SHEIL, Glenister (1929–2008)
Senator for Queensland, 1974–81 (Australian Country Party; National Country Party); 1984–90 (National Party of Australia)

Glenister (Glen) Sheil is remembered in Australian political history as the shortest-serving federal minister, although his appointment as Minister for Veterans’ Affairs was never gazetted. Sworn in as a member of the Executive Council on 20 December 1977, his appointment was terminated by Prime Minister Malcom Fraser two days later. Responding to a phone call from a journalist, and in a subsequent radio interview, Sheil had reiterated his firm views in support of the South African government’s policy of racial segregation, known as apartheid. He also suggested apartheid might be a suitable policy for Australia, if Aboriginal communities wished to adopt it. As well as being contrary to government policy, his opinions were uttered in apparent disregard for ministerial solidarity. Although there was more to Sheil than this, he remained on the backbench until his retirement.[1]

Sheil was born in Sydney on 21 October 1929, the second of five children of William Glenister Sheil, civil engineer, and his wife Agnes May, née Browne, a schoolteacher. Sheil’s father held senior civil engineering posts in several states before his appointment as general manager of the Mount Morgan gold and copper mine in Queensland from 1950 to 1964. Glen Sheil inherited the belief that: ‘the front row men in the development of any country have been the mining men, the men who have gone out and have developed the resources that have supplied other resources for people to develop … [T]he rural industries have followed and the whole expansion of the country has come about’. In 1967 his father was an unsuccessful Country Party candidate at a by-election for the federal seat of Capricornia; his campaign slogan was ‘Elect the Great Developer’.

Despite frequent moves during their childhood, all the Sheil children were successful academically; four became doctors and one a dentist. Glen was educated at Silverton Provisional School, Queensland; Benalla High School, Victoria; The Hutchins School, Hobart; and The Southport School, Queensland. He studied medicine at the University of Queensland, graduating MB BS in 1954.

During his university years, Sheil combined study with sporting achievements: a powerfully built man, he represented Queensland as a rugby union fly-half, and was a top-ranked tennis and squash player. After graduation, he married a fellow doctor, Marjorie Elizabeth Anne Sword, on 20 June 1955, and established a practice in the Brisbane suburb of Auchenflower. Five years later Sheil purchased the nearby Fermoy Private Hospital and over the next decade expanded the site to include a medical centre and pharmacy. He went on to acquire Dungarvan, another private hospital in the same area and in 1975 he set up Thumpa Industries, a rabbit farming enterprise, which moved operations to the United States the following year. During the 1980s Sheil chaired the Leukaemia Foundation of Queensland’s Major Projects Trust, which raised funds for the establishment of the state’s first bone marrow transplant unit.[2]

Glen Sheil held senior positions in the Queensland Country Party from 1970, and was a friend and doctor to the Queensland branch’s redoubtable president, Robert Sparkes. He unsuccessfully stood for the seat of Brisbane at the 1972 federal election, the first time that the federal party had contested a metropolitan seat. At the double dissolution election of May 1974 Sheil was placed last on the six-member combined Liberal and Country Party Queensland Senate ticket, but still managed to win the final seat, narrowly defeating Labor’s Mal Colston. He was re-elected in 1975, by which time the Country Party had changed its name to the National Country Party (NCP). From 1982 the party became the National Party of Australia (NPA).

At the 1980 election the Queensland NCP chose to run its own Senate ticket, headed by Florence Bjelke-Petersen, the wife of the Queensland premier. Sitting senators Sheil and Ron Maunsell were pushed down to second and third place on the ticket respectively. Sheil lost his seat to the Australian Democrats’ Michael Macklin, who took the final seat for the state. Although his term was not due to expire until 30 June 1981, Sheil resigned from the Senate on 6 February 1981 to contest a by-election for the House of Representatives seat of McPherson, following the sudden death of the sitting Liberal member, Eric Robinson. Sheil advocated a flat tax, and garnered publicity for his campaign by a three-day walk through the electorate. The concept of a flat rate of taxation was derided as ‘blatantly discriminatory’ and unworkable by prominent members of the Liberal Party. Sheil himself was also the subject of fierce criticism from Liberal Senator Neville Bonner, the first Indigenous Australian elected to federal Parliament, who was ‘shocked and disgusted’ by Sheil’s pro-apartheid views, and recommended that the NCP should withdraw its endorsement of Sheil. At the by-election, although Sheil outpolled the Labor candidate, he was comfortably defeated on preferences by the Liberals’ Peter White.

