WEST, Suzanne Margaret (1947– )
Senator for New South Wales, 1987, 1990–2002 (Australian Labor Party)

Suzanne Margaret (Sue) West was born 21 September 1947, the daughter of Edna May, née Bennett, and her husband Timothy Henry (Tim) West, a grazier from Cowra. Tim was an unsuccessful ALP candidate at four state elections between 1976 and 1984 but earned an OAM for his services to the Cowra community. Sue was indelibly shaped by her local community. Living fifteen miles from Cowra meant that she studied by correspondence until the arrival of a bus service that could take her to the local primary school. After finishing her secondary studies at Cowra High School, Sue West trained as a nurse at the Cowra District Hospital (1965–69) before moving to Sydney, where she completed a midwifery certificate at King George V Memorial Hospital. She worked as a registered nurse at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPA) for eight years. Employment at the Glebe Health Centre was followed by full-time study at the Cumberland College of Health Sciences, where she earned a Diploma in Community Health Nursing (1977). From 1978 to 1984 she served on the council of Mitchell College of Advanced Education, Bathurst.

West’s work at the coalface of healthcare exposed her to seriously ill people who, due to the old means test, were not necessarily eligible for free medical attention. This inspired her to become a member of the ALP at the time of the introduction of Medibank in 1975. She did much party work over the decade that followed, holding executive positions at branch and electorate council level, and as a delegate to state and national conferences. She also served as secretary of the party’s state health policy committee, and as a member of the party’s national primary industry policy committee.

West’s interest in a political career grew after she left Sydney in 1978. A four year stint in Canberra as an infant welfare and community health nurse with the Capital Health Commission was interrupted by the 1980 federal election, in which West stood as the ALP candidate for Hume. The comfortable margin enjoyed by sitting Country Party member Stephen Lusher indicated that failure was inevitable. Although she fell short, West still managed to achieve a 2.4 per cent swing towards the ALP.

After working for a year in Cootamundra and Gundagai as a baby health clinic sister, in 1983 West moved to Bathurst to join the staff of David Simmons, then Labor MHR for Calare. She stood for election to the Senate in both the March 1983 double dissolution election and the December 1984 half-Senate election. On each occasion, despite being placed in the unwinnable final position on Labor’s NSW ticket, she polled the second-largest number of Labor first preference votes.

Her persistence was rewarded eventually, when the President of the Senate Douglas McClelland resigned in January 1987 and she was nominated to fill the ensuing casual vacancy. Appointed by the New South Wales Parliament on 11 February 1987, she was sworn in six days later and became the first female senator to represent New South Wales. On 28 March 1987, West married Peter James Martin, a retired police officer from Bathurst who had four adult children.[1]

West first stood in the Senate chamber to announce the death of the former member for Hume, Arthur Fuller. A week later, on 1 April 1987 during debate on the Australia Card legislation, she stood for a second time to give her ‘first’ speech. West defended the initiative—which she had worked on at the embryonic stage in Simmons’ office—highlighting that the proposed Australia Card legislation provided for a ‘watchdog to protect against infringements of personal privacy’. She also argued that concerns about privacy were moot when compared to the regular use of private information by credit card companies. Drawing on personal experience, she labelled the use of personal information by companies as ‘an invasion’ of privacy.

West’s first term in the Senate was cut short by the dissolution of both Houses of Parliament on 5 June 1987. Placed last on the Labor ticket behind five other sitting senators, she again polled the second highest number of Labor first preference votes, but fell short of a quota. Between 1987 and 1990 West worked as a ministerial consultant to several parliamentarians, including senators Susan Ryan, and Margaret Reynolds. Under Reynolds, the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women, West helped prepare the Hawke Government’s response to Life Has Never Been Easy, a survey of the problems faced by women in rural Australia.

West was returned to the Senate in the 1990 half-Senate election. Placed in third position on Labor’s New South Wales Senate ticket, she managed to stave off the threat posed by Liberal Party frontbencher Chris Puplick to win the final seat by a mere 243 votes. The closeness of that encounter, as well as the decade of candidacies, shaped her approach to politicking thereafter.

Interviewed in May 1990, West disavowed ministerial ambitions, stating: ‘I find committee work very exciting and interesting and I am looking forward to that challenge and being able to contribute’. West was a member of more than twenty parliamentary committees, and chaired several Senate committees, including the Standing Committee on Community Affairs (1993–94), the Community Affairs Legislation Committee (1994–96), the Community Affairs References Committee (1996–97, 2001–02), the House Committee (1997–2002) and the Procedure Committee (1997–2002).[2]

In December 1998 West reminded senators that over the preceding eight years she had ‘participated in every wool debate in this place’. Those debates reflected the crisis that faced the wool industry as it struggled to deal with the catastrophic collapse of the reserve price scheme in 1991. In 1990, while defending the setting of a reserve price for wool, West acknowledged that some wool growers believed the existing floor price had been set too high and ‘that some of the leaders of their industry do not fully represent them’.

