HAMER, David John (1923–2002)
Senator for Victoria, 1978–90 (Liberal Party of Australia)

David John Hamer, who served in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, had a distinguished career as a naval officer before entering the Parliament in 1969. He was also an enthusiastic, fluent writer with two published books and numerous newspaper contributions and broadcasts. During his years in the Senate, and particularly his period as Deputy President and Chairman of Committees, he was a dedicated campaigner for a greater role for the Senate as a house of review.

Altruistic but shrewd, with a wealth of family connections, good bearing, and a polite but slightly hesitant manner, it is not surprising that he was often described as of the ‘Melbourne establishment’. Beneath the slight reserve, however, he could be warm, friendly and witty, with the markedly incisive, analytical and independent mind that made him an important Senate innovator.

Hamer was born in Melbourne on 5 September 1923, the youngest of four children of Hubert Hamer and his wife Elizabeth Anne, née McLuckie. Hubert Hamer was a senior partner in a leading Melbourne law firm, while David’s mother was the ‘dominant influence’ in his early life. The Hamers became one of Australia’s most accomplished families. David’s oldest brother, Rupert (Dick) Hamer was Premier of Victoria from 1972 to 1981. The second brother, Alan, was a Rhodes Scholar who became a senior executive and director of the ICI chemical group in Australia and India. Their sister, Alison (Patrick), was for forty years a senior member of the Department of History at the University of Melbourne and an internationally recognised authority on the French Revolution. David’s paternal aunt Ethel married George Swinburne, founder of Swinburne Technical College (later Swinburne University) and a distinguished member of the Victorian Parliament. The Hamer children grew up surrounded by leading political, business and professional figures.[1]

Hamer received his primary education at Glamorgan, Toorak (1930–32) and Adwalton, Glen Iris (1932–33). In 1934 he followed his brothers to Geelong Grammar School, but left at the end of 1936 when, after a competitive exam, he was selected for the Royal Australian Naval College (RANC) at Flinders Naval Depot to pursue his dream of a career in the navy. Despite enduring a culture of ‘systematic bullying’, Hamer was impressed by the academic standard of the college. He recalled that graduates of the RANC were ‘very disciplined and very proud’. Hamer participated in sports and developed a ‘fascination’ for boxing. Clandestinely, he fought one professional bout and was successful; he gave his winnings of thirty shillings to his opponent. He graduated at the top of his year in 1940, and during the next five years he saw service in the Mediterranean and in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans, aboard the heavy cruiser HMAS Canberra, destroyers Napier and Norman, the flagship cruiser HMAS Australia, and the Royal Navy’s Revenge. As gunnery officer on HMAS Australia from May 1944, he participated in the American-led invasion to win back the Philippines from the Japanese. In this last desperate stage of the Pacific war the Japanese employed kamikaze (suicide) planes and Australia was several times exposed to this and other enemy fire. Hamer was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for the action in the Lingayen Gulf, where he stood on the bridge of Australia and calmly called instructions to gunners as five kamikaze planes flew at the ship. His citation referred to Hamer’s ‘outstanding efficiency, coolness and courage’, recording that on one occasion when it appeared certain that a suicide plane would hit the bridge: ‘he maintained his place and carried on directing the ship’s anti-aircraft fire calmly and without flinching’. The wing of the plane passed within metres of his head.

After the war Hamer continued his naval career. Posted to Britain, he learnt to fly a Tiger Moth, and topped the Royal Navy’s advanced gunnery course in 1948 before returning to Australia to become gunnery officer and first lieutenant on HMAS Tobruk, the first of a new class of destroyer designed in the UK but built in Australia. Hamer wrote all the drill books for every section of the new ship’s equipment before going on to command Tobruk during the Korean War. He then held several senior naval positions, at sea and on shore, before entering Parliament. On 7 June 1955 at Christ Church Anglican Church, South Yarra, Hamer married Barbara McPherson, head medical social worker at the Austin Hospital, Melbourne; they had a daughter and two sons. Barbara’s grandfather was Sir William McPherson, merchant-industrialist and Premier of Victoria from 1928 to 1929.

