NEGUS, Sydney Ambrose (1912–1986)
Senator for Western Australia, 1971–74 (Independent)

I stand here tonight a senator elected by the people of Western Australia for one express purpose—to convince this Government that it is high time that the death tax laws throughout Australia should be abolished or drastically revised because they are causing hardship, distress and humiliation to thousands of Australians.

Sydney Ambrose Negus, a somewhat quixotic figure, thus announced his intention to use membership of the Senate to further a campaign in the public interest. Standing as an independent on the single issue of death duties, he had easily won the fifth Senate seat for Western Australia at the elections of 21 November 1970. His election was as much a surprise to himself as to others.

A few months earlier, aged fifty-eight and on sick leave from his employment as a building supervisor with BP Australia, he had begun thinking of what the future held. In particular, he focused on the financial situation in which his wife might find herself at his demise. With some difficulty he discovered that death duties, levied by both  state and federal governments, could severely diminish his estate. He decided to find out the extent to which others in the community had been similarly affected. Advertisements placed in a local newspaper brought him a flood of letters containing instances of hardship resulting from the requirement to pay probate (state) or estate (federal) duties. From this grew his determination to campaign to make people aware of the situation and to work for its abolition.[1]

Negus began addressing meetings and conferences, where he displayed ‘unflagging self-confidence, an almost abrasive assertiveness and the ability to talk quickly, constantly and at great length’. Leslie Anderson, a columnist with the Perth Sunday Times, featured Negus’ story and initial findings on 15 March 1970, inviting those adversely affected by death taxes to register their support. From the material received it was apparent that the tax was most severe for people of quite modest means. Widows of farmers, of self-employed tradesmen and of small business proprietors were often faced with a bill necessitating the sale of a property, which effectively prevented the business from continuing. While the husband was alive his income might be sufficient to support a family, but should he die, the family could be forced to sell the business to pay death duties, and then rely on social services. Inflation, too, was causing the laws to bite harder than had ever been intended.[2]

As a solution, Negus advocated placing assets in joint names and strongly recommended that people inform themselves about the details of what they may face with the death of a major breadwinner. He pointed out to a senior probate officer in Western Australia that people could not easily find out how death duties might affect them, and suggested a simply worded booklet to fill this need. He was delighted when, many months later in April 1971, such a booklet appeared. The Postmaster-General’s Department allocated Negus his own mail bag; in one week, at the height of his research, he received nearly 20 000 letters. He parked a thirty-foot caravan beside his home to serve as an office where mail could be processed, and in busy times he was assisted by voluntary helpers. Negus’ role continued to be that of spokesperson, especially to the media. He devoted many hours to familiarising himself with cases which could be used to demonstrate the extent of the problem. Armed with contacts supplied by the Sunday Times, Negus travelled to each Australian state in order to secure coverage of his campaign from other newspapers, assembling data from all over the country. In order to further his cause, he determined to stand for election to the Senate, with his wife as number two in his team in order to attract the female vote.[3]

Though by now widely known, he had insufficient resources to fund an election campaign, having to depend heavily on free time radio or the goodwill of some television stations. There were only enough volunteers to distribute Negus’ promotional literature at twelve polling places, while his how-to-vote cards, carrying a simple roneoed message, were created from a few hundred sheets of foolscap paper, trimmed to size. In addition to the abolition or reduction of death taxes, his campaign literature advocated increasing the pension, reducing the road toll (although he opposed the use of seatbelts) and reducing sex crimes against women and children. Of his candidacy, he later said: ‘I didn’t expect to do any good. I only hoped … but I was doing a lot of praying’. Despite having no party machine, Negus received over 10 per cent of first preference votes and won the seat, thus becoming the first Western Australian independent senator, and the first mainland independent senator since William Trenwith’s departure in 1910. Even before he was elected, Negus’ work was starting to have a noticeable effect. On 19 November 1970 the West Australian reported that the Brand Government had introduced two bills into state Parliament to reduce probate by as much as 20 per cent. [4]

How can the single-minded action and determination of this man be explained? Born on 12 March 1912 at Leederville, Perth, sixth in a family of eleven children of Oscar Joseph Negus and Grace Maude, née Hatch, he had grown up in a frugal household. His father’s managerial position in the meat and poultry section of the Perth Metropolitan Markets could sustain only the simple necessities for this large family. So Negus learned the value of being canny.

