BEAHAN, Michael Eamon (1937–2022)
Senator for Western Australia, 1987–96 (Australian Labor Party)

Michael Beahan, electrician, teacher, and state secretary of the ALP in Western Australia (1981–87), rose to be the nineteenth President of the Senate, holding that post from 1 February 1994 to 20 August 1996, before his formidable parliamentary career was cut short by pre-selection party politics.

Michael Eamon Beahan was born on 21 January 1937 in London, England, the son of Irish autoelectrician Francis Harold Beahan and his wife Grace Beryl, née Hemmings. Beahan won a scholarship to the Salesian College in Battersea, London, where he completed five ‘O’ levels in 1953. In 1954, following a year as a clerk with an insurance company, he migrated to Perth with his parents, his sister and three of his four brothers. Commencing work as a process worker at the Australian Electrical Company, he completed an apprenticeship as an electrical fitter, then obtained an A grade license and worked as an electrician for some ten years, including for his own small business as an electrical contractor. During this time he undertook three months of compulsory military service, serving with the 13th Field Squadron of the Royal Australian Engineers.

In 1963 Beahan was involved in a horrific traffic accident near Goomalling in Western Australia, in which his girlfriend, Leith Jackson, tragically died. The shock of the accident acted as the catalyst for his return to study. He matriculated at Leederville Technical College, Perth and subsequently studied at Claremont Teachers’ College and at the University of Western Australia, gaining the qualifications BA, DipEd, BEd. In 1969 he taught at Newton Moore High School in Bunbury, WA, and then lectured in Economics for the Technical Education Division of the WA Department of Education, before becoming a lecturer in Psychology and Education at the WA Teachers’ Centre for Further Education. In 1968 he married Jennifer Aitken with whom he had two children.

Active in the Teachers’ Union, Beahan joined the ALP in 1968 and was president of the Bunbury branch of the party from 1969 to 1972, working to revitalise the branch, for which membership rose from about 30 to 150 during his tenure. In 1973 he became the first full-time Education Officer for the Trades & Labor Council of Western Australia and in 1974 he moved to Melbourne on secondment, as part of a three-person team engaged to set up the Trade Union Training Authority (TUTA), a federally-funded statutory authority designed to present education and training programs to union officials. He organised TUTA’s first three-week residential ‘train the trainer’ course and in 1975 became TUTA’s Director for WA, a position he held for six years. This work gave him exposure in the Labor Party at a national level.[1]

In 1981 Beahan won the ballot for the position of state secretary of the ALP. He was a member of the National Executive of the Party (1981–92), a National Vice President (1986–89) and a regular National Conference delegate for Western Australia through the 1980s and 1990s. Beahan supported Brian Burke’s election as leader of the Parliamentary Labor Party in Western Australia and orchestrated a campaign that saw him elected as Labor premier of Western Australia in 1983. He played a pivotal role in the 1986 state elections, with Labor retaining government, and in the successful federal Labor campaigns of 1983, 1984 and 1987.

Aspects of Beahan’s relationship with Brian Burke were later placed under review by the Royal Commission into Commercial Activities of Government and Other Matters, known as the ‘WA Inc.’ Royal Commission. Beahan and Burke differed in their evidence to the Royal Commission about control and knowledge of Burke’s fundraising and spending activities for electoral purposes, in particular in their evidence relating to the ‘leader’s fund’, a private political fund which Burke initially claimed had been managed by the party with Beahan’s knowledge but later conceded was managed by his own office. Beahan was reassured by the Report of the Royal Commission which stated in part that ‘Mr Beahan was an impressive witness. We have no hesitation in accepting his evidence in preference to that of Mr Burke’.

In 1994 he appeared as a character witness at the trial of former Labor Deputy Premier David Parker in which he revealed that party campaign funds were used for a wide range of purposes to improve the appearance and electoral prospects of candidates, ‘a grey area’. One country candidate, who was deemed to need a better image, was supposedly provided with two new suits, new glasses and funds for a new hair-do. Beahan’s political opponents questioned him about Burke, WA Inc. and ALP WA’s election funding practices throughout his Senate career.[2]

In 1986 Beahan was selected by the ALP to stand for the Senate for Western Australia. He was placed fifth on the ALP ticket for the double dissolution election of 11 July 1987 and was the ninth senator elected for a term that expired in July 1990. He faced a challenge to his preselection for the 1990 election from the Right faction of the WA ALP but ultimately was placed second on the ticket and was comfortably re-elected.