Appointed naval member of the joint planning staff of the three armed service departments, Hamer was a member of the team organising the move of the Department of Defence to Canberra in 1959. He served as Director of Naval Intelligence from 1962 to 1963. Hamer was captain of HMAS Vampire from December 1963 and of the 10th Destroyer Squadron from February 1964, during the period of Indonesian ‘Confrontation’ of Malaysia, later describing his captaincy as ‘the best job in the Navy’. In July 1965 Hamer returned to Canberra to take up the newly-created post of Director of Project Coordination. He was also an honorary aide-de-camp to the Governor-General, Lord Casey (1965–68). In 1967 he bought an 800-acre sheep farm on the Murrumbidgee, and would later live there while in Parliament. Hamer’s intellectual curiosity was constant: knowing nothing of sheep, he enrolled in a woolclassing course. Next year, after leaving the Navy, he took an ancient history unit at the Australian National University ‘for fun’.[2]

At the end of his term as Director of Project Co-ordination, Hamer retired from the Navy in February 1968, with the rank of captain. Still only in his mid-forties, he was deeply frustrated by the political direction of defence matters, which he regarded as ‘hopeless’. Hamer believed that the needs of service personnel were not well understood and felt that he could help bridge the gap between Parliament and the defence forces. Despite holding considerable reservations about Australian involvement in the Vietnam War, Hamer’s natural affinity was with the Liberals. Encouraged by John Gorton, he decided to seek a seat in the House of Representatives.

In 1968 Hamer secured Liberal pre-selection for the Victorian seat of Isaacs, which he won at the election of October 1969. In his first House of Representatives speech in March 1970 Hamer deliberately avoided discussing defence issues because he did not want to be typed as a ‘one-issue’ parliamentarian. Drawing on his personal knowledge of the McPherson machine tool business, he began by advocating the stimulation of manufacturing industries. He also urged protection of the environment and government support for the arts, both subjects which he would continue to pursue throughout his parliamentary career.

The Liberals valued Hamer’s practical—if sometimes uncomfortable—expertise in defence. His first ‘small but gratifying’ success came in 1970 when he told Prime Minister Gorton that he was prepared to cross the floor if the government opposed an Opposition motion to set up a committee to investigate the Defence Forces Retirement Benefit Scheme. As Hamer knew all too well from his personal experience, service personnel who retired before the designated retirement age for their rank received only their own contributions to the pension fund, and were penalised by taxation without any interest or compensation for inflation. He won Gorton’s support for the establishment of a joint select committee, on which he served between 1970 and 1972. The committee’s recommendations for a better scheme were eventually accepted and enacted by the Whitlam Labor government.

Hamer retained Isaacs at the 1972 election that saw the Whitlam Government elected. He was defeated at the 1974 double dissolution election, when Labor was returned, but won the seat back the following year when the Coalition was swept to power following the Whitlam Government’s dismissal.

Hamer later said that he had been told by Malcolm Fraser in 1976 that he hoped to eventually appoint Hamer Minister for Defence in place of Jim Killen. However, in June that year, the prospects of promotion evaporated when Hamer became seriously ill and was sidelined for six months. A redistribution in 1977 made Isaacs a marginal seat, and he believed that he could not hold it for long.[3]

These developments encouraged his move to the Senate at the 1977 election. Hamer had come to believe strongly that the increasing domination by Cabinet and the executive was a bad feature of Australian government, and he would quote Lord Hailsham’s warning about ‘elective dictatorship’. His interest in the Senate had flowered earlier when, during his period out of Parliament in the mid-70s, he graduated MA at Monash University in 1978 with a thesis on the Senate between 1901 and 1918. This was the period when the Senate’s original purpose as a states’ house proved illusory and it seemed to struggle for a new role. Hamer saw the Senate as the natural house of review and the best place to fight for a better deal for the Parliament; this was the substance of his eloquent and erudite first speech to the Senate in September 1978, which he prepared carefully and delivered without notes. He argued that there was a natural tendency towards centralism, resulting in ‘the problem of controlling the excessive power of the Executive which is straining and vexing all countries which are using the Westminster system of government’. The answer lay in the ‘gradual development’ of the Australian Senate’s unique powers, ‘somewhat closer’ to the American system on which it was modelled, with a strong, questioning Senate balancing the executive. To do this, ‘an effective committee system is essential’. He warned that: ‘we will not have achieved the aim of having a proper house of review until all Bills automatically go to the appropriate committee’. The strengthened committee system established in 1970 had previously been used for specific inquiries but rarely for legislative review; it tended to languish under-used for want of a more systematic approach. Hamer believed that review by Senate committees could greatly improve the quality of legislation. He was also known to remark that the parliamentary enquiries most worth conducting were those that the government of the day did not want.

