BROWNHILL, David Gordon Cadell (1935– )
Senator for NSW, 1984–2000 (National Party of Australia)

David Gordon Cadell Brownhill was born at the family property, Beaudesert station, near Mudgee, NSW, on 16 November 1935. He was the youngest of four children and the only son of Gordon McMillan Brownhill, grazier, and his wife Mary Wyatt, née Cadell. His early education was completed by correspondence. He then attended Cullenbone Public School and, from 1947 to 1953, Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore). Tall, and with a relaxed drawl, Brownhill had a sharp sense of humour. An enthusiastic cricketer in his youth, he later enjoyed playing tennis.

In 1954 Brownhill undertook three months of National Service training, prior to spending two years as a jackeroo at the Haddon Rig Merino sheep stud, in western New South Wales. He returned to work on the family farm, leaving in 1959 to establish his own enterprise, a 1077 hectare property primarily dedicated to sheep farming called Merrilong, near Quirindi, NSW. A judicious practitioner of sustainable agriculture, he improved his productivity through soil conservation and land management practices, pioneering the use of strip cropping to control soil erosion. He also diversified by growing a variety of crops, including sorghum and wheat. On 26 September 1959, at St Paul’s Anglican Church, Murrurundi, Brownhill married Helen Julia Arnott; the couple had two daughters and two sons.

Brownhill’s father had been prominent in local community organisations and was an office bearer in the Country Party. Brownhill followed a similar path to his father, representing the community and the region as a member and as an executive of a number of organisations. He joined the Australian Country Party in 1959 (which became the National Country Party of Australia in 1975 and the National Party of Australia (NPA) from 1982) and served on the party’s NSW Central Council and the Central Executive for almost twenty years. In the 1980s Brownhill was a state and federal election campaign director and took on executive roles in the party’s State and Federal Council. In 1993 he was awarded life membership of the NPA.[1]

Brownhill won NPA preselection for the Senate in 1984 and was placed second on the Coalition ticket for NSW. He was elected on 1 December 1984 with his term commencing on 21 February 1985, the first sitting day of the Senate after the election. He was re-elected in 1987, 1990 and 1996.

Brownhill claimed to be the first senator to move his electoral office to regional Australia, basing himself in Tamworth: ‘That was done so that my staff could deal with people all the time and not be sitting in some closeted area in a major city not listening to the people’.

On 20 March 1985, in his first speech, Brownhill spoke of rural Australia in crisis: ‘Over the last few years I have seen and felt the cost-price squeeze bite into the rural communities. I have seen country towns start to dry up and die’. He noted ‘the diabolical effects’ of strikes on export industries; and argued that governments ‘continue to be too top heavy, too cumbersome, too expansive’ and government spending was ‘too high’, as were government taxes and charges. He also condemned government neglect of the ‘extremely serious situation of land degradation … We have had many words on the subject of soil conservation but precious little action’.

Throughout his political career he pressed for a comprehensive soil conservation scheme. In a speech on the subject in 1987, Brownhill said: ‘We are faced with a problem of massive proportions—a problem that has been known about for some time. Yet, successive governments, State and Federal, have done little to acknowledge the seriousness of it’. He pointed to the ‘pathetic’ six million dollars allocated by the federal government to the National Soil Conservation Program, noting that it was only one million more than the amount ‘being spent on landscaping the new Parliament House’. As well as practising soil conservation on his own property, Brownhill was the founding chairman (1977–90) of the Yarraman Soil Conservation Project in the Quirindi district and in 1984 the Brownhill family instigated the Brownhill Cup, an award given at the annual AgQuip field days in Gunnedah, NSW, to recognise agricultural conservation work and innovation in the northern farming zone of NSW.[2]

While in Opposition Brownhill’s message of a rural sector struggling to survive was reiterated in numerous speeches which were notable for combining solid factual arguments with a harder edge of intensity and, sometimes, frustration with city people: ‘too often those who do not understand rural Australia tend to dismiss us’.

In November 1985 Brownhill declared that the Hawke Government had inflicted on the rural sector ‘a veritable truck load of inappropriate, discriminatory and economically destructive measures’. He was especially angered by ‘vicious, pernicious, anomalous and garbled’ tax legislation, pointing out what he believed to be various inconsistencies and inequities in the application of the fringe benefits and capital gains tax legislation. Brownhill was also highly critical of fuel taxes and the use of retrospective legislation affecting company taxes. He regularly questioned the Labor Government’s economic policies which he blamed for producing ‘crippling interest rates’ and a ‘disastrous current account deficit’. In 1994 Brownhill asserted that: ‘It has long been accepted in rural areas of Australia that the Australian Labor Party does not understand and does not care about the rural sector’ and later he argued that the ‘cruelest failure’ of Labor Party policies was ‘the underemployment and unemployment crisis in rural Australia’.