In his first speech on 16 September 1987 Beahan was given the honour of moving the Address-in-Reply to the Governor-General’s Speech; he took the opportunity to give an outline of the achievements of the Hawke Labor Government. On a more personal level, having been a peace activist from his university days, he mentioned the loss of Labor’s traditional vote among the peace and disarmament movement.

In his early years in the Senate, as a backbench government senator, Beahan did not speak frequently in the Senate chamber and seldom contributed to second reading debates on legislation. However, he made informed speeches on industrial relations and working conditions, education, the economy, and electoral matters. He also spoke persuasively on the Native Title Bill in 1993.[3]

Beahan’s contributions in the Senate chamber often related to his work as a member of various parliamentary committees; he became heavily engaged in committee work from the commencement of his first term and strongly endorsed the committee system as a whole. He served on domestic committees such as the Scrutiny of Bills Committee and chaired Estimates Committee F from 1990 to 1994. A member of the Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training from September 1987, he participated in an inquiry into the attitude of young people to the Australian political system which resulted in the report Education for Active Citizenship in Australian Schools and Youth Organisations (1989). The report proposed a commitment to better political and civic education, a matter that Beahan espoused throughout his Senate career. From the active citizenship dimension Beahan was also concerned about the ALP’s static membership base. He advocated greater involvement of the ALP’s rank and file in shaping and directing party policy. At the same time he was inclined to believe that the history of the party ‘is one of democratic ideas and autocratic practice’.

Beahan was a member of several joint parliamentary committees, believing that they provided a particular breadth of representation and a broad perspective. His electoral expertise added value to his work as a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (1987–94), leading him to regularly speak in the Senate on matters arising in that committee. Informed by his political party experiences in Western Australia, he supported a total ban on broadcasting paid party-political advertisements and the full disclosure of all political donations, as initially proposed in the Political Broadcasts and Political Disclosures Bill 1991. He argued that these measures were ‘vital for the integrity of the political process’. Beahan was a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, including its trade and human rights sub committees. As founding chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Corporations and Securities, with its significant oversight of the then Australian Securities Commission and corporate law, he pushed for ‘a thorough redrafting of the corporations law’.[4]

From the end of 1987 Beahan also had responsibilities as leader of the Centre Left faction of the ALP, a position of considerable influence within the party at a time when a ‘faction of free spirits’ held the balance of power between the Right and Left in Caucus and in the ALP national executive. He attempted to exert a conciliatory influence between those factions, trying to find common ground on policy issues such as the reform of the telecommunications industry, the privatisation of government airlines, deregulation of the financial system and mergers of banks, and a liberalisation of the policy on uranium mining. On occasion Beahan used the power of the Centre Left to bring about modifications of the government’s position, such as when he insisted in late 1990 that Prime Minister Bob Hawke alter his statement about Australia’s commitment to supporting United Nations sanctioned forces against Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War to include an ‘assurance that there will be no commitment of additional Australian forces to the Gulf’. The views of the Centre Left Faction were often in conflict with those of Prime Minister Hawke and Beahan was a prominent supporter of Paul Keating in his leadership challenges in June and December 1991.[5]

Recognising that a desired promotion to the Keating ministry was unlikely, in view of the good representation of his minority faction, in 1993 Beahan was pleased to accept Keating’s offer of a future ALP nomination for the position of President of the Senate, to take effect upon the resignation of Senator Kerry Sibraa. This offer was endorsed by the Caucus on 1 February 1994 and he was elected unopposed as President of the Senate on the same day.

