WHEELWRIGHT, Thomas Clive (1953– )
Senator for New South Wales, 1995–96 (Australian Labor Party)

Thomas Clive (Tom) Wheelwright was chosen on 25 May 1995 by the New South Wales Parliament in accordance with section 15 of the Australian Constitution to fill a Senate vacancy created by the resignation of Stephen Loosley. He was a senator for thirteen months, the balance of Loosley’s term, and for most of this time his own party, the ALP, was in government.

Wheelwright was born in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, on 29 April 1953, son of Peter and Nan, also both born in Huddersfield. Peter was a fine worsted fabric designer and as the industry was contracting in England, in late 1961 he accepted a position with John Vickers and Son in Marrickville, Sydney.

The Wheelwrights found accommodation in Hurstville and Tom was enrolled at Kingsgrove Primary School in January 1962. Two and half years later they moved to Croydon in Melbourne where Tom completed his primary and secondary schooling, the latter at Box Hill High. After high school he returned to Sydney where he enrolled in a BA at the University of New South Wales. He graduated four years later with honours in politics. Early in 1978 he was offered and accepted a tutorship in the university’s politics department, and he later enrolled to do a PhD.[1]

While an undergraduate Wheelwright became a supporter of the ALP, attracted by the new vigorous leadership of the federal party and by Labor’s core commitment to fairness and equity. He volunteered to help in the 1972 federal election campaign in the seat of St George where the Labor candidate was William Morrison, soon to become a Minister in the Whitlam Labor Government. He was a volunteer helper in St George again in the 1974 and 1975 elections. While scrutineering in 1975, the election held after the controversial sacking of the Whitlam Government by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, he met Stephen Loosley, Assistant Secretary of the New South Wales Branch of the ALP. Loosley was surprised to learn that the dedicated ALP helper had not yet joined the party. Wheelwright, outraged by what he considered Kerr’s unconstitutional action, decided to do so.

He joined a New South Wales Branch that was divided. Left and Right factions were battling for supremacy, continuing perennial arguments over the parameters of Labor’s role as the party of Australia’s working class, and finding further cause for disagreement as they tried to determine appropriate responses to the emerging demands of environmentalists, feminists and advocates of Aboriginal and gay rights. The mid to late 1970s, a particularly turbulent period in the factional conflict, saw fierce struggles for positions and power within the branch, and fence sitting was difficult if not impossible. Wheelwright gave his allegiance to the Right. It was the dominant faction at the time and it remained dominant in the 1980s and 1990s.

Wheelwright’s academic achievements brought him to the attention of his faction’s hierarchy and with the help of the Graham Richardson, General Secretary of the New South Wales Branch, he became a commentator on ALP affairs for the ABC’s AM program. The Left faction regarded him as a spokesman for Richardson. It was a view shared by Bill Hayden, leader of the federal parliamentary Labor Party (and later Governor-General). Hayden believed that Wheelwright, spurred on by the Right, and Richardson in particular, were seeking to replace him with Bob Hawke as leader of the Federal ALP. In his autobiography, Hayden refers to Richardson’s claims of having influence at the ABC through Wheelwright and the AM program, but he does not eliminate the possibility that an apparent puppet and puppeteer relationship was in fact a meeting of minds. In any event, Richardson thought highly enough of the young politics tutor to offer him, in September 1981, a position as the NSW branch’s research officer.

For the next three years Wheelwright did organising work for the branch and helped facilitate its early engagement with market research. The factions were in the process of hammering out a power-sharing compromise that would enable the branch to function more smoothly, but relations between their respective representatives at the branch’s headquarters in Sussex Street ranged from fraught to hostile. Wheelwright and a young Left faction organiser, John Faulkner, did not speak to one another for over a year, not even to say ‘Good Morning’. They were to put aside their differences years later when together as senators they had to contend with a confident Opposition that later became an aggressive and assertive government.[2]

Working at Sussex Street encouraged Wheelwright’s ambitions for a life in politics and he made plans to seek pre-selection for the federal seat of St George on Morrison’s retirement. But his new wife, Frances Cowell, was not keen on public life. She had already embarked on what was to become a distinguished career in the finance industry and Wheelwright decided to follow her lead, the regret he felt at leaving coalface politics countered by the thought that his employment prospects would improve. He redirected his PhD studies into an MBA at the Australian Graduate School of Management and, on receiving his degree, took up a position in 1984 with a stockbroking firm. During the next ten years he worked for a number of stockbrokers and a fund manager, doing well financially and at times being closely involved with the manoeuvres that made the 1980s synonymous with high stakes business takeovers.

