The Senate remembers Stanley Bach

Stanley BachThe Senate department is saddened by news of the passing of Stanley Bach in May 2017. During a career spanning more than 30 years, Stan became one of America's foremost experts on the legislative process at the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress, until his retirement in 2002. Stan published extensively in this area and was involved in training programs for members and staff of many parliaments including those of the former Soviet Union, Hungary, Indonesia, the Philippines, China, Morocco and Zambia to name a few.

In 2002 Stan was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study bicameral relations in presidential, parliamentary and mixed political systems. Between October 2002 and March 2003 Stan took up a Fellowship with the Senate department and was a Visiting Fellow in the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University.

During this time, Stan delivered a Senate lecture where he described the combined virtues of responsible government (in the House) with accountable government (in the Senate) as the "accidental genius of Australian politics". Stan developed an admiration of Australia's unique political system which was tempered by a degree of frustration with the conventions of government and the Constitution's reserve powers. However, Stan never lost an opportunity to draw parallels between the theoretical rationale for the United States Senate and the Australian Senate: to protect against the uncontrolled exercise of power by a naturally predominant legislature.

Stan began one of his papers with the words: "I believe in the Senate…I believe that a vigorous and assertive Senate is necessary for the continuing health of Australian democracy". In fact Stan spoke (and wrote) much about the virtues of the Senate's constitutional powers and "strong bicameralism" which refers to two chambers that are symmetrical (in terms of power) and incongruent (in terms of method of election) at the same time.

However, Stan spent as much time thinking and writing about the future of the Senate as he did dwelling on its constitutional origins and institutional evolution. Stan argued persuasively that the "accidental genius" remains an "uncertain genius" because the Senate has yet to develop fully the capacity to enforce the degree of accountability that his conception of democratic governance required: "…the Senate should begin asking not whether its glass is half-full, but whether it remains half empty". Stan was not afraid to advance "modest" proposals to enable the Senate to live up to its responsibilities and potential and thus strengthen the parliament as a whole. As he once said: "we Americans do love to tinker".

Stan returned to Canberra for one last time in 2007 under the auspices of the ANU's Parliamentary Studies Centre. He delivered yet another Senate lecture on "Mandates, Consensus, Compromise, and the Senate" which was published in the January 2009 issue of Papers on Parliament. This paper together with another, "Senate Amendments and Legislative Outcomes, 1996-2007", were nominated for the 2007 Richard Baker Senate Prize for writing about the Australian Senate. Stan's interest in writing about Australia's political system and the Senate never wavered as he continued his association with the ANU's Centre for the Study of Australian Politics until at least 2012.

In words that echo those of former Clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans, Stan came to understand the Senate as the only site of accountable government in the Australian Parliament. In his 2003 Senate lecture Stan told his audience: "It is the Senate, with its non-government majority, that is the only potential source of adequate checks and balances". He also came to view the Senate's energetic committee system and deliberative legislative process as the pointy end of executive scrutiny and accountability. Stan could rightly be considered one of the Senate's strong advocates, proud of the institution "as they should be".

Stan's output while in Australia was prodigious. He is best remembered for his major work on the Australian Senate which was published by the department in 2003. Titled Platypus and Parliament: the Australian Senate in Theory and Practice, it was described by one authority as "…the best book written on an Australian political institution for a very long time", and by another as a pioneering survey which will "…prove a fundamental resource as well as a repository of shrewd judgment". Stan observed that it required no great astuteness for Australian readers to understand the relevance of the platypus to the federal parliament and the Senate: "Both the platypus and the Parliament are uniquely Australian creations. Both display characteristics of two categories of things normally thought to be alternatives to each: reptiles and mammals in the case of the platypus; strong bicameral regimes in the case of Parliament".

Friends remember Stan

During his time in Canberra, Stan became friends with a number of people at the ANU and the Senate department including, in his own words, "the mob in SG.49 of the Senate Wing" where he was based during his Senate Fellowship. One former officer, Sue Blunden, remembers Stan as "…an affable man, with a very big heart. Whenever our paths crossed he made me feel I was his very best friend and welcomed me accordingly; but then he did that with everyone, so Stan had lots of 'best friends'. I like to think that Stan, former Clerk Harry Evans and Deputy Clerk Anne Lynch, all passionate proponents of the Senate, are now together somewhere and continuing to extol its virtues!"

Stan's contribution to Australian parliamentary studies and his many insights into the "accidental genius of Australian politics" will be remembered for a long time to come by those who were fortunate enough to know him.

Stan Bach was a good friend to the Senate, taking a strong professional interest in its role and functions. As the author of Platypus and Parliament, he brought a unique insight to the examination of the Senate’s purpose and work. It was delightful to welcome him to Canberra on two occasions where he studied the institution at close hand and provided expert commentary on its operations. From distant shores, he could always be relied upon to notice what was happening in our hemisphere and to provide supportive and insightful comments, whether it was on constitutional or administrative matters. His wise words when Clerks were getting a battering were always very much appreciated and typical of his kindness to others. I was so sorry to hear of his death and share my sense of loss with Stan’s wide circle of friends and colleagues. 

Rosemary Laing, Clerk of the Senate 2009-2017

I was saddened to learn of Stan’s death. I actually got to know Stan better after he returned to the United States after his time in Canberra. I was fortunate enough to visit the US Congress on two occasions when I was Usher of the Black Rod and Stan was there to show me around. He had contacts with a wide range of people and opened doors for me that would not have been possible had it not been for our Canberra connection. As a result, my limited time there was used very effectively. One of the highlights was Stan taking me on a behind the scenes tour of the Library of Congress where he worked, an architectural gem. It did not take me long to realise that Stan was a highly regarded figure on Capitol Hill. Stan’s work colleagues, congressman, senators and other congressional staff spoke to me of his high intellect, moral integrity and work ethic. I will remember Stan for all those qualities and his great company and sense of humour. I will also miss his wonderful Christmas letter. Stan was one of nature’s “gentle men”. Vale Stan.

