SIBRAA, Kerry Walter (1937– )
Senator for New South Wales, 1975–78, 1978–94 (Australian Labor Party)

Kerry Walter Sibraa was born in Sydney on 12 October 1937, the only son of teachers Edna May, née Williams, and Arthur Francis Sibraa. Kerry attended state primary schools at Condoblin, Ungarie, Shortland and Newcastle, following his father’s moves between schools as a teacher and headmaster. He began his secondary education at Newcastle Boys’ High School and then moved to North Sydney Boys’ High School when his family settled in a northern beachside suburb, where he began a long-standing involvement in surf lifesaving, and both rugby union and rugby league football. He left school after completing an Intermediate Certificate at Manly Boys’ High School. On 14 December 1957 he married Yvonne Margaret Melvin; they had a son and daughter. The couple divorced in 1992 and on 26 November 1993 Sibraa married Julie Louise Hatcher.

Sibraa was employed at Sydney’s Metropolitan Water Board and then at the Manly Municipal Council where he worked as a clerical officer. During this time he formed the Mackellar County Council Employees’ Credit Union and was its founding chairman. Sibraa also became a member of the Municipal and Shire Council Employees’ Union and was elected to the union’s NSW committee of management for white collar workers.[1]

Having joined the ALP in 1960, Sibraa stood for the House of Representatives seat of Wentworth at the 1966 federal election, but was not elected. Two years later, encouraged by his friend and a fellow member of the Narrabeen branch of the ALP, John Ducker, he commenced a career as a full-time official of the NSW Labor Party, working at the head office in Sussex Street. Sibraa was a state organiser between 1969 and 1971, and an administrative officer from 1971 to 1973. In 1973 he was elected unopposed as ALP Assistant General Secretary for NSW.

During the 1970s, as Secretary of the NSW Labor Council and President of the NSW branch of Labor Party, Ducker was a dominant figure in the NSW ALP. Sibraa was one of the right-wing supporters who gathered around Ducker and, together, were described as ‘Ducker’s kitchen cabinet that ran the party and unions in New South Wales’ by Graham Richardson, who had joined head office as an organiser in 1971 on Sibraa’s recommendation. Sibraa was mentored by another rising right-wing faction member, Paul Keating, who suggested that he should eventually ‘go for the Senate’. Over this period, Sibraa was the head office’s liaison man with Young Labor, and Director of the Henry Lawson Labor College.[2]

Sibraa was elected as a senator for NSW at the December 1975 federal election that followed the dismissal of the Whitlam Government. He later noted that his election was ‘in some ways by a mistake’; initially preselected at number three on the Labor ticket for a half-Senate election, Sibraa did not expect to win a seat, but at the full Senate election following the double dissolution he found himself at number five on the enlarged ticket, and scraped through to win the tenth and final seat after a dramatic recount.

Sibraa’s political career suffered a set-back at the 1977 federal election when he was defeated from third place on the NSW Labor ticket, and his first Senate term ended on 30 June 1978. Fortunately for Sibraa, his absence from the Senate lasted less than six weeks. Labor’s James McClelland retired from the Senate on 21 July 1978, and Sibraa, nominated by the ALP to fill the Senate vacancy, was appointed by the Governor of NSW on 9 August and confirmed by a joint sitting of the NSW Parliament on 17 August. Sibraa was subsequently re-elected in 1980, 1983, 1984, 1987 and 1993, winning from what he referred to as the ‘death seat’, or third position on the party ticket, in 1980 and 1993. Sibraa was recognised as a ‘formidable electoral campaigner’, who was a strategist in election campaigns for the NSW ALP from the 1960s, and acted as an election liaison officer during Bob Hawke’s successful 1983 election campaign. In 1970 he compiled, with Peter Westerway, How To Win: A Campaign Handbook.[3]

Sibraa’s first entry to the Senate coincided with the formation of the Fraser Coalition Government, and he expressed in his first speech his admiration for ‘the monuments of the Whitlam years’ and his fear that this work would be undone. While acknowledging that Labor ‘must recognise the significance of the 1975 election loss … that social change must be introduced in an orderly fashion within a framework of economic stability and government cohesiveness’, he attacked, at length, the Fraser Government’s approach to foreign policy, industrial relations and electoral reform. This speech set the stage for his policy interests as a senator.

