PUPLICK, Christopher John Guelph (1948– )
Senator for NSW, 1978–1981, 1985–1990 (Liberal Party of Australia)

On 20 September 1978, Chris Puplick, then the youngest Australian senator since World War II, rose to make his first speech in the Senate, and declared that ‘There is no finer tradition in the history of mankind than the Liberal tradition’. As a believer ‘above all in the individual, in diversity, in tolerance, and in caring about my fellow creatures’, he ‘could be only a Liberal’. In the course of his speech, the formidably erudite new senator quoted Blake and Shakespeare, Australian novelist Steele Rudd, Alfred Deakin, Robert Menzies, Labor MHR Barry Jones—and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado.

Christopher John Guelph (Chris) Puplick was born in London on 13 May 1948, the son of Guelph Puplick, a Hyderabad-born salesman and manager, and his London-born wife Elsie Nancy (Barbara), née Liddaman. Shortly after the birth of his sister in 1951 Puplick moved with his family to Cardiff and remained there for several years, before returning to London. In the United Kingdom, Puplick was educated at Llandaff Cathedral School, Cardiff, and Byron Court Primary School and Preston Manor Grammar School, both in Wembley, London. In 1962 the family migrated to Australia allowing him to complete his secondary education at Manly Boys’ High School, on the northern beaches of Sydney.

In 1964 Puplick won a school prize for ancient history, which was presented to him by its donor, local MHR W. C. (‘Bill’) Wentworth. Wentworth encouraged Puplick to join the Young Liberal Movement, which he did in May 1965, also becoming a member of the Liberal Party. In the same year Puplick commenced an Arts degree at the University of Sydney. He graduated with Honours in 1968 and completed a Master of Arts in American History the following year. After leaving university he worked as Wentworth’s campaign director and in late 1970 he was appointed press secretary to Wentworth. [1]

When the Coalition lost office at the December 1972 federal election, Puplick moved to the office of Nigel Bowen MHR and then to the offices of senators Bob (later Sir Robert) Cotton and Peter Baume. At the same time he became involved in setting up a party research unit in Sydney. Over the next decade Puplick held a number of roles within the Liberal Party, including campaign director for NSW Liberal Premier Bob Askin, his local MLA; Young Liberals state president (1972–74) and federal president (1974–77); delegate to the Federal Council (1972–77); and member of the State Executive (1972–78) and of the Federal Executive (1974–77). During this period, Puplick’s ‘practical and intellectual involvement in the Party was remarkable for both its range and intensity’.

Originally, Puplick was ‘much more conservative than most Young Liberals’ but moved steadily leftward ‘on a range of social and moral issues’ to such an extent that he felt that the party’s conservatives ‘despised’ him. He helped to form ‘The Group’, which marked the beginning of a significant factionalising of the NSW party. While the members of ‘The Group’ were mainly concerned with combating the influence of right-wing extremists within the party, they were also rivals of conservatives such as Bronwyn Bishop (Lib, NSW, later MHR for Mackellar).

Puplick unsuccessfully sought preselection for the House of Representatives seats of Pittwater in 1975 and Mackellar in 1977. In March 1978 he defeated twenty other candidates for Liberal preselection to fill the Senate casual vacancy created by the resignation of Bob Cotton. He was appointed to the Senate by the New South Wales Governor on 26 July 1978, and subsequently confirmed in the position at a joint sitting of the NSW Parliament on 17 August 1978. In January of the following year Puplick married Francesca Muir; the couple divorced seven years later.

Puplick served an interrupted period in office, frequently contesting elections from vulnerable positions on the ballot paper. He was third on the Coalition’s New South Wales Senate ticket for the 1980 half-Senate election, where Labor’s Kerry Sibraa defeated him for the fifth and final vacancy. As a result, Puplick’s first period in the Senate concluded on 30 June 1981. Until his return to the Senate in 1985, he worked as a consultant, largely in the film and television industry.

