VIGOR, David Bernard (1939–1998)
Senator for South Australia, 1985–87 (Australian Democrats; Unite Australia Party)

David Vigor was born on 24 June 1939 in Elbeuf, Normandy, in northern France. His English mother, Doris Marjorie Emma, née Hedges, and French father, Bernard Frederic Vigor, had married in June 1938, settling in France. Shortly after David’s birth mother and child caught the last ferry to England before the declaration of war. Bernard was taken prisoner but escaped to Marseilles in ‘free France’, where he worked for the American Consulate, completed a Cordon Bleu cookery course and ran a wholesale grocery and hire-car business, assisting the Resistance with vehicles.

Reunited in 1947, the Vigors returned to France, David attending school in Marseilles for five years, before the family decided to migrate to South Australia. On arrival in Adelaide in early March 1952, David immediately began secondary school at Adelaide Boys’ High School. Proficiency in French and Chemistry in particular won him bursaries in both subjects to supplement a Commonwealth Scholarship, and he began at Adelaide University in 1957, majoring in Pure Maths and French. He was awarded a BA in 1960, although he could also, for a fee, have gained a BSc for units in Applied Maths and Chemistry. David began work at the Weapons Research Establishment in Salisbury, SA. After a year, a post-graduate scholarship in theoretical chemistry with Professor R. D. Brown took him to the newly-opened Monash University in Melbourne.

At the research students’ club Vigor met Susan Broome, a biochemist and daughter of a GP from Coonamble, NSW, whom he married in December 1962. Positions at Glasgow University and as technical director of London-based consultancy firm Tylin Management Systems followed in 1964, before Vigor returned to Adelaide after being offered the position as Head of School at the South Australian Institute of Technology’s School of Data Processing. Director of the Computer Centre at a time of great change, Vigor was responsible for raising the standard of coursework to international levels with new degree and post-graduate courses as SAIT became the University of South Australia in 1977.

In February 1972 the Vigors moved to ‘The Glen’, a historic mixed-farm property they had bought at Sandy Creek, at the southern end of the Barossa Valley, where they raised five sons and two daughters. In 1975 they formed their own company, Management Aid, a computer management consultancy. Keen to bring the benefits of new media technologies to a wider audience, David chaired Adelaide Community Access Television (1978–83), and joined the board of Adelaide Community and Educational Television in 1983.[1]

David was drawn into the political turmoil of the 1970s when Steele Hall’s Liberal Movement (LM) breakaway party approached him to help develop their education policy. The Vigors joined the LM, David chairing and being on various policy committees and coordinating the campaign for his local seat in the 1975 state election.

The Vigors were in the small group around Robin Millhouse that did not rejoin the re-formed Liberal Party in June 1976 and were foundation members of the Australian Democrats formed in 1977 after Don Chipp’s visit to SA in June. Holding several senior party positions, David came third behind Janine Haines and Ian Gilfillan when the membership voted to select its Senate team for the 1980 election, Janine Haines ultimately winning a Senate seat. Vigor went onto the National Executive of the party in 1979, and became National Policy Convenor on Energy and Resources in 1981.

Balloted into an unwinnable fourth position for the 1983 federal election, Vigor’s first real chance for the Senate came in 1984 when Hawke called an early election for 1 December. He was selected to head the Democrats’ ticket ahead of John Coulter in second place and the party, drawn in top position on the SA Senate ballot paper, gained a very respectable 11.2 per cent of the vote. Vigor won the final seventh position (as the Senate began its expansion to twelve senators per state), for a term due to expire in June 1988.[2]

Vigor’s first speech after taking his seat in early 1985 clearly set out his preoccupations and marked him as a man whose expertise and faith in technology and the new information sciences would put him well in advance of his parliamentary peers. He was a man in a hurry, deeply concerned about the threats to the environment and to human health and happiness, and enthused about the potential of science and technology to address most of them.