At the half-Senate election of December 1984, where twelve new seats were created (two for each state), Sheil was elected from second place on the National Party ticket and commenced his term on 21 February 1985; he was re-elected in 1987. Sheil served as Senate Whip for the NCP (1980–81) and NPA (1985–87, 1990).[3]

On 11 July 1974 following his first entry to the Senate, Sheil explained his total opposition to the Whitlam Labor Government’s proposed national health insurance scheme, known as Medibank (later Medicare):

I have been interested in politics for many years, but it was the growing health crisis that precipitated my participation in politics. The catalyst, of course, was when I noticed the fiery fingers of the Federal Government coming between me and my patients … Health is the single most important item on anybody’s agenda. A government—any government—must think twice before interfering with it.

Speaking at the historic joint sitting of Parliament in August 1974, Sheil alleged that the Health Insurance Commission Bill constituted the ‘strangulation of the private medical services’ and their replacement ‘by a single huge, Government operated, bureaucratic machine’. Sheil believed that the bill was ‘the first step in destroying our private health insurance’ and all aspects of private medical, hospital and nursing home services, further noting that ‘Australia will be stuck with a fully nationalised service such as exists in the socialist countries’. In 1975 he spoke against the bulk billing of patients: ‘If a doctor is paid by the Government he is working for the Government and he is not working for the patient’.

Throughout his time in the Senate, Sheil maintained his opposition to the concept of national health insurance. In 1985 he told the Senate that over-servicing under Medicare was ‘directly attributable to bulk billing’, and that ‘the promise of free health care’ cannot be delivered ‘because such a promise creates unlimited demand’. In later years he argued that Medicare was responsible for ‘horrific’ hospital waiting lists, a decline in general practice and a decline in the effectiveness of curative medicine. Although his fears for the destruction of the private health system were not realised, at the end of his Senate career Sheil believed that the nation’s health system was ‘in a bigger mess now than it ever was’.[4]

Sheil visited South Africa and Rhodesia twice between 1977 and 1978. Both visits reinforced his belief in the apartheid system. In October 1977 Sheil spoke at length in the Senate in defence of the white regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia. He argued that separate development of the various races in South Africa was desired by non-whites as much as by whites, each racial group wishing to preserve its ‘racial integrity’. He claimed that South Africa represented ‘a microcosm of the whole world. It is a multi-national and multi-racial society’.

In the following year Sheil’s robust advocacy of apartheid at a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference in Jamaica generated dismay amongst his Australian colleagues. Sheil was placed under armed guard and ferried out of the country in secret after death threats had been made against him. In 1979 he blamed ‘most of the bloodshed that has occurred in Africa’ on the boundaries imposed by colonial powers, which often failed to reflect geographic, cultural or tribal divisions: ‘the detribalised black leaders of these artificial countries are trying to run countries which are ungovernable and which will remain ungovernable’. According to Sheil, these problems ‘do not exist in South Africa and Rhodesia where the people have been allowed to retain their nationalities’. He did not believe in the policy of multiculturalism, as applied in Australia or elsewhere. In 1987 he questioned the acceptance of migrants with no English skills, and suggested that black South Africans should not be permitted to migrate to Australia.[5]

Sheil’s views on the benefits of applying apartheid within Australia were consistent with his statements in defence of the policy in South Africa. Speaking shortly after his removal from the ministry in December 1977, Sheil claimed that Australia was ‘already halfway’ towards apartheid. He believed that ‘the tribal Aborigines don’t want to integrate’, and that racism, in the sense of pride in one’s own race, was ‘normal’. In 1974 and 1975 he argued vigorously against attempts by the federal Labor Government to supersede Queensland laws seen as discriminatory towards Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. The bedrock of his defence of Queensland’s laws was that Aboriginal communities enjoyed true self-management, with their wishes respected by the state government, including the right to bar outsiders from entering their communities: ‘What we have is the quiet development of a multi-racial society, and it is successful’.

Sheil insisted on the importance of tribal lore in establishing the boundaries of traditional Aboriginal land and queried the establishment of land councils ‘who have no authority over the tribal people whatsoever’. In 1980 he suggested that the word ‘Aborigine’ ‘has been given a very wide definition which has given Aborigines cause to question just who is an Aborigine’. Self-definition of Aboriginality, as opposed to traditional initiation, was ‘offensive to the Aborigines, particularly tribal Aborigines’. Sheil caused considerable offence during a radio interview in 1988 when he claimed that most recipients of Aboriginal funding were not truly Aboriginal, but rather ‘bludgers, stirrers and trouble-making would-be blacks’. There were suggestions that Sheil had breached sedition laws, and he was repudiated publicly by the Coalition’s spokesman on Aboriginal Affairs.[6]

Sheil was the first Coalition politician to discuss in Parliament the free-market philosophy of the American writer, Ayn Rand. In February 1976 he informed the Senate that ‘Ayn Rand was one of the original thinkers of a new philosophy. She showed in her books the virtues of selfishness. She illustrated the untried ideal of capitalism’. He went on to recommend a reading list of the works of prominent economists identified with neoliberalism: Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard.