In 1992 West condemned the American Export Enhancement Program and the European Economic Community’s common agricultural policy, as ‘corruption of the markets’, likening their effects on Australia’s primary producers to ‘two elephants fighting: the ants underneath get trampled’. She also addressed other issues confronting those living in rural areas: the provision of an adequate number of doctors and nurses; the need for greater co-operation between the states to improve portability of qualifications and education; the dramatic differences in petrol pricing between metropolitan and rural areas; and the problems arising from a lack of infrastructure and government services, including ‘access to a reliable and clean water supply’.

While the Keating Government grappled with the effects of the drought that dogged New South Wales and Queensland from 1991 to 1995, West emphasised the psychological and economic toll borne by individuals and communities. As a member of the Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs when the committee, in late 1991, undertook its inquiry into the National Drought Policy, she was supportive of relief payments for affected farmers, and of other financial measures, including funding to ensure that farmers could ‘put in a crop once the drought broke … and get their cash flow moving again’. West also emphasised ‘the important role of women in farming pursuits’ and said that the committee heard evidence ‘that some organisations and some banks … do not fully appreciate the role that these women play’. Speaking to the final report, she highlighted the need for states to coordinate responses to drought and urged state governments to establish adequate counselling services for drought affected farmers and their families.

In 1994, speaking from personal experience, West told the Senate that drought was ‘one of the most horrific experiences that anybody on the land has to live through’. She also pointed out that donations of goods to drought-affected areas had a detrimental effect on local businesses, and that the ‘best way to provide aid’ was through cash donations ‘so that the money can be spent in the businesses in those communities’.[3]

As a member of the Caucus status of women committee, West told Paul Keating, early in his prime ministership, that he ‘wasn’t strong on women’; in 1994 she informed the Senate that ‘both parties need more women in parliament and in cabinet’. She also advocated for women on issues such as childcare and family allowances.

Between 1993 and 1994 West was a member of the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade during its inquiry into Sexual Harassment in the Australian Defence Force (ADF). She observed that sexual harassment was ‘a form of sexual discrimination and must be recognised as such. One has to wonder at some people who say that they do not understand quite what is sexual harassment and what is not’. West noted that there was a dearth of women in the highest ranks of the ADF, and suggested that more places should be opened to women, to widen their experience and ‘make them more competitive for promotion’.

In debates on health care West’s nursing experience proved invaluable. On several occasions, she reminded senators of her professional qualifications, including her membership of the NSW College of Nursing and the Royal College of Nursing, telling the Senate at the end of her Senate career, ‘I think that gives me some right to have thoughts about nursing and health care’.

Between 1993 and 1994 West chaired the Standing Committee on Community Affairs inquiry into Breast Cancer Screening and Treatment in Australia. When tabling the committee’s report she noted that the ‘personal tragedy’ of breast cancer deaths was so prevalent that it was a ‘major health problem facing the community’. She supported the report’s recommendations for national strategies to combat the disease, including education campaigns and improved access to screening programs, and stressed the importance of uniform data collection across the states.[4]

West was a strong defender of Medicare, ‘something that the people in this country view as a very important cornerstone of their health care’. In 2000, angered by the emphasis given by Howard Government ministers to ‘the number of people with private health insurance’, she told the Senate: ‘What this country has to have first of all is a good public sector and a government committed to that’. She went on to outline the inequities that she felt would arise from providing private health insurance rebates: ‘Who do tax rebates benefit most? Those on higher incomes’.

West spoke about aged care throughout her Senate career and took a prominent part in two inquiries of the Community Affairs References Committee into the funding of nursing homes and aged care institutions. At the conclusion of the first inquiry in 1994 she was one of four members of the committee to dissent from a recommendation to change the manner by which labour costs were funded, citing that such a change would ‘have a serious impact on the standard of care in nursing homes’.

In February 1997 West successfully initiated an inquiry into how access to nursing homes would be affected by the Howard Government’s Aged Care Bill. When debating the bill she expressed ‘grave concerns’ over the introduction of uncapped accommodation bonds and the application of an assets test to the family home, questioning the bill’s apparent failure to protect people suffering from dementia who might be compelled to sell their family home. She also pointed out that the bill had failed to stipulate the requisite qualifications for nursing staff providing care. West signed the majority report, which recommended that ‘the provision of aged care services not be left to the vagaries of a market user-pays system’.

