Rex Connor

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The Honourable
Rex Connor
Rexcorrnor.jpg
Member of the Australian Parliament
for Cunningham
In office
30 November 1963 – 22 August 1977
Preceded by Victor Kearney
Succeeded by Stewart West
Personal details
Born (1907-01-26)26 January 1907
Wollongong, New South Wales
Died 22 August 1977(1977-08-22) (aged 70)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory
Nationality Australian
Political party Australian Labor Party
Children Three sons
Occupation Car dealer, farmer

Reginald Francis Xavier "Rex" Connor (26 January 1907 – 22 August 1977), Australian politician, was a minister in the Whitlam government and promoted government investment to support national development. Surreptitious attempts to raise foreign loans led to his forced resignation and, indirectly, the fall of the Whitlam Government in 1975.

The journalist Paul Kelly wrote in his book November 1975: "It was the national interest that drove Rex Connor. He can be criticised for his naivety and poor judgement. But there is no charge against Connor's integrity... The Opposition implied in the lobbies that ministers were chasing personal gain. There is no evidence for this."[1] Nevertheless, by the time Labor returned to office in 1983, Connor's economic nationalism and dreams of massive state investment in energy projects had been totally rejected.

Early life[edit]

Connor was born in Wollongong, New South Wales, where he lived all his life and which he represented in the New South Wales and Australian Parliaments. Descended from Irish Catholics (though not himself a practising Catholic in adulthood), he was educated at state schools, including Wollongong High School, of which he graduated as dux, despite contracting pneumonia in his final year.

Due to his father's death in 1925, he gave up his intention of becoming an analytical chemist and became an articled clerk. He qualified in law, but was twice rejected for registration as a solicitor, the result of his dismissal by his former employer. Instead he went into business as a car dealer and later took up farming. Despite these middle-class occupations he was a dedicated socialist. In 1931 he married Amelia Searl. From 1938 to 1945 he was an Alderman on the Wollongong City Council.[2]

State politics[edit]

In 1940, when the NSW ALP was split into three factions, he contested the federal seat of Werriwa for the so-called "Hughes-Evans Labor Party", the left-wing faction which had split from the recently reunified ALP in NSW, led by William (Bill) McKell. Subsequently, some members of the State Labor Party joined the Communist Party of Australia, and some have been shown to have held "dual tickets" throughout the period. Nevertheless, when most of the Hughes-Evans faction were expelled in 1941, Connor remained in the ALP.

In 1950 Connor was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly for the seat of Wollongong-Kembla, where he served for 13 years. He was partly responsible for the introduction of the state's Clean Air Act 1961.[3] Since he was not a supporter of the dominant Catholic right-wing of the NSW ALP, he remained a backbencher.[2]

Federal politics[edit]

In 1963 Connor quit state politics and was elected to the Australian House of Representatives for the Wollongong-based seat of Cunningham at the 1963 election. In Canberra, Connor developed a reputation as an eccentric. A large, shabbily dressed man who always wore a hat long after hats had gone out of fashion, Connor seldom spoke in the House and never spoke to journalists. He kept his real age a secret (several obituarists assumed that he had actually been born no earlier than 1908). Sometimes he would reveal an ungovernable temper, and after an incident in which he ripped a clock off a wall in Parliament House and threw it across the room in a rage, he was unofficially known as "The Strangler". His earlier socialism had evolved into a fierce economic nationalism, directed mainly at foreign-owned banks and mining companies.

Minister[edit]

At the 1972 election Labor came to power under Gough Whitlam, and Connor was elected to the front-bench and appointed Minister for Minerals and Energy. In this portfolio he sought to develop an Australian-controlled mining and energy sector, one not controlled by the mining companies he disliked. Among his plans were a national energy grid and a gas pipe-line across Australia from the North-West Shelf gasfields to the cities of the south-east. He liked to recite a piece of poetry by Sam Walter Foss (who was, ironically, American):

Give me men to match my mountains,
Give me men to match my plains,
Men with freedom in their visions
And creation in their veins.

Connor's economic nationalism was popular with the Labor rank-and-file, and the 1973 oil crisis seemed to many to be a vindication of his views. After the 1974 election he topped the Caucus ballot for the second Whitlam ministry. But the flood of petrodollars which accompanied the energy crisis proved to be Connor's undoing.

During 1974 Connor sought to bypass the usual loan raising processes and raise money in the Middle East through an intermediary, a mysterious Pakistani banker called Tirath Khemlani. Because of strong opposition from the Treasury and the Attorney-General's Department about the legality of the loan (and about Khemlani's general bona fides), Cabinet decided in May 1975 that only the Treasurer, not Connor, was authorised to negotiate foreign loans in the name of the Australian government. Nevertheless, Connor went on negotiating through Khemlani for a huge petrodollar loan for his various development projects, confident that if he succeeded no-one would blame him, and if he failed no-one would know.

Unfortunately for Connor, Khemlani proved to be a false friend and sold the story of Connor's activities to the Liberal Opposition for a sum which has never been disclosed[citation needed]. Connor denied the Liberals' accusations, both to Whitlam personally and to Parliament. When the Liberal Deputy Leader, Phillip Lynch tabled letters from Connor to Khemlani, Connor was forced in October to resign in disgrace. The Opposition proclaimed the Loans Affair a "reprehensible circumstance", which justified the blocking of supply in the Senate, leading to the dismissal of the Whitlam government a few weeks later by Governor-General, Sir John Kerr.[2][4]

After the dismissal[edit]

After the 1975 general election, in which Labor was heavily defeated, Connor was unexpectedly re-elected to the Opposition front bench. This was seen as a gesture of defiance to the Murdoch press, which had played a leading role in bringing down Whitlam's government.

Connor's wife died in April 1977 and he died suddenly in Canberra of a coronary occlusion in August of that year. He was survived by their three sons.[2] One of his sons, Rex Connor Jnr, founded and led the Advance Australia Party.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Kelly, Paul (1995). November 1975 : the inside story of Australia’s greatest political crisis. St. Leonards, N.S.W: Allen & Unwin. p. 392. ISBN 1-86373-987-4. 
  2. ^ a b c d Lloyd, C. J. "Connor, Reginald Francis Xavier (Rex) (1907–1977)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Australian National University. Retrieved 2007-03-13. 
  3. ^ "Mr Reginald Francis Xavier Connor (1907–1977)". Members of Parliament. Parliament of New South Wales. Retrieved 26 February 2010. 
  4. ^ Smith, David. "Rex Connor – the other dismissal". On line opinion. Retrieved 2007-03-27. 
Political offices
New title Minister for Minerals and Energy
1972–1975
Succeeded by
Ken Wriedt
Parliament of Australia
Preceded by
Victor Kearney
Member for Cunningham
1963–1977
Succeeded by
Stewart West