BURNS, Bryant Robert (1929– )
Senator for Queensland, 1987–96 (Australian Labor Party)

Bryant Robert Burns was born in Rockhampton, Queensland on 24 March 1929. He was the youngest of three children of Charles Robert Burns, a railway engine driver, and his wife Alice Charlotte, née Wassman. Burns attended Leichhardt Ward Boys’ School until the age of thirteen, when he abandoned his studies to go droving. For three years he worked as a stockman and horsebreaker in the north of Queensland and then joined the Rockhampton Railway Workshop. By the age of twenty-one he had completed an apprenticeship as a boilermaker with the railways. Over a period of four years, he enjoyed competing in amateur motorcycle races. However, motorcycling led to tragedy in 1951, when he was involved in a motorcycle accident that killed his pillion passenger. Fortunately for Burns, the accident left him comparatively unscathed. About a year after the accident he left the railways to seek work as a boilermaker on various jobs across eastern Australia. In 1953 he married his first wife, Lorraine, with whom he had three sons (one of whom died in infancy) and four daughters. Lorraine died in 1974, aged thirty-eight. Some years later, Burns married his second wife, Annette.

From 1956 Burns was employed as a welder for the Brisbane City Council and then at the Kangaroo Point shipyard. In 1969 he became an organiser with the Boilermakers’ and Blacksmiths’ Society, which in 1973 was subsumed into the Amalgamated Metal Workers’ Union (AMWU). By 1977 Burns had risen to become state president of the AMWU, a position he held until his election to the Senate a decade later.

Burns had been a Labor supporter from a young age. His parents had taught him that a ‘crook Labor party is better than a good Liberal party’ and that he should have faith in Labor policy and principles not individual politicians. Burns was an active party member. He served on the party’s state administrative and finance committees and was a delegate to state and federal conferences. At the 1984 half-Senate election he secured fourth place on the ALP’s Queensland Senate ticket but was not elected.

In late 1986 Queensland Senator George Georges was searching for a successor to his outspoken brand of left-wing politics. He found his man in Burns: a trade unionist with ‘a determination’ to help fellow unionists fight against ‘low wages, unsafe working environments and insecurity of employment’. Georges stayed with the ALP long enough to facilitate an alliance between the Socialist Left and Australian Workers’ Union factions, ensuring Burns a winnable spot on the ALP’s Queensland Senate ticket. After that had been guaranteed, Georges resigned from the party and, in the double dissolution election of July 1987, Burns was duly elected as the tenth of twelve senators from Queensland.[1]

In his first Senate speech on 16 September 1987 Burns stated: ‘I see my role as a tool or a weapon to be used at appropriate times … I will be seeking to create a better life for all Australians and to defend them against excesses and exploitation’. In this speech, and in subsequent speeches, Burns drew on his experiences as a union official to raise a range of issues, such as the role of arbitration courts, worker participation, especially in retraining and the restructuring of industry, and the protection of living standards, health, wages and working conditions. He also used the platform to raise a number of other issues including disarmament, world peace, civil liberties and environmental protection.

Initially, Burns was quite suspicious of the Senate as an institution. In keeping with long-held but out-of-vogue Labor policy, Burns favoured the abolition of the Senate. During debates over the Hawke Government’s ultimately unsuccessful 1988 referendum package, he told senators: ‘I have seen the power of the Senate used in a way that was spiteful and negative’. Burns argued that the Senate ‘had not been a States House, almost from the beginning. People vote on party lines’. Right up to the end of his Senate career, Burns remained a sceptic of the concept that the Senate played the role of a house of review: ‘I do not think it is a house of review and I do not think it should really last for a long time’.