In the double dissolution election of 1983, Puplick was again defeated for the final NSW Senate seat, this time by the Australian Democrats’ Colin Mason. However, in the half-Senate election of the following year Puplick was elected to the Senate from the top of his party’s NSW Senate ticket. His second term in office commenced on 21 February 1985 rather than 1 July, due to the requirements of the Representation Act 1983 under which the representation for each state was increased from ten to twelve senators. He was the ninth senator elected at the 1987 double dissolution poll, giving him a three-year term, expiring on 30 June 1990.[2]

Puplick believed himself to be ‘a successful and good parliamentarian but not a particularly good politician’, arguing that the former requires a ‘feeling’ and ‘respect’ for the institution and an appreciation of how it can be used to effect change. Though not as ready to cross the floor as his colleague Victorian Senator Alan Missen, he was prepared to vote at odds with his party. He acknowledged that Missen ‘was a touchstone for me in terms of philosophy and of principle’.

Some of Puplick’s significant contributions to the Senate flowed directly from his committee work. He was a member of the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs when it examined the Fraser Government’s Freedom of Information Bill between 1978 and 1979. Puplick believed the government’s bill had been shaped by the antipathy of senior public servants to the very concept of freedom of information and he was not prepared to see such fundamental principles ‘set at nought by some bureaucratic conspiracy to make freedom of information a meaningless term’. In May 1981 Puplick moved an amendment to the FOI bill, widening the scope of documents covered by the legislation. Puplick’s amendment gained the support of Missen, Bonner and fellow Liberal Kathy Martin, and was carried by one vote. The same four senators, with the addition of Senator Hamer, crossed the floor to support an amendment moved by Labor’s Senator Gareth Evans, to ensure that the administration of federal courts and tribunals came within the purview of the bill. Again, the amendment was carried by a single vote. After these defeats the government negotiated and accepted further amendments. Puplick later recalled that the bill passed only because ‘the members of the original Senate committee in fact defied the government and insisted on the bill reflecting the Senate committee report rather than reflecting what was essentially the bureaucrats’ response to the Senate Committee report’.

Between 1980 and 1981 Puplick and Missen spearheaded a backbench challenge to the Fraser Government’s proposed changes to the Broadcasting and Television Act 1942, which would have limited the powers of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal by ‘weakening the concept of public interest’ as applied to assessments of media ownership arrangements.

The changes would have had the effect of assisting Rupert Murdoch, who had been lobbying for his News International group to retain control of Melbourne’s Channel 10. During Question Time in November 1980 Puplick referred to the ‘ubiquitous’ Mr Murdoch and informed the Senate that the changes to the Act sought by Murdoch would be ‘vigorously opposed by some Government senators’. Seven months later, the government ‘largely abandoned’ its original proposals.

The last occasion on which Puplick crossed the floor was in May 1987 when he joined six other Liberal senators in voting for the third reading of the Hawke Government’s Equal Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Bill, which extended equal employment opportunity programs to women employed by federal statutory authorities.[3]

In September 1985, the Hawke Government announced its intention to introduce a national identity card, known as the Australia Card, to combat tax evasion and welfare fraud, and identify illegal migrants. Puplick was a leading opponent of the proposal and was a member of the Joint Select Committee on an Australia Card, formed in November 1985. The committee majority rejected the proposal, arguing that it would not effectively address the identified problems and would ‘open the way’ for an attack upon the privacy of individuals, and instead recommended the expansion and improved use of tax file numbers. Puplick produced a lengthy and strongly worded addendum to the majority report, detailing the reasons he believed the card amounted to ‘social engineering’ and was ‘totally antithetical’ to his liberal beliefs.

Puplick had an abiding interest in the Middle East, and during his parliamentary career travelled extensively in the region—travels which saw him hold an impromptu meeting with Yasser Arafat in 1989, contrary to the then policies of both government and Opposition. He took very seriously relations with Islamic states and the Muslim community and in 1980 argued in the Senate against the telecast of a British documentary, Death of a Princess, which dealt with the execution for adultery of a Saudi Arabian princess in 1977. In his speech, and in a subsequent newspaper article, Puplick emphasised that he rejected ‘absolutely’ any suggestion that the government should ban the documentary, appealing instead to the Channel 7 network to act in the public interest by not showing a film which could ‘exacerbate’ the ‘difficulties confronting Moslems [sic] in being understood and accepted by the wider Australian family’. In 1987 and 1988 he delivered detailed analyses of Islamic revivalism and the internal politics of the Iranian Revolution, driven by his ‘long personal interest and association with things Islamic’ and his belief that Islam was ‘very poorly understood, not only in Australia, but throughout the western world generally’.[4]

