MESSNER, Anthony John (1939– )
Senator for South Australia, 1975–90 (Liberal Party of Australia)

Anthony John (Tony) Messner was born in East Melbourne on 24 September 1939, the only child of Colin Thomas Messner, bank officer, and Thelma Doreen Messner, née Virgo. Messner’s parents originally came from South Australia, but his father’s employment with the Bank of Adelaide resulted in the family moving between Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth during his early life.

Tony Messner was educated at Brisbane Grammar School, Pulteney Grammar School, Adelaide, and the South Australian Institute of Technology. A man of burly physique, Messner was a ‘bustling prop’ for rugby union clubs in Western Australia and South Australia, including the Western Australia under-19 team. He was employed by the ANZ Bank in Perth and Adelaide for six years before taking up a career as a chartered accountant in Mount Gambier (1965–69) and Adelaide (1969–75). On 25 May 1963 Messner married Louise Ahrendt; they had two sons. The marriage was dissolved in 1983 and on 12 March of that year Messner married Robyn Rooke.

While living in Mount Gambier Messner became secretary of the local chamber of commerce; he was also secretary to several other local organisations and became heavily involved with the South Australian Liberal Party. By 1964 he was an officebearer with the Young Liberals and he was a member of the State Council from 1967. Messner held the post of policy co-ordinator for the South Australian branch of the party (1972–75) and served several terms on the State Executive (1970–75, 1980–83, 1985–87).

In March 1972 Messner headed the newly formed reform group established by the State Executive (SA) of the Liberal and Country League (LCL) in an attempt to defuse the growing Liberal Movement organised by Steele Hall. Later that year Messner was an unsuccessful candidate for LCL pre-selection for the South Australian House of Assembly seat of Davenport. At the May 1974 double dissolution election Messner was placed fifth on the South Australian Liberal ticket for the Senate and was not elected. He was again in fifth position at the double dissolution election of December 1975 but, on that occasion, he won election to the Senate in the landslide Coalition victory. He was re-elected in 1977, 1983 and 1987, each time at the top of the Liberal ticket. At the time of his initial election, Messner was seen as one of the more ideological Liberals in Parliament who ‘were there because they held a set of beliefs, not because they were about appeasing interest groups, or devising policies with the aid of opinion polls’.[1]

On 18 February 1976 Messner spoke to the Senate for the first time, focusing mainly on the plight of small businesses. For Messner, small business was ‘big business in Australia. From it comes the drive for growth in the economy. This is the key to economic success in our current fight to rebuild a shattered economy’. He highlighted the difficulty that small business faced in securing credit from banks, noting the paradox that companies ‘find it very difficult to obtain new finance for their projects without their being able to demonstrate that they do not really need the money’. He went on to propose that the Small Business Advisory Bureau, established under the Whitlam Government in 1973, be replaced by ‘an independent statutory authority whose purpose is to act as a watchdog on behalf of small business’. Messner also discussed the problems caused by the treatment of depreciation of assets under Australian tax laws, a system he regarded as ‘totally inadequate’.

Messner maintained a strong interest in taxation matters and in the practical effects of economic and industrial relations policies. During his early years in the Senate, he contributed frequently to debates on these subjects and his knowledge of these issues often led him to ask difficult questions of ministers from his own side. In 1978 he argued that there was ‘only one way in which the economy will regain full health and that is by reducing our cost levels below international cost levels’. He also drew attention to the need for gradual structural change to the Australian economy with a shift in focus towards the exports of the future and on promoting technologically efficient industries that employ a highly skilled workforce.

Messner believed that retrospective tax measures to combat tax avoidance schemes, introduced in 1978 by Treasurer John Howard, were thoroughly justified. He acknowledged that the Liberal Party faced a dilemma between conflicting principles in the party platform: on the one hand, abhorrence of retrospective taxation measures; on the other hand, the principle of ‘equity in taxation amongst various groups of taxpayers’. Messner asserted that equity among taxpayers was the greater principle of the two and must therefore take precedence. Consequentially, his Liberal colleague, Ian Wood, accused Messner of ‘twisting and turning’ and making the Liberal Party platform ‘look like a piece of elastic’. Although Messner endorsed the retrospective taxation legislation, he did express his concerns that the legislation gave far too much discretionary power to the Commissioner of Taxation to decide whether or not particular arrangements constituted tax avoidance, arguing that the delegation of the discretion amounted to an ‘abrogation of Parliament’s rights’.

Messner’s criticisms of the shortcomings of the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) were a constant theme throughout his Senate career, especially where he perceived that there were deficiencies in existing tax law, that there was an overzealous pursuit of individual taxpayers and businesses, or that the Taxation Commissioner was encroaching on the powers of Parliament. For example, in December 1986 while speaking out against the Hawke Government’s Australia Card Bill, Messner drew attention to ‘lax and inefficient practices in the Tax Office in the processing of income tax declaration forms and tax instalments’. He suggested that, before the government considered introducing an ‘expensive, intrusive and totally ineffective identification card system’, he ‘would like to see the Tax Office clean up its own backyard’. A further example occurred in May 1989 when Messner moved a successful motion to refer the ATO’s disregard of its privacy obligations in the administration of tax file numbers to the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration for inquiry and report. While speaking to his motion he observed: ‘These days no quarter appears to be given by the Taxation Commissioner, or if he does give quarter it is only at his own discretion. Apparently he resents the right of any parliamentarian to take on these questions in order to determine the privacy rights of individuals’.[2]

In November 1980 Messner was appointed Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister Assisting the Treasurer, John Howard. In his capacity as Assistant Treasurer, Messner was given the opportunity to apply his previous professional experience to government policy. In 1981 he steered through the Senate the Income Tax Laws Amendment Bill and the Income Tax (Diverted Income) Bill, which were aimed at defeating various forms of tax avoidance. In contrast, Messner later admitted to having very little interest in or knowledge of the veterans’ affairs portfolio prior to his appointment.

One of the most difficult issues Messner faced as Minister for Veterans’ Affairs involved allegations by Vietnam veterans that exposure to toxic chemicals contained in herbicides, often collectively referred to as ‘agent orange’, caused cancers and psychological illness in veterans, and birth defects in their children. In June 1981 he travelled to the United States to examine how the health problems affecting American Vietnam veterans had been addressed. Although insisting that he remained open-minded about any nexus, the visit led him to the conclusion that, while further research would be needed before any definite conclusions could be drawn, there was no ostensible causal connection between exposure to herbicides and health problems among veterans. Messner consistently rejected calls by veterans’ groups for a royal commission into the issue, arguing that the ongoing inquiry by the Standing Committee on Science and the Environment would be ‘just as effective as any judicial inquiry’.

That committee tabled its report in November 1982 and was unanimous in its findings, concluding that there was insufficient evidence to prove that birth defects, psychiatric disorders or mortality were elevated amongst veterans or their families. The committee shared the previously stated view of Messner that a delayed stress syndrome could have been largely responsible for the physical and psychological problems of veterans. For Messner, the best means of dealing with the health issues of Vietnam veterans was through the provision of counselling services to ensure they were not alienated from the system. Thanks to the efforts of Messner, veterans’ counselling centres were established in each of the state capitals and Darwin by July 1982.

Despite the findings of the committee, in May 1983 the newly elected Hawke Labor Government established the Evatt Royal Commission to examine the use and effects of chemical agents on Australian personnel in Vietnam. The commissioner’s report, delivered in 1985, could not establish a causal connection between exposure to herbicides and subsequent health problems, finding that the exposure of Australians to chemical agents did not produce dosage levels that would be likely to cause any longterm harm. The report vindicated Messner’s earlier stance and provoked him to allege that veterans’ groups who had been calling for a judicial inquiry had been ‘manipulated for purely political purposes’.

As minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Messner was also responsible for a major review of repatriation legislation. As part of this review, in 1981 he began the process of recognising the war service of merchant mariners and their entitlement to receive benefits under the repatriation legislation. The following year Messner explained:

There is an historical tradition to compensate those who have served … The philosophy is no less valid now than when it was born during the First World War. It is a philosophy which reflects the very best of the Australian character, that is, helping those in need, standing together in times of need and making sure that useful people are not thrown on the scrap heap before their time.

Messner told the Senate that he wished to streamline the process of making a claim under the legislation and remove from it an anomaly that meant that a veteran of a particular conflict would receive a different scale of benefits to a veteran of another conflict. The Repatriation Legislation Amendment Bill thereby ensured that ‘the same principles of eligibility should apply to veterans for all conflicts’. Through the amending legislation, Messner also increased the number of repatriation benefits and extended eligibility for benefits to members of peacekeeping forces.[3]

Following the defeat of the Fraser Government at the double dissolution election of March 1983, Messner was appointed by Andrew Peacock as Opposition spokesman on social security matters until the election of December 1984, after which he served as spokesman on community services for nine months.

Messner was judged by the media to have maintained a high profile in his shadow social security role through the vigour and persistence of his attacks on the Hawke Government’s introduction of an assets test for the age pension to stop the practice of ‘double dipping’, which involved rearranging personal finances to circumvent the existing income-based test. Messner suggested that if the government was actually concerned with tackling ‘double dipping’ it should have focused on gaining a better understanding of the reasons behind the use of the practice. This information could have been used to develop an overall approach to retirement income policy to avoid confusion, concern and hardship amongst retirees. Speaking in October 1984 Messner accused the government of treating the poor as ‘pariahs’ and reminded senators that the introduction of an assets test had followed a ‘very significant imposition of taxation on lump sum superannuation payments’. In 1985 Messner introduced two private senator’s bills with the sole purpose of repealing the assets test. Both bills were defeated on their second reading when the Australian Democrats voted with the government.

When John Howard assumed the Liberal Party leadership in September 1985, Messner, a friend and strong supporter of Howard, was promoted to the shadow front bench as spokesman on finance and taxation. In the same month as his appointment a shadow cabinet paper prepared by Messner was leaked to Richard Carleton and Max Walsh for their late night ABC TV current affairs program. At the time, the parliamentary party was quite divided and, in the words of Howard, ‘the Coalition leaked like a sieve’. The document in question laid out a strategy of how best to respond to the Hawke Government’s stated intention to introduce fringe benefits and capital gains taxes. It also addressed speculation that some Coalition senators might cross the floor to ensure the passage of a capital gains tax, in order to avoid the possibility of a double dissolution. Messner’s reaction to the leak was to move a motion urging the government to abandon its proposed capital gains tax because of the ‘destructive effects on incentive’. As his motion was debated on the first Tuesday in November 1985, Melbourne Cup day, Messner decided to make the most of the timing: ‘Twenty-six or twenty-seven of the best horses in Australia race in one race and we make sure that the one that has the best chance of winning is weighed down with lead. That is the kind of approach adopted by this Government’.

In April 1987 Messner was moved to Opposition spokesman on industry, technology and commerce. Although he only remained in this position for four months, he did not avoid controversy, proposing to expand and speed up the program of phasing out protection to Australian industry which had already begun under the Labor Government. In September 1988, after a one-year stint as shadow communications minister, he held the roles of shadow minister for public administration, federal affairs and local government. In an address given to the Royal Australian Institute of Public Administration in November 1988, he again showed his boldness by declaring: ‘The real world of today is tough, mean and lean and it demands a tough, lean and mean public service’. He continued by proposing ‘sweeping changes’ to the Commonwealth Public Service, including the need to set up independent watchdogs within each department to identify and eliminate waste and inefficiency. Six months later, while launching the Coalition’s public administration policy, Messner chose to emphasise that under the Coalition senior public servants would benefit from a ‘more responsive remuneration and incentive structure and greater competition’, which the media took as a pledge of big pay rises to senior public servants.

Messner was eventually dumped from the shadow front bench when Andrew Peacock returned to the Liberal leadership in May 1989. In December 1989 he announced his intention to resign from the Senate in February of the following year, for personal reasons. He did not actually resign from the Senate until 17 April 1990, making way for former South Australian Opposition Leader, John Olsen. [4]

After leaving the Senate Messner returned to Adelaide, where he worked as treasurer of the Operation Flinders Foundation, a charity running a wilderness adventure program for young offenders and young people at risk. Messner was appointed Administrator of Norfolk Island in 1997, holding that position until 2003. Messner became a Member of the Order of Australia in 2004: the citation referred to his service to Parliament, Norfolk Island, and to the community, particularly veterans and their families. Also in 2004 he was appointed as a director of Health Services Australia (HSA). He went on to be chairman of HSA from 2006 until 2009, when HSA merged with Medibank Private.[5]

Reflecting on Messner’s service soon after his resignation from the Senate, the Senate Opposition Leader, Robert Hill [Lib., SA], observed that Messner ‘possessed fine political skills’, and had been unlucky in the timing of his political career because ‘the time in which he was high in the pecking order in our shadow ministries were the years in which we were losing elections’.

Tim Bryant

[1] ‘Profile: Tony Messner’, House Magazine, 16 Aug. 1989, p. 3; CT, 22 Sept. 1987, p. 13, 1 Sept 1982, p. 37; L Davis, ‘Taking a Citadel’ in A Liberal Awakening: The LM Story, Investigator Press, Leabrook, SA, 1973, pp. 112–23; David Barnett, John Howard: Prime Minister, Viking Press, Ringwood, Vic., 1997, p. 327.

[2] CPD, 18 Feb. 1976, pp. 52–5, 29 April 1976, p. 1405, 5 May 1976, p. 1527, 2 Dec. 1976, pp. 2384, 2391, 23 Feb. 1977, p. 285, 2 June 1977, p. 1855, 7 June 1978, pp. 2472–4, 8 Nov. 1978, pp. 1806–9, 14 Nov. 1978, pp. 1985–7, 8 June 1978, pp. 2567–9, 2575–6, 9 Dec. 1986, pp. 3605–8, 3 May 1989, pp. 1717–20.

[3] CT, 3 Nov. 1980, p. 6; CPD, 11 June 1981, pp. 3088–3100; SMH, 31 March 1981, p. 3; Clem Lloyd & Jacqui Rees, The Last Shilling: A History of Repatriation in Australia, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1994, pp. 366–71; CPD, 15 Oct. 1981, pp. 1307–9; CT, 26 Oct. 1981, p. 9; CPD, 29 April 1982, pp. 1734–5; Standing Committee on Science and Environment, Pesticides and the Health of Australian Vietnam Veterans, Canberra, November 1982; CPD, 25 Nov. 1982, pp. 2797–9, 3 June 1981, p. 2513, 22 Aug. 1985, pp. 183–4; Royal Commission on the Use and Effects of Chemical Agents on Australian Personnel in Vietnam, Final Report, Canberra, 1985; CPD, 18 Aug. 1981, pp. 34–6, 20 Oct. 1982, pp. 1665–6, 13 Oct. 1982, pp. 1413–14, 21 April 1982, pp. 1396–401.

[4] Age (Melb.), 23 July 1984, p. 6; CPD, 6 Oct. 1983, pp. 1244–9, 3 Oct. 1984, pp. 1116–19, 28 Feb. 1985, p. 296, 8 May 1985, pp. 1491–2; Wayne Errington & Peter Van Onselen, John Winston Howard, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 2007, p. 128; John Howard, Lazarus Rising: A Personal and Political Autobiography, HarperCollins, Pymble, NSW, 2010, p. 152; Barnett, John Howard, pp. 334–5; CT, 21 Sept. 1985, p. 3; CPD, 5 Nov. 1988, pp. 1536–9; CT, 20 May 1987, p. 3, 30 Nov. 1988, p. 4; SMH, 10 April 1989, p. 4.

[5] CT, 23 Dec. 1989, p. 5, 6 Feb. 1990, p. 3, 14 Feb. 1990, p. 7; Press Release, Warwick Smith, 25 June 1997; CPD, 31 May 1990, pp. 1649–51.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 256-260.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, SA, 1975–90 (Lib)

Minister Assisting the Treasurer, 1980–83

Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, 1980–83

Senate Committee Service

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1976–80

Estimates Committee C, 1976, 1978, 1988–89; B, 1976–78, 1978–80, 1983–86; F, 1980

House Committee, 1976–77

Joint Committee of Public Accounts, 1976–78

Select Committee on Mount Lyell Mining Operations, 1976

Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations, 1977–80

Publications Committee, 1979–80

Standing Committee on Social Welfare, 1983–87