Despite the attractions of such a life, Wheelwright still had political ambitions. When his marriage to Frances ended in divorce—which he described as ‘mutual and friendly’—he felt free to take soundings. He now had more to offer the ALP and was well received. In February 1994, as a first step towards a Senate seat, he became the senior political advisor to the Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating. In November he was appointed senior economic advisor to Michael Lee, the Minister for Communications and the Arts. This new job had as much to do with ALP affairs as it did with telecommunications policy and it gave him time to ‘get the numbers’ for a Senate bid. But as a result of Loosley’s resignation he entered the Senate less than a year later, and a year sooner than he had expected.

In his first speech to the Senate Wheelwright listed three matters that concerned him: the future of the family; secondary education; and the difficulties people were having in adjusting to increasing regulation from all levels of government. He was then charged with asking a number of ‘Dorothy Dixers’ to ministers or their Senate representatives, a rite of passage for most newcomers. His first contribution to a debate came when the Opposition attacked the government’s economic management. Coalition spokesmen claimed that Australia’s export performance was declining, that balance of payments and foreign debt were at critical levels and that domestic interest rates would follow a steady upward trend. In reply, Wheelwright argued that the economy had improved considerably since the Coalition Government of the early 1980s, and accused the Opposition of deliberately over-simplifying complex economic sequences and causes to make political propaganda. At one point he used the word ‘lies’. He became a marked man as a result, but he was not intimidated. Having been at the hub of Australian capitalism for ten years he possessed knowledge and experience that made him a rarity among Labor politicians—indeed a rarity among politicians generally—and the Opposition never dented his confidence or his air of authority. When Opposition spokesmen became government spokesmen he continued to tell them they were either ignorant of basic economics or were deliberately trying to deceive the Australian public.

Wheelwright served on a pair of standing committees dealing with the environment, communications and the arts, which he considered to be the pick of all the Senate’s committees because of their challenging and broad subject matter, ranging from marine pollution to the information super highway. As a member of a select committee on uranium mining he visited the Great Sandy Desert region of Western Australia where he discussed uranium mining with the traditional owners of the land at the Parnngurr and Punmu communities. He later spoke of the understanding he had gained of their opposition to mining, and he urged the Senate and the new government to respect their views which he considered ‘sensible and intelligent’.

Not long after his appointment to the Senate Wheelwright accepted an invitation from Greenpeace to join a fleet sailing to Mururoa Atoll in the south Pacific in the hope of delaying or preventing a French atomic bomb test. The proposed test had aroused international opposition and anti-French sentiment was high in Australia and New Zealand. The protest fleet had bi-partisan support in both countries. The trip to the Atoll took four days and when the ships arrived they had to withstand a force ten gale. Wheelwright and Ian Cohen, a Greens member of the NSW Parliament, were the two Australian representatives among eight parliamentarians on board the vessel which, on 9 September 1995, sailed into the twelve mile exclusion zone around the test site seeking to deliver a joint statement of protest. French commandoes arrested all on board and subjected them to lengthy interrogations. Wheelwright later told the Senate that these proceedings had been hidden behind the fiction that the protesters had required medical attention for seasickness.[3]

Labor was soundly defeated at the federal election of March 1996, which saw the Coalition win three of the six NSW Senate seats. Wheelwright stood for election but, due to a factional agreement within the NSW Labor Party, was placed third on the ALP Senate ticket and defeated, the sixth seat going to the Australian Democrats. When Parliament met under the new government in May 1996 Wheelwright raised questions about the Coalition Government’s plans to sell Telstra. Under the previous Labor Government, he had argued that the rate of technological change in the telecommunications industry was so rapid that there was still a public interest in having some governmental control. Now he called upon the Coalition to carry out its planned sale with due care and diligence. He accused it of acting with unseemly haste, brought on by the need to finance its pork-barrelling election promises, and he suspected that money markets would have difficulty raising the funds required.

