WALSH, Peter Alexander (1935–2015)
Senator, Western Australia, 1974–93 (Australian Labor Party)
Peter Alexander Walsh was born on 11 March 1935 at Kellerberrin in the central wheat belt of Western Australia. He was the second son of Robert Walsh and his wife, Dorothy, née Ray, both of whom had come from Victoria in 1930 to lease and work a wheat and sheep farm at Doodlakine, also in the WA wheat belt. Peter completed his primary schooling at Doodlakine Primary in 1945 then stayed on until December 1948 to complete his Junior Certificate by correspondence under the supervision of the school's head teacher. The nearest secondary school was Northam High School, 120 kilometres away, and Peter decided to end his studies to earn money working on the farm. He never regretted his decision, stating: 'Economic security was certainly enhanced by starting earlier on the farm, and the opportunity for formal study was not closed off for life'.
From the age of fourteen, prompted by his admiration for Ben Chifley, Walsh had an ambition to be in the federal Parliament. The mechanical nature of many farming activities gave him plenty of time to think and reflect, including on politics and agricultural policy. By the mid-1950s Walsh had developed a strong antipathy towards the Country Party's advocacy of protectionism and subsidies, believing that such policies were economically unsound as they encouraged industries that were inefficient and uncompetitive in world markets and kept 'poor bloody dairy cockies on their broken down dairy farms'.
Walsh underwent national service training in 1954, an experience that confirmed his 'innate prejudices' against 'the 'military caste and mind set', which he saw as encouraging either 'cringing servility' or 'petty tyranny'. From the mid-1960s he vigorously opposed Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War and the reintroduction of conscription. Walsh joined the ALP in 1961; at that time he was also a member of the Farmers' Union of Western Australia. He helped re-start the inactive ALP branch in Kellerberrin, and held the post of secretary from 1966 to 1974. Walsh married Rosalie on 29 January 1958; the couple would go on to have four daughters.
In the late 1960s Walsh enrolled as an external student in economics at the University of Western Australia but discontinued after completing four units. Nevertheless, he maintained his interest in economics and continued to read widely on the subject. In 1970 he was the principal author of 'a new and rational' agricultural policy for the state ALP, adopted at the WA country branches' conference and subsequently endorsed by the WA state conference.
At the 1969 and 1972 federal elections Walsh was an unsuccessful ALP candidate for the House of Representatives seat of Moore, at that time regarded as a safe Country Party seat. By 1973 Walsh had been noticed favourably by the left-wing WA branch secretary, F. E. ('Joe') Chamberlain, and was made a member of the party's State Executive. With the backing of Chamberlain, John Dawkins (later MHR Fremantle) and Bob McMullan (future senator, MHR Canberra and MHR Fraser), Walsh secured fourth place on the party's WA Senate ticket, and was elected to the Senate at the double dissolution election of 18 May 1974. Walsh later wrote that he 'never had to scrounge for preselection votes or do deals and trade offs ... Initially other people looked after me, and later my position looked after itself'. Re-elected in 1975, he headed Labor's WA ticket in 1977, 1983 and 1987. In Canberra Walsh initially attended meetings of the Left faction but was 'excommunicated' in 1975 when he voted in support of Prime Minister Whitlam's sacking of Treasurer Jim Cairns. When the Centre Left faction was established in 1984, Walsh became one of its key members.
In his first speech to the Senate on 11 July 1974, Walsh declared his 'special interest in agriculture', and spoke of 'the intellectual atrophy of which the Country Party is both a product and a cause'. He stated that he had 'argued strenuously for many years inside the Labor Party' for the 'rational economic approach' towards agriculture adopted by the Whitlam Government. Subsidies, he said, favoured 'wealthy' farmers who 'received more than 4 times as much as those who are genuinely in need'. Governments 'should provide assistance for industries which are temporarily depressed and withdraw such assistance when they are prosperous'. Walsh spoke against the maintenance of the superphosphate subsidy as he believed that the subsidy encouraged the 'wasteful' and 'economically inefficient' usage of a commodity that was becoming scarcer and more expensive. He also cautioned against excessive tariff compensation for agricultural industries.
