WITHERS, Reginald Greive (1924–2014)
Senator for Western Australia, 1966, 1968–87 (Liberal Party of Australia)

As Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Reg Withers was at the centre of events leading to the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, on 11 November 1975. Withers marshalled a slim majority of non-government senators to vote to defer the passage of appropriation legislation, and held them firm against doubts and growing turmoil during October and November, so precipitating Kerr’s actions, and the double dissolution election of 13 December 1975 that swept the Liberal Party into power.

Reginald Greive (Reg) Withers was born in Bunbury, WA, on 26 October 1924, the sixth of seven children of Isabelle Louisa (née Grieve) and Frederick James Withers. His family had a long association with Bunbury, as two of his great-grandfathers had settled there in the first half of the nineteenth century. Frederick James Withers was an engine driver and an official of the Engine Drivers’ Union, but in March of the year in which Reg was born, he was elected to the Western Australian Legislative Assembly for the ALP as the member for Bunbury. He held the seat of Bunbury until his retirement in 1947, and for most of that time was deputy chairman of the WA Parliamentary Labor Party.

Reg Withers attended Bunbury Senior High School, and at the age of seventeen, on 11 June 1942, he enlisted in the Royal Australian Navy. He trained as a Coder, and was posted to HMAS Gawler, which was attached to the Royal Navy for active war service in the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean and in the Pacific. Withers was demobilised on 10 April 1946.

Withers studied for his Leaving Certificate at Perth Technical College, and matriculated with distinctions in English and History in January 1948. He studied law full-time at the University of Western Australia under the ex-servicemen’s scheme, commenced his articles in 1950 with the firm Howard Austin Solomon, and was awarded a Bachelor of Laws in March 1952. Admitted to the Bar in 1953, he returned to Bunbury to practise as a lawyer. He was a councillor of the municipality of Bunbury from 1954 to 1957 (his father was mayor 1951–55) and a member of the Church of England Diocesan Council. On 1 August 1953 he married Shirley Lloyd Jones; they were to have three children.

Disaffected by the Chifley Labor Government’s attempts to nationalise the trading banks in 1947 and 1948, Withers joined the Young Liberal Movement in Bunbury in 1953. That he did not choose to join the party his father had served for many years may have caused resentment within the local ALP, but no apparent difficulty within his family; the Bunbury South Western Times recorded father and son at a polling centre in 1962 ‘amicably distributing how-to-vote cards, Fred for the ALP and Reg for the Liberals’. Withers credited his father with passing to him an interest in and understanding of politics, and a sense of social justice. He had voted in a federal election for the first time at the age of eighteen after the Commonwealth Electoral (War-time) Act 1943 extended the vote in federal elections to servicemen who had seen active service, regardless of age (many years later, he argued in party discussions and in the debate in the Senate in favour of changes to electoral laws to give the vote to 18-year-olds). He was Vice-President of the Liberal and Country League of Western Australia from 1958 to 1961, and President between 1961 and 1965. He was a delegate to the Federal Council and a member of the Federal Executive of the Liberal Party from 1960 and a vice-president from 1962 to 1965. In 1964 he nominated for appointment to the Senate vacancy caused by the death of Senator Seddon Vincent but was not selected.[1]

Withers was appointed by the Governor of Western Australia on 17 February 1966 to fill a casual vacancy in the representation of Western Australia in the Senate caused by the death of Senator Shane Paltridge; he was sworn in the Senate on 8 March 1966, although his appointment was not confirmed by a joint sitting of the WA Parliament until 9 August 1966. His term expired on 25 November 1966, the date of the election for the Senate place, which he contested without success. He won a Senate seat in his own right, however, at the election of 25 November 1967, for a term commencing in July 1968, and he was re-elected from first place on the Liberal Party ticket in 1974, 1975 and 1980; he was also elected in 1983 and 1984.