In his first speech—and frequently thereafter—Hamer argued that senators should not become ministers. He considered that ministerial appointments compromised their role in a house of review and, in many cases, represented a conflict of interest. Instead, he suggested that the chairs of Senate committees should have status and salary comparable to a minister. He described ministers as ‘Trojan horses, here on behalf of the Executive’.

In 1983 Hamer introduced a private senator’s bill for a constitutional amendment requiring that in the event of a legislative deadlock between the Houses, a government wishing to dissolve Parliament would have to seek a dissolution within three months of the Senate rejecting a bill for the second time. He argued that this would prevent governments ‘stockpiling’ bills in order to bring about a double dissolution. Hamer’s bill was agreed to by the Senate, but failed to gain the absolute majority required of legislation seeking to alter the Constitution. Hamer was not an undiscriminating advocate of the use of Senate power, observing—midway between the double dissolution elections of 1974 and 1975—that ‘the most damaging consequence of the Senate threatening to force an election whenever a government becomes unpopular is … that Governments will be reluctant to take hard, but necessary decisions’.

He remained a fierce and persistent critic of defence administration and strategic planning. In 1979 Hamer characterised the Department of Defence as ‘grossly bloated and incompetent’ and attacked the Fraser Government’s ‘complete lack of action’ in instigating reforms. The response of defence minister Killen demonstrated ‘breathtaking ignorance of administrative method’. Hamer particularly deplored ‘disastrous’ procurement methods, noting a ‘top-heavy’ command structure in the services, and ‘vast friction between the military and civil components of the Department of Defence’. He attributed much of the malaise to the influence of the long-serving departmental head, Sir Arthur Tange, whom he later described as ‘the ultimate Sir Humphrey Appleby’.

In 1980 his strong advocacy in the party room was crucial in gaining the support of the Liberals for the continuation of plans to build the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, after the Public Works Committee had opposed the scheme.[4]

Hamer was a most assiduous parliamentarian. He recorded that during his first Senate term he made ninety-nine speeches and asked 120 questions, covering a ‘very wide range of matters’. Among the controversial causes Hamer championed during his parliamentary career were fixed terms for Parliament, a ban on cigarette advertising, and the use, on environmental grounds, of nuclear power in place of coal. He also spoke frequently and cogently on the inefficiencies and outdated legislation surrounding Australia’s coastal shipping and waterfronts.

Hamer was prepared to act independently on what he considered to be important matters. In 1979, when the Human Rights Commission Bill passed its second reading without a division, Hamer requested that his lone dissent be recorded; he was troubled that the bill failed to cover state laws. In 1981 he was one of five Liberal senators who voted with the ALP and the Australian Democrats to strengthen freedom of information legislation. He regarded the Hawke Government’s War Crimes Amendment Act 1988, passed with the intention of bringing World War II criminals residing in Australia to justice, as ‘the most disgraceful act ever passed by an Australian Parliament’. In 1989 he introduced a private senator’s bill to repeal the legislation, arguing that it was an unconstitutional, ill-defined and unnecessary use of retrospective powers, but the bill was not proceeded with.

Hamer was elected Deputy President of the Senate and Chairman of Committees in 1983, and served until he left the Senate in 1990. It was his most fruitful period in Parliament. Holding office during the tenure of the Hawke Labor government, Hamer earned a reputation for fairness and good judgment. In 1987 he was largely responsible for the survival of the committee system after the Hawke Government had made strenuous attempts to undermine it. Hamer was closely involved in the first major revision in eighty-six years of Senate standing orders, when he oversaw the extensive consultations which produced a revised draft accepted by the Senate in November 1989. In the same year, his long campaign to strengthen the legislative role of Senate committees achieved success. On the recommendation of the Senate Select Committee on Legislation Procedures, of which he was a key member, the Senate agreed to appoint a Selection of Bills Committee which would select legislation for further review and refer it to the relevant Senate committee. Such references became routine during the 1990s.