During his early years in the Senate Walsh did not confine his attention to primary industry. As well as discussing fuel costs, wool marketing and farm incomes, he spoke about Medibank, the Australian Broadcasting Commission, minerals and mining, natural gas, television reception, electoral laws and taxation. He also spoke in support of the Racial Discrimination Bill 1975, noting that the country town he grew up in 'like most country towns in Australia manifested quite a deal of anti-Aboriginal discrimination'. In 1979 and 1981 Walsh introduced private senator's bills that sought to use the Commonwealth's 'races' power under section 51(xxi) of the Constitution to override amendments to the Electoral Act 1907 (WA) which, he claimed, 'were designed to deter aboriginal people from enrolling and voting in State elections'. The first bill lapsed; the second bill was defeated on a tied vote. A diligent senator, Walsh served on a number of parliamentary and party committees. He was also a regular writer of detailed letters to the editors of newspapers.
Walsh believed that the Whitlam Labor Government 'was not a particularly good one'. He suggested that, while the government had been 'reformist', the 'greatest beneficiaries of its reforms ... were those who gained sinecures in an expanded public sector and the white collar class in general'. By contrast, 'Labor's lower paid working class constituency' received 'big negatives in the form of high inflation and rising unemployment'. Walsh observed: 'For most of the time Whitlam behaved as if the economy didn't matter or was a low order priority' and most of the government's dominant ministers were 'economic cranks'.
Walsh assumed that the shortcomings of the Whitlam Government would have seen it lose office 'in the proper way and at the proper time', and he was appalled at the methods used by the Coalition to win government. Walsh declared in 1993: 'No lie was too big, no tactic too sleazy, no risk, including the risk of civil disorder was too great if it facilitated the return of what [the Coalition] regarded as its birthright'. Up until his last day in the Senate Walsh expressed his rage and never forgave the other 'principal villains of 1975', Governor-General Sir John Kerr and Chief Justice Sir Garfield Barwick, for the roles they played in the Dismissal.
In the Senate Walsh was known for extremely robust, and frequently unparliamentary, denunciations of political opponents, using terms such as 'western galah', 'odious rodent', 'harpy', 'salon lizards', 'mindless maniacs' and 'wimps and wankers'. A fortnight after the death of Sir Robert Menzies, Walsh referred to him as 'a fraud and charlatan whose parliamentary lies were responsible, inter alia, for the deaths of 492 Australians in Vietnam'. Walsh's office maintained wide-ranging 'dirt' files and published a lively if sometimes outrageous newsletter. He defended the practice of 'so-called muck raking' when the 'muck was factual and relevant to the business and honesty of government in Australia'. Walsh's behaviour often infuriated his opponents. Speaking in 1987, the Senate Opposition Leader, Senator Fred Chaney denounced Walsh's 'boorishness', 'his total lack of manners and his continual abuse'. Walsh was frequently asked to withdraw personal comments, which—having achieved the desired effect—he usually did without much demur.
Walsh was suspended from the Senate on several occasions. In September 1978 he was suspended for refusing to withdraw his assertion that Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser was a 'habitual liar'. In November 1979 he was suspended for a week after persisting in an attack on the Chief Justice of the High Court, Sir Garfield Barwick, which included a comment that Barwick was 'a disgrace to the bench'. In September 1984 Walsh sought to link the promoter of a failed tax avoidance scheme to donations made to the Western Australian Liberal Party and was subsequently censured by the Senate 'for his deliberate misleading of the Senate'. It was the first time in ten years that a minister had been censured by the Senate. In 1985, 1986 and 1987 Opposition and Australian Democrats senators gave contingent notices of motion, enabling them to move, at the conclusion of any 'speech, statement, answer to a question or comment' by Walsh, that standing orders be suspended in order to allow a motion of censure to be moved. In November 1987 a motion of censure was carried expressing the Senate's 'profound disapproval of the unparliamentary conduct of Senator Peter Walsh during the debate'. Much of Walsh's 1993 valedictory speech was devoted to a long-planned attack on Sir Garfield Barwick, provoking several points of order from the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Robert Hill (SA)—a rare event in a valedictory.