In applying libertarian political philosophy to Australian circumstances, Sheil spoke frequently in the Senate on the role of government, the economy, and the need to preserve family life against the claims of the state. In 1975 Sheil stated that ‘the pursuit of social reform’ was ‘not a proper role of government’, which should be confined to ‘defence and law’. In 1986 he spoke out strongly against the Hawke Government’s attempt to introduce a national identity card, known as the Australia Card, noting ‘we cannot trust the bureaucracy’ and ‘governments are the biggest infringers of human rights in history’. In 1988 he introduced a private senator’s bill, seeking to remove the element of compulsion in answering questions from all Australian Bureau of Statistics surveys, except the census. The bill was negatived on a tied vote, after the Australian Democrats withdrew their support for it. A revised bill, allowing for parliamentary scrutiny of survey proposals, passed the Senate in April 1989 but later lapsed in the House of Representatives.

Speaking on Labor’s Family Law Bill in 1974, Sheil devoted a large part of his speech to an account of the regimentation of family life in communist China, warning that this ‘is the sort of thing that [the Labor] Government is aiming for’. In 1986 he denounced the creation of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission as ‘Pol Pot style social engineering’, targeting ‘the family, which is deeply resented by feminists and opposed by the hardcore Left as an obstacle to the state’. On the issue of abortion, Sheil’s medical experience of miscarriages and births of children with severe abnormalities impelled him to vote against a proposed ‘pro-life’ amendment to the Human Rights Commission Bill in 1980.[7]

In his first Senate speech Sheil had warned against what he described as ‘financing by the Robin Hood method, that is, by robbing the rich to give to the poor’. He had stated his belief that ‘Governments do not create wealth; they consume it’, and: ‘Unemployment is a symptom of a disease, and the disease is high taxes and high fixed minimum wages’. During his time in the Senate, Sheil returned frequently to the subject of taxation, and his message did not change: the nation was burdened from ‘confiscatory taxes’ which were ‘crippling Australia’; the ‘whole place is swimming in taxes’.

During the first seven months of 1987 the push by the Queensland Nationals to bring the Queensland Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, into federal politics—known as the ‘Joh for Canberra’ movement—destabilised the federal parliamentary NPA, saw the termination of the coalition agreement with the Liberal Party, and ended in a double dissolution election which the conservative parties lost. Throughout this turbulent period, Sheil’s position remained clear. He was committed to the Bjelke-Petersen cause and, through his renewed advocacy of a flat tax, may have contributed to the centrepiece of Bjelke-Petersen’s campaign, a flat tax rate no higher than twenty-five per cent.[8]

Sheil was a member of numerous parliamentary committees, and chaired the Standing Committee on Trade and Commerce from 1976 to 1981. In his valedictory speech, he made particular mention of the newly-established Standing Committee for the Selection of Bills (for referral to committees), of which he was a founding member, suggesting that the committee had the potential to be ‘the best or the worst thing we have ever done’.

Sheil was defeated at the election of 24 March 1990. In 1997 he and Florence Bjelke-Petersen were elected as delegates to the 1998 Constitutional Convention, as representatives of Queenslanders for a Constitutional Monarchy. He wrote and published A Companion to the Australian Constitution: On Understanding the Constitution, in which he vigorously defended the monarchy, castigating other writers on the subject for their ‘inexcusable ignorance’.

Glen Sheil died at Brisbane on 29 September 2008 and was privately cremated. He was predeceased by Marjorie, who died in 1989. Sheil was survived by his second wife Elizabeth Gay, née Anderson—the daughter of Charles Anderson, Country Party MHR for Hume (1949–51, 1955–61)—whom he married on 15 March 1991. There were no children from either marriage.

Although his views were anathema to many senators, not all of them Labor, Sheil was regarded privately as a pleasant colleague and sound doctor, and he acknowledged having ‘some very good friends on the other side’. In his capacity as a doctor, Sheil was consulted by many parliamentary staffers and elected members—his extraction of a dangerous fishbone from the throat of Margaret Georgina Constance Guilfoyle was legendary.

At condolences in 2008, Barnaby Joyce, then Leader of the National Party in the Senate, observed that Sheil ‘was known for having strong views and for not being at all afraid to express them—sometimes repeatedly’ and was a ‘highly energetic, and a capable and colourful character’, who represented ‘a time that may have passed from us in politics’.[9]

D.B. Waterson

[1] SMH, 15 Oct. 2008, p. 22; CT, 22 Dec. 1977, p. 1; Press Release, Malcolm Fraser, 21 Dec. 1977; Australian (Syd.), 13 Oct. 2008, p. 37; Paul Davey, Ninety Not Out: The Nationals 1920–2010, UNSW Press, Syd., 2010, pp. 183–4.

