland. But as Richardson moved to deliver the promise he angered a hostile state government and distressed locals who depended on logging for a living, and on 4 September 1987 an angry crowd in the small town of Ravenshoe jeered and jostled then kicked and punched him. Television cameras turned defeat into victory. To a wider audience watching in their lounge rooms, Richardson suddenly seemed an embattled crusader for the environment.
In the following year Richardson took on another state government, and some of his cabinet colleagues, after an inquiry into how much of Tasmania's Lemonthyme and Southern forests should be listed recommended that very little should be. Most of Cabinet was satisfied with that, including resources minister Peter Cook, who crafted an agreement with the state government on the matter, but Richardson urged green groups to protest. Cabinet disputed the extent of the listing for fifteen tense hours over four meetings in a windowless, harshly-lit room of New Parliament House during the winter of 1988 as Richardson slowly swung his colleagues around to protecting most of the forests and repudiating Cook's agreement. The price was high: generous compensation for the region and, for Richardson, permanent enmity from some of his peers.
It hardly helped matters when, touring America at the end of the year, he publicly criticised a Canadian company, Noranda, part of a consortium proposing a timber pulp mill for Wesley Vale in northwest Tasmania, then smiled on protesters who marched against the proposal. In March 1989 Cabinet approved the mill, but insisted on tougher environmental guidelines. The consortium pulled out, taking with it the prospect of hundreds of skilled jobs and millions of export dollars.
Richardson believed that Kakadu National Park 'had more symbolic value than any forest, lake, reef or mountain range; it was the benchmark by which our commitment to the environment would be judged'. Under stage III of the park's proclamation, a 2200 square kilometre mining exploration zone had been permitted. This included BHP's proposed gold, platinum and palladium mine at Coronation Hill. Richardson now adopted a proposal to drastically reduce the exploration zone to less than fifty square kilometres and defer consideration of approval of mining at Coronation Hill until after the next election. He won Hawke's support, pushing the revised scheme through Cabinet in the face of furious resistance from several senior ministers including John Dawkins, Peter Walsh and John Button. Richardson's victory seemed impressive, but it launched open warfare with primary industries minister John Kerin and deepened the aversion with which he was regarded by some Cabinet colleagues.
Outside Cabinet, Richardson was converting more people with his policy of saying yes than he was alienating. As the 1990 election approached, Labor was rewarded with Bob Brown's public support and a promise of green preferences. During the campaign Richardson crossed the country again and again, begging for primary or preference votes on radio, in front of television cameras or in person for eighteen or twenty hours almost every day. It was a punishing schedule for a man who was now forty, unfit and obliged to sustain himself with the odd burst of the Eagles Live album, but it worked. Labor received the primary votes of only two electors in five but green and minor party preferences carried the party to an unprecedented fourth term in office.
The 'most dangerous man in politics in Australia today', as one Liberal opponent called him, felt he deserved a promotion. One portfolio Richardson coveted was transport and communications, where billion-dollar decisions were made affecting some of the biggest businessmen in Australia, some of whom he counted as friends. But Hawke's reliance on Richardson was waning, the economic ministers wanted to keep his hands from joining theirs on the tiller, and some party leaders said that courting the green vote had eroded direct support for Labor. Hawke offered Richardson the choice of being put out to pasture as high commissioner in London or taking on the hard, unprestigious drudgery of Minister for Social Security—even harder now the economy was faltering and spending cuts were needed. Richardson opted for drudgery. For twenty months he immersed himself in the multitude of briefs that came up from his huge department, arguing in Cabinet's Expenditure Review Committee against trimming this program or that and, on losing almost every argument, justifying the result to confused and angry pensioners like his Auntie Marge, with whom he spent half an hour on the telephone trying to explain why she now had to pay for part of the cost of medicines that had once been free.
He still found time to plot against his old mentor. Richardson shifted a useful bloc of caucus votes from Hawke to Paul Keating, a factional brother from the home state and bursting to take the top job. He also twisted Hawke's arm, first telling him that most of the Caucus wanted him to retire and then warning of an imminent challenge. In May 1991, when that challenge failed, Richardson began quietly working toward a return match while publicly denying he was doing so. The failed challenge and its secretive sequel prompted some observers to wonder if he was losing some of his now legendary influence, and to doubt whether they could trust any statement he made. The doubt was reinforced by the publication of Fia Cumming's Mates, a profile of Richardson's faction which, in his case, evoked a keen intelligence, larrikin humour, and complete lack of principle. No wonder Richardson later called the period 'the most difficult of all my time in politics'. It ended in December, after the polls shifted against Hawke as they once had for Hayden. Richardson felt numb rather than triumphant at having helped topple a man who had been like an older brother to him. Keating rewarded Richardson with the communications portfolio Hawke had denied him.
