BELL, Robert John (1950–2001)
Senator for Tasmania, 1990–96 (Australian Democrats)

Most knowledge of Robert John Bell’s early life derives from his highly personal first speech to the Senate in May 1990. He was born in Hobart, Tasmania, on 22 July 1950. His parents were based at Bronte Park, his father employed on hydro-electricity works. Soon the couple separated, Robert remaining with his mother, Frances Ellen. While she qualified as a schoolteacher, the boy lived in the state’s north-west with her parents, Frederick and Madge Doran. His revered grandfather, a stevedore, ‘worked too hard and died too young’; he was ‘a physical man who enjoyed simple pleasures, honest toil and practical achievements’. Bell’s later childhood years were spent with his mother and adoptive father, Trevor Godfrey Bell, also a schoolteacher, and later a headmaster, as they taught in various small towns of northern Tasmania, including Myrtle Park, Westbury and Ringarooma. In Ringarooma Bell became aware of socially potent rock music that was to mean much to him.

From Ringarooma, Bell went to Launceston for secondary education, and then to the University of Tasmania in Hobart, where he was ‘privileged’ to study poetry under James McAuley. Bell graduated BA in 1971 and DipEd in 1972; in the latter year he married Jane Moore. To the Senate he presented his generation as scornful of ‘materialism, jingoism, elitism’, and having ‘a global perspective and a great international cohesiveness’. Participation in the Vietnam Moratorium campaign was a central element, accompanied by music ‘loud, aggressive and defiant’. He also became involved in protests over the flooding of Lake Pedder by the Tasmanian Hydro-Electric Authority. At that time, Bell did not regard his activism as political, rather, he saw it ‘as being involved in my community’: ‘Politics was what politicians did, and I did not want to be one of them’.

For eight years Bell taught school at primary and secondary levels. Six years at The Friends’ School, Hobart, (where he was ‘very beloved’) was formative. Bell embraced the Quaker belief that ‘within the heart of all people there lies a spark of goodness—the inner light of God’. Bell next worked in adult education, at first in Victoria, and then with prisoners at Hobart’s Risdon Gaol. At Risdon he experienced his best moment in teaching: conveying poetry’s wonder to a violent inmate. He later worked with unemployed youth. A three-month sojourn in New Zealand as an ANZAC Fellow in 1984 stimulated thoughts about education, training and job creation, which translated into wider preoccupations ‘about the state of the world’. Bell conveyed his ideas to several political parties. The Australian Democrats were by far the most receptive and offered him practical assistance.

The influence and success of Norman Sanders, elected to the Tasmanian House of Assembly for Denison in 1980, and to the Senate in 1984, ensured that the Tasmanian Democrats were firmly conservationist, but that sentiment was even stronger in the United Tasmania Group (UTG), precursor of the Green Independents. When Sanders resigned from the Assembly in 1982, the UTG leader, Bob Brown, was elected to succeed him.

In July 1987 Bell contested the federal seat of Denison for the Democrats. In the next year he became state president of the Australian Democrats (Tas.) and an alderman of the Hobart City Council. In his municipal campaign Bell stressed conservation issues and these were the dominant theme of his four-year term. Bell stood for the seat of Denison in the Tasmanian House of Assembly at the election of May 1989, but the Democrats were easily outpolled by the Green Independents. During this time Bell became a research officer in Sanders’ office. Sanders took up residence in Canberra, and in early 1990 resigned from the Senate in order to contest an ACT Senate seat in the March 1990 election. Bell had already been endorsed as a Senate candidate by the Tasmanian Democrats for that election, in which he narrowly won Tasmania’s sixth seat from a candidate representing the (briefly) reformed UTG, for a term beginning on 1 July 1990. Bell was appointed to Sanders’ vacancy by the Governor of Tasmania and confirmed by the Tasmanian Parliament on 10 April 1990, and so took a seat in the Senate in Sanders’ stead during May and June, before taking his elected seat. Bell’s electoral publicity stressed his interest in local and youth affairs, with hobbies including philately, bushwalking, woodwork, and hockey; all of which fitted the image of this burly, genial, bearded man.[1]

From 1990 to 1996 Democrat senators held a balance between the Hawke/Keating Labor governments and Liberal-National Opposition, but they had too little in common with the latter for much power-broking to proceed. Another impairment was division within the group, Bell joining the six-to-two majority that in August 1991 forced Janet Powell from leadership, John Coulter and then (May 1993) Cheryl Kernot succeeding.