The ‘immeasurable’ cost of industrial disputes was a recurrent theme in Brownhill’s speeches. In 1986 he questioned the effectiveness of the Hawke Government’s accord with the unions and argued that ‘absurd wage structures and demands’ were ‘totally detrimental’ to the future health of the economy. He often drew attention to the effects on productivity of strikes, excessive labour costs and restrictive work practices, which he believed gave Australia a reputation as an unreliable supplier with ‘the world’s least efficient waterfront’.

Despite the combative tone of some of his Senate speeches, Brownhill possessed a capacity for measured reflection, particularly evident in February 1991 when he spoke on the aftermath of the collapse of the Australian wool reserve price scheme, and acknowledged growers had to be told: ‘The floor price is finished and has to stay finished. You have a massive debt and you have to trade your way out of it. You can’t rely on the Australian taxpayer to do it for you’. In 1991 Brownhill also spoke of the plight of women in rural Australia, noting that many suffered from ‘loneliness, isolation and lack of basic services available to them’ and that a majority of farmers’ wives were required to combine domestic tasks with working as the farm’s business manager. His debating prowess was acknowledged by Labor Senator Barney Cooney who described Brownhill as one of ‘the most powerful debaters’ for the Coalition.[3]

During his time in the Senate, Brownhill witnessed both the ‘Joh for Canberra’ campaign of 1987 and the party-room coup against Ian Sinclair’s leadership two years later. The Joh campaign seriously divided National Party organisations across the nation and created a rift both within the parliamentary party and the Coalition. The NSW National Party, under the chairmanship of Doug Moppett, was strongly opposed to the Joh push, calling on all eleven ‘NSW Nationals to support the Coalition—with or without the Queenslanders’ and Brownhill was influential in holding the parliamentary Nationals together to resist the push.

Independent of the Joh campaign there had been a growing sense of impatience with Sinclair’s leadership. Younger members of the parliamentary party saw Sinclair as a representative of the old Country Party, rather than a representative of a modern, progressive NPA. Others believed he was too willing to acquiesce in Liberal Party policies on areas such as the deregulation of the domestic wheat market. In 1989 Brownhill tried to prevent moves against Sinclair’s leadership, holding an informal meeting with colleagues at his Canberra home to try to talk them out of calling a spill. Brownhill’s strong sense of party unity and tradition came to the fore—as far as he was concerned, the NPA did not dump its leaders. Nonetheless, he understood and even sympathised with the mood of dissatisfaction. Out of loyalty to the man who he had known for many years, he took the concerns of his colleagues to Sinclair, advising him to be more ‘forthright’ with the Liberals. His advice was not heeded and Sinclair continued to voice his willingness to compromise on proposed wheat industry deregulation legislation. The resulting frustration within the party led to a leadership spill being called for 9 May 1989. Even after the ballot had been called Brownhill believed that Sinclair could have still salvaged the situation, noting: ‘Ian allowed everyone to have their say, so you effectively had an open vote before the vote was taken. If he’d insisted on proceeding straight to the ballot, the result might have been different’. Sinclair lost the ballot and was replaced by Charles Blunt (MHR Richmond). On the same day the Liberal Party ousted John Howard as leader, seeing a return to Andrew Peacock. Blunt appointed Brownhill to the role of Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the NPA, a post in which he remained until 1996, serving under Tim Fischer (MHR Farrer) from April 1990.[4]

Regarded as ‘extremely hardworking, almost tireless’, and always keen to broaden his knowledge, Brownhill was an avid member of many parliamentary committees, serving on no fewer than ninety-four parliamentary inquiries. In common with many senators, Brownhill found that committee work was ‘a great learning experience for getting on with one’s colleagues’.

Brownhill’s renowned persistence was primarily responsible for the establishment, in March 1991, of a Joint Select Committee to investigate aspects of the operation of the Family Law Act 1975. The committee reported in 1992, but it took the Keating Government almost three years to respond to the committee’s 120 recommendations. Even though the government accepted the majority of the recommendations, Brownhill was critical of the delay, questioning the government’s commitment to family law reform and dismissing the proposed changes to access provisions as ‘not much better than tinkering at the edges’. He stated: ‘While all this sanitising and study has gone on, the divorce rate has continued to climb; families have remained under increasing emotional trauma; and many separated couples have felt compelled to take their own lives and sometimes that of their spouses and children’. At the same time Brownhill was highly critical of Chief Justice Nicholson of the Family Court of Australia for publically deriding those who claimed the court was out to ‘destroy the institution of the family in society’. After alleging that Nicholson had written to him saying that ‘it was not the place of politicians or the parliament to delve into such complex issues as family law’, Brownhill labelled Nicholson as someone who displayed ‘arrogance and a total lack of understanding of common human values’.

