William McKell

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The Right Honourable
Sir William McKell
GCMG
Williammckell.jpg
12th Governor-General of Australia
In office
11 March 1947 – 8 May 1953
Monarch George VI
Elizabeth II
Prime Minister Ben Chifley
Robert Menzies
Preceded by HRH The Duke of Gloucester
Succeeded by Sir William Slim
27th Premier of New South Wales
Elections: 1941, 1944
In office
16 May 1941 – 6 February 1947
Governor The Lord Wakehurst
Sir John Northcott
Deputy Jack Baddeley
Preceded by Alexander Mair
Succeeded by James McGirr
Member of the New South Wales Parliament
for Redfern
In office
24 March 1917 – 18 February 1920
Preceded by James McGowen
Succeeded by District abolished
In office
8 October 1927 – 6 February 1947
Preceded by New district
Succeeded by George Noble
Personal details
Born (1891-09-26)26 September 1891
Pambula, New South Wales,
Australia
Died 11 January 1985(1985-01-11) (aged 93)
Sydney, New South Wales,
Australia
Political party Labor
Spouse(s) Mary Pye

Sir William John McKell GCMG (26 September 1891 – 11 January 1985), Australian politician, was Premier of New South Wales from 1941 to 1947, and was the 12th Governor-General of Australia from 1947 to 1953. He was the longest-lived Governor-General, aged 93 when he died.

Early life[edit]

McKell was born in Pambula, New South Wales, the son of a butcher names Robert Pollock McKell, who abandoned his wife and their four children. For the rest of his life, McKell avoided discussing the matter by saying his father had died young.[1] He was educated in Sydney at Bourke Street Public School and became a boilermaker, and was state secretary of the Boilermakers' Union from 1915.

Political career[edit]

He was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly as a Labor member for Redfern in 1917 and retained the seat until he resigned to become Governor-General in 1947, except for the period of proportional representation (1920–1927), when he was a member for Botany. In 1920 he married Mary Pye. While in Parliament he studied law, and became a barrister in 1925. In Jack Lang's Labor governments of 1925-27 and 1931-32 he was Minister for Justice, and was also Minister for Local Government in 1930-31.[2][3]

During the 1930s McKell became a leader of the opposition within the Labor Party to what was felt to be Lang's dictatorial rule and his electoral failures. In 1939 he displaced Lang as Labor leader and Leader of the Opposition.

Premier of New South Wales[edit]

In 1941 he became Premier when he led Labor to a convincing victory in the state elections, mainly by concentrating on country seats. During his time as Premier, the Kosciusko State National Park was established, while increased levels of funding were made available for art galleries, libraries, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. In addition, various reforms were carried out in soil conservation, education, child welfare, and workers’ compensation.[4] In 1944, an Annual Holiday Act was passed, providing all workers in New South Wales with two weeks paid leave.[5]

During World War II he became a close collaborator of Labor Prime Ministers John Curtin and Ben Chifley, being a particularly close friend of the latter. In 1944 he won another election victory, the first time a New South Wales Labor government had been re-elected. On 13 February 1946 he announced he would be retiring from politics before the next state election.[1]

Governor-General[edit]

In 1947 Chifley gained formal agreement from King George VI for McKell's appointment as Governor-General. This occurred only after very considerable opposition from the King and a detailed correspondence between them, also involving the incumbent governor-general (George's brother the Duke of Gloucester) and the British Foreign Office, the details of which did not come to light till over 50 years later. The objection was not personal (George VI had never met McKell) but centered on his being closely associated with a particular political party, and with a particular state. There was no precedent for a serving politician, let alone a party leader and head of government, to be named Australian governor-general, although there was a South African precedent. In the end, George VI had no option but accept Chifley's assurances of McKell's personal integrity and that the Crown would not be exposed to any political controversy.[6]

The official announcement was made on 31 January 1947, and McKell resigned from parliament and from the ministry on 6 February,[6] but not before participating in the caucus vote to elect his own successor (5 February); he had favoured Bob Heffron, but James McGirr had the numbers.[7]

Chifley was determined that the Duke of Gloucester's successor should be an Australian, and he seems to have deliberately chosen a Labor man with a working-class background to make a political point. There was an outcry from the Liberal opposition and the conservative press: Robert Menzies called the appointment "shocking and humiliating". In a debate on a censure motion on 20 February, Menzies said the fact that McKell was actively engaged in politics when the appointment was announced (even though he had since vacated the political stage) was "a grave disqualification" which "strikes at the very foundation of the office of the Governor-Generalship, because that office in Australia should be as far removed from party politics as is the Crown itself in Great Britain". Chifley, in response, accepted full responsibility for the appointment, said that he offered no apologies, and "I am completely confident that as time goes on I shall have no reason to regret my action".[8] McKell kept a dignified silence on the matter of his appointment, rather than conducting a public defence of it. Nevertheless, Chifley publicly argued that any suitable Australian should be capable of being chosen as governor-general.