Cabinet colleague Neal Blewett was uneasy with 'shifting the arch-proponent of vested interests' to 'a hive of pressure groups', but Richardson's time in office proved too short to exercise any influence. Early in April 1992 he received a telephone call from a lawyer in the Marshall Islands. Greg Symons, an old friend married to his cousin, was in gaol there: would Richardson call the tiny country's president and ask if Symons could return to Australia to prepare his defence? After consulting foreign minister Gareth Evans, Richardson made 'that one call, out of the many thousands I have made during my political career', which 'just about sealed my fate'. First he was accused of bullying a small foreign government; then it came to light that Symons had tried to exploit a loophole in American immigration laws and Richardson had signed a reference commending him. At the same time, the media and the Opposition learned of Richardson's undeclared membership of the board of a regional radio station and recent use of Rene Rivkin's car and flat in London. Not to mention that six weeks earlier he had appeared in court as a witness as Joe Meissner was tried for perverting the course of justice. Suddenly the baggage was too heavy.
Richardson was hammered for days in the press, on radio and television and in the Senate. Behind the questions about his recent conduct lurked unease about a man who seemed too loyal to his faction, too proud of his role in the downfall of Hayden and Hawke, too close to rich party donors and men like Casey and Meissner. He literally staggered through the first week of May, plagued by gout and nauseous from the tablets he was taking. Still, a fall seemed unlikely. 'They keep throwing out bait and hoping someone will bite', Richardson mocked. Now someone did. On 7 May the Opposition moved a censure motion in the Senate. John Button gave a lame defence of the colleague he disliked. The motion passed with the support of five Democrats, whose leader, John Coulter insisted on Richardson's resignation from the ministry. Even then it seemed far from over. John Laws, a personal friend as well as influential radio show host, gave him a sympathetic public hearing. But Keating had publicly backed Richardson, Evans had approved the telephone call, and Kerry Sibraa, by then Senate President, had also given Symons some support. The attack on Richardson might spread, and there was only one way to contain the damage. 'Richardson has gone', Blewett noted in his diary on 18 May, 'falling on his own sword'.
A backbencher once more, this time Richardson was an under-employed grandee. He began a memoir and doubted the government's chances of winning the next election. His doubts were confounded in March 1993 after a campaign in which he was conspicuously inconspicuous. His power had waned but was substantial enough to secure a share in the spoils. Keating made him Minister for Health.
Here was another hive of vested interests, and one likely to deliver a fatal sting. With most medical treatment cheap or free under the Medicare scheme, costs were ballooning and hospital queues growing. Somehow Richardson had to cut both costs and queues without reducing services, and also win over doctors and private health funds who loudly opposed the public system. Richardson's unsuccessful proposal to secure Medicare by nudging middle-class Australians toward the private health funds offended almost everyone, including the prime minister. Richardson retreated into a new crusade. Early in 1994 he toured remote Aboriginal communities, was shocked by their squalor and disease, and announced it was time to remedy them. But he would not be the man to try. He had long muttered about leaving politics and was reluctant to risk pushing himself for too long, recalling how his father as well as his mother had died young. Nevertheless it seemed 'stunning news' when he retired, almost without warning, on 24 March 1994. 'You're getting out at the right time', Gareth Evans said cheerily: 'You only believe some of your own bullshit'.
'I have been happy in it', Richardson said of politics as he closed his valedictory speech to the Senate. 'I tell you what—I will be a lot happier out of it'. His memoir, franker and less pretentious than most in the genre but typical in its silences, appeared towards Christmas and was briefly notorious for arguing the merits of political lies. Stints as a talkback radio show host and writer for The Bulletin magazine, and as a lobbyist for Kerry Packer and political protégés like Morris Iemma, brought less attention than his friendship and business partnership with the increasingly notorious Rene Rivkin, and recurrent imputations of responsibility for Peter Baldwin's beating. He played a key role on the board of the Sydney Olympic Organising Committee, but was attacked over the allocation of premium seats to corporations.
In 1993 a fire at the Offset Alpine printing company in Sydney resulted in an insurance payout that greatly increased the value of the company's shares. In 2002 Rivkin claimed that he, Richardson and media executive Trevor Kennedy were secret shareholders in the company. Richardson and Kennedy denied owning shares in Offset, but were pursued for years by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. ASIC's investigation concluded in May 2010, effectively clearing Richardson and Kennedy of any wrongdoing. The finding coincided with criticisms of Richardson's re-emergence as a media commentator, especially following evidence given to inquiries by the NSW Legislative Council and the Independent Commission against Corruption.
As he teetered from power to notoriety, Richardson was often caricatured as a fallen king of the long-lunching NSW Right, tainted by its closeness to big donors and ruthless in removing its own dead wood whom it insincerely hailed as 'mate' to the end. His ties to men and women with criminal records were exaggerated; his period as a crusading environment minister was forgotten. 'My memory won't be around for very long', he had said back in 1991, 'but the rainforests of north Queensland will be around forever'.