Sibraa declared that the ‘the notions of mateship and a fair go, are still the property of the Australian Labor Party’, and identified himself as a ‘loyal socialist’. Speaking in June 1976 on the proposed 2.5 per cent levy on incomes to fund private health insurance under Medibank, he observed that the ‘proposed new scheme will mean the existence of one private health care system for the wealthy and an inferior, inadequately financed public health care system for everyone else’ and that Medibank would ‘make a mockery of the previous government’s aim of universal and equal health care for all Australians’. Sibraa was also vocal on issues such as changes to pension entitlements, unemployment, and cuts to public education. In the Senate, he vigorously opposed government measures to regulate trade unions.[4]

Sibraa had an ‘encyclopaedic knowledge of the Electoral Act’ and an ongoing interest in electoral reform. He thought that the compulsory preferential voting system used for electing the Senate was ‘so complicated that it causes much distortion of the electorate’s will’, and that methods used for registering and counting votes for federal elections were cumbersome and inefficient, and resulted in a high level of informal voting. He was an advocate for public funding of election campaigns, a position he had maintained since witnessing an effective public funding system in West Germany in 1973, and for disclosure of donations to political parties, the regulation of political advertising, and education programs for voters. He welcomed the decision of the Hawke Government to establish a Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform in 1983, having proposed such a committee in 1979 and again in 1980, and he applauded the establishment of the Australian Electoral Commission, which administered a level of public funding from 1984.[5]

Sibraa’s passion for foreign affairs significantly permeated his political career. In his first year as a senator, he was appointed as a member of both the Senate and joint standing committees on foreign affairs and defence, and he was re-appointed to both on his return to the Senate in 1978. Sibraa’s first visit to Africa, as a member of a parliamentary delegation in 1979, exposed him to the policy of apartheid and ‘triggered off a lifelong interest’ in the southern African region at a time when anti-apartheid and independence movements were prominent. He visited Africa many times in subsequent years, as a delegation member and later delegation leader, and as a conference participant. He was deputy chair and ultimately chair of the Sub-Committee on Middle Eastern and African Affairs within the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, which undertook a number of inquiries into southern African matters. In 1986, responding to an attack by a radio commentator who had queried his knowledge of South Africa, Sibraa told the Senate: ‘I believe that on southern African issues I would be as well informed as, or better informed than, any member of this Parliament’.

Sibraa also took a keen interest in the Middle East and Asia, and frequently drew the attention of the Senate to political and humanitarian issues in these regions. During 1980 he advocated withdrawal of Australian recognition of the Pol Pot Government (this occurred in February 1981), which he denounced as ‘the most monstrous regime of modern times’. In 1981 he was one of nine senators who submitted a dissenting report to the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence report, Power in Indo-China Since 1975. The dissenters disagreed with the majority recommendation that the Australian Government withdraw economic aid from Vietnam until Vietnam withdrew its military forces from Kampuchea and Laos. When Sibraa became chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence in 1985, his concentration on issues examined by this committee increased.[6]

Sibraa served as a Temporary Chairman of Committees from 1978 to 1980 and from 1983 to 1985, and he was Deputy Opposition Whip in the Senate from November 1980 to February 1983.

By October 1986 it was known within the ALP that Senate President Doug McClelland would be resigning from the Senate early in 1987. Following protracted negotiations between ALP Centre Left and Right factions, Sibraa was the Parliamentary Labor Party’s nomination for the position of President. On 17 February 1987, three senators stood as candidates for the presidency, the first three-way contest since Sir Richard Baker was elected President on the Senate’s first day of sitting on 9 May 1901. Sibraa was opposed by the Coalition’s candidate Don Jessop and Independent Senator George Georges, but overcame both challengers. Upon Sibraa taking the chair, senators from all sides acknowledged that his parliamentary experience, diplomatic skills and knowledge of foreign affairs were good qualifications for the Senate presidency, although Senator Chaney referred to his deep involvement in the affairs of the Australian Labor Party, and reminded Sibraa that the role of President was beyond politics.