Despite internal differences, the Democrats made constructive contributions to debates, and Bell often performed with distinction. He made effective sallies against both government and Opposition, labelling them collectively, as Sanders had, as ‘Laborials’. ‘That blind devotion of both parties to the philosophy of tariff reductions to achieve a supposedly level playing field is a monument to flat earth economics’ was a typical early denunciation. Bell developed this argument especially in defence of primary producers whom he saw as being exposed to competition from ‘dumped’ imports. He led the Democrats’ resistance to the maximum rate of tax on wool proposed by the government in the Wool Tax (Nos 1 to 5) Amendment Bills 1991, when the Democrats combined with the Opposition to force the government to reverse its decisions on the level of tax. Vigilant for the rights of Tasmanian industries and workers, he was a persistent advocate of the Australian Defence Industries materials research laboratory at Scottsdale, Tasmania in 1992, in the face of proposals by a ‘corporatising, hands-off government’ that the facility be relocated to Victoria.[2]

Bell spoke frequently in the Senate on conservation issues, especially regarding forestry and old-growth trees. In 1991, convinced of the threat of climate change, he argued that rainforests everywhere should be sustained, while Australia should refuse to import timber harvested in defiance of that principle. The following year he asserted that the government’s Forest Conservation and Development Bill 1992 expressed an attitude reminiscent of colonial days, when land grants were given to those with ‘sufficient capital to engage in what was then described as the fight to tame mother nature, to tame the land’. The precious resource of land was handed to capitalist investors, instead of being the rightful province of ‘craftsmen, the jewellers and the producers of imaginative furniture and chattels’. Small, efficient local mills were being shut out as ‘The clear-felling mentality dominates our forest resource extraction methods’. Monoculture also sapped biological diversity, exposing the forests to ravage by pests and soil degradation. Bell argued in similar terms on many other occasions.

Tasmania played a large part in his forestry crusade, and Bell—who possessed thousands of photographs of Tasmanian forests—was especially fierce in opposition to clear-felling and woodchipping. In 1995 he led the Democrats in establishing a fighting fund to restrict chipping, and supported the Tasmanian Conservation Trust in legal action against the granting of export licences to Gunns Limited, a giant of the local timber industry. He deplored the Tasmanian Forestry Commission’s endorsement of such practices as ‘ecological madness’. He was also a proponent of moves to declare the Tarkine Wilderness Rainforest in the state’s north-west a World Heritage area, and for the prohibition of quarrying that threatened the Exit Cave system in the south-east of the state. Bell’s environmental interests had both national and international dimensions: he argued against fishing in National Parks, Antarctic tourism, and unrestrained mining at Kakadu. He was vehement in denunciation of France’s nuclear tests in the Pacific, and at his own expense travelled to Tahiti in 1995 to protest one such event.

Bell warned the Senate in March 1992 that the state of the Murray-Darling river system presaged a crisis in water supply, and he was alert to the environmental threat posed by blue-green algae. He was also vigilant in noting the dangers of pollutants such as agricultural and veterinary chemicals, and particularly the aerial spraying of pesticides. A dedicated supporter of attempts to preserve threatened species, Bell deplored indiscriminate killing of ducks, kangaroos, and wallabies. Here conservation merged with broader sympathy for animals. He denounced the export of live sheep as a ‘barbaric practice’.

As a good conservationist, Bell promoted the development of alternative power sources. His chief enthusiasm was for development of ethanol, but he also invoked solar and wind capacity. He abhorred waste, asserting that the government should set an example in its everyday handling of recyclable material. To his colleagues’ laughter he applauded a Ballarat farmer who used pig manure as a means of power generation.[3]

Bell spoke for the Democrats on industrial relations for much of his term. He was suspicious of employer interests (and of Coalition policies seen as their political expression), and anxious that any gains should be shared by all workers, not just a unionist elite. The Democrats had more palpable effect in this legislative area than any other. One instance came in early 1992 when the Democrats ensured that non-unionists would have protection under new legislation that extended powers of the Industrial Relations Commission. Later in the year Bell led his colleagues in backing government measures to allow unions to opt for federal rather than state awards (in response to the industrial legislation of Victoria’s Kennett Government), while insisting that a secret ballot validate this choice. Still bigger changes, designed primarily to ease enterprise bargaining, proceeded in 1993, the much-disputed Industrial Relations Reform Bill 1993 winning passage at year’s end. The Democrats approved the basic principles at stake, but won amendments that strengthened the autonomy of the Industrial Relations Commission, brought non-unionists within its compass, and prohibited workplace discrimination on grounds of sexual preference, age or disability.[4]

