THOMAS, Andrew Murray (1936–2011 )
Senator for Western Australia, 1975–83 (Liberal Party of Australia)

Andrew Murray Thomas was born at Blyth, South Australia, on 14 March 1936, the first of four children of Philip Murray Thomas and his wife Joy Gertrude, née Tiver. Educated at the one-teacher Stanley Flat School and at Clare High School from 1949 to 1951, he followed his father and grandfather to become a farmer and stud sheep breeder. He regularly accompanied his father to the ram sales at the Perth Royal Show and at eighteen was the youngest official judge for the South Australian Stud Merino Sheepbreeders’ Association. On 27 March 1958 he married Jennifer Margaret Eime in the Stow Memorial Church, Adelaide; they were to have three children. In January 1962 his father was killed in a motor accident shortly after acquiring property in Western Australia, and this led Thomas and his family to move to the Northampton district, 50 kilometres north of Geraldton. Here Thomas soon won respect as a successful merino breeder responsive to innovation in flock management. In 1966 he was appointed to the executive of the West Australian Merino Breeders’ Association, and from 1971 to 1975 was inaugural president of a rival body, the Australian Merino Society. He also served on the advisory board of the Muresk Agricultural College and, from 1978 to 1983, on the National Advisory Council of the CSIRO. In 1968 he was elected to the board of Westralian Farmers Co-operative Limited (Wesfarmers), resigning after his entry into politics to avoid conflict of interest. In 1973 Wesfarmers included him in one of the first Australian business groups to visit China. Having entrusted his property to a manager after entering the Senate, Thomas sold out in 1979 and bought a smaller farm at Binnu, north of Northampton. [1]

Thomas and his wife took an active part in community organisations including the Parents’ and Citizens’ Association and the local historical society. Thomas was a great joiner, and as well as joining sporting clubs, the agricultural society and the local Freemasons’ lodge, of which he became master, he selected some organisations on pragmatic grounds: ‘I joined the Pastoralists & Graziers Association … only because their representative approached me and the Farmers Union didn’t. I joined the Liberal Party because they had a branch in Northampton and the Country Party didn’t. (I had been a member of the combined ‘Liberal Country League’ in SA)’.

A profound admiration for local member and Liberal Premier Sir David Brand may well have reinforced his decision. Thomas became president of the branch, and by 1974 was a vice-president of the Western Australian division of the Liberal Party, chairman of its rural policy committee, and a member of the federal rural committee. In that year, finding that his considerable efforts to raise stud merinos were not matched by an adequate income, he looked ‘for a change of direction’ and ‘decided to try for parliament’. He stood unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1974. In 1975 Thomas stood again and was placed fifth on the Liberal ticket. Despite his marginal position, the anti-Labor landslide at the federal elections of 13 December was enough to carry him into the Senate. With his term deemed to have begun on 1 July 1975, he faced the electors again in December 1977 and was returned.[2]

Modest and conscientious, Thomas told the Clerk of the Senate, J. R. Odgers, that Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice would be his Bible in the coming months, and kept a low profile during his first year as a senator. He said it took him many weeks to find his way around Parliament House. He spoke sparingly, usually on aspects of primary industry or north-west development with which he could claim familiarity. His strength lay in his diligence as a local member. Although the journey to Canberra from his office in Geraldton involved lengthy air travel, including overnight stopovers in Perth because connecting flights were badly timetabled, he was indefatigable in travelling through rural and outback Western Australia during parliamentary recesses. Choosing to identify himself with the far-flung Kalgoorlie electorate, he concentrated on the local interests of the north-west and Kimberley districts, leaving his House of Representatives colleague, the Member for Kalgoorlie, Mick Cotter, to shepherd the goldfields part of the constituency. After Cotter’s defeat in 1980, Thomas increased his travel workload.[3]