As Senate President, Sibraa led a number of parliamentary delegations to European countries. He also travelled frequently to attend Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) conferences, and he hosted a conference in Australia as CPA president in 1988. He was a member of the Commonwealth Election Observer Team in Zambia in 1991 during the first elections for a multiparty government in that country, and an observer of the independence referendum in Eritrea in 1993.[7]

Sibraa was unopposed when re-elected as President in 1990 and 1993. At no time during his presidency did the Labor Party have an absolute majority in the Senate; majority support for his actions to maintain order in the chamber was never certain. Sibraa acknowledged that ‘it is not always easy to preside over a Senate in which no one party holds a majority’ but undertook to ‘treat all parties with fairness and without prejudice’. Only once was Sibraa compelled to suspend a senator. In October 1989 Senator Jo Vallentine, at that time an Independent, was suspended after disregarding the authority of the chair by continuing to speak when called to order. While Sibraa’s patience was occasionally tested, he usually allowed reasonable latitude to all senators, and at the end of his term he was credited with having ‘stood up for the rights of the minority parties … and respected them’.[8]

One of the first challenges Sibraa faced as President was to manage the Senate’s move in 1988 from Old Parliament House to the new Parliament House, a building he described as a ‘lasting symbol of our faith in the future’. As a member of the Joint Standing Committee on New Parliament House from 1981, Sibraa was ‘more than aware of the inadequacies of the old building’, though he also observed that: ‘Whatever the failings of the provisional building, it has allowed an intimacy to develop among all people who have worked here’. At the conclusion of the first session of sittings in the new house, Sibraa emphasised that the move ‘was an undertaking of great significance’, while he willingly conceded that there had been ‘settling in problems’. Sibraa and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Hon. Joan Child, were given credit for ensuring that the monumental task of moving the Parliament was accomplished relatively smoothly.

Sibraa supported the televising of parliamentary proceedings, reportedly saying that it would ‘lift the standing of the Parliament’, ’cause the standard of debate to improve’ and ‘lead to a better appreciation of the democratic process’. On 1 June 1990 an Opposition motion was carried authorising the televising by the ABC of question time in the Senate, which commenced on 23 August 1990. Initially, during a trial period, the ABC worked ‘very closely under the direction of the President’.[9]

During Sibraa’s presidential term a major revision of standing orders took place, and was adopted in November 1989. In the following year, a significant enhancement of the Senate committee system was introduced through the adoption of procedures for the regular referral of bills to committees, involving the Selection of Bills Committee.

As President, Sibraa was called on to make rulings of significant complexity. The issue of sub judice arose on 30 May 1989 when Independent Senator Irina Dunn discussed charges of murder laid the previous day against a person over the bombing of the Hilton Hotel in Sydney eleven years earlier. Senators queried whether Senator Dunn might be canvassing evidence in a way that could prejudice the pending criminal proceedings. Senator Tate said that Sibraa faced ‘a very difficult situation’ in having to ‘balance the absolute privilege of this place with the absolute privilege of the courts’. Sibraa acknowledged the difficulty but decided that Dunn could continue her speech, provided that she did not question ‘the merit or otherwise of likely evidence that could be used in the prosecution case’. In February 1991, in balancing the principle of sub judice against the right of the Senate to freely debate any matter of public interest, Sibraa ruled that documents belonging to the Westpac Banking Corporation could not be disclosed in the Senate if doing so posed a ‘real and present danger’ to the continuation of ‘current legal proceedings’. The ruling was the subject of extended debate in the Senate before being withdrawn in the following month, after the documents were disclosed in the South Australian Parliament and published elsewhere with the concurrence of the bank.

In December 1991 ‘prolonged and heated proceedings’ characterised debate over legislation to restrict paid political advertising. Senator Robert Hill (SA), the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, moved to suspend standing orders, pursuant to a contingent notice, to allow unlimited debate on the time to be allotted for debate on the guillotined bill. The motion was defeated, but later in the debate Hill sought to move the same suspension motion, pursuant to the same contingent notice. Sibraa ruled that a senator could only move one suspension motion ‘at the stage of proceedings referred to in the notice’, as a series of such motions could delay and frustrate the ability of the Senate to deal with business in a timely way. Over the next week Sibraa’s ruling was questioned but subsequently endorsed after it had been considered by the Procedure Committee.