Over the next five years, she continued to highlight deficiencies in the level of care at nursing homes, accusing the Howard Government of an ‘abysmal’ lack of consultation with nursing colleges—’the setters of the professional standards within nursing’. In 2002 she alleged that the government’s Aged Care Act 1997 had ‘led to kerosene baths, maggots in wounds and other absolutely appalling standards of treatment for people in aged care facilities’.[5]

West was personally affected by administrative problems with her husband’s superannuation, following his death in 1993. ‘In difficult times, one does not need to be treated like this’, she told the Senate. West argued consistently that access to superannuation was necessary to maintain a standard of living above the poverty line for those who were aged or retired. As an active member of the Select Committee on Superannuation for nearly five years, West was also vocal about the treatment of capital gains and shares for pensioners and the costs of financial advice.

West was secretary of the Labor Caucus (1993–2002) and, from 1998, the party’s international secretary. Although the Keating Government was defeated in the election of March 1996, West, a member of the NSW right faction of the ALP, was re-elected, this time, at the top of the ticket. In July 1996 she was appointed secretary to a Caucus regional task force aimed at restoring Labor’s rural base, which was greatly diminished in the election.

A temporary chairman of committees from 1993 to 1997, West was nominated as Labor’s candidate for the deputy presidency of the Senate in August 1996. Under the practice established in previous years, the candidate of the largest non-government party could expect to be elected unopposed to the post. West’s bid was thwarted when a former Deputy President, Senator Mal Colston resigned from the ALP and was then nominated for the deputy presidency by the Coalition. In the subsequent ballot Colston defeated West by four votes. However, following Colston’s resignation from the post in May 1997, West was elected unopposed as Deputy President of the Senate. This was the first time that the deputy presidency and presidency (held by ACT Liberal Senator Margaret Reid) were both held by women.[6]

In Opposition, West was deeply critical of the actions of the first term Howard Government, including changes to industrial relations law, cuts to non-government women’s groups, the ABC and higher education, the closure of regional tax offices, and the abolition of the Labor-initiated regional development program.

She was fierce in her criticism of the partial privatisation of Telstra, arguing that privatisation made ‘no sense at all’, especially when placed against the need to protect the company’s ‘universal service obligations’ to provide adequate services to those in rural areas. Alleging that the Telstra privatisation legislation was a ‘shonky deal’ made worse by subsequent decisions to further privatise the company in 1998, West said that the result of the continued sale of Telstra would be a ‘two-tier service’ where rural areas would have reduced facilities and investment, and ‘foreign ownership’ would ‘take telecommunications out of the hands of the people in the bush’.

Issues that had occupied much of West’s career continued to arouse her interest and ire over the last four years of her term. In 1998 West linked the implementation of the GST to increases in the cost of living, including the cost of over-the-counter medications. She also discussed the consequences for rural areas of the 2001 collapse of Ansett Australia Airlines, criticised the cost of public liability insurance schemes and condemned taxation measures in the Howard Government’s 1999 defence reform package which, she said, would ‘place further stress, concern and worry on Defence Force personnel’. Her empathetic nature inspired her Labor colleague Senator Joe Ludwig (Qld), to describe her in valedictories as ‘the senator for everything, taking up a whole range of issues that affected people’s lives’.[7]

In late 2000, aware that she would not be successful in a preselection contest, West decided against nominating for another term. In her valedictory address in 2002, she commended the role of the Senate and—amidst headlines about the recently published autobiography of Cheryl Kernot—disavowed any intention of writing a book.

Basing herself in Bathurst after leaving the Senate, West continued to work with various health and church bodies. She chaired Anglicare Western NSW from 2004, and was a member of the board of both Anglicare Canberra and Goulburn and the Provincial Standing Committee of the Anglican Church of Australia. She was also a member of the Bureau of Health Information (2008–13), the Western Local Health District (2012–13) and the Regional Assistance Advisory Committee (from 2013).

In valedictories, Senator Peter Cook (ALP, WA), characterised Sue West as ‘straight’, ‘honest’ and ‘persistent’, and ‘committed to the causes in which she believes. She has played a great role on health issues in this chamber’. Cook also acknowledged that West had ‘toiled, sometimes against the odds … to uphold issues that are vitally important to rural Australia’.[8]

Patrick Mullins

[1] Australian (Syd.), 12 May 1990, p. 6; ‘Profile: Senator Sue West’, House Magazine, 20 May 1987, p. 3; Margaret Reynolds & Jean Willoughby (eds), Her Story: Australian Labor Women in Federal, State and Territory Parliaments 1925–1994, AGPS, Canberra, 1994, p. 135; CPD, 27 June 2002, pp. 2880–1, 1 April 1987, pp. 1661–6, 16 March 1994, pp. 1698–701.