His parliamentary questions frequently addressed the provision of government services to remote areas. Thomas zealously promoted the Ord River Irrigation Scheme, stressing its suitability for sugar growing despite a lack of enthusiasm among colleagues from Queensland and northern New South Wales. He took an active interest in the development of the Pilbara mining industry and was a strong supporter of the Woodside gas project then starting up on the Burrup Peninsula. Speaking in 1978, he drew a distinction between the position of Aboriginals ‘who are integrating into our society’ and ‘tribal’ Aboriginals. He emphasised that the latter had ‘a wonderful society and a wonderful method of living and controlling their lives that must be preserved at all costs’. Years later, he wrote that he had found Malcolm Fraser ‘a disappointment’, remarking that Fraser seemed more concerned with social issues than economic ones. E.G. Whitlam, by comparison, was ‘an impressive man and an outstanding orator’, an opinion that Thomas kept to himself.[4]

Thomas did his best work as an industrious member of Senate committees, also serving on several government party committees concerned with communications and administrative services, national resources and trade and rural affairs. He chaired the Standing Committee on National Resources from September 1976, and Estimates Committee F from September 1978 to September 1979. He enjoyed overseas travel. His first journey on government business was in January 1978 as one of a delegation of six coalition members seeking improved access to Japanese markets for Australian primary produce. In October 1978 Thomas opened the world hydrological conference in Singapore, hosted by the Australian Government. A month later he represented Australia in Hawaii at the energy independencies conference, with an agenda for improving communications in the Pacific.

On 22 May 1980 Thomas was one of eight Liberals who supported an amendment by Senator Martin to the Whale Protection Bill, seeking to protect from prosecution Australian citizens engaging in whaling activity outside the 200-mile Australian fishing zone. On 24 March 1981, following the death of Senator Knight, he was appointed Deputy Government Whip in the Senate, a post often regarded as a first step to ministerial office. On 5 June, the Age reported that Thomas was one of at least three Liberals prepared to cross the floor to vote with the Opposition to insert a sunset clause in the proposed two-airline agreement. This would have conflicted with his role as whip. After speaking with several ministers, he changed his mind and voted with the Government.[5]

As chairman of the Standing Committee on National Resources, Thomas praised his staff for their efficient service and improved flow of information, but the workload went on growing. He took pains to ensure that committee reports were inclusive of all viewpoints. Many touched on environmental issues. Reports were produced on solar energy, plant variety rights, quarantine, water resources, rural research, alternatives to petrol-based fuels, and the aluminium industry. When the latter report was tabled in November 1981, it drew fire from Alcoa and several sections of the press for naming a resource rent tax as one of several options worthy of consideration. The pressures on Thomas increased in 1982 when the Fraser Government introduced legislation to outlaw ‘bottom of the harbour’ tax schemes, the principal bill being the Taxation (Unpaid Company Tax) Assessment Bill 1982. In Western Australia, Thomas was among the Liberal backbenchers who supported the party’s state council in opposing the bill’s provision for retrospective penalties, which might have hit the pockets of several prominent Perth businessmen. After the Liberal Party was subjected to an ‘avalanche’ of protest against the penalties, Thomas resigned as Deputy Whip on 16 November 1982, but in a media statement he claimed that the protest campaign was funded in part by tax evaders. Taken to task by influential elements in the state Liberal Party, Thomas partly retracted, although he did not join the ten Liberal–National Party members who crossed the floor to vote against the bill on 1 December 1982. He was to suffer the consequences when a double dissolution of Parliament was followed by the federal election of March 1983.[6]

Cabinet members Chaney and Durack secured the first two places on the Liberal Senate ticket, but the third spot went to Senator Noel Crichton-Browne, who, although a more recent senator than Thomas, was seen as a more trenchant opponent of the bottom of the harbour legislation and, as a former state president of the Liberal Party, possessed greater influence in the party machine. Thomas had a hard fight to secure the fifth spot behind the veteran senator Reg Withers but ahead of Senator John Martyr. He ‘was confident of being re-elected’, but the collapse of support for the Fraser Government resulted in his defeat by John (Jack) Evans, the first Australian Democrat candidate elected to the Senate for Western Australia. Although colleagues predicted that Thomas would make a comeback, he never sought parliamentary honours again. Disappointed in defeat, he retired with his wife to the beachside town of Mandurah, 75 kilometres south of Perth, and in 1984 went into business as a contract cabinet maker. His only venture into public life was between 1993 and 1997 as a member of the executive of the Royal Western Australian Bowling Association, and then its director of administration. In 2000 he published an autobiography, Her Five Husbands. This reveals him as a conscientious and fair-minded backbencher, more at home with the opportunities for constructive analysis of policy provided by Senate committees than with the sometimes cutthroat factional politics of the Western Australian Liberal Party.[7]

