SIM, John Peter (1917–2015)
Senator for Western Australia, 1964–81 (Liberal Party of Australia)

John Peter Sim was born at Colac, Victoria, on 21 January 1917, one of twin sons born to John Percy Sim, farmer and grazier of Ondit, and his wife Grace Maria, formerly Plowman, born in Melbourne. Immigrants to Victoria from Scotland in the mid-19th century, the Sim family had been primary producers for many years, specialising in cattle and fat lambs. Peter, as he was usually known, began his education at St Peter’s Anglican parish school in the Melbourne suburb of Murrumbeena, and went on to the local primary school before attending Scotch College from 1927 to 1930.

He then worked for several years on the family properties. In those years he developed a lifelong interest in international affairs. After the outbreak of World War II Sim served in the 21st/22nd Battalion of the militia before enlisting in the AIF on 3 March 1941. Commissioned lieutenant in August 1941, he was first posted to the 23rd/21st Infantry Battalion HQ in Geelong and subsequently in rural Victoria and the Northern Territory until August 1943. Transferring to the 14th/32nd Infantry Battalion, he spent much of the next two years in New Guinea, interspersed with training in military intelligence and photo interpretation in Queensland. At the close of hostilities in 1945 he became commander of the Rabaul compound for suspected war criminals and supervised several executions. Transferred to the 3rd New Guinea Infantry Battalion in October 1945, he became a temporary captain in December. In June 1946 he returned to civilian life.

Attracted by the cheapness of rural land in Western Australia, Peter and his brother Hugh moved to that state in 1946, acquiring farms at Muradup, north-west of Kojonup in the Great Southern region, and concentrating on wool growing. They were later joined by their parents. The family retained property in the area until 1991. On 1 November 1968, at the Perth registry office, Sim married Paula Susan Clarkson, née Bennecke, and they moved to Nedlands in Perth.[1]

Sim did not take part in local government, but had joined the new Liberal Party on his arrival in Western Australia in 1946. The family’s tradition had favoured the United Australia Party and its predecessors rather than the Country Party, and from 1949 the local member of the House of Representatives was a Liberal, Gordon Freeth, whom Sim held in respect. Sim was selected in third place on the Liberal Senate ticket in 1958, but was unsuccessful. Elected vice-president of the Liberal and Country League of Western Australia in 1960, he chaired the state rural committee for nine years and the state policy committee for two years. A member of the Federal Executive of the party from 1963 to 1964, he was chairman of the committee on rural matters from 1965 until 1970. On the death of Senator Seddon Vincent in 1964 the party looked to fill the casual vacancy with a nominee who, like Vincent, might speak for rural and regional Western Australia. Sim was selected in preference to Reg Withers ‘by a wide margin’ and on 26 November 1964 was nominated without opposition by the Western Australian Parliament. He was subsequently returned at elections in 1966, 1967, 1974 and 1975.[2]

Early in his Senate career, Sim took care to speak almost exclusively on subjects within his range of experience or research. These included agriculture and agricultural education, foreign policy, and Papua New Guinea. He also discussed aviation costs, a matter of particular concern for Western Australians. Like a number of Western Australian members, he disliked high tariff protection and commended the attempts of the Tariff Board under G. A. Rattigan (chairman from 1963 to 1973) to liberalise trade. A frequent user of the Parliamentary Library, he won favourable comment for the courteous and well-prepared style of his presentation. This did not preclude some spirited sparring with Labor adversaries such as Senators J. B. Keeffe and George Georges. Sim was personally on friendly terms with Georges; their offices in Parliament House were adjacent.[3]

