Christopher Cunneen, William John McKell, Boilermaker, Premier, Governor-General

Bob Gould

Chris Cunneen’s new book is the third significant book about McKell, and the major political biography. The other two are: A Man of the People by Vince Kelly (Alpha Books 1971) and the Essays, McKell edited by Michael Easson (Alien & Unwin 1988).

Between these three books you get a pretty rounded picture of McKell, his life and times. All the books on McKell suffer a bit from their slightly hagiographic tone. By way of contrast, the literature about J.T. Lang, whose nemesis McKell eventually was, includes both Lang’s rather self serving, ghost written autobiographies, and a bitterly acerbic and critical biography by Bede Nairn. Nairn’s book is by far the most useful Lang book, and it is a pity that McKell’s biographers don’t adopt a more critical stance. The McKell literature is of great interest to me personally, along with the Lang literatUre, given that my father was a long time wheeler and dealer in the ALP on the Lang side.

Cunneen’s biography is a workmanlike and thorough account of the times, despite its reverent tone. McKell was a typical representative of the autodidact proletarians who staffed the labor and trade union movement at all levels for sixty or seventy years. A boilermaker, an improver who studied at night, he became an official of the Redfern Boilermaker’s Union, and was loosely sympathetic to the IWW during the great upsurge of syndicalism and radicalism during the First World War. The conscription split gave him the necessary opening for a parliamentary career, and as a very young first time candidate, he defeated the conscriptionist Laborite, McGowan, for the safe Labor seat of Redfern, where they both lived. As a Labor Member of Parliament, he was energetic and businesslike, and specialised in industrial and legal matters. He scraped into the Labor Cabinet, where he was overshadowed by Lang. In this period he was on the left of the ALP, and defended the Socialist group led by Garden and Willis, from expulsion from the ALP, though he drew back from this when they were eventually expelled, and stuck with the official ALP during the subsequent election. During his first period in Parliament, he persisted in energetic self education, assisted by such able acquaintances as Vere Gordon Childe and H.V. Evatt, and deliberately taught himself effective public speaking, like many people in his situation, he had to go back to school to complete the equivalent of the Leaving, the preliminary to doing Law, which he studied part time while in Parliament. I find the picture of him borrowing law books off friends and acquaintances with personal law libraries, studying at night, and even sleeping overnight in his Parliamentary offices before law exams, rather appealing. He was eventually admitted to the Bar in 1925. He married a young working class woman like himself in 1920, at St. Aiden’s Anglican Church Annandale. They settled down in one of the nicer terrace houses in his Redfern electorate, and started acquiring a bit of real estate. They continued to live in Redfern all through his Parliamentary career and his Premiership, until they moved to Canberra when he became Governor General.

He developed a considerable parliamentary and governmental interest in two typical spheres for Labor politicians, the liquor trade and sport, which is hardly surprising considering his political base in Redfern. Cunneen and some other biographers and essayists attempt to refute recurrent corruption allegations about matters arising from these interests, but in my view, the jury is still out on some of those matters, so to speak, and anecdotal and circumstantial material suggest there may have been something in it. Anyway, after this length of time, we will never know. McKell and his wife, Minnie, took their leisure at sporting events, and, to quote Cunneen, “Minnie and Bill McKell were good dancers. They enjoyed taking part in the old-time waltz competition at the Trocadero in the centre of Sydney (now, sadly, demolished). Their favourite dance venue, however, was the Palais Royal in the Showground. It was owned by Jim Bendrodt, a roller-skating, animal-loving Canadian who was the proprietor of Prince’s, one of Sydney’s most exclusive restaurants.” It’s difficult to imagine any other Premier or Governor General, before or since, going for entertainment with his wife to plebeian public dance halls.

The detailed accounts, in both Cunneen’s book and Nairn’s book on Lang, of the shifting sands in the labor movement, when mass participation in such things as Labor preselections was still the norm, make fascinating reading today. Hundreds and even thousands voted in preselection ballots. McKell nearly lost his footing in one preselection ballot, by initially backing the forces against Lang, but he scraped back on board at the last possible moment, helped a little by Lang’s churlish and grudging benevolence. He didn’t make that mistake again, gritted his teeth and put up with the Lang regime for another ten years or so, until he emerged from the ruck as the almost accidental replacement for Lang as Parliamentary Leader, after the upheaval which overthrew Lang in 1939, when McKell narrowly beat Bob Heffron, who subsequently also became a Labor Premier.

As Labor Parliamentary Leader, he threaded his way carefully through the labor movement upheavals at the start of the Second World War, and was swept into Premiership by the same tide that swept in the Curtin Labor Government federally. The circumstances favoured him as a Labor Premier and he proved competent and effective at the job. (If he was marginally corrupt, no one ever came within cooee of proving it. He was a discreet and cautious man, who knew his way around Sydney and NSW.)

In 1947 he retired from the Premiership, at a time of his own choosing, to become Governor General, commencing a series of Australian appointments to that job. Labor went on to hold power in NSW until 1964. In 1951 McKell had so settled in to the pomp and ceremony, as Her Majesty’s Representative, that he gave Menzies a double dissolution of the Parliament, in circumstances which bitterly angered his old Labor colleagues. He no doubt argued that the job required he do what the job required, which was obviously to look after the medium and short term interests of the ruling class, that in this instance, required helping Menzies get established for a long period of conservative rule. The photos in Cunneen’s book are very informative. You observe visually the evolution of Bill McKell and Minnie, from Redfern and the Palais Royal, to majestic, imposing and rather pompous Vice Regal representatives of Her Majesty (who knighted him for services rendered to the ruling class).