Withers recalled that, when he first arrived in the Senate, veteran Senator Nick McKenna advised him that success in that chamber depended on knowledge of the standing orders. Withers’ familiarity with Senate procedure, coupled with a thorough knowledge of the Constitution as applicable to the Parliament, stood him in good stead in later years. In March 1971 he commenced a membership of the Standing Orders Committee that lasted almost nine years. His early contributions in the Senate usually concerned legal matters; in April 1966 he joined Senator Reg Wright in crossing the floor to support an Opposition amendment to the Judiciary Bill 1966, and in May 1969, with three other Liberal Party senators, he supported an Opposition motion to disallow the ACT Legal Practitioners Ordinance 1969. Towards the end of 1971 he became chair of the Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory; he also became chair of the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs (1971–73), and of the Select Committee on Foreign Ownership and Control of Australian Resources (1972–73). Prime Minister John Gorton appointed him Government Whip in the Senate in November 1969, but he lost the position under Prime Minister William McMahon in August 1971. He sought Liberal Party nomination as President of the Senate in 1971, but was defeated by Senator Magnus Cormack. During 1972 he was a temporary chairman of committees.

Withers supported Billy Snedden for the leadership of the Liberal Party after the ALP victory at the federal elections of December 1972, and on 20 December 1972 became Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. In a break with tradition, Withers was elected Leader by Liberal Party senators rather than appointed by the party leader, and some, including Withers, felt that this gave his role additional independence and legitimacy. He also became Liberal Party spokesman on transport and, from 1974, services and property.[2]

As leader of a party in the Senate dispossessed of government for the first time in twenty-three years, Withers was, from the outset, fierce in his attack on the new government, which did not have a majority in the Senate. The ALP and Coalition parties held twenty-six seats each, Independents held three seats, and the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) the remaining five. Withers used his organisational skills, understanding of human nature, and considerable cunning to muster the votes needed to control the Senate. In moving an amendment to the Address-in-Reply critical of the government on 8 March 1973, he repudiated the idea that the Labor Party had a mandate based on what he referred to as ‘temporary electoral insanity’ in two states at the recent federal election, and warned that ‘the Senate may well be called upon to protect the national interest by exercising its undoubted constitutional rights and powers’. The Address, as amended, was finally agreed to on 30 August 1973, and delivered to the Governor-General on 30 September, in a ceremony which no government senator attended. As 1973 progressed the Senate amended and rejected a range of government legislation. In reply to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s accusations in the House that ‘we have seen in the Senate a pattern of blatant obstruction and of flagrant defiance of a popular mandate’, Withers asserted that the role for the Senate as an equal partner in the making of legislation was intended at federation and constitutionally correct.

Withers openly set out to shorten Labor’s term in office. In late 1973 he prepared a note for Snedden outlining a strategy to force the government to an early election that involved deferring appropriation bills, and in 1974 he said in the Senate: ‘We embarked on a course some twelve months ago … to force an election for the House of Representatives’. In an interview for the Melbourne Herald in April 1974 he asserted: ‘The Senate has the power to reject any legislation including a supply or appropriation bill’; and ‘the Senate must act and will act to ensure that the Australian people have an opportunity to pass their judgment’.

The Labor Party, struggling for numbers, attempted to improve its standing by arranging for an ambassadorial appointment for DLP Senator Vince Gair, intending that this would deliver an additional Senate seat for Queensland to Labor at the impending half-Senate election. The plan backfired but, during the subsequent outrage, Withers persuaded the non-government senators, including the DLP senators, in April 1974, to commit to voting to defer consideration of the appropriation bills until ‘the Government agrees to submit itself to the judgment of the people at the same time as the forthcoming Senate election’. Senator Lionel Murphy moved a closure motion on the debate, warning that the government would consider its defeat as a denial of supply; when the motion was defeated, the Governor-General, at Whitlam’s request, dissolved both Houses of Parliament on the basis of six twice rejected bills that provided grounds under Section 57 of the Constitution.[3]

The ALP increased its representation in the Senate in the election of 18 May 1974, which saw the demise of the DLP in the Senate at that time. In the year following, the Opposition position improved when the casual vacancies caused by the death of Senator Bertie Milliner and the resignation of Murphy, both ALP senators, were filled by candidates sympathetic to the Coalition. By 15 October 1975 the Opposition in the Senate was again in a state of high indignation, caused largely by the Whitlam Government’s attempts to raise funds from unconventional sources. Malcolm Fraser, who (with Withers’ support) had replaced Snedden as Leader of the Opposition, decided to once again implement a plan to delay rather than reject appropriation legislation in the Senate. This strategy allowed the bills to stay in the Senate, available to be passed by the Opposition at short notice; it also acknowledged that some Coalition senators were opposed to rejecting the bills outright. Withers moved an amendment in the Senate to the motion for the second reading of the Loan Bill 1975, and the same amendment was moved in following days for the appropriation bills, that they ‘be not further proceeded with until the Government agrees to submit itself to the judgment of the people’. In a powerful speech, Withers said that the aim of the Opposition was to force the government to an election because of the ‘crisis and uncertainty’ caused by ‘the incompetence of the Government, the dishonesty of the Government and the corruption of the Prime Minister’.