Andrea Griffiths, Usher of the Black Rod 2001-2008

I first met Stanley Bach in Washington around 2000 when I was giving a seminar on parliamentary government to a group of people in the World Bank. Stan was sitting in the front row, patiently waiting to hear of anything I might have to say that was new to him. Nothing I said made much of an impression; but Stan wanted to get to know someone from Canberra where he hoped to be going on a Fulbright Fellowship. I promised to act as an Australian National University contact if he won the Fellowship. Stan won most things, including the Fellowship to Canberra. I acted as his university colleague during his first visit and was glad that Harry Evans and especially Wayne Hooper persuaded Stan to make the Senate and not the university his work site. Everything after that prospered wonderfully: Stan’s book Platypus and Parliament is one of the best international accounts of bicameralism in Australia and indeed one of the Senate’s most valuable studies of the Australian parliament. Remarkably, Stan rethought and rewrote many of the misleading conventions of Australian political science.

I remained in close touch with Stan until the year of his death. Until a few years ago, I would catch up with him annually at the conference of the American Political Science Association. I managed to persuade him to return to Canberra for a number of shorter visits where he delved deeper into the many misunderstandings of Australian bicameralism. Stan enjoyed spirited academic exchanges: he published one exchange with the UK’s gifted parliamentary expert Meg Russell; and another with John Nethercote dealing with the intellectual legacy of L F Crisp. Stan even established his own web site called ‘Bach’s Little Library’ which remains accessible, providing us all with access to many of Stan’s papers on legislative studies.

Why was Stan so capably curious? One answer is that he completed his undergraduate education at the University of Chicago where political science prospered. He shared a room with one of Saul Bellow’s sons, so you can begin to guess about his wide range of intellectual interests. I miss Stan’s engagement with Australian parliamentary politics. I know that he was always apologetic that he had never really got to know many parliamentarians personally. Yet I know how consoling it is that so many of us did get to know this wonderful analyst of Australian bicameralism.

Professor John Uhr, School of Politics and International Relations, ANU

Stan Bach was an ebullient bear of a man. Large and jovial, he certainly did not fit the stereotype of a procedural expert as being a boring, dry-as-dust, backroom specialist. His experience in advising newly-emerged or struggling democracies around the world had taught him that the contentious business of politics could descend into virtual, or real, civil war if there were not rules and procedures to channel and contain the strong passions engendered by debates over public policy and the disposition of power. For him, procedural matters were not pedantic minutiae, but the fine, and all-too-often overlooked, cogs and levers that make the grand constitutional machine actually work in practice.

Stan was a bon vivant and a splendid raconteur with a great sense of humour. In his last letter to me he mentioned that he had recently visited Elsinore Castle in Denmark, the setting of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where he tried to convince the operator of the castle gift shop that “he really needed to install a new sign over the door reading, ‘To buy or not to buy’ ”!  That was typical of Stan—seeing things in new ways, from a different angle and thus gaining new insights. Looking at Canberra from a Washington viewpoint, as he did in his book Platypus and Parliament, certainly generated some unique and important insights into our system of government.

His experience in Washington of government shutdowns caused by failure of the legislature to provide finances to keep the ordinary services of executive government going provided him with a special insight into the threat to block Supply that led to the constitutional crisis of 1975. His analysis of that situation is one of the best that I know—full of political savvy, or nous as we would say in Australia. (Stan came to my office one day and asked, “What is this thing called nous, political nous, that people here keep telling me about?” According to Stan ‘nous’ was not a term in common parlance on Washington’s Capitol Hill, so I told him that it was the word that classic Greek writers such as Plato and Aristotle used for mind or intelligence, and which we in Australia use in order to designate gumption, or practical common sense.

In the preface to Platypus and Parliament Stan kindly described me as “the godfather of this book”. I am not entirely sure about being put in that Marlon Brando role, but I was the de facto editor, designer and publisher of the book on the Senate Department’s behalf. And in that role I think that I let Stan down on at least two counts. First, much as I respect his fondness for the platypus metaphor for the hybrid nature of our constitution, I think that I should have insisted that a less enigmatic, more straightforward title might have been better. (I have heard that because of the use of the word ‘platypus’ in the title, the book had been wrongly classified in some places as children’s literature!).

Second, and more importantly, with hindsight I should have insisted that the long and detailed section in the middle of the book where he examines the Senate’s recent legislative history should have been replaced by a summary, and that the detailed statistical analysis should have been placed in an appendix at the back of the book, as this dense piece of text proved a stumbling block for many readers. Several people have told me that they did not get past this section, and they thus missed out in the later chapters some of the best bits of the book, including the excellent discussion of relations with the House of Representatives and his searing analysis of the vexed notion of “mandates” in Chapter 9—a chapter that all politicians should read as it clearly exposes the vague and contradictory nature of this much misused term.

Perhaps my most enduring impression of Stan Bach was his diligence and amazing productivity. Whereas many Australian political scientists had been labouring over “a book on the Senate” for many years, Stan produced the widely admired text of Platypus and Parliament in just a few months.

Wayne Hooper, Director of Research 1998-2005

Stan's contribution to Australian parliamentary studies and his many insights into the "accidental genius of Australian politics" will be remembered for a long time to come by those who were fortunate enough to know him.

Stan's book, Platypus and Parliament, is available from:

Stan's Senate lectures and other papers published in Papers on Parliament 40 (December 2003), 48 (January 2008), 50 (March 2009) and 53 (June 2010) are available from: