WRIEDT, Kenneth Shaw (1927–2010)
Senator for Tasmania, 1968–80 (Australian Labor Party)

Kenneth Shaw Wriedt’s political life was long and eventful. He upheld principles and standards to an unusual degree. His career saw real, if limited, success. Intensely interested in politics from an early age, and with an acute sense of the ‘enormity of injustice’ throughout history, he used his strong analytical powers to distance himself from some issues. Quietly spoken, he could be scathing about his political enemies and possessed an earthy vocabulary. Complementing this persona were a strong mien and a strapping physique. Egalitarian and realistic, he took a moderate political line, and enjoyed considerable popularity in Tasmania.

Wriedt was born on 11 July 1927 in Fitzroy, and grew up in suburban Melbourne. His mother, Etheline Ivy, née Renfrey, had trained as a schoolteacher, his father, Frederick, as a fitter and turner. With three young boys, his parents lived a very frugal existence during the Depression, but ensured that their children were well fed. Frederick was a ‘very heavy left-winger’, bitterly militant and a close observer of international events. Education mattered, and after attending Westgarth Central School, Ken studied to ‘leaving’ standard at University High School, Parkville, from 1941 to 1943. With an ‘overwhelming’ interest in ships and the sea (his school nickname was ‘Admiral’), Ken joined the merchant marine as soon as he left school at the age of sixteen. As an apprentice merchant seaman and, later, ship’s officer, he worked on iron ore and phosphate carriers, among others, travelling the world, as well as serving on coastal routes. It was, he said, a ‘typical sort of seafarer’s existence, drifting really from one job to another … taking odd jobs ashore just as the mood took me’.

Scenes of abject poverty in foreign countries were ‘an eye-opener’, especially in the Persian Gulf where, in 1951, he witnessed, and sympathised with, the efforts of Iranian Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, to assert Iranian autonomy against international pressures. Shipboard life was ‘a great education’, teaching him that people of differing racial and religious backgrounds could live together. Conversations with an Indian quartermaster sparked a lifelong interest in Buddhism, which accentuated his natural inclination towards tolerance and a belief that ‘there is no ultimate truth’ and ‘no one has all the answers’. At Hobart, he met Helga Anne-Rose Burger, a migrant who had endured Hitler’s Germany. Wriedt established himself as an insurance inspector, and the couple married on 26 December 1959, settling on Hobart’s eastern shore where they remained through the decades ahead. They would have two daughters.[1]

Having joined the ALP in 1959, Wriedt soon became secretary of his local branch, and vainly sought preselection for the federal electorate of Franklin in 1963 and 1965. Failure came too in his first parliamentary contest for the Tasmanian House of Assembly seat of Franklin in 1964. He soon took a stance against the war in Vietnam. In 1965 he was appointed Tasmanian State Director for Community Aid Abroad. As a campaign manager for the ALP for the 1966 House of Representatives election, Wriedt saw that many more electors were inclined to the conservative side of politics than to the ALP. This did not deter him from contesting the Senate election in 1967. Placed second on Labor’s ticket, he was elected, with effect from 1 July 1968.

‘We cannot achieve perfection, we cannot change the course of history just as we would like,’ declaimed the newcomer in his first speech, ‘but we must constantly be mindful of the ideals and the hopes of those who have sent us here’. In domestic affairs, Wriedt called for a national superannuation policy. While speaking against ‘this futile and shameful war in Vietnam’, he affirmed that only the wealth and expertise of the United States of America could modify the gross imbalance in wealth that was making the world a dangerous place. Redistribution of wealth, both among the nations and within Australia, was a major theme of his speeches through the years; as was his insistence that Tasmania receive at least its full share of developmental spending. Wriedt criticised various aspects of the Government’s defence policies, above all the ordering of F111 fighter aircraft. Civil aviation was another major interest, especially support for the two-airline policy. Wriedt retained his interest in shipping, attacking the big companies, and upholding the Australian National Line. Another of his favoured government agencies was the Australian Broadcasting Commission; in 1971 he lauded its fine music, an utter contrast to ‘inane programmes’ from the ‘idiot box’.[2]

Wriedt served on the ALP Federal Executive from 1970 to 1980, becoming treasurer in 1972. He was a delegate to the ALP Federal Conference in 1971, and Tasmanian branch treasurer from 1970 to 1972. In 1970 he joined the new Senate Standing Committee on Primary and Secondary Industry and Trade, and the Select Committee on Securities and Exchange. He was to say that the latter’s revelations brought to his mind three celebrities: Ned Kelly, ‘for obvious reasons’, Groucho Marx, for the black comedy, and Karl Marx, for his accurate analysis of finance capitalism.