Geoffrey Bolton

[1] Andrew Thomas, Her Five Husbands, Access Press, Bassendean, WA, 2000, pp. 9–10, 13–14, 25, 30, 50, 68–9, 71, 83, 87, 104, 114, 126, 135–7, 152, 155, 180, 186; The editor in indebted to Lynda Johnson, Clare High School, SA; Australian Stud Merino Flock Register, vol. 42, 1965, p. 463; Christopher Fyfe, Aristocrats on Perches: A History of the Stud Merino Breeders’ Association of WA 1922–86, Stud Merino Breeders’ Association of Western Australia, Claremont, WA, 1987, pp. 47, 125; CSIRO, Annual reports, 1978–79, 1982–83; Westralian Farmers Co-operative Limited, Reports and financial statements, 1968; Wesfarmers News (Perth), 17 May 1973, p. 3.

[2] Thomas, Her Five Husbands, pp. 106–9, 138–42; Liberal Party of Australia, WA division, State conference report, 1975, p. 32; WA (Perth), 29 July 1974, p. 22; Liberal Party of Australia, 28th Meeting of Federal Council, Canberra, 12–14 Oct. 1974.

[3] Letter, Thomas to J. R. Odgers, 30 Jan. 1976, Senate Registry File, A8161, S331, NAA; Thomas, Her Five Husbands, pp. 153, 171, 188, 190, 193; CPD, 3 May 1983, p. 133, 25 Feb. 1976, p. 229.

[4] CPD, 1 Apr. 1976, p. 982, 19 Aug. 1982, pp. 314–15, 16 Feb. 1977, pp. 78–80; Thomas, Her Five Husbands, pp. 159, 190–1; CPD, 24 May 1978, pp. 1754–5.

[5] Jonathan Gaul and Susan Grant (eds), Federal Government Guide 1980, 4th edn, Objective Publications, Civic Square, ACT, 1980, pp. 104–5; Thomas, Her Five Husbands, pp. 145, 150, 171–2, 177; CPD, 22 May 1980, pp. 2719–20, 2725; Senate, Journals, 24 Mar. 1981, p. 154; Age (Melb.), 5 June 1981, p. 1.

[6] Thomas, Her Five Husbands, pp. 146–7; CPP, Standing Committee on National Resources, Reports, 1977–84; CPD, 25 Nov. 1981, pp. 2515–17; Alcoa of Australia, News release, 27 Jan. 1982; SMH, 17 Nov. 1982, p. 2; Age (Melb.), 17 Nov. 1982, p. 5; CT, 17 Nov. 1982, p. 1; WA (Perth), 17 Nov. 1982, pp. 3, 23; CT, 18 Nov. 1982, p. 3; CPD, 24 Nov. 1982, p. 2759; Senate, Journals, 1 Dec. 1982, p. 1268.

[7] WA (Perth), 12 Feb. 1983, p. 1; Thomas, Her Five Husbands, pp. 195–6, 198, 220, 222, 230; CPD, 3 May 1983, p. 133; The editor is indebted to Bianca-Rose Riseborough, Bowls WA.

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. 535-538.

THOMAS, Andrew Murray (1936– )

National Archives of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Western Australia, 1975–83

Senate Committee Service

Estimates Committee F, 1976, 1978–79

Estimates Committee E, 1976–78, 1980–83

Committee of Privileges, 1976–83

Standing Committee on National Resources, 1976–83

Estimates Committee D, 1978