CHAMARETTE, Christabel Marguerite Alain (1948– )
Senator for Western Australia, 1992–96, (Greens WA)

Christabel Chamarette represented Western Australia as a senator from 1992 to 1996. Her term, although short, was made noteworthy by the fact that between 1993 and 1996 she shared the balance of power with other minor party and independent senators, including her Greens (WA) colleague Dee Margetts.

Christabel Marguerite Alain Chamarette was born on 1 May 1948 at Hyderabad, India, the daughter of Arthur William Thompson Chamarette and his wife Aileen Marion Chamarette. It was a second marriage for both her parents. Her father’s family was of French and British descent and her father was a lieutenant colonel in the Indian army. Her mother came from a family that had resided in India for many generations. Christabel’s family moved to Australia in 1951. She was educated at Perth College, an independent Anglican school for girls, and went on to study at the University of Western Australia where she graduated as a Bachelor of Psychology on 15 April 1970. During 1969 and 1970 Chamarette worked as a psychologist with Irrabeena Services for the Intellectually Handicapped in Perth.

In 1972 Chamarette married Douglas Thornley Bridge (they divorced in 1984). She enrolled for a Master of Psychology (Clinical) degree at the University of Western Australia in 1971 and graduated in 1975. While undertaking her master’s degree, she worked as a clinical psychologist with the Western Australian Department of Corrections within Fremantle Prison, a maximum security men’s prison. In 1976 she completed a certificate in Tropical Community Medicine and Health with the University of Liverpool, UK. The years between 1976 and 1979 were spent as a community development worker with an interdenominational Christian health, education and economic development program in Bangladesh. Returning to Perth, Chamarette worked as a clinical psychologist within the Western Australian Department of Corrections until 1985. From 1983 until 1991 she was a partner in a private psychological practice at Como, South Perth.[1]

Chamarette’s approach to her political career had strong foundations in her religious faith. Born an Anglican, at the age of sixteen she was attracted to the evangelical Inter-school Christian Fellowship movement and, as she put it, ‘decided to become a Christian’. Chamarette chose to study psychology as part of her commitment to Christianity, and persevered despite warnings from her friends that her studies would turn her away from her faith. Reconciling the two was a ‘struggle’, but eventually she was able to ‘integrate my faith with the way I worked’. Her experiences in Bangladesh ‘radicalised’ her ‘towards the connections between social justice and equity and environmental and survival issues’. Following the break-up of her marriage in 1984, she returned to the Anglican Church. Her work in Fremantle Prison while undertaking her master’s degree further developed her role as a social justice advocate. Chamarette helped establish the Prison Fellowship Western Australia in 1983, and was a founding member of the Christian Justice Association from 1985. Chamarette was a member of the Social Responsibilities Commission of the Perth Anglican diocese from 1987 to 1991, and chair from 1990 to 1991. She cofounded the Aboriginal Driver Training Program in 1986.

Chamarette’s political activism began in 1987 when a friend invited her to a meeting with a group of environmental and social justice activists called the ‘No Name Group’, which aimed to provide an alternative to the established political parties to work for social change. The fact that the group operated on the basis of consensus and was a non-hierarchical organisation also appealed to her. She subsequently joined the Alternative Coalition which had been established in 1987 by a number of West Australian green groups. Chamarette’s association with the Alternative Coalition expanded her political interests to include the environmental and peace movements.

In 1989 Chamarette was selected as the candidate for the Alternative Coalition (under her married surname Bridge) to contest the Legislative Council South Metropolitan seat at the state election. The Alternative Coalition secured three per cent of the vote across the state, but none of their candidates were elected. In 1989 she also stood as an Alternative Coalition candidate for the Fremantle City Council, but was unsuccessful.[2]

Chamarette was a member of the Alternative Coalition from 1988 until that organisation was subsumed in January 1990 within The Greens (WA), a new party created by the merger of several Western Australian green organisations. She was an unsuccessful candidate for The Greens (WA) at the 1990 by-election for the Legislative Assembly seat of Fremantle. She was placed second on the ticket of The Greens (WA) Senate team for the 1990 federal election, headed by Senator Jo Vallentine. Vallentine was elected to the Senate in 1984, representing the Nuclear Disarmament Party, but in 1990 she changed her party allegiance to The Greens (WA). At the 1990 poll Vallentine was returned, but Chamarette was not elected. Vallentine resigned from the Senate on 31 January 1992, and Chamarette was selected by the party to take Vallentine’s place.