Wriedt’s own capacity in economic affairs was apparent as he led the Senate Opposition in the 1972 debate on the budget. Proposed taxation policies, he alleged, would further polarise rich and poor. He accused the Government of refusing to make structural changes to curb unemployment; and suggested that in alleviating the means test the Government was following Labor’s policy. Such welfarism was, he said, a last desperate bid to maintain office after twenty-three years of ‘self-perpetuating arrogance and complacency’.[3]

After Labor’s victory in December 1972, supported by Prime Minister Whitlam and his deputy Lance Barnard, Wriedt won election to Cabinet. His portfolio, primary industry (later termed agriculture) was peculiarly difficult. Wriedt had coveted the foreign affairs portfolio, and had no particular links with primary industry. Whitlam chose him, it seems, in the hope that his style and image would win farmers’ respect. The Country Party leadership, which Wriedt saw as both stupid and indifferent to the interests of the wider rural community, alleged that the new government was altogether hostile to rural interests. This opinion ran deep in the Senate, where the Opposition held a majority. In fact, the Whitlam Government treated the farm interest with a mixture of sympathy and scepticism that made much sense. Wriedt would maintain that in two major areas his administration saw decisive advances: in providing an export ‘floor’ price for wool, and removing the subsidy on butter. The latter, he claimed, had pushed farmers towards diversity. The benefits of his practical measures were assisted by the generally buoyant world market for primary produce in these years, with Wriedt to the fore in initiatives such as the 1973 Australia–China Trade Agreement, the establishment of closer ties with Japan and the development of new markets in the Soviet bloc and the Middle East.[4]

All this did not assuage rural protestors. In early 1974 the Government’s decision not to restore the purchase bounty on superphosphate, when the Phosphate Fertilizers Bounty Act expired in December 1974, aroused especial antagonism. The decision was announced by Whitlam, rather than the minister, and indeed Wriedt saw this as a foolish decision, showing the Government’s insensitivity and the dangers of heeding academic ‘experts’. (The bounty was restored by the Fraser Government, in 1976.) Yet opinion polls suggested that in personal terms Wriedt won respect from farmers. He always worked hard at what was a demanding portfolio. He held his seat easily enough at the May 1974 elections, although nationwide the rural vote lost the Government some seats in the House of Representatives, and helped to maintain its minority status in the Senate.

Ministers in the Senate had always to represent the portfolios of colleagues based in the other House. By July 1974, Wriedt’s burden included representing in the Senate the ministers for secondary industry, overseas trade, minerals and energy, northern development, Northern Territory, manufacturing industry, and the Treasurer. As surrogate Treasurer, he faced many questions arising from the politically disastrous loan negotiations pursued by fellow minister, Rex Connor. The latter had won Wriedt’s praise for striving to achieve national autonomy in the vital area of minerals and energy. Perhaps there sounded echoes of Mossadegh in Iran. Wriedt supported Connor through 1974 and 1975, and in retrospect conceded that some foolish tactics had been followed.

Like some others in the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, Wriedt was moving away from his earlier enthusiastic opinion of the Prime Minister, concerned at his leader’s increasing failure to consult. In September 1974 Whitlam had given Wriedt no foreknowledge of the decision to devalue the currency. On 10 February 1975, following the retirement of Lionel Murphy, Wriedt was elected Leader of the Government in the Senate, with the Prime Minister’s full support, defeating John Wheeldon. When Connor was removed as Minister for Minerals and Energy on 14 October, Wriedt took over the portfolio. When the Opposition in the Senate refused supply on 16 October, and the appropriation bills went back and forth between the two houses, Wriedt believed that Whitlam should have gone to the polls rather than engage in a stand-off. He was troubled by the prospect of the Government’s financing breaking down if the crisis continued for much longer. Entering the Senate at 2 p.m. on 11 November, Wriedt was oblivious to the fact that the Governor-General had removed the Whitlam Government an hour earlier, and thought his opposite number, Reg Withers, was joking when he said that ‘Gough’ had been sacked and ‘Malcolm’ was Prime Minister. It was at least another ten minutes before Wriedt knew why the Liberal senators had suddenly agreed to pass the appropriation bills. Wriedt, who was now in effect Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, said later that had he known what had occurred, he could have asked the President of the Senate, Labor’s Justin O’Byrne, to delay the passage of the bills, and so gain time for manoeuvre, though overall, his view was that the outcome would have been much the same: accession to office by Malcolm Fraser, a double dissolution and, with an even more hostile rural vote, the ALP’s defeat at the polls.[5]

In first place on the party ticket, Wriedt was returned at the election in December, and won the ensuing Caucus ballot for the position of Leader of the Opposition in the Senate against Whitlam’s preferred candidate, Senator James McClelland. Wriedt retained the post until his retirement in 1980, and held the shadow portfolios of education (1976–78) and foreign affairs (1978–80). He became increasingly disenchanted with Whitlam. By January 1976 the breach between the two men had become public. Later that month, Wriedt supported Frank Crean, the Member for Melbourne Ports, in Crean’s unsuccessful bid to replace Whitlam as Leader of the Opposition.