Whitlam refused to request a double dissolution of Parliament on the basis of the ‘stockpile’ of some twenty-one twice-rejected bills considered to be legitimate dissolution ‘triggers’. The government repeatedly brought on debate on the appropriation bills, sent messages from the House of Representatives requesting that they be passed and introduced duplicate appropriation legislation in the House of Representatives, but the Opposition held firm. As days passed, public anxiety increased, discussion of the government’s activities to raise loans continued in the press, and some Opposition senators began to consider letting the bills through. In an interview with the Australian in November 1985 Withers described his efforts in holding Opposition senators firm amid severe pressure: ‘I really think we were into cuddle therapy. It was like a semi-permanent Senate party meeting. People would express all their doubts and fears … There was peer group pressure and a sense that we’re all in this together’.

The impasse was broken when, on 11 November 1975, Sir John Kerr revoked Whitlam’s commission and authorised Malcolm Fraser to form a caretaker government prior to a simultaneous election of the Houses of Parliament.

Withers met Fraser in his Parliament House office prior to the resumption of the Senate at 2 pm, and Fraser indicated to Withers that the supply bills needed to be passed quickly. When the Senate gathered, an unknowing Senator Ken Wriedt moved that standing orders be suspended to allow the bills, listed on the Notice Paper for that day, to be passed immediately. Both motions passed on the voices, within minutes.

The subsequent election saw the Coalition returned to power, with majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Withers, now Leader of the Government in the Senate with the luxury of a comfortable majority, teased the Opposition with the use of the guillotine to rush government bills through, and publicly speculated about how he would keep government backbenchers in the Senate occupied. Malcolm Fraser included him in his caretaker ministry of November/December 1975, with the portfolios of Capital Territory, Media, and Tourism and Recreation; he was also Special Minister of State, and Vice-President of the Executive Council. From 22 December he was Minister for Administrative Services, relinquishing his other portfolios but continuing as Vice-President of the Executive Council. He claimed to have asked for the Administrative Services portfolio and it suited him well, as his talents lay with management rather than policy. It was during this period that he acquired the nick-name ‘Toecutter’, not for his methods of persuasion but for his propensity for cutting departmental budgets. He was appointed to the Privy Council in 1977. Withers was full of energy and confidence.[4]

It was a cruel blow then when Fraser dismissed Withers from the leadership and from his ministry on 7 August 1978. The Member for Fadden, Donald Cameron, had complained that the electoral distribution of Queensland that preceded the federal election of December 1977 was ‘subject to local interference’. Cameron was looking for redress against his electoral neighbour, Eric Robinson, but during the subsequent Royal Commission inquiry it was revealed that Withers, as Minister for Administrative Services, had suggested to the Chief Electoral Officer that the names of two newly-constituted electorates be changed. Mr Justice McGregor, in his report of August 1978, found that Withers had not acted illegally, but ‘with impropriety’ in the matter. Withers’ misdemeanour was compounded by the fact that, in the Senate on 4 November 1977, he had said that he did not know why the names were changed, an apparent contradiction to his evidence to the inquiry; this was the subject of a censure motion in the Senate on 30 May 1978, defeated on party lines. When Withers declined to tender his resignation Fraser sacked him. In the following months Fraser weathered accusations that he had prior knowledge of the affair and had orchestrated a cover-up.[5]

In the days after his dismissal comments attributable to Withers critical of Fraser’s leadership style were reported in the press. Deprived of his role in the Senate chamber, he largely withdrew from activity there, and did not speak between the time of his dismissal and March 1980, and infrequently and usually briefly in the years after that, although he did resume some activity on Senate committees. Some of his Liberal Party colleagues deplored the loss of his leadership and lobbying for his return to the front bench continued into the 1980s. Senator Fred Chaney said that he had ‘received a check to his career that I thought was not at all appropriate … I thought it was wrong at the time and said so’. Senator John Carrick, who replaced him as Leader and in the ministry, felt that his attitude made it impossible for Fraser to return him to the ministry. Fraser later said that while Withers’ error had been relatively trivial, his inability to see that he had made a mistake at all had forced Fraser’s hand.