In October 1993, on a taxation bill that the House of Representatives had declined to make amendments requested by the Senate, a motion that the requests not be pressed resulted in a tied vote. Normally, the constitutional rule on tied votes would result in the motion being defeated and the requests therefore being pressed. When that assumption was tested by posing the alternative question that the requests be pressed, and the vote was also tied, Sibraa made a ruling to the effect that in such cases, where tied votes indicated that there was no majority for pressing an amendment or request, the motion for amendments or requests was lost. A motion of dissent against Sibraa’s ruling was defeated.[10]

The greatest challenge to Sibraa’s presidency came in 1992, in what became known as the ‘Marshall Islands affair’. Senator Graham Richardson, then Minister for Transport and Communications, faced accusations that he had used his office to make official connections in the Marshall Islands for a businessman, Greg Symons, who was married to his cousin. Symons was subsequently charged with fraud by authorities in the Marshall Islands. Richardson, under intense pressure, was censured by the Senate and resigned from the ministry. Sibraa, believing that Symons was authorised to act on behalf of the Marshall Islands Government, had provided Symons with a letter of introduction to the Australian Embassy in Washington. The Opposition sought Sibraa’s resignation from the presidency, but a motion moved by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, expressing ‘grave concern’ that Sibraa had ‘failed to exercise due care’ in his dealings with Symons, was defeated when it was not supported by the Australian Democrats or Independent senators. The Democrats Leader, John Coulter declared that the available evidence ‘falls far short of providing a reason for dismissal’; Prime Minister Paul Keating said that he believed Sibraa ‘had acted in good faith’.[11]

In 1992 Sibraa applied unsuccessfully for the position of Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and there was persistent speculation that he was in line for a diplomatic appointment. There was also a suggestion that his relegation to third place on the party ticket for the 1993 election would prompt a change of career. Sibraa resigned as President of the Senate on 31 January 1994 and as a senator on the following day, when his appointment as Australia’s High Commissioner to Zimbabwe, with accreditation also to Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, Malawi, Mozambique and Angola, was announced.

In farewelling Sibraa, senators from all sides praised him for his impartiality, firmness and approachability, and recognised his suitability for a diplomatic appointment due to his ‘stoic work in relation to the international arena’. Some also referred to his good humour and hospitality, particularly as patron of the all-party parliamentary rugby league group. Gareth Evans joked that Sibraa had ‘not resisted the role of being a travelling ambassador for his country’, and attributed to him ‘that now immortal expression that the most musical sound on this planet is the rattle of the first class drinks trolley on a Qantas Boeing as it climbs off over Botany Bay’.[12]

Sibraa was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1997, for service to the Australian Parliament, to international relations, and to the community. In the following year, he ceased his role as High Commissioner and took up a range of positions in private firms, many of which drew on his expertise in inter-governmental relations and knowledge of southern Africa. He also served, between 2003 and 2010, as Mozambique’s Honorary Consul-General to Australia. From 2001 he was special counsel and a board member of the public relations firm, Jackson Wells. Sibraa continued to contribute to his local community through his love of sport, serving as a life member of the Dee Why Surf Lifesaving Club, and in various capacities, including as co-patron and chairman, with the Manly-Warringah Rugby League Football Club.

Sibraa may have been known as ‘an old boy from Sussex Street’, with roots firmly in the NSW Labor Party and trade union movement, but it was his capacity to develop wider perspectives that helped carry him to the highest office in the Senate and to international repute.

Jarrod M. Jolly

[1] Transcript of an interview with Kerry Sibraa by Garry Sturgess, 2011–12, POHP; ‘Profile: Kerry Sibraa’, House Magazine, 17 May 1983, p. 3; ALP, Biographical Details, House of Representatives and Senate Candidates, 1983, p. 50.

[2] Fia Cumming, Mates: Five Champions of the Labor Right, Allen & Unwin, Syd., 1991, pp. 24–5, 71–72, 100; Marian Wilkinson, The Fixer: The Untold Story of Graham Richardson, William Heinemann Australia, Port Melbourne, Vic., 1996, p. 63; SMH, 19 Sept. 1987, p. 29; Graham Richardson, Whatever It Takes, Bantam Books, Moorebank, NSW, 1994, pp. 12, 20.

[3] Cumming, Mates, pp. 237–40; CPD, 1 Feb. 1994, p. 45, 26 May 1983, pp. 901–5; CT, 19 May 1992, p. 4; Kerry Sibraa & Peter Westerway, How To Win: A Campaign Handbook, Henry Lawson Labor College for the Australian Labor Party (NSW Branch), Syd., 1970.