Walsh admired Bill Hayden, a fellow 'economic rationalist', and he supported Hayden in the Caucus spill of May 1977, which saw Whitlam retain the leadership. When Hayden did become Leader of the Opposition six months later, he gave Walsh the shadow portfolios of primary industry and (until 1978) administrative services. Walsh set to work shaping Labor's primary industry policy away from a reliance on subsidies. When the Fraser Government's 1978 Budget decision to impose import parity prices on Australian crude oil resulted in a call for fuel subsidies to farmers, Walsh maintained his firm anti-subsidy stance, arguing that the loss of a few votes was preferable to adopting a position that would prove unsustainable in government. After the 1980 election Hayden made Walsh shadow minister for finance, and for trade and national development, posts he held until Hayden's final reshuffle of his frontbench in January 1983, when Walsh was given responsibility for resources and energy.
Walsh characterised Bob Hawke as 'the permanent leadership pretender' and unsuccessfully urged Hayden to stand firm in February 1983 rather than resigning the leadership in Hawke's favour. Having assumed the leadership, Hawke acceded to Hayden's request that Walsh, along with two other close supporters, be allowed to retain their shadow portfolios in government.
Labor won the March 1983 election decisively, and on 11 March Walsh became Minister for Resources and Energy and a member of the Hawke ministry. Walsh believed that his 'most important' policy priority was to implement a Resources Rent Tax (RRT) on mineral wealth, the proceeds of which were to be shared between the states and the Commonwealth. The RRT had been party policy for several years and was designed to replace state royalties. It was opposed by most in the mining industry and by state governments, including the Labor states, especially Western Australia. Walsh intended to impose the tax in the first instance on the offshore oil industry, where the Commonwealth had sole jurisdiction and where he believed the need for an RRT was greatest. That goal was achieved in 1985 but not before Walsh had moved to another portfolio.
Walsh considered that the ALP's policy, adopted in 1982, of confining uranium mining to three existing mines 'was never very sensible but ... the Party policy had to be upheld'. As minister, he was lobbied by companies and state and territory governments, seeking to expand mining, while dealing with a renewed push from within the ALP to ban all mining and exports. At the 1984 ALP Federal Conference Walsh described the argument of the Left 'that the Labor Party tradition was anti-nuclear' as a 'big lie', pointing out that the Whitlam Government had actively pursued uranium development and exports. The conference confirmed the existing three mines policy, while maintaining the ban on uranium exports to France due to its nuclear testing program in the Pacific.
During his tenure as Minister for Resources and Industry, in response to ongoing press interest, Walsh reluctantly initiated a royal commission into the conduct of British nuclear tests on Australian territory during the 1950s and 1960s. Walsh later expressed scepticism about the evidence used to agitate for the royal commission and characterised his decision to initiate it as 'the most unambiguous mistake' he had made while in government. He concluded that the findings of the royal commission did not justify its cost to taxpayers, and lawyers were 'the only beneficiaries'.
Soon after Labor had won government in 1983, Walsh was one of three ministers appointed by Hawke to join him and Treasurer Paul Keating on Cabinet's newly formed Expenditure Review Committee (ERC). In a concerted effort to establish a responsible approach to managing the Budget and government spending, all government expenditure other than that listed in the forward estimates was to be reviewed by the five ERC members, and all ministers had to justify their claims for increased budget spending and provide reasons for rejecting proposed spending cuts. The ERC was 'the engine-room' of the Hawke Government and Walsh quickly became one of its key members.
Walsh's ERC performance was no doubt a factor in his appointment by Hawke as Minister for Finance and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Public Service Matters, following the December 1984 election. Walsh worked hard on the ERC and would continue to do so over the next seven years, reviewing both expenditure for each year's budget and expenditure for the major May savings statements of 1983, 1985, 1987 and 1989. As a minister focused on fiscal discipline, Walsh 'led by example', he took 'few overseas trips, made little use of Commonwealth cars and had the smallest use of ministerial travel allowances'.
Throughout Walsh's time in Cabinet the Australian Democrats held the balance of power in the Senate. Walsh had little regard for the Democrats' grasp of economics, equating their approach to government spending to a belief in fairies. In December 1987 he stated that 'the Senate was near anarchy' and was 'the foremost institutional obstacle to economic adjustment and reform in Australia mainly because of the proportional representation system'. In November 1985, after the Senate's defeat of a regulation increasing charges for freedom of information searches, Walsh was asked to withdraw his remark that 'one would certainly be entitled to insult the Senate'. Walsh took the opportunity to rephrase his comment: 'it ought to be a matter of very serious political concern in Australia that a group which is not responsible in a fiscal sense has control over fiscal policy and expenditure'.
