SANDERS, Norman Karl (1932– )
Senator for Tasmania, 1985–90 (Australian Democrats)

Norman Karl (Norm) Sanders was born in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, on 15 October 1932, elder child of Karl Wilhelm Sanders, a commercial artist born in Riga, Latvia, and his wife Mary Doris, née Schenck, teacher and journalist. His family later lived in Chicago before settling in Los Angeles, where Sanders attended Florence Nightingale Junior High School. He received little emotional support from his parents, although he credited them with giving him a love of outdoor life, and encouraging him to be independent at an early age: 'So they did train me in their own way to be a warrior, which is maybe a good way to turn out warriors, but it's not a good way to turn out people'.

After high school, Sanders enrolled for a year in a journalism course at Los Angeles City College. During the Korean War he joined the California-based 115th Bomb Squadron (Light), a unit of the Air National Guard. He was employed as a clerk and later as an instrument technician, and acquired a commercial pilot's licence. He did not serve outside the USA. When the unit was disbanded in 1952, Sanders commenced but did not complete courses at the University of California (UCLA) and at Glendale City College, Los Angeles. He spent much of his time in Alaska, testing radio signals for the Navy, patrolling for salmon poachers for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and mountaineering. Between 1954 and 1958 he earned a BSc from the University of Alaska, during which time he was involved in the production of radio telescopes, and ran a bush flying service. Returning to Los Angeles, Sanders worked in the aerospace industry developing deep-space tracking systems, and later terminal guidance equipment for nuclear missiles. Disturbed by the technology's destructive potential, he quit the industry.

After securing an MA in geography from UCLA in 1964, Sanders travelled on a Fulbright scholarship to Tasmania, where he acquired a PhD in geomorphology from the University of Tasmania in 1969. He was publicly commended for his services in the relief work following the February 1967 bushfires when he served as quartermaster of the Kings Pier bulk depot. At the university he met Jillian Paxton, an honours student in geochemistry. They were married in Hobart on 12 March 1965.[1]

Sanders joined the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) in 1968 as assistant professor in geography. He became an active conservationist in 1969, after a research project in coastal geography was destroyed by an oil spill. He was involved in protests and litigation against off-shore drilling, founded the Campus Organization for a Pure Environment (COPE), campaigned successfully against the rezoning of coastal land for residential development near Santa Barbara in 1970, and wrote Stop It!, a how-to guide to environmental activism. He was also a member of the International Council of Environmental Law. His thinking was 'now being shaped towards a more holistic view of the environment' with a major influence being John Steinbeck's The Log from the Sea of Cortez.

Sanders failed to secure tenure at UCSB. He believed this was largely a consequence of his increasing activism in environmental and anti-war politics; the official explanation was Sanders' lack of publications in his area of coastal geomorphology. He claimed that he was fired from UCSB after he successfully opposed a project supported by the chancellor, which would have seen a freeway 'rammed through a local wildlife sanctuary'. After fighting his dismissal through the courts, Sanders left Santa Barbara in 1974.

He decided to return to Tasmania, an island with which he had fallen in love, and in which he claimed he would spend the rest of his life. Packing his wife and daughter into a twenty-nine foot sloop, Sanders set sail across the Pacific in June 1974, arriving in Hobart in January 1975—he remembered that during the voyage he felt an immense feeling of safety from the possibility of nuclear war. Settling in Hobart, Sanders was employed by the ABC as a television reporter for This Day Tonight. In November 1976 he interviewed the then unknown Bob Brown, who was mounting a one-person protest on the top of Mount Wellington against the visit of a nuclear-armed US warship. Sanders was so impressed with Brown that he soon left the ABC to become part-time director of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society (1977–78).[2]