At the end of his time as President, Beahan admitted that he had entered the Senate ‘with a fairly cynical view of its role’ as he was one of those who had strong and bitter memories of the 1975 constitutional crisis. While retaining the view that the Senate should not have the right to block supply, Beahan developed a greater respect for the Senate ‘as an increasingly effective and necessary check on the power of the executive—any executive’. In his view, the chamber was ‘developing and refining its role as a house of review and … much useful work is done in scrutinising and critically appraising the decisions and activities of government’, in what he had referred to in 1994 as a ‘new accountability … characterised by the systematic use of parliamentary committees to conduct … scrutiny of the executive’s conduct of policy and administration and expenditure of revenue’. He had also reviewed his attitude to parliamentary procedures. As a new senator in 1989 he referred to ‘people speaking in empty chambers, people running around to bells like Pavlovian dogs; the constant repetition of quorum calls or divisions’; by the time he became President, he recognised that the traditional way of doing things had a purpose.[6]

Beahan did not enjoy presiding at question time in the Senate, where ‘low level and crude interchanges … have become all to frequent’. He felt that as President he was placed in an impossible position because he lacked the authority under the Standing Orders, unlike his counterpart, the Speaker in the House of Representatives, to expel senators. Even if he went through ‘the long and almost impossible process’ of calling for ‘a direct and immediate vote of the Senate to expel a senator’ there was no guarantee that he would be supported by a majority of senators in a chamber in which there was no clear majority for any party. Thankfully, he said, this is ‘a very small part of a much more complex job’. As he explained:

Administering the four departments, for example, three of them together with the Speaker, is a demanding, time consuming, but most enjoyable task. The multimillion dollar budget and large, highly skilled and varied staff provide plenty of challenges. It is like a small ministry, which is where I really would have liked to have been, so it was a part I enjoyed very much.[7]

Beahan tried, without success, to change the practice of reciting the Lord’s Prayer at the commencement of a sitting day, by replacing it with a non-denominational offering. In another reform move, at the request of Senate staff, he tried to obtain support to dispense with wigs and gowns; this was later implemented by his successor, Senator Margaret Reid (Lib., SA).

Beahan took a keen interest in maintaining the design integrity of what he regarded as an outstanding building (new Parliament House) and in introducing an art acquisition program to redress some of the imbalances in the building’s art collection. He was disappointed that as President he was unable to complete the task of creating a uniform corporate identity for Parliament, by replacing its multiplicity of images and emblems.

Presidency of the Senate exposed him to international affairs. He acted as host to visiting parliamentary delegations and visited other parliaments on behalf of the Parliament. During his presidency he led delegations to the United Kingdom, Germany, Western Samoa, Canada, Mexico, the United States, Spain and Cyprus. This was a role that he relished as he felt that his status enabled him to provide access for Australian officials to high levels of government overseas. He was elected as International Secretary of the ALP, a position that he held for four years, which saw him representing the ALP at international conferences and becoming a member of a range of international organisations advocating democratic government. On leaving Parliament he became President of the WA Branch of the United Nations Association of Australia.

Although his presidency of the Senate had already been foreshadowed, in late November 1993 Beahan suffered a serious blow to his political career when the ALP State Executive relegated him to the unwinnable third position behind Mark Bishop on the WA ALP Senate ticket for the 1996 Federal election. Bishop, a Right faction power broker, had defeated Beahan by 71 to 69 votes in the party pre-selection ballot. Beahan and his supporters complained about the ballot, claiming that blank ballot papers were handed over to faction organisers so that they could vote on behalf of party members without their knowledge, but a special State Executive meeting in December 1994 accepted a report from State ALP Secretary, Mark Nolan, that said the voting was not irregular. Although there was strong support for his position, Beahan’s appeal to the National Executive was not successful. He decided not to take legal action against the decision as he believed such an action ‘would not advance the party’s interests in WA or elsewhere in the lead up to a Federal election’. As anticipated, Beahan failed to gain election at the federal election of 2 March 1996 and his term as a senator expired on 30 June of that year. He remained in the office of President until the Senate met on 20 August 1996 and a new President, Senator Margaret Reid (Lib., SA), was elected.

After leaving Parliament, Beahan acted as a government relations and strategic policy consultant for the Pharmacy Guild of Australia. He and his second wife, Margaret (née Morris), whom he married the day after he left the Senate, settled in Victoria. He continued his community service acting as a member of the board of a local community centre, chairman of a research and advocacy group and chairman of an advisory committee managed by Monash University. Between 2008 and 2009 he chaired a review of political governance aid for the Rudd Labor Government.

