ROBERTSON, Edward Albert (1929–1991)
Senator for Northern Territory, 1975–87 (Australian Labor Party)

Ted Robertson and Bernard Kilgariff were the first senators elected to the Australian Parliament to represent the Northern Territory.

Born on 18 March 1929 in the port city of Albany, Western Australia, Edward Albert (Ted)Robertson was the only child of Scottish-born labourer Neil (Jock) Robertson and English-born Ethel Lucy Robertson, née Bamford. Ted’s parents separated before his birth and shortly afterwards his father left for the Northern Territory. Ted’s mother Ethel, a trained cook, raised her son in her father’s household in Albany; money was tight without support from his estranged father. At around the age of nineteen Ted renewed contact with Jock, resulting in a reconciliation between his parents. Ted’s firm belief in the Labor cause was developed under the guidance of his maternal grandfather, a railway worker and active union member, and was reinforced by the example of his father, a well-known activist in the Northern Territory labour movement and a member of the ALP.

Educated at Albany Primary School and Albany High School, Ted Robertson was encouraged by his mother to become a schoolteacher, a secure ‘government job’. After two years of teacher training at Claremont Teachers’ College, Perth (1948–49) Robertson taught at a number of schools in Western Australia and, by 1958, was a senior master at Albany High. He served as president of various branches of the Western Australian Teachers’ Union. He also joined the ALP and became secretary of the East Cannington branch. On 22 December 1954, Robertson married Hazel Audrey Curnow, whom he had met through his involvement in the Junior Farmers movement; the couple had two sons and a daughter. Audrey, a constant support to Ted, would become ‘a very energetic political operator in her own right’.[1]

Ted Robertson frequently visited his parents in the Northern Territory after they were reunited and, following his mother’s death in 1963, he moved with his family to Darwin on a two-year secondment as supervisor of publications and adult education with the Northern Territory Education Department. Robertson joined the Darwin branch of the ALP and soon became secretary. Returning to Perth, following his secondment, Robertson studied full-time in 1966 to complete Bachelor of Education and Bachelor of Arts degrees, for which he had studied as a distance student for a number of years through the University of Western Australia. He re-joined the East Cannington branch of the ALP and was a member of the State Executive of the Party 1966–67.

Robertson settled in Darwin with his family in 1968, taking up a post as an inspector of schools. In 1972 he was appointed principal education adviser. When Cyclone Tracy devastated the Northern Territory on Christmas Day 1974, Robertson was an acting assistant director of the Education Department and after the disaster his tasks included getting schools operational again. Known for his work in social welfare as chairman of both the Regional Council for Social Development and the Northern Territory Council of Social Services, Robertson was a member of the Citizens’ Advisory Committee and a trustee of the Cyclone Tracy Relief Trust Fund. A committed member of the Anglican Church and the YMCA, he was also an officer in the RAAF Reserve from 1961.

When Robertson first arrived in the Northern Territory the organisation of the major political parties was rudimentary: the Labor Party depended on ‘personal networks and personal support rather than party activity or party organisation’. Terry Smith, the Northern Territory Opposition Leader (1986–1990), described Robertson as ‘the father of the modern Labor Party in the Northern Territory’ for his role in developing an autonomous and professionally managed party. Robertson was secretary (1968–71) and president (1972–74) of the Northern Territory branch, president (1970–76) of the Darwin branch and delegate to the ALP Federal Executive (1973–74, 1984). His achievements included the drafting of a party constitution for the Northern Territory, which he shepherded through the Federal Executive. His contribution to the Northern Territory branch was recognised in 1986 when he was made a life member of the ALP.

Robertson would have preferred to enter Territory politics but, in the absence of a fully-elected Legislative Assembly until 1974, he focused on the federal arena. Robertson’s first attempts to enter federal Parliament came in 1969 and 1972, when he sought unsuccessfully to gain the single Northern Territory seat in the House of Representatives for the ALP. From the outset, Robertson had stated that if he could not win the seat in two attempts he would not nominate again.[2]

His federal prospects were revived through the passing of the Senate (Representation of Territories) Act 1973 which provided for the election of two senators each from the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory. In what was otherwise a devastating election for the ALP, in December 1975 Robertson secured one of the two newly-created seats, his term commencing on the date of his election. After the 1975 poll, the Northern Territory Senate seats would continue to be shared between the Country Liberal Party and the ALP and Robertson was re-elected in 1977, 1980, 1983 and 1984, surviving pre-selection challenges for first position on the Labor ticket on each occasion.

In his first speech on 3 March 1976 Robertson referred to Quick and Garran’s description of the Senate as the means by which the states would have ‘every facility for the advocacy of their peculiar and special interests’. Robertson believed that the Territory, a region ‘moving towards statehood’, faced unique problems. With a small and dispersed population and political support for the major parties evenly divided, Robertson emphasised the importance of the Northern Territory Senate seats in guaranteeing balanced party representation, as he believed no single party could adequately represent the Territory.