Sanders joined the Australian Democrats (AD) in 1979, and became an Australian citizen on 4 July of that year. Two weeks later, he was a Democrats candidate for the House of Assembly multi-member seat of Denison at the Tasmanian state election, but was not elected. The result in Denison was voided in December, due to some elected candidates violating laws relating to electoral expenses. A unique and controversial by-election followed in February 1980. Sanders was elected after winning the sixth-highest total of first preferences. He was the first AD member of the Tasmanian Parliament, and the first modern conservationist to hold a seat in any Australian parliament. The new MHA understood the media. He campaigned on a penny-farthing bicycle, he rode up to Parliament House on a BMW motorbike to take his seat, and he upset traditionalists by sprawling on the parliamentary benches, with unkempt beard and clad in a black leather jacket. In Parliament Sanders was talkative and argumentative, with an abrasive debating style 'which sent seasoned politicians pale with anger'. He infuriated both sides of the House, 'like the devil speaking in a convent'. Sanders later remembered the way in which uproar would occur whenever he attempted to speak: 'I did not play their games at all'.

In November 1981 Labor Premier Doug Lowe was deposed by Harry Holgate, who was keen to proceed with the Franklin Dam project. After a referendum on the siting of the dams produced a majority for the Franklin—there was no option offered to vote against dam construction—Holgate prorogued Parliament and on 29 January 1982 announced his government's intention to pursue the Gordon-below-Franklin Dam. Sanders, realising that a coalition of Labor and Liberal could now legislate for the dam, promised a no-confidence motion 'straight after prayers' when Parliament resumed. After some indecision, the Liberal Party decided to support his motion, and with the support of Lowe and another Labor dissident, Sanders' motion brought down the Holgate Government on 26 March 1982. The Liberal leader, Robin Gray, led his party to victory in the ensuing election in May.[3]

Despite Sanders' increased support from voters—he was placed second on first preference votes in Denison—he was frustrated with the parliamentary process as it operated in Tasmania. He saw it as too focused on 'trivia', and too much dominated by the interests of the major parties. He believed there was a 'need to break down the idea of strict party membership, which makes the party an end in itself'. Sanders' contributions to debate focused on the damage done to the Tasmanian wilderness by the forestry and mining industries; he often antagonised other members with his sustained criticism of the mining company, Comalco, and the Hydro-Electric Commission. By mid-1982 he was stating a firm dislike for Parliament, and how he would be 'a relieved man' if he lost the next election. In November 1982 the Gray Government introduced legislation enabling police to arrest as trespassers environmentalists protesting against damming projects in the south-west of the state. This prompted Sanders to ride his motor bike to Government House in December and hand the Governor his resignation, announcing his intention to contest the next Senate election. In the meantime he began selling large wood burning stoves made at his Mount Nelson home.[4]

In the double dissolution election of March 1983, Sanders headed the AD Senate ticket for Tasmania, just failing to win the final (tenth) seat; twenty-one months later he won the final (seventh) seat in the 1984 election for an enlarged Senate. 'God help Canberra, God help Australia, when Norm Sanders joins the Senate', was the response of Bruce Goodluck, Tasmanian MHR.

Once again Sanders arrived on his BMW, having ridden it up the Hume Highway, though he bought a new, brown, leather jacket, stating that this better suited his more impressive status as a senator. The change of colour from his usual black did not impress Senate President Doug McClelland, who requested him not to wear it in the chamber. Despite this, the Tasmanian senator continued to attract publicity, not least through riding his sailboard on Lake Burley Griffin.[5]

Sanders became a highly contentious member of the Senate. As the Australian Democrats' spokesperson on resources and energy, aviation, transport, the environment and nuclear disarmament, he was able to direct his attention to those matters that had concerned him prior to entering the Upper House. Many of Sanders' ideas had little support from fellow senators, and his frustration was evident in the virulence of his criticism: opponents were 'troglodytes', Tasmanian Liberal senators were the 'Gray-bellied Tasmanian chainsaw birds', Western Australian Labor farmer, Peter Walsh, was the 'millionaire, silver tailed fugitive from the Joh Nationals'. The press gallery was full of 'egotistical gossip columnists', more concerned with personalities than with the issues that were vital to Australia's future.