Wriedt’s moderate temperament and sagacity made him well suited to lead the Senate Opposition during the bitter political atmosphere engendered by the Dismissal. Various speeches from this period read particularly well. One such example was his 1976 budget speech, dispassionate, lucid and thorough. Other highlights of that year included his defence of Manning Clark against Government members enraged by the latter’s remarks on the Whitlam dismissal; renewed praise for the ABC; and the warning that the readiness of the ‘advanced’ nations to develop nuclear power threatened the fulfilment of biblical prophecy of the world entering its last days. A particular aspect of Wriedt’s antagonism against the Fraser Government was its policy of ‘new federalism’, which he presented as a ploy to force the states to introduce their own income tax while the Commonwealth abandoned its responsibilities, though he later accepted that there was a case for such reconstruction of the tax system. In April 1977 he called for an enquiry into the ‘terrible things’ that had happened in East Timor, rejecting the argument that good relations with the Indonesian Government should override all else. Angered by Cold War denunciations of the Soviet Union (though more prepared to accept criticism of communist China), Wriedt saw logic in the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and warned that the region’s problems would loom greatest for the West in Iran.

Briefly in mid-1976, while Whitlam and his deputy, Tom Uren, were overseas, Wriedt acted in Whitlam’s place as Leader of the Opposition. Clyde Cameron later ruminated that Wriedt apparently was ‘setting out to build up an image of responsibility so that floating voters [would] come to accept him as the kind of man who would make a good alternative Prime Minister’. Cameron also told of Wriedt considering a move to the House of Representatives, and of active (although, in Cameron’s view, sometimes strangely inept) politicking in party affairs. Certainly in October 1975 there had been speculation about Wriedt’s ambitions in the Australian Financial Review, which suggested that Wriedt was hoping to beat future Prime Minister Bob Hawke to the leadership. True or not, Whitlam remained leader until further electoral defeat in late 1977, when W. G. Hayden, whom Wriedt supported, succeeded him. In June 1979 Wriedt announced that he would contest the House of Representatives seat of Denison at the next election, prompting an Opposition gibe that he meant to challenge Hayden. On his resignation from the Senate on 25 September 1980, the farewells were warm; Wriedt responded to praise for his ministerial achievement by ruing the Whitlam Government’s loss of country seats.[6]

The aspirant judged the Fraser Government to be deservedly vulnerable, and Denison winnable. He was wrong on both counts, proving no match for the Liberals’ exuberant Michael Hodgman. At the October 1980 poll, the Government lost only a few seats, and continued to hold all five in Tasmania. In November 1980 Wriedt became chairman of the State Grants Commission, and from 1981 to 1982 was a member of the state executive of the Bicentennial Authority.

In retrospect, Wriedt lamented having left the Authority. He did so to contest Franklin in the Tasmanian state election of May 1982. The state Labor Government certainly needed help. It had foundered on an environmental issue—whether or not to follow the Hydro-Electric Commission advice to further dam the Gordon and Franklin rivers. While Labor gave support to the dam during the campaign, the Liberals, under R. T. Gray, did so more vigorously, and they triumphed. Wriedt himself polled strongly, and was elected to the House of Assembly to become Leader of the Opposition. The strongest theme of his early contribution to debate was that ‘new federalism’ had ravaged Tasmania. But federalism proved Wriedt’s own nemesis. Although he led his parliamentary followers in supporting the Gray Government’s commitment to the ‘Gordon-below-Franklin’ dam, R. J. L. Hawke, the new federal ALP leader (with whom Wriedt had never been close), had made opposition to the dam a keystone of his successful electoral campaign of early 1983. The Hawke Government, backed by the High Court, duly halted the project. Gray fulminated against this, a majority of Tasmanians supporting him.