Burns’ most frequent contributions to Senate debates were on industrial relations. Amid efforts by the Labor Government to overhaul Australia’s federation-era compulsory arbitration system, Burns defended the trade unions and a Labor-led management of the economy. He claimed that those in the unions had shown a capacity to change: they had ‘taken the lead’ and a ‘more enlightened’ approach to contemporary industrial relations. He lambasted Coalition senators who, he believed, in their criticism of trade unions, were trying ‘to substitute ignorance for expertise’. He repeatedly claimed that trade unions played a facilitative role in helping workers find common ground, and that ‘the force of the trade unions is not very great, but that the forces of darkness, those in opposition to the trade unions … are very great indeed’. He went on to argue in favour of the government’s 1988 industrial reforms, noting that the amalgamation of some unions—a core aim of the bills—would help to reduce demarcation disputes and would improve the resources and expertise of unions during award negotiations with employers.[2]

A ‘Quintessential representative of the old style’, left-wing unionist was an uneasy fit for the economically liberal ALP of the 1980s and 1990s. Burns was opposed to the privatisation of public utilities, stating in 1988: ‘I have worked in opposition to privatisation. I shall continue to do so, subject to the restraints of democracy and majority decisions’. Consistent up to the end of his Senate career, during his valedictory speech he remarked: ‘I am not one to sell assets that are good profit providers’. However, Burns generally set aside personal misgivings in favour of party direction. For example, he voted with his party to privatise Qantas in 1992. He later justified his acquiescence to the party line by noting that the effective operation of democracy within organisations depended on ‘solidarity and commitment to the majority view and the majority decision’. His willingness to support the party line was rewarded in 1989 when he was preselected in second position on the Queensland ALP Senate ticket, helping him easily retain his seat at the 1990 federal election.

Burns, together with the majority of Caucus left-wingers, supported Prime Minister Bob Hawke against Paul Keating’s leadership challenge in June 1991. However, four months later he was one of the ten left-aligned members to break ranks and oppose Hawke’s introduction of a $2.50 patient fee for access to Medicare, arguing that the fee was inconsistent with party principles. By the time of the second leadership ballot, in December 1991, although Burns stated publicly that he would still vote for Hawke, he believed that the Prime Minister should step down in the interests of the party. Under Keating’s leadership the dissident left-wingers were vindicated almost immediately when the new cabinet took the decision to drop the Medicare fee.

Following the ALP victory at the 1993 election, Burns was appointed the party’s Deputy Whip in the Senate, leading him to assume a more moderate position—chiefly, by disassociating himself from the hard left newspaper Keep Left. However, he continued to self-identify as a ‘leftie’.[3]

As noted in valedictories, when he first entered Parliament, Burns could be ‘very aggressive’. Burns himself admitted that he had ‘set out to dislike everybody on the opposite side of the chamber’. Burns’ language was sometimes crude. In 1988 he allegedly reduced a Parliament House bar attendant to tears by calling her a ‘wog’. Despite his inability to recall using the term and later apologising, Burns was roundly criticised. Six years later, in responding to an interjection by Senator Amanda Vanstone (Lib., SA), he referred to Vanstone as ‘fatty’.

Burns could also be provocative, becoming the centre of controversy in November 1991 when, while leading a parliamentary delegation visiting China, he was reported as having described the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre as a ‘reasonable response’. Burns later disputed the context of the remark, highlighting that, personally, he did not believe that the response was reasonable, but that the Chinese government, based on its history, may well have believed that it was reasonable to use military force to clear the square. In the following year, in response to comments made by Burns, Senator Ian Campbell (Lib., WA) was so frustrated that he invited Burns to step outside. This prompted Burns’ ALP colleague Bob Collins to extend the same invitation to Campbell.

