WALTERS, Mary Shirley (1925–2017)
Senator for Tasmania, 1975–93 (Liberal Party of Australia)

Mary Shirley Harrison (known as Shirley) was born in Sydney on 31 August 1925, the second of three daughters of Eric John and Mary Cook Harrison, née McCall. She and her two sisters grew up at the family home in the Sydney suburb of Rose Bay. Shirley had a comfortable childhood—her father was a successful businessman, managing a large textile factory, and in 1931 he was elected as the United Australia Party Member for Wentworth (NSW) in the House of Representatives. Shirley Harrison helped her father campaign from the backs of trucks around the urban electorate. Eric Harrison went on to be Deputy Leader of both the United Australia Party and the Liberal Party, under Robert Menzies. He held major portfolios including Defence and Post-War Reconstruction and was the minister responsible for the 1954 Royal Tour, for which he was knighted personally by Queen Elizabeth II. In 1956 he resigned his seat to take up an appointment as Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.

On completing her schooling at Kambala Church of England Girls’ School, Rose Bay, Shirley gained employment with the accounts department of the Rural Bank, but soon decided that she would not enjoy pursuing this career path. She left the bank and entered nursing training at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPA) in Sydney. In 1949 she married Dr David John Walters, whom she had first met at the age of fifteen when he was a student at Scots’ College in the Sydney suburb of Bellevue Hill. David undertook his senior residency at RPA after which the couple moved to Hobart where David set up an obstetrics practice.

Shirley Walters gave up nursing on marriage, as was the requirement at the time. The couple had four children, born between 1950 and 1961. When the children were older Shirley returned to nursing for a short period and established the sterile supply unit at St John’s Hospital, then the Anglican hospital in South Hobart. She maintained a strong interest in community organisations, including serving on the State Committee of the National Trust of Australia, but she did not become active in the Liberal Party organisation until the 1970s.[1]

In 1975, as a member of the Right to Life Association of Tasmania, Shirley Walters attended a conference, ‘Women’s heath in a changing society’ at the University of Queensland. She had been increasingly concerned at the dissemination of the views of ‘a vocal minority’ on issues related to the ‘sexual revolution’ such as sex education, and felt a balancing point of view had to be heard. She presented a paper entitled ‘A case for a more conservative approach in sexual education’ and her views achieved some prominence. In 1975, when the Tasmanian Division of the Liberal Party invited applications for preselection for the forthcoming Senate election, Walters decided to nominate, encouraged by her family and a wide support base who identified with her forthright defence of family values. She later said that she entered politics in response to rapid social changes being pursued by the Whitlam Government, ‘because great changes were occurring very quickly and very radically and people were frightened’.

Senator John Marriott lost preselection and Senator Eric Bessell, known within the party to have been unsettled by the febrile atmosphere of the supply crisis of 1975, was placed at the No. 6 position on the Liberal Party Senate ticket. Walters was preselected for the fifth position, the only woman standing for the party in Tasmania. The Launceston Examiner reported her as saying at the time that she was not special and: ‘I think it would be wrong for candidates to be chosen just because they were women—or not women… . I am definitely not a women’s libber’.[2]

At the double dissolution election held on 13 December 1975 Tasmania returned five Liberal, four Labor, and one Independent senator. Mary Shirley Walters became the first woman to represent Tasmania in the Senate and, as the ninth senator elected, was allocated a three-year term which would expire on 30 June 1978. Popular within the party, particularly among women members, and in the community, she was placed first on the Liberal Party ticket in 1977 and second for both the double dissolution elections of 1983 and 1987, assuring her re-election. Like many senators of this era, Walters faced more double dissolutions than half-Senate elections.

An examination of Walters’ contributions to Senate debates shows strong and consistent themes. Her professional background in nursing gave her an inclination to pursue health issues and those relating to family life, but she was also vocal about the challenges facing Tasmania, particularly in regard to the freight disadvantage posed by Bass Strait. In her first speech she detailed the relative economic disadvantages Tasmania experienced and the effect of Whitlam Government policies on the textile industries in the state. She was a doughty defender of states’ rights and of the role of the Senate, as she saw it, as a defender of the smaller states.

Her attitude to matters affecting women was neatly summed up in her first speech:

During my campaign I was frequently asked questions relating to women. I replied then, and I still maintain, that women’s issues are Australia’s issues and Australia’s issues are women’s issues and any problems must be dealt with by all Australians. We women are not an underprivileged minority group as the radical feminists would have us depicted. We women in Australia are equal with our menfolk, and only those who would wish to denigrate our sex would have us believe otherwise.