Although state Parliament was not sitting at that time, Chamarette assumed that there would be little delay in filling the casual Senate vacancy and chose staff in anticipation of taking her seat. But the state Labor Government declined to follow the practice of allowing the Governor-in-Council to appoint the nominated candidate to the casual vacancy, preferring to wait until state Parliament resumed sitting in March, in accordance with a strict reading of section 15 of the Constitution, the WA Parliament being adjourned but not prorogued. On 5 March 1992 the Senate passed a resolution expressing disapproval of the WA Government’s failure to appoint Chamarette, and condemning it ‘for denying electors of that State their rightful representation in the Senate, and … for the disrespect it has shown to the Senate’. One week later Chamarette was appointed to the Senate by the WA Parliament. The Senate passed a subsequent resolution on 3 June 1992 recommending that state parliaments be recalled in such circumstances, to allow expeditious filling of casual vacancies.

Chamarette was attracted to The Greens (WA) because of their adherence to the principles of participatory democracy, one of the four pillars that underpin the philosophy of the green movement—the others being ecological and economic sustainability, peace and disarmament, and social justice. She considered this pillar to be the main difference between the Greens and other political parties. It was her view that participatory democracy was a ‘most crucial issue’ because she believed there was a crisis in political accountability if politicians were loyal to their parties rather than to the wider community. Her priority was to ‘strip out some of the overt politics from the Parliament and open it up to more public scrutiny, comment and consultation’.[3]

The concept of consultation with stakeholders and the community assumed particular importance when Chamarette and her Greens colleague, Dee Margetts, shared the balance of power in the Senate after the 1993 federal election. It was Chamarette’s view that the consultative process was integral to green politics and true representative democracy because it brought a wide variety of perspectives to political decision-making and provided ‘input from groups and individuals not usually heard’. Others saw the commitment to consultation as ‘idiosyncratic politics’ and ‘ad nauseam networking’. Chamarette argued that, because minor parties and Independents held the balance of power, a transition had been created from ‘two-party adversarial politics’ to the situation where five different groups could have input into the policy-making process.

When the opposition parties voted against government bills in the Senate, nine votes, from the seven Australian Democrats, the two Greens (WA) senators and Independent Tasmanian Senator Brian Harradine, were required to pass legislation. When the Australian Democrats supported the Labor Government, the government needed two votes from the Greens and Harradine, effectively lodging the balance of power with the two Greens senators. As a result, the government took care to keep the Greens senators informed, and Chamarette claimed a ‘mini-coup’ in getting both major parties to agree that she should attend party Whip meetings at which the order of business and foreshadowing of bills were discussed. She argued that because the Greens held the balance of power there was ‘a much greater chance’ that private motions would be debated. She also said that there was no guarantee that the government would get what it wanted from the Greens, and if the government expected them to trade favours, ‘then they’re going to end up very angry with us’.[4]

On 18 August 1993 the two Greens senators attracted the ire of the Keating Government when Chamarette moved a motion imposing a ‘double deadline’ whereby bills had to be introduced into the House of Representatives by 1 October and received by the Senate by 29 October if they were to be passed in 1993. The motion added an additional deadline to that of the ‘Macklin motion’, instigated by Senator Michael Macklin in 1986, in which legislation received in the Senate after a specified deadline was automatically adjourned to the next period of sittings, in an attempt to overcome the end-of-sittings log jam when bills were rushed through the Senate without sufficient time for proper consideration. The ‘double deadline’ motion passed the Senate with the support of the Opposition, the two Greens (WA) senators and Harradine. Prime Minister Keating responded angrily that this was ‘parliamentary vandalism’ and ‘completely unwarranted interference by the Senate’ in the business of the House of Representatives, an attitude Chamarette saw as indicative of the government’s ‘disrespect’ for the Senate. With modification, the motion formed the basis for a permanent order of the Senate, and applied to all sitting periods.

The Greens senators again angered the government when they held up the passage of the 1993 Budget for sixty-four days while they sought a number of amendments, including an increase in tax on incomes over $100 000, a proposal which had no chance of success, but provided the means of highlighting how Greens priorities differed from those of the government. The Greens also supported an Opposition amendment aimed at removing the one per cent increase in wholesale sales tax that had been scheduled to come into effect in July 1995. This process, according to Chamarette, was the Senate doing its job by giving voice to community concerns about some measures in the Budget which the Greens considered were socially inequitable for low income earners. Chamarette stated that she and Margetts had tied their votes to the issues they believed in rather than engaging in policy trade-offs with the government. In fact, they did compromise, and it has been argued this was the point of their stance in support of the wholesale sales tax amendment. Once the government had agreed to a number of measures to compensate low income earners, the Greens agreed to withdraw support for the Opposition’s wholesale sales tax amendment.[5]

The sharing of the balance of power by the two Greens senators caused them to be tagged with the derisory epithet ‘the gumnut twins’, which they wore with pride. It must be remembered that without the support of the Opposition, the Greens would have had no impact on the Budget bills because their votes would not have been critical to their passage. The evidence of this lies with the social welfare spending cuts in the 1995 Budget, which the Greens opposed but were powerless to stop because the measure was supported by the Opposition in the Senate.