Between 1965 and 1972 Sim strongly supported the Government’s Vietnam policy. Although concerned about the implications of Britain’s withdrawal from South-East Asia, he deprecated attempts by the Democratic Labor Party in 1969 to raise alarm over the presence of Russian ships in the Indian Ocean. Drawing on his experience of Papua New Guinea he favoured the Government’s gradualist approach towards that country’s independence. He was mindful of the interests of the highlanders of New Guinea, and warned that forcing the pace might lead to tribal fragmentation, but he welcomed the initiatives towards greater self-government taken by Andrew Peacock as the responsible minister in 1972. His overseas experience was broadened by official visits to South Asia in 1966, Japan and South Korea in 1972, and to the European Economic Community in 1968; after the latter he made pointed criticism of the High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Sir Alexander Downer, for his lack of interest in the delegation, observing that Downer ‘seems to have enveloped himself in some aura of papal sanctity’.[4]

Sim proved himself a useful and hard-working member of Senate committees. In August 1965 he was placed on the Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings and the Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications. In October 1967 he became a member of the Select Committee on the Metric System of Weights and Measures. This committee’s report, covering virtually every aspect of the Australian economy and society, has been commended for its ‘sane tenor’, and was followed by Sim’s appointment to two important Senate select committees. One, the Select Committee on Medical and Hospital Costs, sat from May 1968 to June 1970, and made many valuable recommendations about health care policy. The committee’s recommendation, that the Commonwealth should increase benefits payable to hospitals for beds occupied by uninsured patients, led to a motion by Labor to amend the National Health Bill 1970. Sim was one of three Liberals who supported the successful Labor amendment. The Select Committee on Securities and Exchange, established in March 1970 but making its final report in August 1975, uncovered the shortcomings of stock exchanges and state controls as revealed by the mining boom from 1969 to 1970, and recommended the creation of a national regulatory body.[5]

Sim thus brought a respected reputation to his work on defence and foreign policy. Between 1969 and 1972 he was a member of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs. When the committee was reconstituted as the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence in May 1973, he became a member, remaining for the rest of his parliamentary service. On 6 October 1971 he was appointed to the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, serving as chairman until he was replaced in February 1973 following the election of the Whitlam Government, though he remained on the committee. In Opposition, he spoke more frequently. In August 1973 he successfully moved a motion charging the Government with ‘double standards’ in that it was far more critical of atmospheric nuclear testing by France than by China. In September 1974 he questioned the direction of Australian foreign policy under Labor, attacking the Government’s ‘shameful’ de jure recognition of the incorporation of the Baltic states into the USSR. He opposed what he saw as the Labor Government’s concentration of powers in Canberra. Concern for human rights prompted him in 1973 to take up the case of the overlong detention of two Taiwanese fishing masters found poaching in Australian waters. In 1974, when the youthful Russian violinist, Georgi Ermolenko, sought asylum in Perth, but was later persuaded to return home, Sim took a leading role in bringing attention to the issue. Originally well-disposed towards some of the Whitlam Government’s economic initiatives, such as tariff reduction, he had become a trenchant critic of its management of the economy by the time of the Dismissal in November 1975.[6]

In March 1976, following the election of the Fraser Government, Sim resumed the chairmanship of the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, retaining it until three weeks before his retirement. He always secured bipartisan consensus among its members. Sim’s influence showed in the committee’s insistence on the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean as well as a continuing interest in the new nations of the south-west Pacific such as Papua New Guinea and the Solomons after they achieved independence. He was also parliamentary observer at the South Pacific Conference in September 1977 and led the Australian delegations to the South Pacific Conference at Port Moresby in October 1980 and the Southern African Development Co-ordination Conference at Maputo in November and December 1980. An assiduous traveller, he made no fewer than thirteen visits to Indonesia, as well as several journeys to Japan and Taiwan, so that when he spoke on Australia’s foreign policy in South-East Asia it was from firsthand experience.[7]