Burns’ most harmonious contributions to the Senate were made through his participation in the committee system, often going to considerable lengths to understand the views of those he served with. He later explained: ‘If you want people to take you seriously and give you the right to hold those views, you have to give them the same right to hold views that are different to yours’ and then, once that ‘mutual respect’ has been established, common ground could sometimes be found.[4]

For a good part of his time in Parliament Burns was a member of the Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and its successors, the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation and References committees. As chair of the former committee from 1991 to 1994 Burns presided over an important inquiry into drought assistance in Australia, which, in 1992, made a unanimous recommendation that Commonwealth assistance to farmers should be shifted towards financial incentives, to encourage greater self-reliance and the use of better drought-management strategies. Two years later the committee again made the news through its investigation and rejection of claims made by the Australian Workers’ Union and others that there had been a ‘significant influx’ of workers from New Zealand into the Australian shearing industry.

Burns drew upon his familiarity with industry and rural issues during his seven years as a member of the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology (which also took in Transport, Communications and Infrastructure between 1993 and 1994). In 1990, during a period of macro-economic contraction and instability in Australia’s primary and manufacturing industries, he enthusiastically backed the committee’s report, People and Technology: New Management Techniques in the Manufacturing Industry, which emphasised the advantages of co-operation between management and employees. Although a self-described ‘militant’ former union official, Burns was not blind to other perspectives or to compromise. Burns linked the wellbeing of industry and rural areas to opportunities afforded by the global economy and as a member of the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade for seven years, he contributed to reports commending the opportunities which awaited Australian businesses and industries that engaged with China, India and Latin America.[5]

In addition to serving as chair of Estimates Committee B (1991–94), Burns chaired the Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare (1990–91). This long-running select committee delivered several reports under the stewardship of Burns, incorporating some controversial recommendations such as imposing strict conditions on calf roping at rodeos (Burns believed the practice should be banned), banning the use of whips in horse racing for any purpose other than guiding the horse and the abolition of jumps racing. The committee also insisted that the greyhound industry ‘must take a more positive role’ in enforcing the ban on live baiting in the training of racing greyhounds.

During the 1960s Burns had been a member of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, giving him a strong familiarity with Indigenous affairs. While the Keating Government was forming its response to the High Court’s 1992 Mabo decision Burns’ knowledge gave him some influence over party policy. Further, as chair of the Caucus’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander committee, Burns opposed moves by Prime Minister Keating that would have seen the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 suspended to validate existing land grants against possible native title claims and to appease the Opposition. His position reflected the opinions held by Indigenous community leaders and the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, Robert Tickner, and it was eventually accepted by Keating. The long debate and midnight vote that saw the Native Title Bill 1993 passed, amid the tears and a standing ovation of a packed chamber and public gallery, was later described by Burns as one of the highlights of his Senate career.[6]

In the lead-up to the 1996 election, acceding to party rules that designated a retiring age of sixty-five, Burns chose not to nominate for a further term. He explained in his valedictory speech that he was not ‘sad, relieved or happy’ to be leaving the Senate as: ‘I knew that I came into this place for a limited period and that I would play a role—and that that role would end and I would go on to do something else’.

In the Senate Burns won respect for his background and for the interests he chose to represent unapologetically. As Senator Ron Boswell (NP, Qld) put it, Burns was ‘a person who actually used Solvol’ on his hands, ‘a man who has actually picked up a tool’. Senator Robert Hill (Lib., SA) stated his appreciation for the ‘sincerity’ and commitment to values displayed by Burns, which were ‘never hidden far from view’. Senator John Faulkner (ALP, NSW), a fellow left-winger, characterised Burns as ‘a very forthright and courageous contributor to the Labor caucus’, who regularly reminded Labor members, including ministers, of the ‘fundamental principles’ of the Labor movement.[7]

Patrick Mullins and Paul Williams

[1] CPD, 16 Sept. 1987, pp. 17882; Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 24 Dec. 1949, p. 10, 1 Nov. 1951, p. 4, 17 June 1953, p. 12; SMH, 15 Dec. 1986, p. 2, 21 Jan. 1987, p. 3, 26 Aug. 1997, p. 5; Sunday Sun (Brisb.), 14 Dec. 1986, p. 3; CT, 12 Dec. 1986, p. 1.