Bell’s participation throughout his term in Senate employment, education and training committees won him the respect of senators of all parties. He referred with pride to the ‘powerful and respected’ Come In Cinderella report, completed in 1991 and the first to which he contributed, as ‘a great resource for the adult and community education sector’. He upheld the principle of free education for all, at every level. Bell’s life-long concern for youth was evident in various speeches in which he urged higher rates of Austudy assistance, opposed HECS loans and graduate fees, and articulated fears that even primary education was being reduced to a cash nexus. While all students came within Bell’s purview, there was a particular place for those from overseas. An active participant in committee inquiries into proposed amendments to the Education Services For Overseas Students Act 1991 in 1993 and 1994, he maintained that, all too often, these vulnerable people were cheated by shonky providers and careless governments, instead of being welcomed for what they contributed to Australia.[5]

When Bob Brown was endorsed by the Australian Greens as a Tasmanian Senate candidate for the federal elections ultimately held in March 1996, Cheryl Kernot at once remarked that there was little chance of both Greens and Democrats winning a seat; and when, in October 1995, Brown mooted a merger between the two parties, Democrat deputy leader Meg Lees responded that his real purpose was to take Bell’s seat. Antagonism between the two groups intensified in Tasmania as the election approached. Nationally, the Democrats pursued a contentious policy of directing preferences away from the Greens to minor parties, including Fred Nile’s Call to Australia group. A flashpoint came in late February 1996 when Green supporters accused Bell of taking a pro-logging stand when he supported proposals for a sustainable timber industry in the Huon Valley. Bell responded by beginning legal action for defamation, deploring the ‘evil’ campaign against him and expressing concern for ‘worried communities’ dependent on the industry. Further dividing the two candidates was Brown’s insistence that he would use the balance of power in the Senate as the Democrats never had, even to block supply to a miscreant government. As defeat became certain, Bell described Brown’s campaign as ‘vicious, negative and personal’. Brown beat Bell for the sixth Tasmanian seat in the Senate, so becoming the first senator to be elected under the banner of a national Greens party, the Australian Greens.[6]

By August 1996 Bell was owner/manager of the village store in Hobart’s Battery Point. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the state seat of Franklin in August 1998, and stood again for the Senate with Democrat endorsement in October 1998. Although he polled well on the first count, his vote fell away and he was eliminated on the twenty-third count. Bell moved to New South Wales. On 6 September 2001, while driving between Wollongong and Port Kembla, he suffered a fatal heart attack. He was survived by his wife and their son and daughter.

Bell was an indefatigable and warmly regarded senator, speaking on many subjects and serving on a number of committees (including chairing the Finance and Public Administration References Committee from 1994 to 1996). His popularity among senators from all sides was evident in valedictory remarks in 1996. At his death, five years later, the Senate paid him a remarkable tribute: over two hours, twenty-one of his former colleagues eulogised Bell as a generous, plain-speaking unpretentious man who ‘could get on with virtually anyone in the chamber’. Democrat Senator John Cherry concluded by saying: ‘We have lost a great Tasmanian, we have lost a great Democrat, and we have lost a very great man’.[7]

Scott Bennett

[1] CPD, 11 May 1990, pp. 316–19; Transcript, ABC Radio, ‘Pollywaffle’, 24 July 1992; Sun-Herald (Syd.), 10 Oct. 1993, p. 24; Mercury (Hob.), 21 Feb. 1992, p. 18, 27 April 1989, p. 4, 9 May 1989, p. 4.

[2] Media Release, Australian Democrats , 20 Aug. 1991; David O’Reilly, The Woman Most Likely: Cheryl Kernot, Random House Australia, Milsons Point, NSW, 1998; CT, 27 Aug. 1990, p. 8; CPD, 3 Dec. 1991, pp. 3906–8, 18 June 1991, pp. 4904–9, 4930–1, 4936–7, 20 June 1991, pp. 5260–2, 3 Nov. 1992, p. 2109.