In his two and a half years in the Senate Vigor made his mark, attempting far more than either he or his party could seriously hope to achieve. Of the thirteen private senator’s bills put forward in his name, most of which came to nothing, he is perhaps remembered best for his Air Navigation (Smoking) Amendment Bill of March 1987. Mocked as ‘draconian’ in its proposed penalties, it nonetheless prompted Minister for Transport and Aviation, Peter Morris, to make overdue changes to Regulation 278 under the 1920 Air Navigation Act and ban smoking in domestic aircraft from 1 December of that year.

Other causes for which Vigor advocated with varying degrees of success included improving the transportation of hazardous goods, an end to Soviet whaling in Antarctic waters, greater freedom for small business operators and restraint of big business, support for innovation, technology and scientific research, protection of intellectual property, and the establishment of an Australian reinsurance industry. He was active in AD initiatives to block Australia Card legislation and the proposed amalgamation of the ABC and SBS in 1986, and engineered an agreement to assist the Australian National Shipping Line in 1985.[3]

In Canberra Vigor’s name is associated with the Australian Capital Territory’s progression to self-government, especially its electoral system. In December 1985 the Minister for Territories, Gordon Scholes, proposed a new system of government for the ACT in which the territory would be divided into thirteen electorates which would each elect a member of a council with a degree of local legislative power. In a statement to the Canberra Times, Vigor, the Australian Democrats spokesman on the ACT, signalled opposition in the Senate ‘as the Democrats sought to allow the election of members from a single electorate, on a quota system’. The ACT Council bills, having passed through the House of Representatives, were introduced into the Senate on 16 April 1987, but were never debated as it was clear to the government that the legislation would not pass. Despite government offers of a compromise on the electoral system for the territory, and the introduction by Vigor of an alternative plan in his ACT Effective Self-Government Bill 1986, the proposals lapsed and the ACT reverted to an appointed Advisory Council and did not progress to self-government until 1989 (when a modified d’Hont proportional representation electoral system was introduced). Vigor was excoriated in the Canberra Times as a wrecker, but more impartial observers later conceded that ‘it could be argued that Vigor … had done the ACT a favour. He had not butchered self-government but only Scholes’s unsatisfactory version of it’.[4]

Vigor revelled in committee work, being an enthusiastic member of the Science, Technology and the Environment Committee, from February 1985 to June 1987, and the Finance and Government Operations Committee from June 1986 to June 1987. He was a natural for the Joint Select Committee on Telecommunications Interception that ran for five months in 1986. Although not a formal member of any Senate estimates committee, Vigor felt a responsibility to attend as many estimates hearings as he could, where ‘the manner in which he researched his questions and the vast range of issues that he covered simply amazed many of his admirers as well as his detractors’. Not everyone appreciated his tenacious probing of government administration, or the large volume of questions he placed on notice in estimates committees and in the Senate, but no-one could doubt his commitment. He introduced bills proposing that standing and special appropriations be abolished, and extending the Senate’s disallowance power over delegated legislation. Interested in electoral matters, his Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (By-Elections) Bill 1987 proposed the rotation of names on ballot-papers in federal elections, and that casual vacancies for both houses be filled by a recount of votes at the previous election. Friends and colleagues could find him infuriating at times, but he earned their deep respect as an ‘ideas’ person.[5]

When Don Chipp announced his retirement in mid-1986, Vigor contemplated a challenge to the anointed successor, deputy leader Janine Haines. By September a membership ballot for Senate preselection had placed him in the unwinnable third position on the SA ticket behind Haines and John Coulter, a blow to Vigor who ultimately did not run for the leadership. Haines won easily, with Siddons elected as her deputy. Divisions within the party came to a head as Labor moved to end the farmers’ subsidy on imported fertiliser, with Siddons, Vigor and Mason supporting the Fertilisers Subsidy Bill, passed in November 1986, against the wishes of the other four Democrats—Haines, Powell, Macklin and Sanders.