 This entry draws throughout on Graham Richardson, Whatever It Takes, Bantam Books, Syd., 1994 [WIT] and Marian Wilkinson, The Fixer: The Untold Story of Graham Richardson, William Heinemann Australia, Melb., 1996 [Fixer]; National Times (Syd.), 21 Sept.–7 Oct. 1983, pp. 8–10.
 WIT, Parts 1 & 2; Fixer, Ch. 1–4; Fia Cumming, Mates: Five Champions of the Labor Right, Allen & Unwin, Syd., 1991, pp. 125, 260–8; Sunday Telegraph (Syd.), 8 Feb. 1981, p. 10; Daily Telegraph (Syd.), 11 Sept. 1976, p. 13; National Times (Syd.), 21 Sept.–7 Oct. 1983, pp. 8–10; Further Report of the Royal Commission into Drug Trafficking (the Hon. Mr. Justice Woodward), Syd., May 1980.
 WIT, pp. 78–118, 144–7; Fixer, pp. 182–201; Paul Kelly, The Hawke Ascendancy: A Definitive Account of its Origins and Climax 1975–1983, A&R, North Ryde, NSW, 1984, pp. 79–85, 190–210, 224–8, 337–40; National Times (Syd.), 21 Sept.–7 Oct. 1983, pp. 8–10, 21 Sept. 1984, pp. 3–5; SMH, 14 June 1986, p. 33; Peter Cameron, 'Graham Richardson', Australian Playboy, March 1991, pp. 22–3; Australian (Syd.), 14 July 1987, p. 5; Transcript, ABC Radio, 'Tuesday Despatch', 19 June 1984; CPD, 25 May 1983, p. 812; Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform, First Report, Canberra, Sept. 1983.
 CPD, 10 May 1985, p. 1777, 13 Nov. 1986, pp. 2177–82; Fixer, p. 284; National Times (Syd.), 21 Dec. 1986, p. 4; SMH, 22 March 1986, p. 13; Paul Kelly, The End of Certainty: The Story of the 1980s, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 1992, pp. 524–8, 534; Australian (Syd.), 11 Aug. 1987, p. 4; Age (Melb.), 15 Aug. 1987, p. 15; Fixer, p. 293; The Australian National Gallery Foundation Newsletter, Spring 1988.
 WIT, pp. 217–36; Fixer, pp. 298–303; Sunday Telegraph (Syd.), 19 June 1988, p. 49; SMH, 6 Aug. 1988, p. 31.
 CT, 17 March 1989, pp. 1, 2; WIT, pp. 258, 262–83; Peter Walsh, Confessions of a Failed Finance Minister, Random House, Milsons Point, NSW, 1996, pp. 209–10; Kelly, The End of Certainty, pp. 216, 536–41; Fixer, pp. 321–31; Australian (Syd.), 16 Nov.1989, p. 11, 7 Oct. 1989, p. 21, 28 Aug. 1990, pp. 1, 5; SMH (Good Weekend), 10 March 1990, pp. 10–16; Laurie Oakes, 'Environment is temporary winner', The Bulletin (Syd.), 3 April 1990, p. 31; AFR (Syd.), 27 March 1990, p. 3, 28 March 1990, p. 3; Daily Telegraph (Syd.), 24 Aug. 1990, p. 11; The Bulletin (Syd.), 8 May 1990, p. 27.
 Age (Melb.), 12 Aug. 1991, p. 13; CT, 20 April 1991, p. 9; WIT, p. 324; Kelly, The End of Certainty, pp. 615–59; SMH (Good Weekend), 2 May 1992, pp. 9–19.
 Neal Blewett, A Cabinet Diary, Wakefield Press, Kent Town, SA, 1999, pp. 19, 117; WIT, pp. 340–7; Fixer, pp. 344–59; Don Watson, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, Random House, Milsons Point, 2002, p. 190; CPD, 28–30 April, 4–7 May 1992; Age (Melb.), 8 May 1992, p. 15, 18 May 1992, p. 1, 16 May 1992, p. 2.
 WIT, pp. 347–56, 204; Australian (Syd.), 27 May 1993, p. 9; AFR (Syd.), 26 Nov. 1993, p. 27; Laurie Oakes, 'Brawling may damage their health', The Bulletin (Syd.) 7 Dec. 1993, p. 17; Laura Tingle, 'The high ground on black health', Australian Weekend Review (Syd.), 12 Feb. 1994, p. 3, SMH, 13 Aug. 1988, p. 33; CT, 24 March 1994, p. 1.
 CPD, 24 March 1994, p. 2347; Age (Melb.), (Saturday Extra), 12 Nov. 1994, p. 9; SMH, 19 Oct. 1998, p. 4, (Good Weekend), 26 Nov. 2005, pp. 47–51; Australian (Syd.), 28 and 31 May 2010, p. 1; AFR (Syd.), 20 Oct. 2009, p. 4, 15 Dec. 2009, p. 5, 4 Feb. 2010, p. 6; Peter Cameron, 'Graham Richardson', Australian Playboy, March 1991, pp. 22–3.
This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 71-77.