His stance on Telstra was of a piece with his attack on the Coalition’s economic credibility. Its condemnation of Labor’s record had reached new heights because of the alleged discovery of an eight billion dollar ‘black hole’ in budget revenue projections. The ‘black hole’, Wheelwright pointed out, was based on Treasury ‘forward estimates’ and did not exist in reality. Even as a heuristic device the estimates were of suspect value. The ‘black hole’, in his view, was a pernicious attempt to saddle Labor with an undeserved reputation for economic mismanagement.

In a frank valedictory speech on 27 June 1996 Wheelwright spoke of how he had come to appreciate the work of the Senate, particularly committee work, the opportunities for contact with intelligent and committed people, and even the passionate and angry debate. His time in the Senate had been an ‘extraordinar[il]y intense experience’ and the ‘happiest period’ of his life. Senators John Faulkner (ALP, NSW) and Cheryl Kernot praised his work, while Robert Hill (Lib., SA), the Leader of the Government in Senate, expected him to be ‘back again’. But that did not happen. He was not preselected by the ALP for the federal election of October 1998, third place going to the well-credentialed Michael Forshaw (ALP, NSW), who won the seat, and subsequently consolidated his position.

By 2011 Wheelwright was a vice-president for the Eastern Europe, Middle East and Asia Pacific regions of the transport and logistics firm Deutsche Post DHL and was living in Singapore. He had started a consultancy business, ‘Politic’, after he had left Parliament, but when he failed in his bid to re-enter the Senate he went to Hong Kong to work full-time for one of his clients, Lucent Technologies. He re-established ‘Politic’ briefly in Hong Kong before joining Deutsche Post DHL. He married Julia Zhang Wenyan in 2005 and they have a son, Sebastian Yuqi, born in 2008.[4]

John Merritt

[1] Transcript of author interview with Tom Wheelwright, 4 Oct. 2010, and email from Wheelwright to the author, 29 Nov. 2010.

[2] Tom Wheelwright, ‘New South Wales: the dominant Right’ in Andrew Parkin & John Warhurst (eds) Machine Politics in the Australian Labor Party, Allen & Unwin, Syd., 1983, pp. 30–68; Graham Richardson, Whatever It Takes, Bantam Books, Moorebank, NSW, 1994; Bill Hayden, Hayden: An Autobiography, A&R, Syd., 1996, p. 368; CPD, 27 June 1996, pp. 2493–4.

[3] Transcript of author interview; SMH, 25 Feb. 1994, p. 5, 17 Nov. 1994, p. 12; CPD, 20 June 1995, pp. 1478–84, 29 Aug. 1995, pp. 559–61; Media Release, Senator Tom Wheelwright, 10 May 1996; CPD, 19 June 1996, pp. 1797–800, 21 Sept. 1995, pp. 1313–16; Media Release, Senator Tom Wheelwright, 10 Sept. 1995; CT, 11 Sept. 1995, p. 1; Australian (Syd.), 18 Sept. 1995, p. 2; Sunday Telegraph (Syd.), 25 Feb. 1996, pp. 135–6.

[4] CPD, 6 May 1996, pp. 359–65, 2 May 1996, pp. 276–8, 17 June 1996, pp. 1623–5, 18 June 1996, pp. 1694–6, 19 June 1996, pp. 1829–30, 27 June 1996, pp. 2490–533; Transcript of author interview.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 128-131.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, NSW, 1995–96 (ALP)

Senate Committee Service

Environment, Recreation, Communications and the Arts Legislation Committee, 1995–96

Environment, Recreation, Communications and the Arts References Committee, 1995–96

Joint Committee on Electoral Matters, 1995–96

Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority, 1995–96

Select Committee on Community Standards Relevant to the Supply of Services Utilising Electronic Technologies, 1995–96

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1995–96

Economics References Committee, 1996

Select Committee on Uranium Mining and Milling, 1996