She developed this argument and was strongly critical of Elizabeth Reid, who had been Gough Whitlam’s adviser on women’s affairs and whom Walters had first encountered at the conference at the University of Queensland in 1975. She quoted Reid as saying to assist women in the home ‘is one of the most backward steps that could happen to the women’s movement’. Walters condemned this view. She pointed out that the only assistance then provided by the Commonwealth Government to women in the home, the child endowment allowance, was introduced by a liberal government in 1941 and she argued strongly that it should be increased to provide women with a choice to either stay at home and rear a family or to pursue a career. Her view that remaining in the home was an honourable choice for women which deserved government support, not disdain, was one to which she held fast throughout more than seventeen years in the Senate. She proudly listed ‘Housewife’ among her occupations in successive editions of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Handbook. [3]

Walters crossed the floor to vote against Constitution Alteration bills in 1977, believing that the measures would be detrimental for Tasmania and weaken the power of the Senate. In the same year, together with the four other Tasmanian Liberal senators, she voted against a government second reading amendment to the Apple and Pear Stabilization Amendment Bill. She cherished the Liberal principle that allowed parliamentary representatives to cross the floor but never did so without first making her position plain in the party room and to her leader. However, she also accepted that a likely consequence of crossing the floor would be no advancement to the front bench.

In 1982 while returning from a Liberal Party meeting in northern Tasmania after a busy parliamentary session in Canberra, Walters’ car left the road and collided with a bridge. She sustained serious back injuries, leading to continuing discomfort which she stoically bore for the remainder of her parliamentary career.

Walters was a particular opponent of elements of the Hawke Government’s Sex Discrimination Bill in 1983 and spoke repeatedly against the bill at the committee stages. In stating that she would be one of twelve senators voting against the third reading of the bill on 16 December 1983 she said: ‘I am absolutely opposed, as strongly as anyone in the Senate, to discrimination against women, which is primarily what this Bill is about’. But she believed the legislation discriminated against religious beliefs, in particular by undermining choice in employment by independent religious organisations running schools and children’s homes. She also opposed the legislation because it relied on the external affairs powers of the Commonwealth, empowered by the government’s ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which she also disagreed with, on principle. In addition, her proposed amendment, to allow non-working women to share their husband’s income for tax purposes, had failed. Walters also spoke against subsequent related government legislation such as the Affirmative Action (Equal Opportunity for Women) Bill 1986.[4]

Walters quickly realised the value of Senate and joint committees as a means of elucidating information and influencing policy. She was a member of the Senate standing committee concerned with community welfare and health and family issues from March 1976 until the completion of her Senate service in 1993, serving as chair (1980–83) and deputy chair thereafter. She participated in a range of inquiries into issues in which she had a keen interest, such as drug abuse, homeless youth, children in institutional care, the disabled and social security legislation. Through this and other committee work, Walters established a reputation as a hard-working, tenacious and resourceful person; a colleague observed that ‘Many a bureaucrat has felt the keen edge of Senator Walters’s mind and questioning’. In 1981 Walters became chair of the Select Committee on Private Hospitals and Nursing Homes, the first Senate committee to (initially) comprise only women senators. During comprehensive inquiries lasting more than five years, the committee examined the conduct, administration and ownership first of private nursing homes, then of private hospitals, reporting to the Senate in 1985 and 1987. When the committee was reconstituted in May 1983 following a change of government, Labor senator Pat Giles became chair with Walters as deputy. Although Walters and Giles shared a practical compassion and the committee members agreed on a majority of recommendations, Walters submitted dissenting reports to both of the committee’s majority reports. She argued that the implementation of the committee’s recommendations, particularly in relation to the prohibition of financial interest by doctors in private hospitals and compulsory accreditation schemes for institutions, would impose unwarranted regulations on private enterprise: ‘any regulation imposed by the state on any of the services that we have come to accept as our right … will interrupt the smooth delivery of those services … Market forces must be able to prevail’. However, the committee was unanimous in its recommendation that better arrangements should be put in place for the care of young people injured in car or industrial accidents or on the sporting field, to replace the frequent practice of placing them into care facilities designed for the frail aged.[5]

Concerned at the lack of a government response to the report of the Joint Select Committee on Video Material, in November 1988 she introduced the Regulation of Video Material Bill. The bill sought to implement the recommendations of the majority report of the committee, to ban X-rated videos outright and reduce the level of violence depicted in R-rated videos. While there was general support for the measures against violence in videos, there was less agreement about the effects of X-rated material, or non-violent erotica. Walters believed that evidence to the committee showed that such material was linked to violence and degraded women, but her political opponents accused her of being censorious. The bill was debated and amended in the Senate but lapsed at the close of Parliament. Walters revived the bill in 1992, but it did not progress beyond the second reading.