[2] CPD, 23 March 1987, p. 1105, 1 April 1987, pp. 1661–6, 27 June 2002, pp. 2894–7; SMH, 12 Feb. 1987, p. 2, 9 Feb. 1988, p. 3; Australian (Syd.), 12 May, 1990, p. 6.

[3] CPD, 7 Dec. 1998, pp. 1338–40, 10 Oct. 1990, pp. 2819–22, 6 Nov. 1990, pp. 3527–31, 18 Oct. 1993, pp. 2034–6, 9 June 1994, pp. 1600–4, 4 Nov. 1992, pp. 2194–8, 5 March 1992, p. 892, 25 Feb. 1992, pp. 89–90, 1 Sept. 1994, pp. 839–41, 12 Oct. 1994, pp. 1516–18, 13 Oct. 1994, pp. 1686–9, 9 Nov. 1994, pp. 2728–31, 1 Dec. 1994, pp. 3694–5, 27 Feb. 1992, pp. 371–4.

[4] AFR (Syd.), 3 March 1992, p. 59; CPD, 22 Sept. 1994, p. 1242, 9 June 1994, pp. 1573–6, 25 Aug. 1994, pp. 327–9, 25 June 1997, pp. 5076–9, 30 Oct. 2000, pp. 18634–7, 26 June 2002, pp. 2703–5.

[5] CPD, 28 Feb. 1995, pp. 1087–90, 17 Aug. 2000, p. 16645, 31 Aug. 1994, pp. 702–4, 25 June 1997, pp. 5076–9; Community Affairs References Committee, Validation of Cam and Sam Funding of Nursing Homes: Final Report, Canberra, Nov. 1994, pp. 47–8; CPD, 12 Feb. 1997, p. 505, 25 June 1997, pp. 5076–9, 27 Nov. 2000, pp. 19841–5, 14 Feb. 2002, pp. 363–4; Community Affairs References Committee, Report on Funding of Aged Care Institutions, Canberra, June 1997, p. ix.

[6] CPD, 16 March 1994, pp. 1698–701, 7 March 1995, p. 1464, 23 June 1992, pp. 4373–6, 1 Sept. 1993, pp. 795–6, 803–5, 29 Aug. 1994, pp. 507–10, 27 June 2002, pp. 2870–1; AFR (Syd.), 12 July 1996, p. 17; Alan Ramsey, The Way We Were: The View from the Hill of the 25 Years that Remade Australia, UNSW Press, Kensington, NSW, 2011, p. 412; Senate Procedural Bulletin, No. 106, 26 Aug. 1996; SMH, 7 May 1997, p. 9.

[7] CPD, 11 Oct. 1996, pp. 4008–12, 29 May 1996, pp. 1284–7, 9 Oct. 1996, pp. 3805–7, 9 May 1996, pp. 659–65, 31 Oct. 1996, pp. 4848–50, 18 Oct. 1996, pp. 4521–5, 9 Dec. 1996, pp. 6954–7, 10 July 1998, pp. 5470–4, 11 Nov. 1998, pp. 170–2, 21 Nov. 1996, p. 5803, 20 Sept. 2001, pp. 27595–7, 14 Feb. 2002, pp. 357–61, 12 Dec. 1996, pp. 7369–71, 25 March 1999, pp. 3330–2, 26 Aug. 1999, pp. 7881–3, 27 June 2002, pp. 2883–4, 2894–7; SMH, 5 Sept. 2000, p. 4.

[8] CPD, 27 June 2002, pp. 2885–6.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 97-102.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, NSW, 1987, 1990–2002 (ALP)

Deputy President and Chairman of Committees, 1997–2002

Senate Committee Service

Estimates Committee E, 1987, 1990–94; C, 1994

Joint Standing Committee on the New Parliament House, 1987

Standing Committee on Education and the Arts, 1987

Standing Committee on Science, Technology and the Environment, 1987

Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, 1990–92

Select Committee on Health Legislation and Health Insurance, 1990

Standing Committee on Community Affairs, 1990–94

Standing Committee on Environment, Recreation and the Arts, 1990–94

Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, 1990–94

Select Committee on Superannuation, 1991–96

Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs, 1991–94

Joint Committee on the National Capital, 1992–93

Community Affairs Legislation Committee, 1994–96

Community Affairs References Committee, 1994–97, 2001–02

Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, 1994–96

Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee, 1994–2002

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, 1995–96

Select Committee on Aircraft Noise in Sydney, 1995

House Committee, 1996–2002

Joint Committee on Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings, 1996–2002

Joint Committee on the National Capital and External Territories, 1997–2002

Procedure Committee, 1997–2002