The man who had held others to party discipline now occasionally voted contrary to the party line in the Senate. His vote was decisive in sending the Broadcasting and Television Amendment Bill 1980 to a committee for inquiry, and he crossed the floor on eight other occasions, in company with other Liberals. Though he indicated an interest in the Senate presidency in 1981, the Australian Democrats would not support him; Senator Harold Young received the nomination and was elected. He became an open supporter of the leadership aspirations of the member for Kooyong, Andrew Peacock, whom he christened ‘The Colt from Kooyong’. When Peacock became Leader of the Opposition in March 1983 he appointed Withers Secretary to the Shadow Cabinet. Withers did not nominate for preselection in 1987 and retired prior to the double dissolution election of 11 July 1987. He was present in the Senate on 5 June, his last day as a senator, but did not speak.[6]

On leaving the Senate Withers returned to Perth and for a period resumed legal practice. He was Lord Mayor of Perth from 1991 to 1994, elected on an independent ticket. He stood for the presidency of the Western Australia Liberal Party in 1995 but was defeated. He returned to Canberra as an elected delegate for Western Australia at the 1998 Constitutional Convention, when he aligned himself with the Australians for Constitutional Monarchy group.

Withers had a unique turn of phrase and his sayings, such as ‘consistency in politics is the sign of a small mind’ were repeated in the Senate years after he had left. He could be bitterly critical, as when he said to Labor Party senators: ‘You miserable tertiary educated petit bourgeois are a disgrace to the working class and eventually they will turn on you all’, and particularly after December 1975, Opposition members in the Senate found him intensely annoying. His defence of the rights and powers of the Senate was consistent throughout his political career, although it was seen as opportunistic by opponents such as Senator Jim McClelland, who thought him a ‘cynical conservative opportunist’, who ‘symbolized for me everything that is second-rate in politics’. James Killen (MHR, Moreton) found him ‘a compassionate man and basically very sensitive [who] presents a bold, brave front with stern braggadocio’. His laconic, wisecracking persona disguised a shrewd political strategist and an indefatigable worker.[7]

Withers died at home, surrounded by family, in November 2014. While it remains arguably the thing for which he is best remembered, the extent of Withers’ involvement in the dismissal of the Whitlam Government will possibly never be appreciated.[8]

David Hough and Kay Walsh

[1] Anthony J. Barker & Maxine Laurie, Excellent Connections: A History of Bunbury, Western Australia 1836–1990, Bunbury, WA, 1992, p. viii; David Black & Geoffrey Bolton, Biographical Register of Members of the Parliament of Western Australia, 1870–1930, Western Australian Parliamentary History Project, Perth, 1990; Withers, Reginald Greive—Defence Service Record, A6770, 25989, NAA; Jon Faine, ‘Reg Withers’ in Taken On Oath: A Generation of Lawyers, Federation Press, Syd., 1992, pp. 219–29; Advertiser (Adel.), 21 Jan. 1976, p. 5; South Western Times (Bunbury, WA), 4 Sept. 1962, p. 28; Australian (Syd.), 12 July 1972, p. 1; CPD, 28 Sept. 1972, pp. 1356–61; Records of the Liberal Party of Australia, NLA MS 5000, series 7, Federal Council.

[2] WAPD, 9 Aug. 1966, p. 157; Paul Kelly, November 1975: The Inside Story of Australia’s Greatest Political Crisis, Allen & Unwin, Syd., 1985, pp. 34–5.

[3] Age (Melb.), 10 April 1974, p. 8; Kelly, November 1975, pp. 47–60; CPD, 8 March 1973, pp. 290–4; CPD (R), 13 Dec. 1973, p. 4729; Herald (Melb.), 11 April 1974, p. 1; Senator R. Withers, ‘The world’s most powerful upper House’, The Australian Liberal, Feb. 1974, pp. 6–7; Russell Schneider, War Without Blood, A&R, Syd., 1980, pp. 16–22; Malcolm Fraser & Margaret Simons, Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, Miegunyah Press, Carlton, Vic., 2009, p. 286; CPD, 10 April 1974, p. 910; Harry Evans & Rosemary Laing (eds), Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, 13th ed., Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2012, pp. 712–9; Laurie Oakes & David Solomon, Grab for Power: Election ’74, Cheshire, Melb., 1974; Senate, Journals, 10 April 1974, pp. 110–11.