[2] CPD, 16 Sept. 1987, pp. 178–82, 4 Nov. 1987, pp. 1748–51, 16 Dec. 1987, pp. 3190–1, 10 May 1988, pp. 2234–6, 23 May 1988, pp. 2717–20, 29 Aug. 1988, pp. 453–5, 30 Sept. 1988, pp. 1103–4, 17 March 1994, pp. 1879–80, 27 June 1996, pp. 2479–81.

[3] CPD, 27 June 1996, pp. 2456–8, 17 Feb. 1988, p. 180, 7 Dec. 1992, p. 4274, 27 June 1996, pp. 2479–81; SMH, 10 July 1989, p. 5, 12 Oct. 1991, p. 23, 28 March 1993, p. 22; Australian (Syd.), 13 Dec. 1991, p. 4; Age (Melb.), 12 Dec. 1991, p. 1, 12 Feb. 1992, pp. 1, 13; Green Left Weekly (Syd.), 6 Sept. 1995.

[4] CPD, 29 Sept. 1988, pp. 1021, 1027–28, 30 Sept. 1988, pp. 1123–4, 5 Nov. 1991, pp. 2367–8,
2377–85, 14 March 1994, p. 1477, 27 June 1996, pp. 2479–81; SMH, 30 Sept. 1988, p. 3, 15 March 1994, p. 14; CT, 11 Dec. 1992, p. 3.

[5] Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs, A National Drought Policy—Appropriate Government Responses to the Recommendations of the Drought Policy Review Task Force: Final Report, Canberra, Aug. 1992, pp. xi–xii; WA (Perth), 17 Sept. 1992, p. 29; Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs, Employment of Visitors to Australia in the Shearing Industry, Canberra, Feb. 1994, p. ix; Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, People and Technology: New Management Techniques in the Manufacturing Industry, Canberra, May 1990, pp. ix–xv; Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Australia-India Relations: Trade and Security, Canberra, July 1990; Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Australia and Latin America, Canberra, June 1992; Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee, Australia China Relations, Canberra, June 1996; CPD, 30 May 1990, pp. 1473–5, 17 Oct. 1991, pp. 2298–303, 1 Feb. 1994, pp. 43–4, 2 June 1994, pp. 1259–60, 27 Jun. 1996, pp. 2479–81.

[6] Select Committee on Animal Welfare, Equine Welfare in Competitive Events Other than Racing, Canberra, Aug. 1991, p. xvii, Aspects of Animal Welfare in the Racing Industry, Canberra, Aug. 1991, pp. ix–xiii; CPD, 27 April 1988, pp. 2011–13, 3 Sept. 1991, pp. 1049–50, 15 Dec. 1993, pp. 4710–11, 27 June 1996, pp. 2479–81; Paul Kelly, The March of Patriots: The Struggle for Modern Australia, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 2009, pp. 198–208; CT, 5 Oct. 1993, p. 27; SMH, 6 Oct. 1993, p. 10.

[7] Sun-Herald (Syd.), 24 April 1994, p. 21; CPD, 27 June 1996, pp. 2446–50, 2456–8, 2479–81.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 219-223.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Qld, 1987–96 (ALP)

Senate Committee Service

Estimates Committee A, 1987–88, 1989–91; B, 1991–94

Joint Standing Committee on Public Works, 1987–96

Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration, 1987–90

Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, 1987–94

Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, 1987–92, 1992–93

Standing Committee on Transport, Communications and Infrastructure, 1989

Select Committee on Animal Welfare, 1990–92

Select Committee on Community Standards Relevant to the Supply of Services Utilising Telecommunications Technologies, 1991–92, 1993–96

Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs, 1991–94

Select Committee on the Functions, Powers and Operation of the Australian Loan Council, 1993

Selection of Bills Committee, 1993

Standing Committee on Industry, Science, Technology, Transport, Communications and Infrastructure, 1993–94

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

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

Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, 1995–96

Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee, 1995–96

Select Committee on Radioactive Waste, 1995–96