Michael Beahan was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in January 2011, ‘For service to the Parliament of Australia … to the promotion of international bi-partisan political debate, to the pharmacy profession, and to the community’.[8]

Harry Phillips

[1] This entry draws throughout on an interview with Michael Beahan by Norman Abjorensen, 2 Feb. 2006, [Interview]; WA (Perth), 27 Aug. 1973, p. 8.

[2] WA (Perth), 23 Feb. 1983, p. 9; Royal Commission into Commercial Activities of Government and Other Matters, Report, 1992, Part 1, Vol. 6, para 26.3.8; CT, 13 Sept. 1994, p. 4; Age (Melb.), 13 Sept. 1994, p. 9; CPD, 22 Sept. 1994, pp. 1211–12.

[3] WA (Perth), 3 June 1989, p. 11; CPD, 16 Sept. 1987, pp. 160–3, 21 Oct. 1993, pp. 2307–9, 8 March 1989, pp. 691–3, 4 May 1992, pp. 2075–7, 16 Aug. 1989, pp. 185–7, 15 Dec. 1993, pp. 4621–4.

[4] WA (Perth), 17 Nov. 1990, p. 39; Age (Melb.), 17 Dec. 1990, p. 11; AFR (Syd.), 20 June 1990, p. 17; CPD, 27 June 1996, p. 2459, 3 Dec. 1991, pp. 3923–7, 26 Nov. 1991, pp. 335–7, 19 June 1992, pp. 4106–7, 8 Oct. 1992, pp. 1461–2, 15 Oct. 1992, pp. 1974–6.

[5] Interview; Age (Melb.), 14 Aug. 1990, p. 11; Australian (Syd.), 14 Aug. 1990, p. 3, SMH, 22 Sept. 1990, p. 3; Australian (Syd.), 18 Aug. 1990, p. 1, 7 April 1990, p. 5; NT News (Darwin), 11 April 1991, p. 2; CT, 4 Dec. 1990, p. 1; Transcript, ABC Radio, ‘PM’, 4 Dec. 1990; SMH, 7 Dec. 1990, p. 13; CPD, 22 Jan. 1991, pp. 153–6; Australian (Syd.), 3 June 1991, p. 1; SMH, 12 Oct. 1991, p. 7.

[6] Interview; Records of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, ‘Caucus Minutes’, 1 Feb. 1994, NLA MS 6852; CPD, 27 June 1996, pp. 2458–62; Michael Beahan, ‘Can the Senate cope with executive accountability?’ Presented at the Conference of Commonwealth Speakers and Clerks, 23 June 1994; CPD, 29 Nov. 1989, pp. 2529–30.

[7] CPD, 27 June 1996, pp. 2458–62.

[8] CPD, 27 June 1996, pp. 2458–62; AFR (Syd.), 15 Nov. 1994, p. 3; Australian (Syd.), 30 Nov. 1994, p. 7; AFR (Syd.), 2 Dec. 1994, p. 28; CT, 14 Dec. 1994, p. 8; WA (Perth), 4 Jan. 1995, p. 4, 1 July 1995, p. 44; AusAid, ‘Power to the People. Australia’s support in strengthening political governance in developing countries’, Canberra, 2009.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 537-541.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, WA, 1987–96 (ALP)

President of the Senate, 1994–96

Senate Committee Service

Estimates Committee E, 1987, 1988, 1989–90; F, 1990–94

Joint Committee on Electoral Matters, 1987–93

Scrutiny of Bills Committee, 1987–90, 1993

Select Committee on the Education of Gifted and Talented Children, 1987–88

Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training, 1987–90

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, 1990–94

Publications Committee, 1990–94

Select Committee on Health Legislation and Health Insurance, 1990

Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, 1990

Joint Committee on Corporations and Securities, 1991–94

Select Committee on Subscription Television Broadcasting Services, 1992

Select Committee on Public Interest Whistleblowing, 1993–94

Appropriations and Staffing Committee, 1994–96

Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings, 1994–96

Library Committee, 1994–96

Procedure Committee, 1994–96