Walsh also held strong views on the right of the Executive to control the expenditure of parliamentary departments. In 1985 he compelled the Appropriations and Staffing Committee 'to reduce the Senate's estimates close to the minister's specification'. Subsequently, in contrast to the pay rises offered to the broader public service, the government refused to provide additional appropriations to fund pay rises for parliamentary officers. Walsh objected to the additional expense, emphatically stating his view: 'I explicitly do not accept the proposition that the Parliament determines how much money the Parliament will get. The Executive Government has the financial responsibility and in the end the Executive Government will determine that question'.
For Walsh, the 'best thing' about being Minister for Finance was that: 'because almost everything governments do entails spending money, you have a licence to meddle in just about everything'. The 'worst thing' was constant attendance at Cabinet and ERC meetings and 'taking on most of your colleagues'. The post was a 'mixed blessing: interesting but stressful'. Walsh was regularly in conflict with public service unions, and also sought, with mixed success, to limit over-generous superannuation arrangements for federal politicians.
Walsh had been 'well aware', before entering government, that excessive current account deficits were a 'chronic' problem for the Australian economy: 'Unfortunately, we all more or less forgot about it until the dollar crisis in 1986', when, as the current account deficit rose, the dollar fell until it reached a new low of 57.2 US cents on 28 July 1986. Walsh was stunned, later recalling: 'I was closer to despair than I had been even in 1975 ... we did not deserve the catastrophe inflicted on us'. In response, the ERC initiated a broad array of spending cuts and other measures, including the introduction of a higher education administration fee and the approval of a contract for the sale of uranium to France. At the same time as Walsh later noted: 'Almost all Australian industry was weaned off rent-seeking and the pernicious protectionist tit'. The aim was to bring in a budget 'with zero real growth in outlays'. This goal was achieved and then repeated over the following three years, assisted considerably by a halving of public debt interest payments, 'a direct result of the Budget foundations laid down in 1987'.
Unfortunately, as far as Walsh was concerned, the May 1987 Budget statement was also 'the last broad and near rigorous scrutiny of outlays'. Walsh believed that the Hawke Government began to decline during its third term (1987–89), gradually losing its fiscal discipline, and becoming captive to demands from single-interest groups. He was especially unhappy with pressure from conservationists, and their ally in government, the Minister for the Environment, Senator Graham Richardson. Walsh was disturbed by the economic consequences of what he saw as a nationwide 'multipronged attack' on the timber industry by 'green extremists', and believed that the Hawke Government's 1989 decision to block mining at Coronation Hill in Kakadu National Park was the 'worst' environmental decision made by the government during his seven years in cabinet. He later expressed the view that the aim of large sections of the environmental movement was to 'damage, or perhaps even destroy, industrial capitalism' and took particular umbrage at the activities of the Australian Conservation Foundation and Greenpeace.
Speaking at a conference in Perth in September 1987, and incorrectly assuming no journalists were present, Walsh warned that the Budget had been 'oversold'. He also attacked the retention of socially inequitable government programs and suggested that the Australian economy could be 'going down the Argentinian road'. In response to subsequent press reports, 'Hawke censured Walsh in private and Keating repudiated him in public'. Walsh was convinced that Keating was misguided in relying on monetary rather than fiscal policy to check the 'speculative boom' of the late 1980s. In late 1988 he was infuriated by Hawke's pledges of wage rises and tax cuts and, by 1989, he was 'demoralised' by the ever-worsening current account deficit. In March 1989 Walsh told the Prime Minister that he intended to resign from the ministry. Walsh explained to his friend and ERC colleague John Dawkins that the government had 'a stench of decay, and I don't want to be part of it'. Dawkins responded: 'The most obvious sign of decay will be your departure'. Walsh reconsidered and stayed on.