Walters also introduced a private senator’s bill in 1990 to provide for parliamentary scrutiny and, if necessary, rejection of data collection proposals of the Australian Bureau of Statistics. This passed the Senate but lapsed at the close of Parliament.[6]

Australia’s bicentennial year, 1988, was a busy year for Walters. She was close to John Howard when he was Leader of the Opposition and was appointed as his Shadow Parliamentary Secretary in April 1987 (a position she lost when he was succeeded by Andrew Peacock in 1989). She was appointed by Howard as the Opposition Leader’s representative on the Board of the Australian Bicentennial Authority, which oversaw community activities marking the two-hundredth anniversary of European settlement in Australia. Complementary to this, as a long-standing member of the Library Committee, she was a member of the sub-committee which oversaw the Bicentenary Publications Project and chaired it for three years. This project involved commissioning publications and oral histories, producing three important books: Acts of Parliament by Gavin Souter (1988); The People’s Palace by David Solomon (1986); and Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament 1901–1988, by Gordon Reid, assisted by Martyn Forrest (1989). Walters took a close interest in these historical works and encouraged the National Library in its efforts to record oral history interviews with prominent federal parliamentarians.[7]

Walters could fairly be described as a Menzian Liberal. She held a strong commitment to supporting the family unit and to supporting business as a source of jobs and carried these principles throughout her own parliamentary career. Always active in the Senate chamber, renowned for the frequency of her interjections, she was ‘an indefatigable, noisy, wearying campaigner’ to those who opposed her, but she was respected across the political divide for her ‘dogged determination’ to pursue her political objectives. She was never afraid of prosecuting an argument, however unfashionable, even within her own party.

After retiring from the Senate in 1993, Shirley Walters remained active in the Liberal Party at an organisational level. Although modest about her achievements, Walters was a trail-blazer for Liberal women. Her service to the Liberal Party was recognised when in 2003 she was awarded a rare distinction, life membership of the Tasmanian Division. Her eldest child Rob followed his father into medicine and later achieved national prominence as an advocate for men’s health.[8]

Don Morris

[1] Throughout this entry the author draws on information gleaned from interviews with Shirley Walters; Margaret Fitzherbert, So Many Firsts: Liberal Women from Enid Lyons to the Turnbull Era, Federation Press, Annandale, NSW, 2009, pp. 90–91; Stuart Macintyre, ‘Harrison, Sir Eric John’, ADB, vol. 14.

[2] ‘Women’s health in a changing society’ Conference proceedings, University of Queensland, 25–29 Aug. 1975, AGPS, Canberra, 1978; Axis, 22 March 1976, p. 17; CPD, 27 May 1993, pp. 1523–7; Examiner (Launc.), 18 Nov. 1975, p. 3.

[3] CPD, 3 March 1976, pp. 379–82, 24 Feb. 1977, pp. 407–8, 2 Dec. 1982, pp. 3119–23; Age (Melb.), 18 Nov. 1976, p. 27; CPD, 2 June 1976, pp. 2268–9, 3 Dec. 1985, p. 2798, 31 March 1987, pp. 1538–41, 8 March 1989, pp. 699–701.

[4] Transcript, ABC Radio, ‘The World Today’, 19 Sept. 1983, ‘PM’, 16 Dec. 1983; Press Release, Senator Shirley Walters, 16 Dec. 1983; CPD, 8 Nov. 1983, pp. 2315–8, 29 Nov. 1983, pp. 2949–52, 16 Dec. 1983, p. 4010, 22 Aug. 1986, pp. 311–5, 30 April 1987, pp. 2114–7.

[5] CPD, 27 May 1993, p. 1596, 22 Feb. 1985, pp. 70–73, 29 April 1987, pp. 2028–31; Select Committee on Private Hospitals and Nursing Homes, Report: Private Nursing Homes in Australia, Canberra, 1985, Report: Private Hospitals in Australia, Canberra, 1987.

[6] CPD, 24 Feb. 1988, p. 529, 17 March 1988, pp. 991–3, 28 April 1988, p. 2094–9, 30 Nov. 1988, pp, 3143–5, 4 Dec. 1990, pp. 4950–2; Joint Select Committee on Video Material, Report, Canberra, 1988; Transcript, ABC Radio, ‘Ring the Bells’, 28 April 1989; Shirley Walters, ‘Pornography and regulation’, Proceedings of a Conference on Sex Industry and Public Policy, 6–8 May 1991, AIC, Canberra, 1992, pp. 221–7; CPD, 12 Nov. 1992, pp. 2955–8; CT, 29 Sept. 1992, p. 4; CPD, 15 Nov. 1990, pp. 4204–5.

[7] CPD, 21 Oct. 1982, p. 1702.

[8] CPD, 27 May 1993, pp. 1505–60, 1594–610; Northern Star (Lismore), 15 June 2012, p. 6.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 334-338.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Tas., 1975–93 (Lib)

Senate Committee Service

Library Committee, 1976–93

Standing Committee on Social Welfare, 1976–87

Estimates Committee D, 1977–78, 1987–88; C, 1978–81, 1990–92; G, 1981–83; B, 1983–87; F, 1987, 1988–90

Joint Select Committee on the Family Law Act, 1978–80

Select Committee on Private Hospitals and Nursing Homes, 1981–87

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1981–83

Select Committee on Industrial Relations Legislation, 1982

Select Committee on Video Material, 1984–85

Select Committee on Volatile Substance Fumes, 1984–85

Joint Select Committee on Video Material, 1985–88

Select Committee on the Human Embryo Experimentation Bill 1985, 1985–86

Standing Committee on Community Affairs, 1987–93

Select Committee on Community Standards Relevant to the Supply of Services Utilising Telecommunications Technologies, 1991–93