[2] Queensland Times (Ipswich), 17 Sept. 1941, p. 4; Mercury (Hob.), 17 Sept. 1941, p. 3, 21 March 1950, p. 20; Erik Eklund, Mining Towns: Making a Living, Making a Life, UNSW Press, Syd., 2012, p. 92; CPD, 5 May 1987, p. 2352; C. Hughes, ‘The Capricornia By-Election, 1967’, Australian Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 4, 1967, p. 12; SMH, 22 Dec. 1977, p. 3; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 20 April 1953, p. 9; National Times (Syd.), 22 Dec. 1977, p. 5; Sheil v. Federal Commissioner of Taxation (1986) 87 ATC 4430.

[3] CPD, 13 Oct. 2008, pp. 5772–3; SMH, 22 Dec. 1977, p. 3; ‘Profile: Senator Glen Sheil’, House Magazine, 19 Nov. 1986, p. 3; Alan Metcalfe, In Their Own Right: The Rise of Power of Joh’s Nationals, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 1984, pp. 71, 101; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 7 Feb. 1981, pp. 2, 5, 9 Feb. 1981, p. 8, 12 Feb. 1981, p. 31.

[4] CPD (J), 7 Aug. 1974, pp. 121–3; CPD, 11 July 1974, pp. 88–9, 27 Feb. 1975, pp. 537–8, 3 Dec. 1985, pp. 2749–51, 16 April 1986, pp. 1791–4, 29 Oct. 1987, pp. 1453–5, 31 May 1990, pp. 1663–6.

[5] AFR (Syd.), 13 July 1977, p. 16; Nation Review (Melb.), 17 Aug. 1977, p. 9; CPD, 4 Oct. 1977, pp. 1034–9; CT, 28 Sept. 1978, p. 1; SMH, 24 Nov. 1978, p. 12; CPD, 23 Nov. 1978, pp. 2460–3, 27 Feb. 1979, pp. 273–5; CPD (R), 22 Nov. 1978, pp. 3187–9; CT, 18 Dec. 1987, p. 3; CPD, 23 Nov. 1987, p. 2198; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 22 Jan. 1987, p. 9.

[6] Sun (Syd.), 29 Dec. 1977, p. 5; Transcript, ABC Radio, ‘PM’, 20 Dec. 1977, p. 2; CPD, 29 May 1975, pp. 2044–5, 5 Dec. 1974, pp. 3206–9, 22 Aug. 1985, pp. 143–4, 3 Dec. 1980, pp. 284–6; Sunday-Mail (Brisb.), 11 Sept. 1988, p. 45; SMH, 27 Aug. 1988, p. 7.

[7] CPD, 19 Feb. 1976, pp. 109–12, 9 Sept. 1975, pp. 653–4, 9 Dec. 1986, pp. 3643–6, 10 Dec. 1986, pp. 3660–2, 12 Oct. 1988, pp. 1219–22, 24 Nov. 1988, p. 2806, 6 Dec. 1988, p. 3530, 6 April 1989, p. 1124, 19 Nov. 1974, pp. 2522–5, 26 Nov. 1986, pp. 2766–7, 20 March 1980, pp. 906–7, 920.

[8] CPD, 11 July 1974, pp. 88–9, 9 Sept. 1975, pp. 653–4, 27 Feb. 1985, pp. 223–5, 1 Dec. 1986, p. 3070; Melcalfe, In Their Own Right, pp. 243–5; Transcript, ABC TV, ‘The Carlton–Walsh Report’, 4 June 1987; The Bulletin (Syd.), 20 Jan. 1987, p. 16.

[9] CPD, 31 May 1990, pp. 1663–6; Glen Sheil, A Companion to the Australian Constitution on Understanding the Constitution, GS Publishing, Paddington, Qld, 2002, p. 14; Telephone interview of former Senator Robert Ray conducted by the author on 25 Feb. 2016; CPD, 13 Oct. 2008, pp. 5772–3.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 168-172.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Queensland, 1974–81 (CP; NCP); 1984–90 (NPA)

Senate Committee Service

Estimates Committee G, 1974–75; D, 1975, 1976–78, 1987–88; E, 1976; C, 1978, 1980–81, 1990; B, 1985–87; F, 1987

Joint Committee on the Northern Territory, 1974–75

Standing Committee on Health and Welfare, 1974–75

Joint Committee on Pecuniary Interests of Members of Parliament, 1975

House Committee, 1976–78

Standing Committee on Trade and Commerce, 1976–81

Publications Committee, 1978–81

Committee of Privileges, 1980–81

Joint Standing Committee on Public Works, 1985–90

Standing Committee on Social Welfare, 1985

Select Committee on Television Equalisation, 1986

Standing Committee on Community Affairs, 1987

Select Committee on Health Legislation and Health Insurance, 1990

Selection of Bills Committee, 1990