Brownhill was a key member of the long-running Select Committee on Animal Welfare (1985–91), a role he utilised with some success to move debate on animal welfare to the ‘middle ground’. When the work of the committee ceased, upon the tabling of its three final reports on 3 September 1991, Brownhill proposed to continue the committee’s work through the creation of a standing committee devoted to the broader subject of rural and regional affairs. He believed that it was ‘a great anomaly’ that Parliament had no committee dedicated exclusively to the study of matters affecting rural Australia. On 4 September 1991 Brownhill moved successfully for the establishment of the Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and was appointed as one of its founding members. In October 1994, when the committee system was restructured into legislation and references committees, the committee’s remit was expanded to include transport. Brownhill chaired the new references committee from its inception until 1996.[5]

Although, in 1990, Brownhill was not successful in his bid for the posts of NPA Senate Leader or Senate Deputy Leader, he was elected NPA Senate Whip. Three years later he was elected NPA Senate Deputy Leader, a position he held for the next seven years.

With the election of the Howard Coalition Government in March 1996, Brownhill was appointed to the ministry as Parliamentary Secretary to both the Minister for Trade and the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy. Through the primary industries portfolio, he played a central part in putting together the National Rural Finance Summit, which convened in Canberra in July 1996. Brownhill chaired the summit’s activating committee, which turned the summit outcomes into policy recommendations and eventually, in 1997, the Agriculture Advancing Australia package—an ‘unprecedented package’ in ‘scope and scale … designed to boost the competitiveness, sustainability and profitability of the rural sector’. Subsequently, in 1999, he was appointed to the organising reference committee and to the follow-up steering committee of the Regional Australia Summit.

Brownhill’s portfolio responsibilities also incorporated horticulture, forcing him to deal with an antagonistic grower reaction to the research and development levy which came into effect during the last days of the Keating Government. As a strong believer in the importance of research and development he undertook an ‘exhaustive process of consultation’ to ensure growers had input into how funds raised by the levy were to be spent. In 1997, at a peak industry body meeting, he stated: ‘For Australian horticultural producers to be able to compete in international markets they will have to be operating at world’s best practice in terms of efficiency and quality … A commitment to R&D will ensure they are better equipped to meet that challenge’.

Brownhill also had responsibility for continued restructure of the citrus industry, begun under the previous Labor Government. Keen to promote export opportunities, he developed a number of initiatives under the Citrus Market Diversification Program, aimed at expanding exports of Australian citrus products and at further developing the domestic market for fresh juice.[6]

After relinquishing the primary industries and energy post in October 1997 Brownhill undertook greater responsibilities in his trade portfolio by leading a number of international trade missions, including delegations to the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council and trade ministers’ meeting in Santiago, Chile, in 1997, and the Asia Pacific Economic Forum trade ministers’ meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1998. On the domestic front, he conducted thirty regional roundtable meetings across Australia to assist smaller industries with ongoing market access issues and to increase their exports. Brownhill’s work in the trade portfolio was recognised in 1999 when the Chilean government awarded him its prestigious Orden Al Merito Chile for his work in furthering trade relations between the two countries.

Brownhill stood aside from the ministry after the October 1998 election, to allow his younger NPA colleague, Larry Anthony (MHR, Richmond) to take his place. He announced his resignation from the Senate on 13 April 2000, which enabled his former NPA Senate colleague defeated at the 1998 election, Alexander ‘Sandy’ Macdonald, to return to the Senate to fill the casual vacancy.

After leaving the Senate, Brownhill served as a member, chair and patron of a number of community organisations and in 2003 became a director of NRMA Ltd. He remained as chairman of his family companies, the principal being Merrilong Pastoral Company Pty Ltd, until retiring in 2006. Brownhill admitted that his family was central to him being able to maintain and develop his farming enterprise while serving in the Senate—his wife, Julia, managed and worked the farm until his sons were able to take over.

In valedictory speeches, the NPA Senate Leader Ron Boswell (Qld) described Brownhill as a ‘quiet achiever’, held ‘in the absolutely highest esteem’ by his parliamentary colleagues in both houses. Boswell went on to state that Brownhill had provided ‘stability’ and ‘wise counsel’ to the NPA ‘in some very hard times’, especially ‘in 1987 when we were in a very destabilised position and condition’. Country Liberal Party Senator Grant Tambling (NT) emphasised Brownhill’s ‘basic loyalty’ to his constituency and to his party, his commitment to his principles and ‘his basic decency’.