Walsh did not expect to be in government after the election of February 1990, having anticipated a Labor loss. After the Hawke Government was returned, Walsh resumed his public warnings, motivated by a belief that he had exercised 'negligible influence' over policy in the preceding twelve months and that the nation's 'profound economic problems' remained unrecognised. By this time, after seven years in an extremely demanding portfolio, he was suffering from stress-related shingles. Walsh had made it clear that he would not continue as finance minister, but he had hopes of taking on either the portfolios of health and community services or primary industry and energy, but neither post was offered to him. Walsh resigned from the ministry on 4 April 1990.
Paul Keating challenged Hawke's leadership in June and then December 1991, winning the second contest and succeeding Hawke as Prime Minister. Walsh voted for Keating on both occasions 'without either hesitation or enthusiasm', but remained concerned by Keating's 'propensity for self-delusion and ... latent megalomania'. Walsh lauded Keating's 'serious interest in policy outcomes'. Yet, he was dismayed by the new Prime Minister's One Nation statement in February 1992, in which he had promised, in the words of Walsh, 'big increases in public expenditure' and 'unaffordable' and 'regressive' tax cuts.
For eight years, from May 1990, Walsh wrote a regular political column under the title 'Cassandra' in the Australian Financial Review. The title was adopted after Prime Minister Hawke had labelled Walsh a 'Cassandra', because of his continual predictions of economic disaster. Although 'Cassandra' was often highly critical of the economic policies of the Hawke and Keating governments, Walsh donated his fee for the column to the ALP while he remained in the Senate. On the backbench he also resumed Senate committee duties, participating in estimates committees and chairing the Select Committee on Sales Tax Legislation in 1992. Walsh's final Senate term ended on 30 June 1993.
Despite numerous hostilities in the Senate chamber, at the close of his parliamentary career, Walsh acknowledged that 'somewhat surprisingly, I have made some friends on the other side'. He was also respected and liked by the public servants with whom he worked. Walsh enjoyed an 'unmatched social reputation' around Parliament House as a 'gregarious' and 'generous' host of social gatherings across party lines, at which 'any semblance of pomposity or unnecessary formality' was avoided.
Walsh always rejected suggestions that his commitment to fiscal discipline made him a right-winger: 'If being Left has anything to do with accepting that the State has not only a legitimate role but a moral obligation to intervene in the final distribution of income, I have always been Left'. In his valedictory speech, Walsh said: 'I fear that Ben Chifley's Labor Party ... has lost its way', and he emphasised Chifley's belief that economic growth 'has a paramount role in improving the life of ordinary Australians ... Those who stultify growth always ensure that others bear the cost. This is profoundly unfair'. Upon his resignation from the ministry, Walsh was described as Labor's 'truest socialist' and as possessing irreplaceable knowledge and tenacity but 'too little political nous'.
After leaving the Senate, Walsh remained in Perth, with occasional stints on the family farm run by his brother. In 1995 he published his memoir, Confessions of a Failed Finance Minister: the title reflected Walsh's belief 'that the government didn't do all the things I wanted them to. I only got about 80 per cent of the agenda instead of 100'. Walsh was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1996 for service to the Parliament of Australia, particularly as Minister for Finance, and to journalism. In 1997 and 2000 he delivered papers at conferences of the Samuel Griffith Society. In March 2000, Walsh became founding president of the Lavoisier Group, formed to promote vigorous debate within Australia on the science of global warming and climate change, and of the economic consequences of decarbonisation. Seven months later, shortly before the referendum on an Australian Republic, he again attracted the public eye by expressing the view that whether 'Australia calls itself a constitutional monarchy or republic is a matter of monumental unimportance', arguing that Australia's fundamental problems were instead to be found in the economic sphere. As a result of failing health, Walsh became less active in public life and, following a short illness, died in a Perth hospital on 10 April 2015.
 Peter Walsh, Confessions of a Failed Finance Minister, Random House, Syd., 1995, pp. 1–7, 10–11 [Confessions]; Transcript of an interview with Peter Walsh by Daniel Connell, 18–19 Aug. 2010, POHP.
 Confessions, pp. 11–14, 22–3; POHP; Mike Steketee, 'Labor in Power: 1983–96' in True Believers: The Story of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, J. Faulkner & S. Macintyre (eds), Allen & Unwin, Syd., 2001, pp. 146–7; CPD, 11 July 1974, pp. 89–93.