When Siddons resigned immediately afterwards, Vigor felt free to fight an aggressive campaign against Haines in the subsequent automatically-triggered leadership ballot. Haines was reconfirmed as leader, with eighty-two per cent of the vote, prompting Vigor to re-state his questioning of her abilities and style, and to blame her for failing to unite the party. Vigor appealed his demotion on the party ticket to state council on the grounds that it was party policy to give priority to sitting senators in such circumstances. When his appeal was turned down he announced in the Senate his resignation from the South Australian division of the Australian Democrats. In the 11 July election, Vigor headed the SA team for Siddons’ breakaway ‘Unite Australia Party’ but was eliminated on the thirty-second count. Preferences from his votes were directed to his former party.[6]

Vigor continued an association with the Australian Democrats after leaving the Senate in July 1987, and his wife Susan was president of the ACT division (1988–89). In January 1989 he lost his appeal against expulsion from the party, for standing against endorsed party candidates. Vigor concentrated his energies on his computer consultancy business, Your Expert System, managed with his wife from the family farm. He became more active in the Electoral Reform Society of SA, and was its vice-president in 1993–95. He resumed the threads of earlier passions, including ideas for how an internet-based ‘Open University’ might make tertiary studies more widely available. Ever hospitable, and a polymath, he shared his enthusiasms selflessly and retained a disarming childlike delight, and ‘intellectual openness and curiosity’ in every new development in his world.[7]

Vigor collapsed and died of a heart attack at home in April 1998. He had lived his fifty-eight years to the full, his energy and passion having driven him (and others) to pioneering achievements in a variety of important fields. His three years in the Senate were a short but significant part of a most productive life.

Jenny Tilby Stock

[1] Communications to the author by Susan Vigor and other family members; Eulogies for David Vigor, 17 April 1998, by Dick Hammond, Christopher Dorman and Rick Coy; Australian Democrats, National Journal, Feb. 1980, Newsletter SA, July 1982; ‘Profile: Senator David Vigor’, House Magazine, 24 April 1985, p. 3. CPD, 10 Sept. 1985, p. 332.

[2] Dean Jaensch, ‘The Liberal Movement and the new LM’, in John Warhurst, Keeping the Bastards Honest, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 1997, pp. 37–48.

[3] CPD, 20 March 1985, pp. 465–70, 19 March 1987, pp. 944–8, 7 May 1987, pp. 2505–23, 10 Dec. 1986, pp. 3749–52, 24 Sept. 1986, pp. 722–8, 28 May 1985, pp. 2629–31,16 Sept. 1985, pp. 573–4.

[4] Philip Grundy et al., Reluctant Democrats: The Transition to Self-Government in the Australian Capital Territory, Federal Capital Press of Australia, Fyshwick, ACT, 1996, pp. 138–57; CPD, 16 April 1986, pp. 1736–8, 22 Aug. 1986, pp. 333–7; CT, 3 June 1986, pp. 1, 3, 25 Oct. 1986, p. 14, 28 March 1987, p. 2.

[5] CPD, 17 Nov. 1986, pp. 2327–9, 2331, 28 May 1986, pp. 2855–6, 12 May 1998, pp. 2533–7, 24 Sept. 1986, pp. 719–22, 19 Nov. 1986, pp. 2451–2, 28 May 1987, pp. 3091–7; Rick Coy, 17 April 1998.

[6] CT, 6 Sept. 1986, p. 1; John Siddons, A Spanner In the Works, Macmillan, South Melb., Vic., 1990, pp. 222–6; Australian (Syd.), 7 Jan. 1987, p. 1, 26 Jan. 1987, p. 2; CPD, 4 June 1987, p. 3571; CT, 26 Jan. 1989, p. 2.

[7] CPD, 12 May 1998, p. 2534, communications to the author by family members; Bogey Musidlak, ‘Vale David Bernard Vigor, former senator for South Australia’, Quota Notes, June 1988; CT, 14 April 1998, p. 4.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 289-292.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for South Australia, 1985–87 (AD; Unite AP)

Senate Committee Service

Standing Committee on Science, Technology and the Environment, 1985–87

Joint Select Committee on Telecommunications Interception, 1986

Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations, 1986–87