[4] CPD, 3 March 1976, p. 383, 2 June 1976, pp. 2231–3, 10 Nov. 1976, pp. 1837–40, 1 June 1977, pp. 1781–5, 25 Oct. 1977, pp. 1732–4, 7 June 1979, pp. 2847–9, 25 March 1981, pp. 755–8.

[5] CPD, 1 Feb. 1994, p. 45, 23 Feb. 1977, pp. 310–12, 24 May 1977, pp. 1270–3, 1 Nov. 1977, pp. 1897–9, 28 Feb. 1978, pp. 151–4, 10 March 1981, pp. 443–9, 20 Aug. 1981, pp. 155–8, 18 Nov. 1982, pp. 2539–41, 19 Oct. 1983, pp. 1748–50, 30 Nov. 1983, pp. 2998–9.

[6] Transcript, ABC Radio, ‘Ring the Bells’, 7 July 1989; POHP; CPD, 14 Oct. 1982, pp. 1457–61, 8 Dec. 1983, pp. 3463–4, 28 March 1984, pp. 824–5, 26 March 1985, pp. 809–10, 13 June 1986, pp. 4034–5, 27 Feb. 1979, pp. 284–7, 10 Sept. 1980, p. 677, 11 June 1981, pp. 3604–5, 20 May 1982, pp. 2271–3.

[7] Gareth Evans, Inside the Hawke-Keating Government, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 2014, pp. 371, 376; SMH, 3 Nov. 1986, p. 3; Senate, Journals, 17 Feb. 1987, pp. 1591–2; CPD, 17 Feb. 1987, pp. 51–5; Kerry Sibraa, ‘A historic vote: Commonwealth observer mission to the Zambian elections’, The Parliamentarian, April 1992, pp. 90–4.

[8] CPD, 17 Aug. 1993, pp. 3–4, 4 Oct. 1989, pp. 1605–7, Jo Vallentine & Peter D. Jones, Quakers in Politics: Pragmatism or Principle? The Religious Society of Friends, Alderley, Qld, c. 1990, pp. 31–3; CPD, 1 Feb. 1994, p. 7.

[9] The Hon. Kerry W. Sibraa, ‘Australia’s new Parliament House’, The Parliamentarian, July 1988, pp. 160–7; Sun-Herald (Syd.), 4 March 2001, p. 35; CPD, 2 June 1988, p. 3539, 21 Dec. 1988, pp. 4853–4; Transcript, ABC Radio, ‘Ring the Bells’, 17 Aug. 1990; Sunday Telegraph (Syd.), 3 June 1990, pp. 116–7; CPD, 31 May 1990, pp. 1622–32.

[10] CPD, 30 May 1989, pp. 2977, 3063–6; Harry Evans & Rosemary Laing (eds), Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, 13th ed., Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2012, pp. 252–5; CPD, 14 Feb. 1991, pp. 595–614, 5 March 1991, pp. 34–5, 5 Dec. 1991, pp. 4240–8, 9 Dec. 1991, pp. 4384–7; Senate Procedural Bulletin, No. 65, 20 Jan. 1992, No. 79, 29 Oct. 1993.

[11] Wilkinson, The Fixer, 1996, pp. 350–8; Statement by the Prime Minister, the Hon. P. J. Keating, 13 May 1992; News Release, Senator John Coulter, 15 May 1992; Media Release, John Hewson, 15 May 1992, 16 May 1992; Media Release, Senator Robert Hill, 16 May 1992; Australian, (Syd.), 19 May 1992, p. 8; CPD, 26 May 1992, pp. 2606–38.

[12] SMH, 10 Jan. 1992, p. 2; POHP; News Release, Senator Gareth Evans, 1 Feb. 1994; CPD, 1 Feb. 1994, pp. 1–53.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 51-56.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, NSW, 1975–78, 1978–94 (ALP)

President of the Senate, 1987–94

Senate Committee Service

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1976–78, 1978–85

Estimates Committee B, 1976; A, 1976–78, 1979–80, 1985; F, 1978–79, 1980–81; D, 1981–83; E, 1983–84, 1984–85

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, 1976–78, 1978–87

Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, 1976–78, 1978–81

Joint Standing Committee on the New Parliament House, 1981–90

Appropriations and Staffing Committee, 1983–94

House Committee, 1987–94

Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings, 1987–94

Library Committee, 1987–94

Procedure Committee, 1987–94

Standing Orders Committee, 1987