[4] Kelly, November 1975, Ch. 5–11; Senate, Journals, 15 Oct. 1975, pp. 953–7; CPD, 15 Oct. 1975, pp. 1152–6; Australian (Syd.), 6 Nov. 1985, pp. 1–2; Sunday Age (Agenda) (Melb.), 15 Oct. 2000, pp. 4–5; CPD, 11 Nov. 1975, p. 1855, 18 Feb. 1976, pp. 28–9; Australian (Syd.), 10 Nov. 1977, p. 9; Advertiser (Adel.), 21 Jan. 1976, p. 5; National Times (Syd.), 13–18 March 1978, p. 1.

[5] Royal Commission of Inquiry into Matters in Relation to Electoral Redistribution Queensland, 1977, Report, AGPS, Canberra, Aug. 1978; Philip Ayres, Malcolm Fraser: A Biography, Heinemann, Melb., 1987, pp. 360–3; Schneider, War Without Blood, pp. 106–29; Sun-Pictorial (Melb.), 9 Aug. 1978, p. 2; CPD, 4 Nov. 1977, pp. 2127–8, 30 May 1978, pp. 2051–2; Age (Melb.), 31 May 1987, p. 15; CPD, 15 Aug. 1978, pp. 29–32; The Bulletin (Syd.), 22 Aug. 1978, pp. 14–20, 29 Aug. 1978, pp. 23–7.

[6] The Laurie Oakes Report, 14 Aug. 1978, pp. 4–5; Nation Review (Syd.), 17 Aug. 1978, p. 3; Age (Melb.), 18 Aug. 1979, p. 24, Patrick Weller, Malcolm Fraser PM: A Study in Prime Ministerial Power, Penguin, Ringwood, Vic., 1989, pp. 82–7; Sir James Killen, Killen, Methuen Haynes, North Ryde, NSW, 1985, pp. 278–81; Ayres, Malcolm Fraser, pp. 361–3; CPD, 5 June 1987, pp. 3686–7; Interview with Sir John Carrick by Ron Hurst, 1987–91, POHP; Fraser & Simons, p. 597; The Bulletin (Syd.), 24 June 1980, pp. 28, 31; Sun-Herald (Syd.), 25 May 1980, p. 48; Sunday Telegraph (Syd.), 30 Nov. 1980, p. 42; SMH, 25 April 1981, p. 13; Age (Melb.), 28 April 1981, p. 13; Russell Schneider, The Colt From Cooyong. Andrew Peacock: A Political Biography, A&R, Syd., 1981, p. [iii].

[7] WA (Perth), 20 April 1995, p. 14; Australian (Syd.), 6 May 1991, p. 3; CPD, 25 Aug. 1988, p. 285, 24 June 1999, p. 6412, 2 May 1984, p. 1502; Jim McClelland, Stirring the Possum: A Political Autobiography, Penguin, Ringwood, Vic., 1989, pp. 142–3; Killen, Killen, pp. 280–1; Age (Melb.), 30 May 1978, p. 11.

[8] Interview with Reginald Greive Withers, by Leigh Edmonds, July/August 1997, J.S. Battye Library of Western Australian History (access restricted); Papers of Reg Withers, 1898–1995, NLA (access restricted).

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 472-477.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, WA, 1966, 1968–87 (Lib)

Vice-President of the Executive Council, 1975–78

Special Minister of State, 1975

Minister for the Capital Territory, 1975

Minister for the Media, 1975

Minister for Tourism and Recreation, 1975

Minister for Administrative Services, 1975–78

Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, 1972–75

Leader of the Government in the Senate, 1975–78

Senate Committee Service

House Committee, 1968–71, 1981–85

Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, 1968–71

Library Committee, 1968–71

Standing Orders Committee, 1969–78

Estimates Committee B, 1970–71; A, 1971–72; F, 1979–80, 1981–83

Committee of Privileges, 1971–75, 1984–85

Publications Committee, 1971–72

Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, 1971–73

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1971, 1986–87

Select Committee on Foreign Ownership and Control of Australian Resources, 1972–73

Joint Standing Committee on the New and Permanent Parliament House, 1975

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1981–83

Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations, 1981–85

Select Committee on Industrial Relations Legislation, 1982

Select Committee on Statutory Authority Financing, 1983

Joint Standing Committee on the New Parliament House, 1985–87