The generous compensation granted to Tasmania by the Commonwealth boosted the economy, and further benefited Gray.[7] Wriedt’s position was disastrous. He responded with bitter animosity towards Gray, the two regularly insulting each other. Wriedt was no man to win such jousts. He believed that several of his Labor colleagues cared for nothing but themselves. In a rare debate on world affairs, Wriedt opined that the world might well be heading for ‘utter destruction’ if persons of import continued to behave with ‘intransigence and … bitterness’. Labor’s popularity fell, while the Premier’s rose. The election of February 1986 confirmed this pattern, Labor suffering heavy losses. One of the Labor losers, J. J. Amos, berated Wriedt as futile and reclusive, alienated from his followers, and obsessed with ‘pathological hatred’ of Gray. Wriedt soon ceased to be leader. In 1988 he again bewailed the pettiness of Tasmanian politics, and his world view was no less mordant: noting ‘an overwhelming selfishness’ among individuals and groups, he cited the Buddhist belief that at ‘the heart of all human suffering is desire for more than you’ve got’. His abiding interests were the sea, music, and poetry. Classical music, he said, was almost his religion.

Yet political life continued, Wriedt constantly assailing the Gray Government as grossly rotten. Although the Premier was indeed floundering and overspending, Gray’s major challenge came not from the Opposition but from the environmental movement, whose concern was to stop the building of a projected paper pulp mill in north-west Tasmania. Elections on 13 May 1989 returned seventeen Government supporters, thirteen Labor, and five Greens who stood as independents. Wriedt’s vote had fallen further, but still he headed the ALP victors in Franklin. After some constitutional tension, Gray gave way as Premier to Labor’s M. W. Field, the latter having reached an ‘accord’ with the Greens. Wriedt became Minister for Roads and Transport, Police and Emergency Services.[8]

Then an explosion occurred—a report that one of Gray’s chief supporters, E. A. Rouse, owner of the Launceston Examiner, had attempted to bribe a new Labor member to switch allegiance. A subsequent Royal Commission found Gray had acted improperly, and the episode vindicated Wriedt’s sustained critique of Gray’s Government. Wriedt had come to increasingly respect the Greens, especially as parliamentarians. He congratulated their leader (and future senator) Bob Brown, as one who cleaved to belief and was certain to acquire fame.

In mid-September 1990 Wriedt was granted leave of absence because of illness, and retired from Parliament soon afterwards. The next year he published his memoir, Some Thoughts. A solace of Wriedt’s retirement was to watch first-class cricket at Bellerive Oval, near his home. He was an inveterate writer of letters to the press. Throughout the years, Helga had played virtually no public role, preferring to follow her own scholarly interests and to raise their daughters. One daughter, Paula, entered Tasmania’s House of Assembly as a Labor member in 1996, and served as a minister in the Tasmanian Government from 1998 to 2008.[9]

[Ken Wriedt died on 18 October 2010, Helga having died suddenly in the previous month. A state funeral service was held at Hobart’s Federation Concert Hall.]

Michael Roe

[1] Kenneth Shaw Wriedt, Transcript of oral history interview with Dr Peter Hay, 1987–88, POHP, TRC 4900/68, NLA, pp. 1:1–8, 1:12–13, 5:11; Age (Melb.), 5 Mar. 1974, p. 2; Australian (Syd.), 11 Nov. 1978, p. 2; The editor acknowledges the assistance of Andrea Fisher, Library Department, University High School, Parkville, Vic.; Bulletin (Syd.), 23 Feb. 1974, pp. 30–2; Examiner (Launc.), 11 June 1979, p. 7; Mercury (Hob.), 10 Oct. 1980, p. 14.

[2] Bulletin (Syd.), 23 Feb. 1974, p. 31; Mercury (Hob.), 16 Oct. 1963, p. 1, 16 June 1965, p. 3; CT, 3 Jan. 1968, p. 8; Malcolm James Saunders, The Vietnam Moratorium Movement in Australia 1969–73, PhD thesis, Flinders University, 1977, pp. 42, 52; Ken Wriedt, Some Thoughts, Keyline Press, Mornington, Tas., 1991, p. 118; CPD, 11 Sept. 1968, pp. 551–5, 23 Aug. 1972, pp. 345–7, 31 May 1972, p. 2305, 13 May 1971, p. 1843, 13 Apr. 1972, pp. 1113–15, 16 Mar. 1971, p. 543, 23 Feb. 1971, pp. 254–5.

[3] ALP, Federal Secretariat, Federal Executive minutes, 25 Feb. 1970, 5 July 1972, box 121, folders 48, 50, National Executive minutes, 7–8 Sept. 1980, 9 Dec. 1980, box 289, folder 14, Minutes of the 29th Commonwealth Conference, 1971, box 116, folder 13, MS 4985, NLA; Richard Davis, Eighty Years Labor: The ALP in Tasmania, 1903–1983, Sassafras Books and the History Department, UTAS, Hobart, 1983, p. 129; CPD, 9 Apr. 1975, p. 908, 23 Aug. 1972, pp. 345–8.