Robertson’s early speeches focused on social issues affecting the Territory, particularly Aboriginal affairs and education. In December 1976 he spoke at length on the landmark Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Bill 1976, which drew upon legislation proposed in 1975 by the Whitlam Government and recognised the land rights of traditional owners for the first time. In preparing his speech, Robertson consulted Aboriginal communities throughout the Territory. In this and later speeches he argued against any measures that might dilute the promise made by Gough Whitlam in 1972 as Opposition Leader that Aborigines should manage their own affairs. He argued for the establishment of ‘effective and meaningful councils’ with the right to control entries onto reserves, to manage their own finances and, above all, to take ownership of traditional lands. Robertson was a member of the Joint Select Committee on Aboriginal Land Rights in the Northern Territory (1976–77) and later chaired a Senate select committee investigating volatile substance abuse in the Northern Territory (1984–85). He also represented the Senate on the Council of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (1977–81, 1983–87).[3]

For five years Robertson was a member of the Senate Standing Committee on Education and the Arts. In November 1976 he told the Senate that a ‘special approach’ to technical education was needed to meet the needs of the Territory’s Aboriginal population, supporting the establishment of a Rural College at Katherine where trainers could work within the home community. He stressed the particular importance of vocational training for the Territory: ‘The people need to see that education will promote employment’. Robertson had a vision of nation-wide ‘integrated planning right throughout our education system’, including releasing ‘our secondary schools from the bondage of preparation for universities’ and preparing students for a world in which regular changes of occupation would become the norm.[4]

Robertson held the parliamentary committee system in high regard. During his time as chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on National Resources (1983–85), the committee produced a major report recommending the introduction of legislation protecting the rights of breeders of new plant varieties. Robertson also served on several estimates committees and was active in his party’s caucus committees.[5]

‘Always his own man’, Robertson abstained from joining a faction throughout his twelve-year Senate career and demonstrated ‘the unique ability to please both the right and left of the party at the same time’. Although he later regretted his decision to remain unaligned, due to the significant limits it placed on his advancement within the parliamentary party, his factional independence allowed Robertson to stand behind his convictions, especially his advocacy for self-determination in East Timor. Putting human life before diplomacy, Robertson believed passionately that Australia could have prevented the ‘subjugation’ of the East Timorese by Indonesia in 1975: ‘if we had stood firm simply by making firm, courageous but quite clear statements’. Robertson continued to raise the subject of East Timor throughout his Senate career, questioning whether international aid measures were effective, discussing claims of torture committed by Indonesian forces, arguing for a more generous refugee intake and a humanitarian attitude to refugee family reunions, and, in 1986, highlighting allegations of corruption made against the Suharto regime in Indonesia, including allegations made against the wife of the President. He was highly respected by the Timorese community for his efforts to support refugees in the Northern Territory, including the rapid establishment of education facilities when the first refugees arrived in 1975.[6]

Robertson was outspoken against the use of Darwin as a stop-over base for American B52 bombers and the continued US operation of the Pine Gap defence facility near Alice Springs. He argued that in the event of a nuclear war ‘the two major centres of the Northern Territory, Alice Springs and Darwin, will be prime targets’. He also voted in the party room against uranium mining.[7]

Robertson took an interest in procedural matters and standing orders and acted as a temporary chairman of committees from 1978 to 1980. In 1980 he tied in a party vote for Opposition Senate Whip with Senator George Georges and was elected to the position after the drawing of lots. He carried out his duties as Whip in Opposition (1980–83) and in government (1983–87) with efficiency and energy; Senator Sibraa, who had been his deputy, recalled affectionately that ‘I used to refer to him as the “sergeant major” because of his disciplinary approach’. Robertson worked to improve the efficacy of the Parliament, notably through the appropriations and staffing and standing orders committees. He successfully moved for the installation of closed circuit television in the offices of the party whips, enabling them to monitor chamber proceedings remotely, and initiated programs for the orientation of new senators. The role of Whip, however, limited his opportunities for committee work and he spoke less in debate in the Senate. Moreover Robertson thought, in retrospect, that it reduced the likelihood that he would be considered for a ministerial position, or for the presidency of the Senate, a position he aspired to with, he said, the encouragement of Senate Clerk James Odgers. Again, his lack of affiliation with a faction made advancement difficult.[8]

Robertson saw himself as primarily a ‘backroom’ parliamentarian, prepared to argue a case strongly in the party room but doing his best to preserve party unity in public. He suffered for his party loyalty: by 1986 Robertson faced considerable hostility in the Northern Territory Assembly and in the local media over unpopular government policies such as the introduction of a Fringe Benefits Tax. As well as being accused of putting party requirements above the needs of the Territory, he was also subjected to sustained and vitriolic personal attacks, especially in the Northern Territory News. These troubles coincided with a pre-selection challenge by the former Opposition leader in the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly, Bob Collins. Collins had the backing of both left and right factions in the Assembly, and of key federal right-wing factional leaders such as Senator Graham Richardson. In November 1986 Robertson lost a bitterly-fought pre-selection contest for first position on the Senate ticket and he did not stand for Senate election in 1987.