Claiming to represent those he called 'non-communist radicals', he was on the left of his party, welcoming the resignation of John Siddons from the Australian Democrats in November 1996, for he believed the Victorian had hindered an essential Democrats' shift in the 'progressive direction'. In August 1986 he had lost to Siddons in a contest for the deputy leadership, and in the next year he was again defeated for the post by the less abrasive Michael Macklin.[6]

Sanders was energetic across the areas covered by his shadow portfolios, in debate, during question time, and as a legislator and committee member. In 1985 and 1988 he introduced bills banning the research, development and testing of nuclear weapons in Australia, and prohibiting the sale of uranium to nations which refused to comply with Australian non-proliferation safeguards. In September 1986 he introduced a bill prohibiting the sale of uranium to France while that nation continued to conduct nuclear tests in the South Pacific. None of these bills passed, but in the following year Sanders carried an amendment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Bill, which provided that annual reports be submitted to the government on the transmission, destination and intended use of uranium exports. In 1988 his determined pursuit of the question of safeguards, reflected in a series of questions in the Senate, forced the Hawke Government to concede what had previously been denied: that it was possible that a French nuclear plant was enriching Australian uranium for military as well as civil uses. During 1986 and 1987, Sanders discussed the presence of US communication stations and defence bases within Australia, and queried the extent of American control over intelligence gathered at such sites. In 1987 he introduced a private senator's bill proposing that the Pine Gap facility be closed, asserting that such bases 'threaten the world with holocaust, and make Australia a nuclear target'. The bill did not progress.[7]

He was concerned with animal welfare, asking questions about 'the deliberate slaughter of at least 100 000 dolphins' arising from tuna fishing in the Pacific, the implementation of whale protection legislation, and the culling of kangaroos. As a member of the Select Committee on Animal Welfare, Sanders submitted a dissenting report on kangaroos in 1988, arguing that statistical information on culling was inaccurate, and suggesting that kangaroo management be assigned to a national body with community representation. He argued that the kangaroo meat industry 'should be closed', and that kangaroos 'should be left unmolested whenever possible'.

Sanders was a constant advocate for the conservation of forests in Tasmania and, later, south-eastern New South Wales, and he was particularly critical of the granting of wood-chipping export licences, which, he said, reflected a 'lack of political courage'. In both states Sanders was involved in demonstrations against logging and was twice arrested. He called repeatedly for inquiries into the pulp-mill industry. In 1985 he introduced a bill to prohibit mining on the Great Barrier Reef, which failed to pass.[8]

He was highly effective in pressing the Hawke Government during 1989 over its appointment of Sinclair Knight & Partners to undertake an environmental impact study (EIS) on the proposed relocation of RAN facilities from Sydney to Jervis Bay. In the Senate Sanders revealed the firm's strong engineering interests which conflicted with its EIS role, and its record of inadequate environmental studies. The relocation project was dropped, and Sanders later mentioned the importance of parliamentary privilege in enabling him to raise the issue—one of his few positive comments about the workings of Parliament.

As a pilot, Sanders was fierce in condemnation of the Department of Aviation, labelling it 'one of the most ossified bureaucracies in the country'. He claimed that it was 'inflexible, inefficient and completely unrealistic' in its implementation of procedures, and a danger to air safety. He supported deregulation of the air industry. Sanders drew attention to deficiencies in parliamentary scrutiny of ministerial responses to the recommendations of the Regulations and Ordinances Committee, pointing out that 'very often' commitments given to the committee were not carried out. As a remedy, he introduced a bill in 1989 which sought to permit the Senate a second chance to consider and disallow delegated legislation in cases where an undertaking made previously had not been honoured. The bill did not succeed. Sanders later summed up his time in the Senate: 'I moved a lot of bills that never got passed. I asked a lot of questions that were obfuscated. But I think I gave some people hope that someone was listening to them'.[9]