Sim was prepared to speak his mind and act independently, even if his views did not accord with the policies of his party. In 1976 he again warned against exaggerating the military significance of Russian naval activity in the Indian Ocean, contradicting public statements by the Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, and the Minister for Defence, Jim Killen. Sim took the view that overreaction by Australia might provoke the USSR. Four years later, during debate on how to respond to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, he observed that ‘Australia has to avoid being accused of being a little country with a big mouth’. In February 1977 Sim crossed the floor to vote against two of the four Constitution alteration bills submitted to a referendum in May of that year: the Constitution Alteration (Simultaneous Elections) Bill, which provided for simultaneous elections of the Senate and House of Representatives, and the Constitution Alteration (Senate Casual Vacancies) Bill, which sought to ensure that casual vacancies were filled by a member of the same political party. In 1979 he warned of the danger of a pro-China tilt in Australian foreign policy, and said that Australia had been ‘very lax’ in promoting its interests in Taiwan. Shortly before leaving Parliament in June 1981, he attacked the Fraser Government’s refusal to provide economic aid to Vietnam. A newspaper profile of Sim described him as a man who ‘only seems to make it into the headlines every three or four years’ but ‘seems to have developed a knack of stepping on toes when he does’. Sim’s most notorious public comments were made in Singapore in March 1972 when, in the course of describing the McMahon Government’s actions in sending a minister to China without prior diplomatic consultations as ‘unwise, in fact stupidity,’ he was asked about the involvement of two Melbourne businessmen in the negotiations with China. Sim was reported as responding, ‘When did Australian foreign policy rest in the hands of two Manchester Jews?’ The businessmen denied that they were either Jewish or from Manchester; and Sim claimed that his remarks had been taken out of context. There was general condemnation of Sim’s alleged comments, and the House of Representatives passed a motion, moved by Gough Whitlam, repudiating ‘the sectarian sentiments attributed to Senator Sim’, as well as a Government motion repudiating and condemning ‘any anti-Semitic attitudes wherever expressed or implied’.[8]

Having served during his last three months in the Senate on the Select Committee on Parliament’s Appropriations and Staffing, Sim retired in June 1981. He was appointed a CBE on 31 December 1982. He maintained his interest in foreign policy through membership of the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA), serving as president of the Western Australian branch for twenty-one years. The AIIA Peter Sim Prize is awarded to the best undergraduate student in International Relations at the University of Western Australia. From 1982 until 1991 he was a member of the Senate of Murdoch University, serving between 1991 and 1997 as a board member of its Asia Research Centre. In 2006 Japan recognised his long contribution to Australian–Japanese relations by awarding him the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star.[9]

Geoffrey Bolton

[1] Information from the author’s interview with Peter Sim on 25 July 2007 has been used throughout this entry; The editor is indebted to Heather Hill, Principal, Murrumbeena Primary School and Jim Mitchell, Archivist, Scotch College, Melbourne; Sim, John Peter—Defence Service Record, B883, VX50097, NAA.

[2] Liberal and Country League of Western Australia, Annual general conference minutes, 28–29 Mar. 1960 and 30–31 July 1962, box 349, folder 62/78 and box 350, folder 62/76, State council minutes, 26 Aug. 1963, box 350, folder 62/76, Liberal Party of Australia Federal Executive minutes, 21 Mar. 1963, 18 Sept. 1964, 5 Mar. 1965, box 163, Federal rural committee files, box 9, MS 5000, NLA; WA (Perth), 12 Nov. 1964, p. 2, 25 Nov. 1964, p. 2; WAPD, 26 Nov. 1964, p. 3070.

[3] CPD, 19 Aug. 1970, pp. 85–8, 19 May 1965, pp. 943–7, 19 Mar. 1969, pp. 473–8, 7 May 1968, pp. 837–9, 14 Oct. 1970, pp. 1110–13, 28 Nov. 1968, pp. 2510–12, 21 Oct. 1965, pp. 1154–5, 14 Mar. 1968, pp. 126–7, 20 Mar. 1968, pp. 224–9, 12 June 1981, p. 3253, 14 Sept. 1966, p. 379, 15 Sept. 1966, p. 451, 27 Aug. 1969, pp. 412–13.