In 1989 the Robertsons moved to Canberra, where Ted became National President of YMCA Australia. Ted Robertson died of cancer at his home in Canberra on 5 January 1991, at the age of sixty-one. He was interred in Canberra’s Gungahlin Cemetery and a service was held in his honour at Darwin’s Christ Church Cathedral.

Early in life Robertson was dismayed by how often the actions of those around him seemed to be determined by what other people might think. He believed, ‘as much as I’m influenced by what they say … I’ve still got to make my own path’, and colleagues from both sides of politics regarded him as a man of strong principles and integrity. He was a hard worker, driven by a social conscience formed in his Depression childhood, qualities reflected through his earnest and well-prepared speeches. Fundamentally modest and ‘self-effacing’, Robertson was known also for his personal generosity and courtesy.[9]

Henry Waugh

[1] This entry draws throughout on a transcript of an interview with Edward Albert Robertson by Clarrie Hermes, 1990, POHP, The Star (Darwin), 2 April 1981, p. 6; ‘Questionnaire’ completed 13 Oct. 1982 for Parliament’s Bicentenary Publications Project, NLA MS 8806; NTLA Debates, 11 June 1987, p. 926; Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography, vol. 3, NTU Press, Casaurina, NT, 1990–1996, pp. 496–7.

[2] POHP; ‘Profile: Edward Albert (Ted) Robertson’, House Magazine, 28 Sept. 1982, p. 3; ALP, House of Representatives and Senate Candidates Biographical Details, 1983; Dean Jaensch and Peter Loveday (eds), Challenge from the Nationals: The Territory Election 1987, ANU North Australia Research Unit, Darwin, 1987, pp. 1, 15; NTLA Debates, 5 Feb. 1991, pp. 440–1; Dean Jaensch, ‘Party in the Territory’, North Australia Research Bulletin, No. 4, 1979, pp. 44–7; CPD, 12 Feb. 1991, pp. 289–90; Questionnaire, 1982.

[3] CPD, 3 March 1976, pp. 390–4, 7 Dec. 1976, pp. 2734–41, 2762, 6 April 1978, pp. 9505, 24 May 1978, pp. 1750–3, 15 Nov. 1979, pp. 2350–4, 23 April 1980, pp. 1773–6; Coral Dow and John Gardiner-Garden, Overview of Indigenous Affairs: Part 1: 1901 to 1991, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2011.

[4] CPD, 17 Nov. 1976, pp. 2076–81, 21 April 1977, pp. 890–3, 28 Aug. 1980, pp. 580–83.

[5] Senate Select Committee on National Resources, Plant Variety Rights, Canberra, 1984.

[6] Sunday Territorian (Darwin), 13 Jan. 1991, p. 15; NT News (Darwin), 17 March 1984, p. 7; POHP; CPD, 30 Aug. 1979, pp. 505–6, 18 March 1982, pp. 965–9, 21 April 1977, pp. 917–20, 15 Sept. 1980, pp. 978–82, 5 April 1984, pp. 1309–11; NT News (Darwin), 15 April 1986, p. 3.

[7] CPD, 5 March 1981, pp. 394–6, 10 March 1981, pp. 439–43, 11 March 1981, pp. 525–7; POHP.

[8] CPD, 12 Feb. 1991, pp. 286–95, 26 Nov. 1981, pp. 2698–9, 27 Nov. 1981, pp. 2727–8; Transcript of interview with Senator E. A. Robertson, Parliamentary Education Office, 12 March 1986; POHP.

[9] POHP; NT News (Darwin), 16 June 1985, p. 13, 12 June 1986, p. 6, 14 June 1986, p. 3, 30 June 1986, p. 1, 22 Aug. 1986, p. 6, 30 Aug. 1986, p. 6; Australian (Syd.), 25 Nov. 1986, p. 3; CPD, 5 June 1987, pp. 3684–704; NTPD, 11 June 1987, pp. 916–30; Sunday Territorian (Darwin), 13 Jan. 1991, p. 15; CPD, 12 Feb. 1991, pp. 286–95; NTPD, 5 Feb. 1991, pp. 439–44.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 139-142.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, NT, 1975–87 (ALP)

Senate Committee Service

Estimates Committee F, 1976, 1983–85; E, 1976–78, 1981–83; D, 1978– 81

Joint Select Committee on Aboriginal Land Rights in the Northern Territory, 1976–77

Publications Committee, 1976–1978

Standing Committee on Education and the Arts, 1976–81

Standing Committee on National Resources, 1976–85

Select Committee on Parliamentary Appropriations and Staffing, 1980–81

Standing Orders Committee, 1980–87

House Committee, 1981–83

Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, 1981

Appropriations and Staffing Committee, 1983–87

Select Committee on Volatile Substance Fumes, 1984–85

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1985