Brownhill concluded his valedictory speech with the words of the ‘Serenity Prayer’, with which he had ended his first Senate speech fifteen years earlier. The prayer formed one of his guiding principles of life: ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference’.[7]

Biographical Dictionary Unit

[1] This entry draws on information obtained from interviews of David Brownhill by Paul Davey in Sydney on 5 December 2008 and 29 June 2010, and from the transcript of an interview with David Brownhill by Neil Inall, 2013, POHP; Paul Davey, The Nationals—The Progressive, Country and National Party in New South Wales 1919 to 2006, Federation Press, Syd., 2006, p. 500; ‘Profile: Senator David Brownhill’, House Magazine, 27 March 1985, p. 3; CPD, 13 April 2000, pp. 14125–9, 14134–5; Mudgee Guardian, 22 Oct. 1945, p. 5, 5 Aug. 1946, p. 12; Gilgandra Weekly, 24 March 1949, p. 4; Land (Syd.), 21 Nov. 1952, p. 3.

[2] CPD, 13 April 2000, pp. 14125–9, 20 March 1985, pp. 516–19, 4 Nov. 1987, pp. 1724–7, 15 March 1994, pp. 1622–3; NSWPD (LC) 6 June 2000, p. 6605.

[3] CPD, 20 March 1985, pp. 516–19, 17 Feb. 1988, pp. 150–2, 30 Aug. 1993, pp. 505–8, 5 May 1986, pp. 2344–5, 13 Nov. 1985, pp. 2090–3, 5 June 1986, pp. 3426–8, 9 May 1985, pp. 1608–10, 19 April 1985, pp. 1240–1, 6 Nov. 1985, p. 1616, 23 Aug. 1994, pp. 34–6, 27 Sept. 1995, pp. 1576–7, 10 Oct. 1985, pp. 1020–2, 30 Oct. 1989, p. 553, 20 Feb. 1991, pp. 960–4, 7 March 1991, pp. 1459–62.

[4] Paul Kelly, The End of Certainty, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 1992, pp. 305, 311–12; Sunday Mail (Brisb.), 22 March 1987, p. 5; Paul Davey, Ninety Not Out: The Nationals 1920–2010, UNSW Press, Syd., 2010, pp. 217, 258–9, 263–4, 269; Age (Melb.), 15 April 1989, p. 10.

[5] CPD, 10 May 2000, pp. 14348–9, 13 April 2000, pp. 14125–9, 11 March 1991, pp. 1553–4, 24 Oct. 1995, pp. 2389–91; Joint Select Committee on Certain Aspects of the Operation and Interpretation of the Family Law Act, Report, Canberra, Nov. 1992; Media Release, Senator David Brownhill, 21 Aug. 1991; CPD, 3 Sept. 1991, pp. 1050–2; Transcript, ABC Radio, ‘Ring the Bells’, 6 Sept. 1991; Senate Procedural Bulletin, No. 62, 16 Sept. 1991, p. 1; CPD, 4 Sept. 1991, p. 1171, 10 Sept. 1991, pp. 1349–50.

[6] CT, 11 April 1990, pp. 1, 4; SMH, 23 July 1996, p. 36; NSWPD (LC), 6 June 2000, p. 6605; CPD, 13 April 2000, pp. 14125–9; Press Release, Senator David Brownhill, 23 Oct. 1996; Statement by Warren Truss, ‘Agriculture—Advancing Australia’, 9 May 2000; Davey, Ninety Not Out, p. 303; CPD (R), 25 June 1996, pp. 2722–3; Media Release, Senator David Brownhill, 16 Oct. 1996, 30 July 1997, 23 April 1996.

[7] CPD, 13 April 2000, pp. 14125–9; Davey, Ninety Not Out, p. 314; NSWPD, 4 May 2000, p. 5193; CPD, 13 April 2000, pp. 14133–5.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 82-87.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for NSW, 1984–2000 (NPA)

Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, 1996–97

Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Trade, 1996–98

Senate Committee Service

Estimates Committee C, 1985–87; B, 1987–90; F, 1990

Publications Committee, 1985–87

Select Committee on Private Hospitals and Nursing Homes, 1985–87

Select Committee on Animal Welfare, 1985–91

Standing Committee on Industry and Trade, 1985–87

Scrutiny of Bills Committee, 1987–89

Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, 1987–90

Select Committee on Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals in Australia, 1988–90

Select Committee on Certain Aspects of the Airline Pilots’ Dispute, 1989–90

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, 1990–96, 1999–2000

Selection of Bills Committee, 1990–93

Joint Select Committee on Certain Aspects of the Operation and Interpretation of the Family Law Act, 1991–93

Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs, 1991–94

Joint Select Committee on Certain Family Law Issues, 1993–95

Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee, 1994–96

Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee, 1994–96

Committee of Senators’ Interests, 1994–2000

House Committee, 1996–2000

Joint Committee on Treaties, 1998–99

Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee, 1998–2000

Finance and Public Administration References Committee, 1999–2000

Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, 1999–2000

Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee, 1999–2000