He attended schools at James Street (Perth Boys’ School) and Thomas Street, West Perth, and went on to Perth Junior Technical School in 1926, destined for a trade apprenticeship as a carpenter. Natural aptitude and a practical turn of mind saw him succeed at this and go on to become a registered builder. Always cautious in financial matters, he would not embark on a new building project until the payments for the preceding one were received. Though this sometimes meant several weeks of idleness, he avoided reliance on credit. Gradually, from his profits, he built up an estate consisting of several houses and units, which he rented to provide an independent income for retirement. That these were assembled by his own hand probably made them all the more precious to him and may explain the strength of his feeling at the prospect that his nest egg would be eroded by death duties.[5]

During World War II Negus became site and maintenance manager working for the United States Navy at Fremantle and receiving the navy’s certificate of meritorious civilian service. Subsequently he was employed as a motor salesman, a driving instructor and finally a building supervisor with Commonwealth Oil Refineries (later BP Australia). He lived at Floreat Park, Perth. In 1954 he had become president of the Western Australian Sporting Car Club, and achieved a formidable reputation as a racing car driver. In 1962, when Negus competed in the Australian International Grand Prix at Caversham, Perth, the official program said of him: ‘Perhaps the most fiery veteran of the local track, Syd has entered his twice-rolled Repco-Cooper. It is expected to travel very fast in the hands of this experienced driver’.[6]

Before taking up his seat in the Senate in July 1971 Negus proposed forming a new political party (which came to nothing), contributed a regular column for the Perth Independent, and wrote to Clerk of the Senate Jim Odgers seeking permission to sit in the Senate chamber before the commencement of his term. Having achieved that aim, he complained of its poor acoustics and uncomfortable chairs. Being a senator gave Negus a broader political platform on which to pursue his cause. It also compelled him, reluctantly, to consider other issues. He found it difficult to obtain sufficient information or time to research bills adequately in advance of their debate in the Senate. As a single-issue independent he had no guidance from his constituents on other matters, and adopted the practice of listening to all sides of an argument before making up his mind. In 1973 Negus voted with the Government on twenty-eight occasions and with the Opposition on thirteen; in 1974 he voted eight times with the Government and seventeen with the Opposition.[7]

His background as a building contractor enabled him to speak with some knowledge on housing issues, although he advised young people not to buy their own home as it ‘takes them 30 or 40 years to pay for it and then the Government takes it from them by means of probate tax’. He argued for a reduction in immigration, bemoaned the ‘slackers, loafers and shirkers’ on unemployment benefits, and supported the death penalty, compulsory military training and the diversion of funds from education to defence. In the Senate, he reflected: ‘I do not very much like any part of politics. I did not wish to be a politician, but here I am. I am trying to give an unbiased and independent opinion’.[8]

When the Liberal Party requested the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations to inquire into the effects of death duties on the community, Negus was not keen to serve on the committee. He reasoned that it would be better for his case if a totally independent inquiry verified his own findings. He did, however, give evidence at length to both this committee (which handed down its report in December 1973) and Judge Asprey’s Taxation Review Committee (which reported in January 1975). He used his influence to lobby for his cause, sending circular letters to parliamentarians and writing to the Prime Minister, William McMahon, who not surprisingly refused him permission to address the House of Representatives.[9]

As for governments changing laws on death duties, he had to take pleasure in incremental gains. The McMahon Government’s Estate Duty Assessment Bill 1972 and the associated Gift Duty Bill and Gift Duty Assessment Bill were the only pieces of estate duty legislation to come before the Senate during Negus’ incumbency. The first of these sought to double the maximum value at which an estate became exempt from federal duty. Negus supported the main thrust of the bill, but found himself in a quandary. In his view, as an abolitionist, the bill did not go far enough and, as it stood, would continue to burden ordinary Australians; but making amendments could weaken the case for abolition. Nevertheless, he proposed an amendment whereby bequests to charities would be liable for duty where widows, children or grandchildren were also beneficiaries of the estate (at that time bequests to charities were exempt), but this was withdrawn after objections were raised to any amendments pre-empting the inquiry of the Senate standing committee. With the encouragement of Lionel Murphy and John Wheeldon, he put a second amendment before the Senate, a hardship clause. After much discussion the amendment was lost.[10]

After the change of government in 1972, Negus wrote to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in July 1973, asking that Cabinet consider a number of amendments to the Estate Duty Assessment Act, although the Labor Government was reluctant to act until the findings of the two inquiries were known. On 1 April 1974, with the double dissolution election looming, Negus again wrote to Whitlam suggesting that if he wanted to win votes, he should subsidise the states to enable them to abolish death taxes. In the Senate later that month he questioned Murphy on whether he would reintroduce the hardship clause into the Estate Duty Assessment Act before the election. Murphy undertook to do what he could, and on that same day Treasurer Frank Crean released a press statement proposing to establish an appeal tribunal to hear applications for release from duty in cases of serious hardship. With the Women’s Electoral Lobby adding their voice to the view that death duties were discriminatory to women, Whitlam responded to the mounting pressure by promising that if Labor was re-elected, no widow or widower would be forced to sell the family home to meet death duties.[11]

Negus’ career as a senator was brought to an abrupt end with the double dissolution of April 1974. Although he wished to continue in Parliament, he failed to win enough support in the May 1974 election. This he attributed to two factors. One was a determined campaign against him by Western Australian Liberals who coveted his seat. He believed that adverse publicity from a misleading accusation by Liberal MHR Vic Garland that Negus had absented himself frequently from sittings of the Senate, might have turned electors against him. The absences were largely due to his membership of the Australian delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in New York from October to December 1973. Second, the death duties issue was no longer of burning importance. Both federal and state governments had begun to review their legislation on the subject. Although the Taxation Review Committee and the Senate standing committee majority report on death duties had recommended a continuation of estate and gift duties in some form, between 1976 and 1981 federal and state governments all legislated to abolish the tax.[12]

Negus had married Olga Stirling, née Gosney, on 1 April 1933 at St Mary’s Anglican Church, West Perth. The couple had three children. When Negus became a senator, Olga moved with him to Canberra. In October 1971 they were involved in a motor accident near Blayney, New South Wales, in which Olga was fatally injured. Despite grief, thirteen fractured ribs and a damaged knee, Negus returned to the Senate almost immediately on his release from hospital. Within the next few years both his daughters died. He continued to accept speaking engagements across the country. At one of these he met a musician, Lorraine Winter, who on 26 February 1973 became his second wife at the Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd, Curtin, in Canberra.

After leaving the Senate, Negus contested the by-election for the Tasmanian House of Representatives seat of Bass in June 1975, but finished at the bottom of the poll with just 124 votes. He stood again for the Senate in Western Australia in 1975 and 1980, and was unsuccessful. He was also a candidate for the state upper house seat of Metropolitan in 1977. Negus joined the National Country Party in 1982. Poor health limited his public activities in later years. He died on 1 August 1986. A funeral service was held at the Crematorium Chapel, Karrakatta, on 5 August. Speaking on Negus’ commitment to abolish estate and death duties, Arthur Gietzelt said how much, as chairman of the Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations, he came to appreciate the capacity of Negus who ‘almost singlehandedly’ changed public opinion on the death duties issue. Negus had become critical of the party system, which he thought inhibited good government, but unlike many parliamentarians, he lived to see a significant aim achieved.[13]

John Ferrell

[1] CPD, 25 Aug. 1971, pp. 343–5; Sydney Ambrose Negus, Sound recording of oral history interview with John Ferrell, 1986, TRC 4900/60, NLA; Willard H. Pedrick, Oh, To Die Down Under! Abolition of Death and Gift Duties in Australia’, Tax Lawyer, vol. 35, no. 1, 1981, p. 114; Australian Women’s Weekly (Syd.), 6 Jan. 1971, p. 4.

[2] Advertiser (Adel.), 19 Jan. 1971, p. 2; Sunday Times (Perth), 15 Mar. 1970, pp. 2, 19; WA (Perth), 18 Nov. 1963, p. 4, 1 Sept. 1969, p. 5.

[3] CPD, 25 Aug. 1971, p. 344; Death and Succession Duties (Probate Duty), WA State Taxation Department, Perth, 1971.

[4] WA (Perth), 9 Dec. 1970, p. 1; SMH, 9 Dec. 1970, p. 1; Sunday Review (Fishermen’s Bend, Vic.), 31 Jan. 1971, p. 482; Negus, Sound recording of interview, tape 24, side B; Australian (Syd.), 9 Dec. 1970, p. 1; WA (Perth), 10 Dec. 1970, p. 6, 27 Nov. 1970, p. 4, 19 Nov. 1970, p. 2.

[5] Perth Junior Technical School, Admissions register, 1926, series 309, item 2, SRWA.

[6] Terry Walker, Around the Houses: A History of Motor Racing in Western Australia, Racing Car News, Broadway, NSW, 1980, pp. 90–1; The editor acknowledges the assistance of Jennifer Harrison, Western Australian Sporting Car Club; Official program, Australian International Grand Prix, Caversham, WA, 17–18 Nov. 1962.

[7] CT, 5 Jan, 1971, p. 6; Independent (Perth), 7 Feb. 1971, p. 14; Senate Registry File, A8161, S297, NAA.

[8] CPD, 30 Nov. 1971, pp. 2196–7, 2 Dec. 1971, pp. 2331–3, 21 Mar. 1974, pp. 508–9, 23 Aug. 1973, pp. 159–60, 9 Apr. 1974, pp. 805–6, 4 Apr. 1974, pp. 699–700.

[9] Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations, Official Hansard Report, 1972–73, pp. 79–92; CPP, 287/1973, 136/1975; Prime Minister’s Department, Death Taxes—Representations by Senator Negus, A463, 1972/1179, NAA.

[10] WA (Perth), 26 Feb. 1972, p. 12; CPD, 11 Oct. 1972, pp. 1475–6, 18 Oct. 1972, pp. 1641–6, 1681.

[11] Letters, Negus to E. G. Whitlam, 17 July 1973, 1 Apr. 1974, A463, 1972/1179, NAA; CPD, 9 Apr. 1974, pp. 762–3; Frank Crean, Press release, ‘Estate Duty Relief Board’, 9 Apr. 1974, CPL; AFR (Syd.), 24 Apr. 1974, pp. 1, 18; Australian (Syd.), 30 Apr. 1974, p. 5.

[12] Weekend News (Perth), 20 Apr. 1974, p. 4; WA (Perth), 8 May 1974, p. 50; Letter, J. R. Odgers to Negus, 24 Oct. 1974, Senate Registry File, A8161, S297, NAA; Julie P. Smith, Taxing Popularity: The Story of Taxation in Australia, Australian Tax Research Foundation, Research Study no. 43, 2004, pp. 85–8.

[13] WA (Perth), 4 Oct. 1971, p. 1, 26 Feb. 1973, p. 11; CT, 27 Feb. 1973, p. 1; The editor is indebted to Glenn Winter-Smith of Perth; National Country Party, WA branch, Management committee minutes, 14 Mar. 1982, ACC. 3306A/376, MN 1070, SLWA; WA (Perth), 4 Aug. 1986, pp. 33, 54–5; CPD, 19 Aug. 1986, p. 25.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 3, 1962-1983, University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney, 2010, pp. 526-531.

NEGUS, Sydney Ambrose (1912–1986)

Parliamentary Handbook

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Western Australia, 1971–74