Hamer knew that he would struggle to win pre-selection for the 1990 election. At that time the Victorian division of the Liberal Party, headed by Michael Kroger, was looking for younger candidates and Hamer was defeated narrowly by Rod Kemp (Lib., Vic.). In his valedictory speech to the Senate he made a final entreaty for recognition of the value of that chamber in a time of rigid party discipline: ‘the House of Representatives is no longer and cannot be a legislature. It is an electoral college for the Government—a place where the Executive and the alternative Executive fight it out’, leaving the Senate as ‘the only legislature. That is why I attach so much importance to it’.[5]

In retirement Hamer increased his literary output. In 1994 he published Can Responsible Government Survive in Australia? in which he closely compared parliamentary operations in Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand, and promoted arguments for a legislative brake on the executive, including proposals for strengthening the status and powers of the Senate. He supported an Australian republic as providing ‘a unique chance to update our political system’. Bombers Versus Battleships, published in 1998, was a study of the often difficult relationship between naval and air power over control of the sea during war. Hamer also wrote a privately published memoir for family and friends, in which he was notably frank about his contemporaries.

Hamer held a number of non-political appointments during his life, most of which reflected his intense interest in the arts. Together with Barbara he was active in establishing the Arts Council of Victoria in 1969, believing that although he had no special artistic ability, he could provide organisational skill. He was federal president of the Arts Council of Australia from 1976 to 1983, and chaired the Australia Day Council from 1975 until 1981, and the Australian Film Institute from 1980 until 1984.

David Hamer died of leukaemia on 14 January 2002, and was survived by Barbara and their children. He was appointed posthumously a member of the Order of Australia in 2002 for his services to Parliament, as a researcher and writer of Australian military and political history, and for his contribution to arts organisations.

In a tribute after Hamer’s death, the then Clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans, observed that the real test of a parliamentarian was: ‘devotion to supporting and improving parliament as an institution of accountability regardless of whose party holds the executive power. A genuine parliamentarian promotes the ability of parliament to hold all governments accountable … David Hamer met that test’. He was, said Evans, ‘a great parliamentarian’.[6]

Robert Murray

[1] David Hamer, Memories of My Life [Memories], Melb., 2001 (access restricted); Age (Melb.), 10/11 April 2009, p. 10; Australian (Syd.), 21 Jan. 2002, p. 12.

[2] Memories; Transcript of interview with David John Hamer by Henry Martin, Melb., Vic., 11–16 April 1991, AWM S01039; Navy League of Australia, Federal Council, ‘Death of CAPT David Hamer, DSC, RAN’; CPD, 12 Feb. 2002, pp. 39–44.

[3] Memories, Ch. 26; CPD (R), 12 March 1970, pp. 383–6; Joint Select Committee on the Defence Forces Retirement Benefits Legislation, Report, Canberra, 1972.

[4] David Hamer,’The Australian Senate 1901–1919: an appraisal’ Thesis (MA), Monash University, 1977; CPD, 13 Sept. 1978, pp. 545–9, 6 Oct. 1983, p. 1218, 20 March 1979, pp. 739–45, 31 May 1990, p. 1656; Age (Melb.), 21 March 1979, p. 1; Australian (Syd.), 31 March 1979, p.1; Memories, ch. 31.

[5] Memories, ch. 31, 32; CT, 4 May 1983, p. 21; Age (Melb.), 9 Sept. 1971, p.1; CPD, 28 Oct. 1982, p. 1950, 10 April 1989, p. 1282, 11 May 1989, p. 2280, 25 May 1989, p. 2716, 13 Nov. 1979, pp. 2195–8, 22 Sept. 1987, pp. 468–472, 480, 481; Harry Evans, ‘The government majority in the Senate: a nail in the coffin of responsible government.’ Paper given to the Australasian Study of Parliament Group, Victorian Chapter, 3 Oct., 2006; Transcript, ABC Radio, ‘Ring the Bells’, 21 July 1989, pp. 3–6; CPD, 31 May 1990, p. 1657.

[6] David Hamer, Can Responsible Government Survive in Australia? University of Canberra, 1994; Bombers Versus Battleships, Allen & Unwin, Syd., 1998; Evans, Oct. 2006.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 433-438.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Vic, 1978–90 (Lib)

MHR, Isaacs, Vic., 1969–74, 1975–77 (Lib)

Deputy President and Chairman of Committees, 1983–90

Senate Committee Service

Joint Select Committee on Defence Forces Retirement Benefits Legislation, 1970–72

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, 1973–74, 1976–77

Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings, 1978–83

Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, 1978–81

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1978–81

Estimates Committee B, 1980–81, 1988–89; A, 1981–82

Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, 1981–83

Standing Committee on Education and the Arts, 1981

Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, 1981–87, 1987–90

Select Committee on Industrial Relations Legislation, 1982

Standing Orders Committee, 1983–87

Procedure Committee, 1987–90

Select Committee on Legislation Procedures, 1988