The politics of Liverpool after World War II were and remain the politics of Labor dominance. Fortified by a pattern of working class urbanisation, the ALP succeeded in increasing its majority for State and Federal seats at successive elections. In local government, however, the Party’s success was consistently marred by the brelay of political intrigue and personal ambition. It is simply impossible to understand this period in local history without assessing the public career and private motives of Rowland Albert (‘Ron’) Dunbier.
Born at Campsie on 29 August 1914, Dunbier first rose to prominence in Liverpool in 1949 when he mustered a team of independent candidates who succeeded in winning eight of the 12 positions contested for the Liverpool Municipal Council. Following his election as Mayor – a position he held for the next four years Dunbier and his team joined the ALP.
The State member representing Liverpool at this time was the Labor Premier, James McGirr. A product of the western districts of NSW and a pharmaceutical chemist by trade, McGirr entered the State Parliament for the electorate of Cootamundra in 1922 before transferring to Cumberland in 1925 and then Bankstown in 1927. He served as the Minister for Health (1930-31), Local Government (1931-32) and Transport (1932) in the second Lang Government and then Local Government (1941-44) and Housing (1941-47) in the McKell Government.
Upon the resignation of premier McKell to become Governor General in February 1947, McGirr became Premier and Treasurer. Prior to the general election of June 1950 a redistribution of all State seats was conducted. Faced with the choice of two electorates, Bankstown which he had represented for 23 years and the new seat of Liverpool which included only a minority portion of his old electorate, McGirr surprisingly chose the latter.
At the elections McGirr easily won his new seat while, closer to Sydney, the ALP lost the seat of Concord by just a handful of votes. Thereupon McGirr encouraged Dunbier to start lobbying local support in Concord for the Labor candidacy at the following election. The ALP, as in all electorates, would select its candidate through a ballot involving most members of the local Party branches.
When the ALP closed nominations for the selection of its candidates early in 1952, State politicians and commentators, especially Dunbier who had nominated for Concord, were shocked to learn that the Premier was being opposed in his own seat by his parliamentary secretary, Norman John (‘Jack’) Mannix. Their surprise turned to disbelief when McGirr resigned from the Parliament on 2 April to take the position of president of the NSW Maritime Services Board and thereby make Mannix the sole candidate for Labor selection in Liverpool.
The manoeuvres and manipulation of McGirr and Mannix soon appeared to have been too smart by half as the outcry of the local ALP branches, no doubt led by those who aspired to succeed McGirr, forced the ALP Executive to reopen its ballot in Liverpool. With a by-election set down for 24 May the selection faced an expeditious timetable.
Dunbier broke quickly from his Concord campaign in an attempt to nullify the advantage Mannix had gained in preceding weeks by making close contact with the local ALP members. But not even Dunbier’s prestige as Mayor or considerable campaign skills could make up the leeway as Mannix triumphed in a closely contest ballot. He won the ensuing by-election and later became NSW Minister of Justice (1960-65) before retiring in 1971.
In politics nothing is certain, least of all the outcome of ALP selection ballots. For Dunbier this cruel reality was brought home on his return to the campaign in Concord. His opponents began propagating the line that, following his defeat in Liverpool, Dunbler was now treating Concord as only his second best alternative. Enough ALP members were impressed by this argument to secure for Thomas Patrick Murphy a one vote victory over the hapless Dunbier.
Murphy won the subsequent general election, serving as Member for Concord until his defeat at the 1968 elections. Dunbler had been the victim of a double irony. If he had not campaigned in Liverpool he would have become the Member for Concord. Equally, if he bad not campaigned in Concord he would have become the Member for Liverpool. Perhaps the greatest irony of all, however, came 13 years later when Dunbier was finally elected to State Parliament, not in Concord or Liverpool but Nepean, and not representing the ALP but the Liberal Party. The electorate of Nepean at that time took in the districts of Springwood, St. Marys, Kemps Creek and Badgerys Creek, where Dunbier lived. At the 1971 election Dunbier was defeated by the ALP candidate and later Deputy Premier, Ron Mulock.*
By December 1952 two of Dunbier’s ALP colleagues on Liverpool Council, Joe Bradshaw and Alex Grimson, had grown weary of Dunbier’s monopoly on the position of Mayor. Consequently, they conspired with the independent aldermen to make Grimson the Mayor and Bradshaw the Deputy Mayor. For their trouble, both were expelled from the ALP.
Dunbier’s misfortunes continued in 1953 when allegations surfaced over his use of Council supplies of cement for the construction of a car yard at the corner of Terminus Street and Hoxton Park Road. The matter was bought before the courts where Dunbier was convicted and placed on a good behaviour bond. This disqualified the former Mayor from Council but when his bond expired he was able to persuade his close friend, Alderman Bill Stanton, to resign from Council and thereby create a casual vacancy. Dunbier contested the by-election on 22 May 1954 and, despite his proven impropriety, was comfortably elected as an independent alderman.
Thereafter Dunbier organised a Citizens Team with which to contest Council elections. He was again elected Mayor in 1957, 1958, 1959 and 1962. He served as an alderman until 1962 and again from 1974 to 1976 – when Council was dismissed by the State Government – and 1983 until his death following a car accident in April 1984. In all our local history, there have been few personalities more colourful, controversial or worthy of historical interest than Ron Dunbier, the Machiavellian prince of politics in Liverpool.
* Between 1968 and 1971 Dunbier’s son, Max, served in State Parliament as the Member for Campbelltown. He was defeated by Cliff Mallam by just 29 votes at the 1971 election. Max had also served on Liverpool Council (1965-68) and in 1972 stood as the Liberal candidate for the Federal seat of Macarthur. After the sitting member, Jeff Bate, had lost his Liberal endorsement to Dunbier he decided to contest the general election as an independent. With the Liberal vote split between Bate and Dunbier, John Kerin was comfortably elected as Member for Macarthur.