After Labor’s federal health minister, Dr Neal Blewett, established the National Advisory Council on AIDS in late 1984, Puplick suggested that Parliament should have some involvement in the development of HIV/AIDS policy. Blewett responded by setting up a Parliamentary Liaison Group on AIDS (PLGAIDS) in November 1985. Puplick was one of the original members, and he judged PLGAIDS to be ‘a very powerful committee’ and an example of what the Parliament can achieve ‘when it sets its mind to operating as part of the leadership of the community rather than as a purely partisan battle ground’. He made regular and substantial contributions in the Senate on AIDS. On several occasions he spoke strongly against comments made by fellow Liberal Party members that he viewed as ignorant or unhelpful, and recalled his experience of nursing a close friend who died of the disease.[5]

During the 1980s debate intensified within the Liberal Party between a right-wing faction, the ‘dries’, who emphasised the role of market forces and took inspiration from the policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and a more moderate or left faction, the ‘wets’, who identified themselves with the policies of Alfred Deakin and Robert Menzies. Puplick, a prominent ‘wet’, had ‘always seen liberalism as a moral philosophy’. Rather than ‘dries’ and ‘wets’, he preferred the respective terms ‘the mechanists and the moralists’. For Puplick, ‘the heart of liberalism’ was the encouragement of personal growth, which necessitated a larger role for the state than the ‘mechanists’ allowed.

Although Puplick was a supporter of Andrew Peacock and was never close to John Howard, following the 1987 federal election he became the only ‘wet’ to hold a senior post in Howard’s shadow cabinet. In August 1987 he was appointed shadow environment minister and spokesperson on the Bicentenary and, at his own request, he was given the shadow arts portfolio. He retained the arts and environment portfolios when Peacock replaced Howard as party leader in May 1989 and when John Hewson assumed the leadership in April 1990, he held the shadow portfolios of arts, heritage and sport. Over his final few months in the Senate he was also the Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate.[6]

In appointing Puplick to the environment portfolio, Howard recognised the ‘need for radical changes in the Opposition’s thinking about crucial non-economic issues of concern to mainstream voters’. Puplick proved capable and energetic and could boast of a long-standing commitment to environmental matters. However, he faced a difficult task as the ALP made the running on environmental policy, especially after Senator Graham Richardson assumed ministerial responsibility for the environment early in 1988. Furthermore, deep divisions existed within the Coalition over strengthening its environmental policies, with opposition from the National Party and from the states.

Some of Puplick’s policy initiatives broke new ground. In the Senate in May 1989 he took the lead on the question of mining in Antarctica by moving a motion requesting that the Hawke Government refuse to sign a proposed international Minerals Convention, and ‘take steps … to prohibit mining in the Antarctic’. On the issue of greenhouse emissions, Puplick ‘trumped’ the Labor Government’s policy, by proposing a date and a target for promised cuts to emissions—twenty per cent by the year 2000. In February 1990, he proposed that the tax system be used to impose penalties for environmental damage to air or water resources, addressing the ‘fundamental’ environmental issue of who pays for pollution.

Puplick was ultimately unable to convince either his party of the importance of environmental concerns, or the conservation movement that his party could be trusted on environmental policy. On three crucial issues—world heritage listing of Queensland’s wet tropical rainforests in 1987, Tasmania’s proposed Wesley Vale pulp mill in 1988, and the question of mining in the Northern Territory’s Kakadu National Park in 1989–90—the federal government gave primacy to environmental concerns, while Puplick’s responses were tempered to acknowledge the demands of the National Party and states’ rights advocates within the Coalition. Graham Richardson later described Puplick as ‘a committed conservationist who had been forced to take positions he quite obviously didn’t like’.[7]

In late 1988, after a ‘vicious’ preselection contest, Puplick found himself in the difficult-to-win third position on the NSW Coalition ticket for the Senate. In the same month, Puplick began meeting regularly with four Liberal MHRs, Peter Shack (Tangney, WA), David Jull (Fadden, Qld), John Moore (Ryan, Qld) and Wilson Tuckey (O’Connor, WA). The group, which became known as ‘the gang of five’, persuaded Andrew Peacock to re-contest the party leadership and set about organising the challenge of May 1989, in which Peacock deposed Howard.

In the 1990 half-Senate election Puplick lost the final NSW Senate seat to his Labor rival Sue West by fewer than 500 votes. When, in September of the same year, Peter Baume gave notice of his retirement from the Senate, all the likely contenders for the casual vacancy were prepared to stand aside in favour of Puplick. However, after some agonising, he decided that the sacrifices associated with returning to political life were too high.[8]

In his final speech to the Senate, Puplick said, ‘I do not intend to rust’. After leaving the Senate, he became CEO of a research group, the Packaging Environment Foundation of Australia (1990–94), which sought to identify ways of reducing or recycling packaging. He continued his engagement with HIV/AIDS policy as chair of the Australian National Council on AIDS and Related Diseases (1996–2008), renamed the Australian National Council on AIDS, Hepatitis C and Related Diseases in 1999, and also chaired the AIDS Trust of Australia (1999–2008).

In September 1994 the Fahey NSW Liberal Government appointed Puplick president of the state’s Anti-Discrimination Board and from 1998 he was also NSW Privacy Commissioner. He resigned from both positions in May 2003 amid deteriorating relations with the Carr Labor Government. Puplick took up numerous other appointments, including board member of the National Institute for the Dramatic Arts (1993–2003) and the Griffin Theatre Company (1990–2005), and chair of Central Sydney Area Health Service (1993–2003), the National Taskforce on Whaling (1996–2000) and the National Film and Sound Archive (2008–11).

Before, during, and after his time in the Senate, Puplick authored newspaper articles and book reviews, and contributed to and wrote books on various topics. In 2001, he was made a Member of the Order of Australia.

Puplick was very active in supporting equal rights for gay and lesbian people and in 2012 he made a lengthy submission, jointly with Larry Galbraith, to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs inquiry into the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2010, arguing for law reform to allow same-sex couples to marry; this formed the foundation for their 2014 book, Marriage Equality for All Australians: Guaranteeing Security and Certainty for Everyone.[9]

In valedictory speeches in 1981 and, at greater length, in 1990, various senators acknowledged Puplick’s eloquent oratory. Also noted were his ‘remarkable range of interests’ and his ‘tremendous capacity for work’. Some mentioned his bright bow ties. Labor’s Bob Collins referred to Puplick’s many ‘meaningful and useful’ contributions, not only to chamber debates, but also to ‘the committee stages of Bills, and … Senate committees’. Writing in 1994, Graham Richardson singled out Puplick as ‘one of the few effective Liberal Senate performers during the 1980s’.

Puplick’s 1990 valedictory speech was typically spirited and displayed his fondness for the ‘rhetorical flourish’. Puplick said that his personal support of human rights, gay people, ‘the welfare of the Muslim community’, and his ‘hostility to the regulators, the censors, the philistines and the corporatists’ had been ‘used against’ him throughout his parliamentary career; however, he ‘never wavered, never retreated, never resiled and never regretted standing for them’. He concluded with a quote from Tennyson’s Ulysses: ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world … /Made weak by time and fact, but strong in will/To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield’.[10]

Ian Holland

[1] CPD, 20 Sept. 1978, pp. 775–9; Interview with Chris Puplick by Barry York, 2011–2013, POHP; Manly High Alumni Newsletter, Issue 1, 2008, p. 2; Manly High School, The Pines, 1965, p. 36; SMH (Spectrum), 16 May 1998, p. 2; ‘Profile: Senator Chris Puplick’, House Magazine, 27 April 1988, p. 3; Ian Hancock, The Liberals: The NSW Division 1945–2000, Federation Press, Syd., 2007, pp. 165–6.

[2] Hancock, The Liberals, pp. 165–6, 170, 188–252; POHP; CT, 1 Feb. 1978, p. 3, 6 March 1978, p. 6; SMH (Spectrum), 16 May 1998, p. 2, 5 Nov. 1988, p. 11; Senate, Journals, 21 Feb. 1985, p. 3.

[3] CPD, 8 Nov. 1979, pp. 2134–8, 13 Nov. 1979, p. 2220, 19 Nov. 1979, p. 2510, 27 Nov. 1980, pp. 104–5, 8 April 1981, pp. 1255–9, 7 May 1981, pp. 1772–7, 13 Nov. 1985, pp. 2058–61, 8 April 1986, p. 1401, 15 Oct. 1986, pp. 1305–9, 5 May 1987, p. 2315; Senate, Journals, 13 Nov. 1979, p. 1034, 7 May 1981, pp. 241–4; POHP; SMH, 3 June 1981, p. 2.

[4] Joint Select Committee on an Australia Card, Report, Canberra, May 1986, pp. 147–52, 155–213; CPD, 15 Sept. 1987, pp. 92–4, 8 Oct. 1987, p. 861, 6 Sept. 1989, pp. 1028–30, 7 Sept. 1989, p. 1260, 21 April 1980, pp. 1597–600; POHP; SMH, 9 May 1980, p. 6; Address by Chris Puplick to Sir Herman Black Forum on Contemporary Asian Affairs, University of Sydney, 24 Sept. 1987; Chris Puplick, Islam and Australia, Canberra, 1987; CT, 20 Jan. 1989, p. 2.

[5] POHP; CPD, 23 May 1985, pp. 2436–7, 17 Nov. 1986, pp. 2355–7, 2 April 1987, pp. 1705–9, 8 Dec. 1987, pp. 2664–5, 25 Feb. 1988, pp. 668–9, 22 Nov. 1988, pp. 2554–60, 29 Aug. 1989, pp. 498–504, 30 Aug 1989, pp. 586–8, 27 Nov. 1989, pp. 3377–8; CT, 17 Aug. 1968, p. 4; Age (Melb.), 10 Aug. 1988, p. 3.

[6] Age (Melb.), 31 Aug 1987, p. 13; The Bulletin (Syd.), 4 June 1985, pp. 47–8; Transcript, ABC TV, ‘Four Corners’, 4 May 1987; POHP.

[7] CPD, 29 March 1979, pp. 1189–93, 22 May 1980, pp. 2694–706, 3 May 1989, pp. 1647–52; ‘Profile: Senator Chris Puplick’, House Magazine, 27 April 1988, p. 3; POHP; Paul Kelly, The End of Certainty: The Story of the 1980s, Allen & Unwin, Syd., 1992, pp. 524–43; Australian (Syd.), 3 Feb. 1988, p. 7, 3 Feb. 1990, p. 5; Age (Melb.), 22 April 1988, p. 13; 19 Oct. 1988, p. 15, 23 May 1989, p. 1, 17 July 1989, p. 13; SMH, 21 July 1989, p. 19, 8 Feb. 1990, p. 4; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 25 Aug. 1987, p. 12; AFR (Syd.), 25 Aug. 1987, p. 4; Graham Richardson, Whatever It Takes, Bantam Books, Syd., 1994, p. 261.

[8] POHP; Kelly, The End of Certainty, p. 470; Sun-Herald (Syd.), 20 May 1990, p. 32; SMH (Good Weekend), 1 Oct. 1994, p. 28; Daily Telegraph (Syd.), 17 May 1989, p. 2; Age (Melb.), 16 May 1989, p. 1; Wayne Errington & Peter van Onselen, John Winston Howard, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 2007, pp. 165–73.

[9] CPD, 31 May 1990, pp. 1658–61; AFR (Syd.), 17 Oct. 1990, p. 37; POHP; Star Observer (Syd.), 20 April 2008; Media Release, Dr Michael Wooldridge, 12 Oct. 1999; Age (Melb.), 31 Aug. 1987, p. 13; SMH, 2 Feb. 1999, p. 13; Chris Puplick, Completely Wrapped: Packaging, Waste Management and the Australian Environment, Packaging Environment Foundation of Australia, Syd., 1992; Chris Puplick & Robert Southey, Liberal Thinking, Macmillan, Melb., 1980; Chris Puplick, Is The Party Over? The Future of the Liberals, Text Publishing, Melb., 1994; Chris Puplick & Larry Galbraith, Marriage Equality For All Australians: Guaranteeing Security and Certainty for Everyone, Syd., 2014.

[10] CPD, 12 June 1981, pp. 3251–65, 31 May 1990, pp. 1644–74; Richardson, Whatever It Takes, p. 183.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 60-65.

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Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for NSW, 1978–1981, 1985–1990 (Lib)

Senate Committee Service

Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, 1978–81, 1985–87

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1980–81

Estimates Committee B, 1981; D, 1985–87, 1988–89; F, 1987–88

Library Committee, 1981, 1985–87

Joint Select Committee on an Australia Card, 1985–86

Committee of Privileges, 1986–87

Select Committee on Television Equalisation, 1986–87