Once McKell took office on 11 March, however, the continuing respect for the Crown and its representative meant that there was no further criticism. McKell carried out the usual round of his formal duties with dignity, and succeeded in winning over all but the most inflexible anglophiles. When Menzies succeeded Chifley as Prime Minister in December 1949, his relations with McKell were initially cordial, but they later became firm friends and Menzies even extended his term by 14 months from its initial five years.[1]

The most controversial moment in McKell's career came in March 1951, when Menzies asked him for a double dissolution election. Labor had retained control of the Senate after the 1949 election, and the Senate had referred the government's banking bill to a committee. Menzies argued that this constituted "failure to pass" in terms of Section 57 of the Australian Constitution.

Many in the Labor Party, though not Chifley, thought that McKell should and would refuse Menzies a double dissolution, but the Governor-General agreed (with little hesitation) to provide one. McKell took the view that it was for the voters, not the Governor-General, to determine whether the Senate or Menzies was right: he saw it as his duty to act on the advice of his Prime Minister.

On 13 November 1951,[9] McKell accepted a knighthood (Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George) from King George VI, who personally invested him at Buckingham Palace while McKell was on an official visit to the United Kingdom.[3] This caused considerable controversy in the Labor Party, as it was Labor policy to have nothing to do with knighthoods (a policy confirmed by the case of Queensland union leader Jack Egerton a generation afterwards); but there was nothing Labor could do about it, since McKell had severed all connections with the party on assuming office. Also it was unprecedented, and was still considered somewhat inappropriate, for a governor-general not to be at least a knight (if not a peer). McKell was the only Australian governor-general to be knighted during his term, until Quentin Bryce was appointed a Dame of the Order of Australia a few days before her retirement in March 2014.

His Official Secretary for the first few weeks was Sir Leighton Bracegirdle, whose retirement was overdue after serving McKell's three predecessors over 16 years. He was succeeded by Murray Tyrrell.

Later life[edit]

McKell retired in May 1953, having had his initial term extended by 14 months by then Prime Minister Robert Menzies who had previously objected to his appointment.

From June 1956 to 1957 he served as a member of the Reid Commission, which was responsible for drafting the Constitution of the Federation of Malaya (now Malaysia).

McKell lived in Sydney for another 30 years, becoming considered one of the grand old men of the New South Wales Labor Party, although he never resumed any party or political activity. He died in Sydney in January 1985. His widow, Lady (Mary) McKell, died in July 1985.[10]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

External links[edit]

Parliament of New South Wales
Preceded by
James McGowen
Member for Redfern
1917–1920
District abolished
Preceded by
Thomas Mutch
Member for Botany
1920–1927
With: Burke, Hickey/Ratcliffe, Lee, Mutch
Succeeded by
Thomas Mutch
New district Member for Redfern
1927–1947
Succeeded by
George Noble
Political offices
Preceded by
Edward McTiernan
Minister for Justice
1920–1921
Succeeded by
Thomas Bavin
Preceded by
Thomas Bavin
Minister for Justice
1921–1922
Succeeded by
Thomas Ley
Preceded by
Thomas Ley
Minister for Justice
1925–1927
Succeeded by
Andrew Lysaght
New title Assistant Colonial Treasurer of New South Wales
1925–1927
Succeeded by
Robert Cruickshank
Preceded by
Michael Bruxner
Minister for Local Government
1930–1931
Succeeded by
James McGirr
Preceded by
Joseph Lamaro
Minister for Justice
1931–1932
Succeeded by
Daniel Levy
Preceded by
Jack Lang
Leader of the Opposition of New South Wales
1939–1941
Succeeded by
Alexander Mair
Preceded by
Alexander Mair
Premier of New South Wales
1941–1947
Succeeded by
James McGirr
Preceded by
Athol Richardson
Colonial Treasurer of New South Wales
1941–1947
Party political offices
Preceded by
Jack Lang
Leader of the Australian Labor Party in New South Wales
1939–1947
Succeeded by
James McGirr
Government offices
Preceded by
HRH The Duke of Gloucester
Governor-General of Australia
1947–1953
Succeeded by
Sir William Slim