[4] DT (Syd.), 20 Dec. 1972, p. 5; Wriedt, Transcript, pp. 2:23, 4:1, 5:11; Herald (Melb.), 22 Dec. 1972, p. 4; Age (Melb.), 8 Mar. 1973, p. 12; CPD, 7 Mar. 1973, p. 199; DT (Syd.), 20 Dec. 1972, p. 5; Bulletin (Syd.), 23 Feb. 1974, p. 31; Age (Melb.), 29 July 1974, p. 10; Australian (Syd.), 26 Mar. 1975, p. 1.

[5] Mercury (Hob.), 26 Oct. 1974, p. 6; CPD, 5 Mar. 1974, p. 25; Wriedt, Transcript, pp. 2:7, 2:20, 4:12–13, 7:6, 7:22; AFR (Syd.), 11 Feb. 1974, p. 5; CT, 12 July 1975, p. 17; CPD, 25 Sept. 1974, p. 1383; ALP, Federal Parliamentary Labor Party minutes, 10 Feb. 1975, MS 6852, box 15, item 3, NLA; CPD, 16 Oct. 1975, pp. 1220–1, 1240–3; Bill Hayden, Hayden: An Autobiography, A & R, Pymble, NSW, 1996, p. 270; CPD, 11 Nov. 1975, p. 1885; John Faulkner and Stuart Macintyre (eds), True Believers: The Story of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 2001, p. 119; Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1988, p. 546.

[6] CPD, 17 Feb. 1976, p. 13; Ross McMullin, The Light on the Hill: The Australian Labor Party 1891–1991, OUP, South Melbourne, 1991, pp. 377, 383, 386; SMH, 17 Jan. 1976, p. 5; Australian (Syd.), 19 Feb. 1976, p. 7; CT, 26 Aug. 1976, p. 10; CPD, 25 Aug. 1976, pp. 285–93, 23 Sept. 1976, pp. 956–8, 26 Aug. 1976, p. 368, 6 Dec. 1976, pp. 2637–9, 20 Aug. 1980, pp. 134–7; Mercury (Hob.), 28 Feb. 1977, p. 6; Wriedt, Transcript, p. 5:9; CPD, 21 Apr. 1977, pp. 908–10, 19 Feb. 1980, pp. 32–9; Australian (Syd.), 21 July 1976, p. 9; Clyde Cameron, The Cameron Diaries, Allen & Unwin, North Sydney, 1990, pp. 224, 226; AFR (Syd.), 15 Oct. 1975, p. 1; Mercury (Hob.), 4 June 1979, p. 1; CPD, 18 Sept. 1980, pp. 1363–7.

[7] Wriedt, Transcript, pp. 6:16–19, 6:22, 9:7; Examiner (Launc.), 27 Nov. 1980, p. 5; Mercury (Hob.), 24 May 1982, p. 1, 14 May 1982, p. 1, 17 May 1982, p. 1; TPD, 16 June 1982, pp. 57, 90.

[8] TPD, 17 July 1985, p. 1976; Sunday Tasmanian (Hob.), 9 Feb. 1986, p. 1, 16 Feb. 1986, p. 1; Wriedt, Transcript, pp. 1:11, 8:15–16, 8:18, 9:13, 9:17.

[9] TPD, 1 May 1990, pp. 735–6, 18 Sept. 1990, p. 2864; Wriedt, Some Thoughts, p. 72; Wriedt, Transcript, p. 1:14; Mercury (Hob.), 1 Feb. 1986, p. 16.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 3, 1962-1983, University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney, 2010, pp. 167-173.

WRIEDT, Kenneth Shaw (1927–2010)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Tasmania, 1968–80

Minister for Primary Industry, 1972–74

Minister for Agriculture, 1974–75

Minister for Minerals and Energy, 1975

Leader of the Government in the Senate, 1975

Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, 1976–80

Tasmanian Parliament

Member of the House of Assembly, Franklin, 1982–90

Senate Committee Service

Standing Committee on Primary and Secondary Industry and Trade, 1970–72

Estimates Committee D, 1970–73, 1976

Select Committee on Securities and Exchange, 1970–75

Standing Committee on Industry and Trade, 1972–73

Committee of Privileges, 1975

Standing Orders Committee, 1975, 1976–80

Estimates Committee C, 1976–78

Estimates Committee A, 1978–80

Estimates Committee B, 1978