LEWIS, Austin William Russell (1932– )
Senator for Victoria, 1976–93 (Liberal Party of Australia)

Austin William Russell Lewis was born in the inner Melbourne suburb of Richmond on 5 December 1932, the only child of David Lewis, a fruiterer and case merchant, and his wife Dulcie Alexandrina, née Williams. Austin grew up during the Second World War, which had ‘a very deep influence’ on him and in his youth he became a ‘dedicated patriot’. His ‘great ambition in life was to be a fighter pilot’, which he later achieved as a member of the Citizen Air Force (1951–56).

Richmond was regarded as a Labor suburb and most of the Lewis family were Labor supporters. Austin’s father was president of the local ALP branch, served on the Richmond City Council and was Mayor in 1960 and 1970.

Educated at Melbourne High School and the University of Melbourne, Lewis graduated as a Bachelor of Laws in March 1955. He was admitted to practise as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Victoria in March 1956. Four months later, on 10 July, he married Wilma Lawrey, with whom he had a daughter and three sons. The couple moved to Warrnambool, where Lewis worked as a solicitor with the firm of J. S. Tait & Co, eventually becoming a senior partner. He was also chairman of Warrnambool Woollen Mills Co. Ltd, a director of Mid-City Motel (Ballarat) Pty Ltd and a member of a grazing partnership. Lewis was active in the local community as president of the Warrnambool Club and the Warrnambool Apex Club, and chaired the management committee of the Warrnambool Base Hospital. By 1980 the Lewis family were living at Port Fairy, approximately thirty kilometres west of Warrnambool.

Lewis admitted leanings towards Labor in his youth: ‘Ben Chifley was a hero of mine and I saw the light on the hill that Mr Chifley talked about’. However, dismayed by the rancour of the 1955 Labor Split, Lewis chose to ‘opt out of politics’. This all changed in the 1960s, when, impressed by the performance of the Victorian Liberal Premier Henry Bolte but frustrated by some of the decisions taken by his government, Lewis followed the advice of a local state member, Sir Ronald Mack, who suggested that he should join the Liberal Party to push for change and ultimately improve the party. It was a decision which ‘absolutely staggered’ his father.

Lewis rose through the ranks of the Victorian Liberal Party, serving as secretary and then president of the local branch. He successfully organised and ran election campaigns for the state seat of Warrnambool and Malcolm Fraser’s federal seat of Wannon, subsequently becoming a delegate to the State Council (1970–76) and a member of the State Executive (1973–76).

On 7 December 1976 Lewis was chosen by the Victorian Parliament to fill the Senate casual vacancy occasioned by the death of Senator Ivor Greenwood, and was sworn in on the following day. Lewis had defeated seventeen other candidates to win Liberal Party preselection for the seat. He was elected to the Senate in 1980, 1983 and 1987, heading the Liberal Party ticket on the last occasion.[1]

Lewis gained a reputation in the Senate for plain speaking and pugnacity, qualities which were evident in his first speech on 9 March 1977. Acknowledging the ‘tragic death’ of his predecessor, Lewis commented that there was ‘no doubt’ that Greenwood’s dedication to work had contributed significantly to his early death. He pointed out that ‘his widow had no entitlement to any compensation—only to an ex gratia payment. Frankly it is my belief that a charitable payment to a widow of a parliamentarian who died in those circumstances is not good enough’. In his speech Lewis said that he hoped to represent the people of rural Victoria, many of whom had been ‘desperately trying to keep their heads above water’ and ‘working long hours for an inadequate return’. He stated that ‘Australia will not be prosperous until the primary producer becomes profitable’. He also praised the role of the Senate as a states’ house, calling it ‘the most democratically elected House of Parliament in Australia’ and pointing out that the party system had not stopped senators from arguing for the best interests of their respective states, both in the chamber and in the party room. He reiterated these points in his final speech: ‘The other place has become simply a place of manipulation of numbers and no debate … Without the Senate at present there would be no parliamentary democracy’.