The Greens senators used their balance of power votes to facilitate the passage of the Native Title Act 1993 (the Mabo legislation) when the Coalition parties opposed the bill in its entirety. In keeping with their philosophy of participatory democracy, Chamarette and Margetts engaged in extensive consultation with Aboriginal communities that influenced their approach to the legislation and formed the basis for their negotiations with the government on its content. Chamarette considered Mabo to be ‘an opportunity to see a genuine reconciliation between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people and a measure of restitution and reparation for the wrongs of the past’. She carried the debate for the Greens during the fifty-two hours the bill was before the Senate, including the 119 amendments made to the legislation. When agreement on a series of amendments was finally reached between the government, the Democrats and the Greens senators, and the bill passed the Senate on 21 December 1993, the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Gareth Evans, usually a scathing critic of the Greens senators, embraced Chamarette. She later described her participation in the debate on native title legislation as ‘the highlight of my time in the Senate’.[6]

In the following year the Greens senators came into conflict with the Keating Government over its Land Fund Bill, intended to assist Indigenous people who could not make native title claims to buy land. Chamarette called the amount allocated to the fund ‘a pittance and a disgrace’. With the support of the Opposition and Independent Brian Harradine, the Greens carried numerous amendments, and in turn supported a contentious Opposition amendment which sought to allocate funds according the level of ‘dispossession’ of particular Indigenous communities. Many of the amendments were rejected by the House of Representatives. Chamarette participated in a select committee set up over the 1994/95 summer recess to examine the disputed amendments. The committee travelled and consulted extensively, reporting early in February 1995. Later that month the government introduced fresh legislation incorporating those amendments which it regarded as acceptable. This was done at a time when the original bill was still in possession of the Senate. The Keating Government argued that as three months had elapsed since the Senate had considered the original legislation, it had taken the Senate’s stance as a ‘failure to pass’ under section 57 of the Constitution, an extremely dubious interpretation. Rejection of the amended measure would provide grounds for a double dissolution. Chamarette described the government’s action as ‘extraordinary’ and accused it of ‘stubbornly persisting not only in its disregard of the democratic process of the Senate but also, and worse still, in using the highly questionable prod of the double dissolution threat to try to force its way through’. The bill passed the Senate without further amendment.

Chamarette accepted the political reality that the power of the Greens senators was constrained by what she called the ‘political monoculture’ of the government and the Opposition voting together on most issues, including almost all environmental issues and, as she pointed out, the Greens only had the opportunity to exercise the balance of power on a relatively small number of occasions. Chamarette did succeed in initiating a wide-ranging Senate inquiry into the management and operations of the ABC in 1994, including matters of sponsorship and board appointments. She was also a staunch opponent of mandatory detention of asylum seekers. Chamarette noted that while she was a member of the Joint Committee on Migration during its 1994 inquiry into asylum seekers and their detention, ‘I was in the unfortunate position of being the only person holding a dissenting view’.

Chamarette was defeated at the election of 2 March 1996, her term concluding on 30 June of that year. Her contribution to parliamentary debates over her term of office focused on the social justice, peace and environmental issues that had drawn her into a political career. The valedictory remarks of Liberal senators characterised her as ‘very stubborn and very strong in her beliefs’, ‘very much a fighter for the underdog’, ‘someone of total commitment and integrity’, and ‘a very gentle person with strong ideas’. Nationals Senator Ron Boswell (Qld), said: ‘For as long as I live, I, too, will remember Senator Chamarette for the Mabo debate. That will always be the height of political debates’. Chamarette’s colleague, Dee Margetts, described Chamarette as ‘the great anarchist of the Senate’. This, she said, was a term of honour for the Greens, as ‘the true meaning of “anarchist” is a person who devolves power to the community and that is what Christabel has done’.[7]

After leaving the Senate Chamarette re-established her career in psychology, specialising in adolescent sexual abuse and violence, abuse within families, and working to rehabilitate sex offenders. From 1997 until 2009 she was clinical director of SafeCare, Perth. She also worked as a clinical supervisor for the YMCA from 2003 until 2005, and as a consultant to the WA Department of Justice during 2004. From 1997 until 2002 Chamarette served as chair of a panel advising the Anglican Archbishop of Perth on complaints of sexual misconduct against clergy. Since 2003 she has been a member of the Anglican Church’s Professional Standards Committee Western Australia. Chamarette was appointed a member of the Parole Board of Western Australia in 2002, and became principal member the following year. In 2005 four members of the board, including Chamarette, resigned in protest after the Gallop Labor Government responded to criticisms of the Parole Board by deciding to scrap it and replace it with a new body.