[4] CPD, 14 Sept. 1966, pp. 379–84, 4 Mar. 1970, pp. 83–6; Bulletin (Syd.), 1 Apr. 1972, p. 24; CPD, 15 Sept. 1966, pp. 453–4, 456, 27 Aug. 1969, pp. 412–15, 9 Apr. 1970, pp. 727–33, 24 Aug. 1972, p. 437; CPP, 195/1972, 228/1968; CPD, 10 Oct. 1968, p. 1233, 15 Oct. 1968, pp. 1247–8, 1252–3.

[5] CPP, 19/1968; D. H. Borchardt, Checklist of Royal Commissions, Select Committees of Parliament and Boards of Inquiry: Commonwealth, New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania and Victoria, 1960–1980 and South Australia, 1970–1980, Borchardt Library, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Vic., 1986, p. 34; CPP, 82/1970; CPD, 2 June 1970, p. 1844; CPP, 98/1974.

[6] CPD, 30 Aug. 1973, pp. 369–74, 20 Sept. 1973, pp. 788–90, 18 Sept. 1974, pp. 1180–4, 28 Nov. 1973, pp. 2208–11, 26 Sept. 1973, pp. 936–7; Age (Melb.), 31 Oct. 1973, p. 11; CPD, 13 Aug. 1974, pp. 855–7, 11 June 1975, pp. 2566–8, 2 Sept. 1975, pp. 452–7, 30 Oct. 1975, p. 1655, 4 Nov. 1975, p. 1694.

[7] CPP, 41/1976, 330/1976; CPD, 12 Mar. 1974, p. 218, 18 Feb. 1976, pp. 77–8, 19 Feb. 1976, pp. 100–2; South Pacific Commission, Reports of the 17th South Pacific Conferences, 1977, 1980; AFR (Syd.), 24 Oct. 1978, p. 2, 25 Oct. 1978, p. 2, 13 Feb. 1979, pp. 1, 8.

[8] Age (Melb.), 30 Aug. 1976, p. 3; Nation Review (Melb.), 3–9 Sept. 1976, p. 1135; National Times (Syd.), 9–15 Mar. 1980, p. 18; CPD, 19 Feb. 1980, p. 50; Senate, Journals, 22 Feb. 1977, pp. 577–8, 25 Feb. 1977, pp. 592–8; CPD, 24 Feb. 1977, p. 430; WA (Perth), 7 Apr. 1977, p. 9; AFR (Syd.), 13 Feb. 1979, pp. 1, 8; SMH, 11 June 1981, p. 11; Australian (Syd.), 31 Aug. 1976, p. 9; WA (Perth), 9 Mar. 1972, p. 4; Herald (Melb.), 9 Mar. 1972, p. 3; WA (Perth), 10 Mar. 1972, p. 5; CPD, 9 Mar. 1972, p. 761, 9 Mar. 1972 (R), pp. 861–3, 866–7, 23 Mar. 1972, pp. 1090, 1096–1103.

[9] The editor is indebted to Dr Sue Boyd, President, Australian Institute of International Affairs, WA branch; Murdoch University, Annual reports, 1982, 1991; The editor is indebted to Tamara Dent, Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University; Hiroba e-zine: Newsletter from the Consulate-General of Japan in Western Australia, Dec. 2006 , p. 2.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 3, 1962-1983, University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney, 2010, pp. 510-514.

SIM, John Peter (1917–)

National Archives of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Western Australia, 1964–81

Senate Committee Service

Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings, 1965–72

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1965–78

Select Committee on the Metric System of Weights and Measures, 1967–68

Select Committee on Medical and Hospital Costs, 1968–70

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, 1969–72

Estimates Committee A, 1970–71, 1976–78

Select Committee on Securities and Exchange, 1970–75

Estimates Committee C, 1971–73

Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, 1971–81

Estimates Committee B, 1973–75

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, 1973–81

Estimates Committee F, 1980–81

Select Committee on Parliament’s Appropriations and Staffing, 1981