Sanders once wondered if opponents saw his parliamentary activity as just 'stirring for the sake of stirring' from a 'know-all Yank'. On both sides of the Senate it was easy to portray him as merely a self-propagandist. According to Labor's Robert Ray (Vic.): 'The [Sanders] formula [at Question Time] is to misrepresent the previous answer given by a Minister, chuck in two conspiracy theories, have a loudmouth interjection at the very start of the answer by the Minister and hopefully get a bit of cheap publicity in the process'. Non-Labor politicians were quite disinclined to listen—Robert Hill described him as a 'legacy of the Whitlam regime', while Michael Townley claimed he sounded like 'an apologist for Russia'. Labor might have had sympathy for his ideas, but resented his continuous attacks upon the Hawke Government. Few senators were likely to accept a man for whom the Senate was 'a bit like a bunch of ants sitting in an ant-hill discussing whether or not they will allow the sun to rise the next day'. As a consequence, they interrupted, they heckled, they sought to disrupt his speeches by quorum calls, they abused: the Tasmanian was a 'phoney', 'a lost cause', 'a blockhead', 'Goofy.' They criticised his 'braying', his 'bleating like a sheep', his 'wild assertions'. Liberal Senator Shirley Walters felt 'quite sick' whenever she followed him in debate, and Ray wondered if there was 'a correlation between falling off ... [his] sailboard and brain degeneration'.[10]

Once again Sanders became dissatisfied with Parliament and, in particular, the obsession of its members with economic questions: 'Time after time we rehash boring issues about the economy, but the environment very rarely gets the attention it needs'. The trouble was largely tied up in the artificiality of the parliamentary world: 'We often deny reality in this chamber, with its artificial lighting and with its windows blanked out so we cannot see the real world'. Sanders had abandoned Hobart for Canberra in 1988, and in a typically unpredictable gesture he resigned his Senate seat in March 1990 to stand for an ACT seat in the Senate. He was unsuccessful and declared that he would 'never stand for anything again'. However, three years later, he was a Green Independent candidate for the House of Representatives seat of Eden-Monaro, and was again defeated.

Sanders blamed the breakdown of his marriage during the 1980s on the difficulties of parliamentary life. He later married Margaret-Anne Sweitzer; this marriage also ended. Sue Arnold, an animal rights activist, became his third wife. Sanders remained in Canberra, where he lectured in the Human Ecology program at ANU, until the early 1990s. He then lived at Tuross Head, NSW, before moving to Ocean Shores, near Byron Bay, in about 2006. He was a flying instructor for Byron Bay Gliding until the club closed in January 2010.[11]

Sanders was able to make fellow MPs sit up, if only to engage him in argument, but he was not suited to the type of party-bound career that is the norm in Australia. He felt constrained by, and had little respect for, party, nor did he seem to have much respect for major party opponents: the 'Laborials' as he called them. On one occasion he referred to parliamentary members as 'drunken bums', and politics as 'the worst job I've had since cleaning toilets at a Utah ski lodge'. He never accepted the parliamentary culture, and in fact never seemed to gain much satisfaction from his surroundings—he has been described as an 'anti-politician'. Sanders actually wondered if his parliamentary career had all been a mistake: 'maybe I would have been better off remaining an activist rather than [becoming] a politician'. Activists, he believed, held political power by their ability to bring votes to politicians: 'Support a politician, buy a politician, sell a politician, but never be one'.[12]

Scott Bennett


[1] Transcript of an interview with Dr Norman Karl Sanders by Colette Ormonde, 1990, POHP; SMH, 20 July 1985, p. 40; R. L. Wettenhall, Bushfire Disaster. An Australian Community in Crisis, A&R, Syd., 1975, pp. 139, 152, 162; CPD, 18 Sept. 1985, pp. 659–63.

[2] Norman K. Sanders, Stop It! A Guide to Defense of the Environment, Rinehart Press, San Francisco, California, 1972; CPD, 18 Sept. 1985, pp. 659–63; Peter Thompson, Bob Brown of the Franklin River, Allen & Unwin, Syd., 1984, pp. 37, 89; Mercury (Hob.), 15 July 1989, p. 18.

[3] Thompson, Bob Brown of the Franklin River, p. 114; Mercury (Hob.), 13 Dec. 1980, p. 7, 15 July 1989, p. 18; Roger Green, Battle for the Franklin. Conversations With the Combatants in the Struggle for South West Tasmania, Fontana/ACF, Melb., 1981, p. 156; Scott Bennett, 'The Fall of a Labor Government: Tasmania 1979–82', Labor History, No. 45, Nov. 1983, pp. 80–93.

[4] SMH, 24 Dec. 1984, p. 3; CPD, 11 March 1980, pp. 95–105, 20 Nov. 1980, pp. 4641–3, 16 Sept. 1981, pp. 631–7, 20 Oct. 1981, pp. 1750–9; Examiner (Launc.), 30 April 1982, p. 7; CPD, 23 Nov. 1982, pp. 2884, 2896–9; Mercury (Hob.), 24 Dec. 1982, pp. 1–2.

[5] SMH, 20 July 1985, p. 40; Mercury (Hob.), 22 Aug. 1985, p. 1; CT, 1 March 1990, p. 9; Mercury (Hob.), 22 Aug. 1985, p. 1.

[6] SMH, 25 Jan. 1986, p. 25; CPD, 1 June 1987, p. 3331, 23 March 1988, p. 1221, 3 April 1987, p. 1813; CT, 6 Jan. 1985, p. 5; Australian (Syd.), 27 Nov. 1986, pp. 1–2.

[7] CPD, 2 Dec. 1985, p. 2661, 1 June 1988, p. 3310, 17 Sept. 1986, p. 516, 19 Feb. 1987, pp. 238–9, 2 June 1988, pp. 3551–4, 17 April 1986, pp. 1901–5, 1 April 1987, pp. 1561–4.

[8] CPD, 30 Sept. 1988, p. 1133, 17 March 1987, p. 845, 22 Aug. 1988, pp. 13–14; Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare, Kangaroos, AGPS, Canberra, 1988; CPD, 31 Aug. 1988, pp. 631–2, 11 Sept. 1985, p. 451, 11 March 1986, p. 757; Age (Melb.) 18 March 1986, p. 10; CT, 22 May 1989, p. 1; CPD, 11 May 1989, pp. 2245–8, 17 Aug. 1989, pp. 275–6, 28 Nov. 1985, pp. 2435–6.

[9] CPD, 16 Oct. 1989, pp. 1873–4, 28 Nov. 1989, pp. 3470–1, 30 Oct. 1989, pp. 2550–9; CT, 12 Dec. 1989, p. 1; POHP; CPD, 13 Feb. 1986, p. 236–7, 10 Oct. 1985, pp. 995–6, 11 Oct. 1985, pp. 1062–4, 24 Nov. 1989, p. 3252; Australian Democrats, 30 Years, Australian Democrats, East Melb., Vic., 2007, p. 27.

[10] Examiner (Launc.), 30 April 1982, p. 7; CPD, 13 Dec. 1988, p. 4046, 25 Nov. 1987, p. 2041, 8 May 1986, p. 2672, 14 Dec. 1987, p. 3036, 6 June 1989, p. 3386, 25 Nov. 1987, p. 2398, 13 Dec. 1988, p. 4046, 3 Dec. 1985, p. 2790, 7 Nov. 1985, p. 1767, 3 Dec. 1985, p. 2789, 19 March 1987, p. 957, 7 Dec. 1988, p. 3684.

[11] CPD, 10 May 1989, p. 2193, 14 Dec. 1987, p. 3036; CT, 26 March 1990, p. 10, 24 Dec. 1992, p. 5; Sunday Tasmanian (Hob.), 10 April 1988, p. 1; personal information to the author from Norm Sanders, April 1998.

[12] CPD, 18 Sept. 1985, p. 663; Mercury (Hob.), 24 Dec. 1982, p. 2, 15 July 1989, p. 18; SMH, 20 July 1985, p. 40; POHP.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Tas., 1985–90 (AD)

Tasmanian Parliament

MHA, Denison, 1980–82

Senate Committee Service

Select Committee on Animal Welfare, 1985–90

Standing Committee on Transport, Communications and Infrastructure, 1988–89

Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, 1989–90

Select Committee on Certain Aspects of the Airline Pilots' Dispute, 1989–90