 CPD, 22 May 1975, pp. 1798–801, 13 Nov. 1979, pp. 2176–7, 23 Nov. 1979, pp. 2884–7; Senate, Journals, No. 55, 10 Sept. 1981, p. 490; Press Release, Senator Peter Walsh, 5 March 1981; Australian (Syd.), 15 July 1974, p. 6, 2 Sept. 1974, p. 6, 19 Oct. 1974, p. 18; AFR (Syd.), 13 Feb. 1975, p. 2, 4 June 1975, p. 2, 12 June 1975, p. 2; Herald (Melb.), 22 Feb. 1975, p. 14; CT, 7 Nov. 1975, p. 2; CPD, 27 May 1993, pp. 1518–23; Confessions, pp. 23–5.
 CPD, 25 Feb. 1976, pp. 243–8, 1 June 1978, pp. 2247–50, 12 Sept. 1984, pp. 907–8, 22 May 1985, pp. 2365–6, 25 Sept. 1986, pp. 810–14, 20 Feb. 1987, pp. 378–9, 4 June 1987, p. 3563, 19 Nov. 1987, pp. 2109–10, 28 Sept. 1978, pp. 1041–3, 21 Nov. 1979, pp. 2701–5, 13 Sept. 1984, pp. 972–82, 28 March 1985, p. 970, 22 May 1985, p. 2293, 27 May 1985, pp. 2484–5, 19 Aug. 1986, p. 8, 14 Sept. 1987, pp. 22–3, 19 Nov. 1987, pp. 2116–17, 27 May 1993, pp. 1518–23; National Times (Syd.), 30 May 1982, pp. 8–10; Australian (Syd.), 13 May 1993, p. 9; WA (Perth), 11 Jan. 1978, p. 24; Harry Evans & Rosemary Laing (eds), Odgers' Australian Senate Practice, 13th ed., Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2012, pp. 591–4; Australian (Syd.), 14 Sept. 1984, pp. 1–2, 6 March 1993, p. 9.
 Confessions, pp. 29, 39–51, 73, 74, 76, 89–91.
 Confessions, pp. 92–6; Australian (Syd.), 11 July 1984, pp. 1, 2; SMH, 8 Sept. 1984, p. 7.
 Paul Kelly, The End of Certainty: Power Politics and Business in Australia, Allen & Unwin, Syd., 1994, p. 70; Confessions, pp. 101–124; William Hayden, Hayden: An Autobiography, A&R, Syd., 1996, p. 481; Graham Richardson, Whatever It Takes, Bantam Books, Moorebank, NSW, 1994, p. 177; Australian (Syd.), 3 April 1990, pp. 1, 4; CPD, 17 Oct. 1985, p. 1425, 29 Nov. 1985, p. 2605, 18 Feb. 1987, p. 168, 19 Feb. 1987, pp. 267–8, 17 March 1987, p. 764, 25 Nov. 1987, p. 2384, 26 April 1988, pp. 1846–7; Gordon Reid & Martyn Forrest, Australia's Commonwealth Parliament 1901–1988: Ten Perspectives, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1989, pp. 180, 407.
 Confessions, pp. 85–6, 124, 151–69, 207, 209, 272–3; Australian (Syd.), 23 Oct. 1991, pp. 1–2, 10 April 1991, p. 3.
 Confessions, pp. 180, 200, 210–11, 228, 230–2, 246; Kelly, The End of Certainty, pp. 364–5, 494–5; POHP; SMH, 26 May 1990, p. 11.
 Confessions, pp. 232–3, SMH, 26 May 1990, p. 11; CPD, 27 May 1993, pp. 1505, 1518, 1556–7; AFR (Syd.), 27 May 1988, pp. 1, 3; POHP; Peter Walsh, Address launching volume 11 of Upholding the Australian Constitution, 2001; Australian (Syd.), 13 Nov. 2009, p. 4, 9 June 2010, p. 1; CPD, 27 May 1993, pp. 1518–23, 12 May 2015, pp. 2851–9; Australian (Syd.), 13 May 1993, p. 9, 15 May 1993, p. 2, 3 April 1990, pp. 1, 4, AFR (Syd.), 11 April 2015, p. 21.
This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 500-506.