[3] CPD, 14 March 1991, pp. 1979–81, 26 March 1992, pp. 1239–43, 3 Feb. 1994, pp. 420–2, 10 Nov. 1994, pp. 2951–2, 27 June 1995, pp. 1862–3; Media Release, Senator Robert Bell, 20 Dec. 1994, 31 Jan. 1995, 3 March 1995, 5 June 1995; CPD, 21 March 1995, p. 1730, 24 March, 1992, pp. 997–9, 6 May 1992, pp. 2285–6, 2375– 6, 8 Oct. 1992, pp. 1374–6, 28 Sept. 1993, p. 1318, 14 Nov. 1990, pp. 4115–16, 31 March 1992, pp. 1428–30, 15 Oct. 1992, pp. 1995–9, 28 April 1992, pp. 1720–2, 6 May 1993, pp. 320–6,19 Aug. 1993, pp. 299–302 , 30 Aug. 1993, pp. 552–5, 28 Sept. 1993, pp. 1331–4, 2 June 1994, pp. 1266–7, 6 May 1996, pp. 352–5; Media Release, Australian Democrats, 4 Sept. 1990, 27 July 1990, 21 May 1993; Age (Melb.), 24 Oct. 1990, p. 12; CPD, 15 Nov. 1990, pp. 4322–4; Media Release, Senator Robert Bell, 25 May 1990, 2 Aug. 1990, 9 Sept. 1992; CPD, 24 Nov. 1992, p. 3277.

[4] David O’Reilly, ‘Democrats will not back Hewson’, The Bulletin (Syd.), 26 May 1992, pp. 20–1; Hiroya Sugita, ‘Challenging “twopartism”: the Contribution of the Australian Democrats to the Australian party system’, PhD thesis, Flinders University, July 1995; Age (Melb.), 3 June 1992, p. 5; CPD, 3 Nov. 1992, pp. 2109–12, 10 Dec. 1992, pp. 4719–22; Media Release, Senator Robert Bell, 2 Dec. 1992; AFR (Syd.), 10 Dec. 1992, p. 3; Australian (Syd.), 7 Sept. 1993, p. 3; AFR (Syd.), 14 Sept. 1993, p. 7; CPD, 6 Dec. 1993, pp. 3917–20; Media Release, Senator Robert Bell, 8 Dec. 1993.

[5] CPD, 11 March 1991, pp. 1615–19, 16 Dec. 1993, pp. 4918–22, 9 Feb. 1994, pp. 639–42, 2 June 1994, pp. 1169–72, 30 March 1995, pp. 2535–9, 29 June 1995, pp. 2104–5, 8 Oct. 1991, pp. 1573–4, 27 June 1996, p. 2487; Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training, Come in Cinderella: The Emergence of Adult and Community Education, Canberra, 1991.

[6] CT, 23 Jan. 1995, p. 5; Transcript, ABC Radio, ‘The World Today’, 23 Oct. 1995, ‘AM’, 9 Feb. 1996; Mercury (Hob.), 28 Feb. 1996, pp. 4, 8; 29 Feb. 1996, pp. 3, 22; Media Release, Senator Robert Bell, 27 Feb. 1996; Media Release, Wilderness Society (Tasmania), 27, 28 Feb. 1996; Age (Melb.), 28 Feb. 1996, p. 13; SMH, 20 March 1996, p. 3.

[7] CPD, 27 June 1996, pp. 2446–522, 18 Sept. 2001, pp. 27263–87.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 375-379.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Tas., 1990–96 (AD)

Senate Committee Service

Joint Committee on Electoral Matters, 1990

Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, 1990–91

Select Committee on Animal Welfare, 1990–91

Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training, 1990–91, 1993–94

Joint Committee on the Parliamentary Zone, 1991

Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs, 1991–93

Standing Committee on the Environment, Recreation and the Arts, 1991–94

Scrutiny of Bills Committee, 1992–96

Joint Committee on the National Capital and External Territories, 1993–96

Employment, Education and Training Legislation Committee, 1994–96

Employment, Education and Training References Committee, 1994–96

Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee, 1994–96

Finance and Public Administration References Committee, 1994–96

Select Committee on the Dangers of Radioactive Waste, 1995–96

Select Committee on Uranium Mining and Milling, 1996