In December 1980 Lewis, angered by the cost to the nation of the introduction of metrication, gave notice of a motion that all bills and amendments to bills introduced into the Senate should be accompanied by a financial impact statement, containing, as applicable, the estimated costs, revenue or savings for government and the estimated costs or savings to the wider community. The motion was debated in 1982, finding bipartisan support. In the following year, the then Labor Minister for Finance John Dawkins adopted as a ‘major reform’ the presentation of financial impact statements in all second reading speeches by ministers. Lewis was ‘very proud’ of the role he played in this regard.

On matters of representation, Lewis stood for the status quo. He was a leading opponent of a fixed parliamentary term for the House of Representatives, as introduced in a private senator’s bill by Labor’s Senator Gareth Evans. The Constitution Alteration (Fixed Term Parliaments) Bill passed the Senate in November 1982 but lapsed before it was introduced to the House of Representatives. During debate on the bill, Lewis incorporated extracts of a paper that he had written for a workshop of the Australasian Study of Parliament Group, in which he argued: ‘A fixed term would mean that no government need fear the perils of mismanagement, corruption or incompetence as no mechanism would exist to demand an appeal to the electorate … It places [Parliament] more and more under the [yoke] of executive domination’.

When, in 1988, the Hawke Government proposed—as one of several measures for constitutional reform—to provide maximum four-year terms for members of both houses of Parliament, Lewis was again prominent in opposition. He argued that the bill ‘destroys the fixed term of the Senate and effectively introduces a permanent double dissolution situation … [which] makes it easier for any Federal government to turn the Senate into simply a rubber stamp’. He also quoted Australian National University Professor Geoffrey Sawer who said in 1950: ‘There is no point in having a House of review unless you have some degree of difference between the points of view of the Houses, and you get that more with the staggered system of elections’. The reform proposal went to a referendum in September 1988 but failed, garnering the support of less than a third of the voting population.[2]

Lewis wanted to limit the role of government and argued for governmental accountability, stating: ‘Whatever the party in control, the people who use power or misuse it, must be held to account’. He reportedly said: ‘What I would really like to be is the Minister for Dismantling Things’ and he repeatedly quoted American President Woodrow Wilson, who said that ‘Liberty has never come from the Government … The history of liberty is the history of the limitation of governmental power, not the increase of it’.

Throughout his seventeen-year tenure Lewis delivered a consistent economic message. In 1981 he accused the previous Labor government of embracing ‘the thoroughly discredited economic philosophy of social democracy’, stated that ‘there are no free lunches in the economy … no government can go on spending more than its revenue’ and asserted that the free enterprise system of the United States was the best means of producing ever higher standards of living. He claimed that, by ‘abolishing the handout syndrome and paying our way’, Australia, under the Fraser Coalition Government, was ‘again becoming prosperous’.

In 1986, with the Hawke Labor Government in power, he stated that it was ‘clear to everyone with half an eye that the corporate state and over-regulation are leading us into an economic downturn’. Then, in September 1991, he spoke of ‘tragic unemployment figures’ under the Keating Government, arguing: ‘This situation is the result of what is left of the Labor Party’s socialist philosophy—a philosophy of control, regulation, taxation, the taking away of initiative and the destruction of enterprise’.[3]

Lewis’ socially conservative speeches on the Sex Discrimination Bill in December 1983 inspired numerous interjections. He raised the issue that the legislation may cause marital problems ‘as a result of what I call compulsory close cohabitation’, offering the example of the potential consequences of requiring male and female truck drivers to share long-distance road trips. He claimed that within Parliament House ‘great difficulties have been created by close proximity working relationship[s] between men and women’. He referred to ‘glamorous women who may well be endeavouring to use their guile to woo’ married men and suggested that it was ‘a matter of grave concern to many women in this country that their husbands may in some way be subjected to improper influences’.

During 1980 there was a deadlock between the two Houses over two distinct anti-abortion amendments to the Human Rights Commission Bill, moved in the House of Representatives by John Martyr (later a senator), and Barry Simon respectively. Lewis proposed a ‘compromise’ motion requiring the commission to ‘have regard for human life, including unborn human life’. His amendment, criticised by other senators as being in essence no different to the Simon amendment, was defeated by 37 votes to 21.

In December 1983 Lewis raised a matter ‘of grave concern to the human race’. He noted the approval by the Victorian government ‘to all forms of in vitro fertilisation’ and, while admitting ‘the greatest sympathy for married couples who are childless’, he argued that doctors involved in the procedures were ‘in effect playing the role of God’. He referred to ‘the Nazis endeavouring to manipulate the human race in Germany’ and asked ‘who will stop the irresponsible?’ Lewis concluded by telling the ‘political leaders’: It is time you stood up and condemned these procedures and called for a halt to them without delay’.[4]

By the end of his Senate career, Lewis had served on twenty-one committees, serving as chairman of the Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances (1980–83). Lewis described such legislative scrutiny committees as ‘the last hope of parliamentarianism’, which he felt included ‘making a detailed examination of legislation to ensure we get it right and that it is fair and reasonable’.

In August 1982 Lewis gave notice of a motion to disallow a High Court Rule, ‘the first time such action had ever been contemplated in parliament’. The rule in question aimed to double the rate of interest on judgment debts retrospectively to April 1980. After correspondence between the Regulations and Ordinances Committee and Chief Justice Gibbs, Lewis withdrew his disallowance motion, noting that the High Court had agreed to amend the rule ‘to overcome’ the problem of retrospectivity. The Leader of the Australian Democrats, Senator Chipp, praised the outcome: ‘I believe that the Committee has done a palpably valuable thing for the community … I, on behalf of my party, pay a great tribute to Senator Lewis and … his Committee for the work they have done in this instance’.

During Lewis’ chairmanship the Regulations and Ordinances Committee also examined delegated legislation designed to limit demonstrations at the ANZAC Day march in Canberra. Following the repeal of the ACT Public Assemblies Ordinance 1982 by the Hawke Government in 1983, Lewis introduced a private senator’s bill, the ANZAC Day Bill, with the intention of declaring 25 April as a national day of remembrance and to provide for national commemoration services in the national capital to be controlled by the national president of the Returned Services League. Lewis argued that ANZAC Day ‘needs protection. Its purpose is in danger of becoming obscured by small minorities who seek to exploit the day to further their own causes’. The bill did not progress beyond second reading debates.

In 1984 Lewis was a member of two select committees which investigated the conduct of High Court Justice Lionel Murphy. The first committee, appointed in March, investigated the authenticity of tapes and transcripts of taped telephone conversations delivered by the Age newspaper to the Attorney-General, Senator Gareth Evans, on 1 February 1984 (the Age tapes). The committee decided unanimously it was unable to conclude that the materials were authentic, except to the extent that limited acknowledgments had been made by witnesses over the course of the inquiry. The committee heard evidence from the New South Wales Chief Stipendiary Magistrate, Mr Clarrie Briese, who stated that, in the course of a conversation with Murphy regarding a case of conspiracy against Mr Morgan Ryan being heard by Briese, Murphy had asked: ‘What about my little mate?’—words that Murphy denied having uttered. As noted by the Attorney-General, if these words were actually said, it would have amounted to perverting the course of justice. The committee was divided over how to take Briese’s evidence. Lewis, together with Senator Peter Durack, submitted a dissenting report, arguing that the evidence disclosed ‘a prima facie case of misbehaviour against the Judge’.

A second committee, assisted by two retired judges appointed as commissioners assisting the committee, was established to reconsider the Briese allegations. The second committee included three members of the first committee, of which Lewis was one, creating the possibility that the findings of the committee could be challenged on grounds of bias. None of the committee members disqualified themselves and the committee reported that the members had considered that their previous service ‘did not preclude them from making a proper and unbiased judgment on the matters before this committee on the basis of the evidence to be heard by it, or that they had any sense of vested interest in maintaining their earlier decision’. The second committee was also split in its findings which were not challenged, but Lewis was alone in his belief that it had been ‘proved beyond reasonable doubt’ that Murphy’s conduct had amounted to ‘misbehaviour’ sufficient to render him unfit to exercise judicial office.[5]

Lewis was Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate (1987–90) and from 1984 to 1990 held a number of shadow portfolios under the leadership of Andrew Peacock and John Howard: territories (1984–87); local government and territories (1987); veterans’ affairs (1987); industry, technology and commerce (1987–88, 1989); communications (1988–89); and Australian Capital Territory (1989–90). He also had responsibility for co-ordinating the Opposition’s plan for transition to government (1989–90).

The Liberal leadership conflicts between Andrew Peacock and John Howard during the 1980s ultimately brought about the end of Lewis’ political career. Lewis, by his own account ‘a very loyal supporter’ of Howard ‘for many, many years’, knew nothing of the May 1989 leadership coup prepared by the Peacock camp. On the morning of 8 May, at a meeting of Liberal Party parliamentary leaders, Lewis praised Howard’s leadership in enthusiastic terms. After the meeting Peacock gave ‘a stunned Lewis the news of the challenge’. That evening Liberal Senate leader, Fred Chaney, sought to convince Lewis, who was ‘distraught’, that a successful Peacock challenge was inevitable. Lewis decided that in the interests of the party he had ‘no choice’ but to support the challenge. When Chaney and Lewis later visited Howard to tell him of their defection, Howard asked Lewis to stay loyal, asking him: ‘What has changed since this morning, Austin?’ On the following day Peacock defeated Howard in a leadership ballot. Lewis later described the events of 8 May as ‘probably the worst day I have ever had in politics’.

Nine months later, against a background of talk of an imminent election, Lewis gave a candid interview, recorded on audio tape by television journalist Paul Lyneham, in which he claimed that although Peacock would not remain Leader if the Liberal Party lost the election, the party would never return to Howard, who ‘had had his chance’. He also criticised the Coalition for failing to convince voters that it would implement its proposed Economic Action Plan. The interview was aired on ABC TV’s 7.30 on 14 February 1990. Later that day, after Lewis had rejected the opportunity to resign, Peacock called Lewis to sack him from the shadow ministry for having breached ‘the standards of teamwork and collective association of responsibility’. Press commentary on Lewis’ political demise took the view that ‘honesty in politics doesn’t pay’.[6]

Lewis retired from the Senate at the end of his term in June 1993. In his valedictory speech he lamented the decline of question time, claiming: ‘when we were in government and I was on the back bench, as far as I was concerned that meant that I asked the Ministers the toughest questions I could think of’.

Loud and robust in debate, Lewis, who had also earned a reputation for bluntness, was once characterised by the press as having ‘a fair measure of the Richmond brawler in him’. However, he was also probably the only senator to have included mention of the birth of his grandson in a notice of motion. Senator Robert Hill (Lib, SA) described Lewis as ‘a genuinely good type of person’ with ‘fighting characteristics’. He was also acknowledged by long-time political opponent Gareth Evans to be ‘one of the most liked parliamentarians in this building’.[7]

Laurence Neal

[1] CPD, 27 May 1993, pp. 1527–32; Argus (Melb.), 2 March 1956, p. 24; Press Release, Senator Austin Lewis, 6 Dec. 1991; Senate, Journals, 8 Dec. 1976, p. 501; CT, 4 Dec. 1976, p. 13, 6 April 1986, p. 3.

[2] Australian (Syd.), 4 April 1986, p. 7; CPD, 9 March 1977, pp. 22–4, 27 May 1993, pp. 1527–32, 4 Dec. 1980, p. 333; Senate, Journals, 11 March 1982, p. 782; CPD, 11 March 1982, pp. 753–61,18 May 1982, pp. 2039–45, CPD (R), 7 Sept. 1983, pp. 482–3; CT, 31 Aug 1981, p. 7; Harry Evans and Rosemary Laing (eds), Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, 13th ed., Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2012, Appendix 5; CPD, 11 Nov. 1981, pp. 2038–40, 23 May 1988, pp. 2712–17.

[3] Australian (Syd.), 4 April 1986, p. 7; CPD, 5 March 1981, pp. 391–4, 11 Nov. 1981, pp. 2038–40, 13 Oct. 1983, pp. 1550–2, 23 May 1988, pp. 2712–17; Transcript, ABC Radio ‘Ring the Bells’ 28 July 1989; CPD, 23 March 1987, pp. 1159–62, 12 Sept. 1991, pp. 1478–81.

[4] CPD, 2–3 June 1988, p. 3549, 6 Dec. 1983, pp. 3329–32, 13 Dec. 1983, pp. 3700–2, CPD, (R), 4 March 1980, p. 628, 5 March 1980, pp. 712–13, 716, 1 May 1980, pp. 2038–9, 2041–6, 2059–62, 15 Dec. 1983, pp. 3869–71.

[5] Transcript, ABC Radio ‘Ring the Bells’, 28 July 1989; CPD, 17 Aug. 1982, pp. 12–13; Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1988, p. 582; CPD, 23 Sept. 1982, p. 1189, 12 Oct. 1982, p. 1294, 14 May 1981, pp. 2041–3, 22 April 1982, pp. 1456–7, 31 May 1983, pp. 1015–16; Select Committee on the Conduct of a Judge, Report, Canberra, 1984; Ministerial Statement, Gareth Evans, 4 Sept. 1984; SMH, 24 Aug. 1984, pp. 4, 5; Select Committee on Allegations Concerning a Judge, Report, Canberra, 1984, p. 3; Odgers’ 13th ed., pp. 482–3; CT, 1 Nov. 1984, pp. 1, 12; SMH, 1 Nov. 1984, p. 1.

[6] Transcript, Channel 7 Newsworld’, 10 May 1989; Paul Kelly, The End of Certainty: The Story of the 1980s, Allen & Unwin, St. Leonards, NSW, 1992, pp. 483–4, 563; Age (Melb.), 12 May 1989, p. 7; CT, 15 Feb. 1990, pp. 1, 2; Australian (Syd.), 7 Dec. 1991, p. 12; SMH, 16 Feb. 1990, pp. 4, 9.

[7] CPD, 27 May 1993, pp. 1527–32, 19 Dec. 1991, p. 5003, 27 May 1993, pp. 1558–60; CT, 1 Dec. 1982, p. 14; Australian (Syd.), 4 April 1986, p. 7, 7 Dec. 1991, p. 12; CPD, 27 May 1993, pp. 1505–12.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 411-416.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Vic., 1976–93 (Lib)

Senate Committee Service

House Committee, 1977–78

Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations, 1977–80, 1980–83

Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, 1978, 1983–85

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1978–87

Estimates Committee B, 1980–81; C, 1981–83; A, 1983–85, 1989–90; E, 1987; D, 1992–93

Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, 1981–82

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, 1983–85

Select Committee on Statutory Authority Financing, 1983

Select Committee on Allegations Concerning a Judge, 1984–85

Select Committee on the Conduct of a Judge, 1984

Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, 1985–87, 1989–90

Select Committee on Television Equalisation, 1986–87

Committee of Privileges, 1990–92

Joint Committee on Corporations and Securities, 1991–93

Joint Committee on the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, 1991–93

Joint Standing Committee on Migration Regulations, 1992–93