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19 November 2014

Reg 'Toecutter' Withers, former Fraser government minister, dies at age 90

Reg Withers in 1991

Liberal party senate leader orchestrated Gough Whitlam’s downfall in 1975 and was later lord mayor of Perth

Reg “Toecutter” Withers, a former Fraser government minister, has died at the age of 90.
As the senate leader, Withers was the orchestrator of Whitlam’s downfall in 1975, an act that etched him in Australia’s political history.

Withers’s son Simon said his father should be remembered as a major, colourful figure in Australian politics.

“Dad wasn’t really an ideological person. He was more a common sense politician and I think that’s the thing that people haven’t realised over the years,” Withers told ABC radio.

“He was interested mainly in getting the sensible thing done.”

Withers described his father as a friendly man who dealt with pressure well, and while he was the architect and the implementer of the strategy to bring down the Whitlam government, he found his nickname “just a little bit odd”.

“He designed the strategy to defer supply in the Senate,” he said.

“The Liberals had a wafer thin majority in the Senate and dad had to hold them together for many, many months while Whitlam stormed around the country saying he’d let the country go broke before he called an election, and there were many waverers who wanted to cross the floor.

“It was a very strange time.”

Withers said his father was a talented strategist and campaigner behind the scenes, devising the “Memories” campaign that led to the Liberals’ 1977 landslide win, but never got the credit he was due.

Decades on, Whitlam would still rage against Reg Withers for helping instigate his dismissal.

Withers died at home on Saturday.

Western Australian premier Colin Barnett tweeted on Tuesday that Withers was a “tough and cunning politician with a great sense of humour and a great Perth lord mayor”.

He was approached for the position, as he was for the role of WA Liberal party president, which he held from 1961 to 1965, but found it frustrating because he believed his councillors misused their privilege.

As lord mayor from 1991 to 1994, Withers wanted to sink Perth’s CBD railway and build more apartments in the city – plans that have both since eventuated.

Foreign minister Julie Bishop said Withers would be remembered as a stalwart of the Liberal party and strong advocate for WA.

Born in the southern Western Australian town of Bunbury in 1924, he was the son of a trade union representative-turned-Labor MP, but along with most of his siblings, became a Liberal.

Prior to his time in politics, he served in the navy and practised as a lawyer.

In 1969, he was appointed government whip and held the position until 1971, the year before Whitlam returned Labor to power after the party’s 23-year exile.