During her four years in the Senate, Chamarette was engaged in a constant battle to increase awareness about issues that the major parties were often reluctant to discuss. Both Greens senators endured frequent ridicule and anger. However, when the numbers in the Senate allowed her party occasional moments of power and influence, Chamarette did not squander her opportunities. In later years Chamarette doubted whether constructive change could be achieved through politics, commenting that ‘the system is too trapped in its ways of operating to do that’. She was also equivocal about the significance of her parliamentary work, in 2002 referring to it simply as ‘useful experience’.[8]

Gwynneth Singleton

[1] ‘Politics in a new Key?’ St. Mark’s Review, No. 151, Spring 1992, pp. 26–32.

[2] ‘Surprised by politics’, National Outlook, Vol. 16, No. 8, Oct. 1994, pp. 11–14; ‘Politics in a new Key?’, pp. 29–30; Frank Noakes, ‘The Senator has a different agenda’, Green Left Weekly, 3 June 1992, p. 11; Christabel Bridge, ‘Christian Justice Association Aboriginal Driver Training Program’, Australian Institute of Criminology; Peter Murphy, ‘Feminist, professional, effective—the Green face in the Senate’, Broadside Weekly, 18 Nov. 1992, p. 14; Elizabeth Sleeman, The International Who’s Who of Women, 3rd ed., Europa Publications, London, UK, 2002, p. 96.

[3] David Black, An Index to Parliamentary Candidates in Western Australian Elections: State and Federal, 1890–2006, Western Australian Parliamentary History Project, Perth, 2006, p. 29; ‘Surprised by politics’, p. 13; CPD, 5 March 1992, p. 857; ‘The Greens’, The Greener Times, Jan. 1993, pp. 15–16; AFR (Syd.), 9 Sept. 1993, p. 5; Murphy, ‘Feminist, professional, effective’, p. 14.

[4] David Jagger, ‘Green Power’, Habitat Australia, Vol. 23, No. 2, April 1995, p. 10; CPD, 25 March 1992, p. 1068; Pip Hinman, ‘The Greens and the Senate’, Green Left Weekly, 1 Sept. 1993, p. 11; Victoria Laurie, ‘The power of two’, The Bulletin (Syd.), 20 July 1993, p. 19.

[5] CPD, 19 Aug. 1993, pp. 319–35; Hinman, ‘The Greens and the Senate’, p. 11; Rosemary Laing (ed), Annotated Standing Orders of the Australian Senate, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2009, p. 362; ‘Talk to Green gathering ’95’ by Christabel Chamarette, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 27–30 July 1995; WA (Perth), 20 Oct. 1993, p. 8.

[6] CPD, 27 June 1996, p. 2458; CT, 24 Sept. 1994, p. 15; Angela Pratt, Practising Reconciliation? The Politics of Reconciliation in the Australian Parliament, 1991–2000, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2005, pp. 64–5; Harry Evans, ‘Government and Parliament’, in G. Singleton (ed) The Second Keating Government, University of Canberra and the Institute of Public Administration Australia, 1997, p. 25; CPD, 27 June 1996, p. 2484.

[7] CPD, 18 Oct. 1994, p. 1935, 1 March 1995, p. 1200; Boat People Symposium, 15 October 1996, Centre for Research in Culture & Communication, Murdoch University, Perth, p. 12; CPD, 27 June 1996, pp. 2448, 2457–8, 2471.

[8] Australian (Syd.), 29 Dec. 2005, p. 5, 31 Dec. 2005, p. 4; WA (Perth), 13 July 1998, p. 12, 16 Nov. 2002, p. 7.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 555-560.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, WA, 1992–96, (GWA)

Senate Committee Service

Joint Committee on Electoral Matters, 1992–96

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, 1992–93

Joint Committee on Migration, 1993–94

Select Committee on Public Interest Whistleblowing, 1993–94

Joint Committee on Native Title, 1994–95

Select Committee on ABC Management and Operations, 1994–95

Select Committee on the Land Fund Bill, 1994–95

Select Committee on Unresolved Whistleblower Cases, 1994–95

Joint Committee on Native Title and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land Fund, 1995–96

Procedure Committee, 1995–96

Select Committee on Certain Land Fund Matters, 1995