Al Grassby

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The Honourable
Al Grassby
Member of the Australian Parliament
for Riverina
In office
25 October 1969 – 18 May 1974
Preceded by Bill Armstrong
Succeeded by John Sullivan
Personal details
Born (1926-07-12)12 July 1926
Brisbane, Queensland
Died 23 April 2005(2005-04-23) (aged 78)
Nationality Australian
Political party Australian Labor Party
Spouse(s) Ellnor
Occupation Journalist

Albert Jaime Grassby, AM (12 July 1926 – 23 April 2005) was an Australian politician, most prominently known for serving as Minister for Immigration in the Labor Whitlam Government. He initiated sweeping reforms in immigration and human rights, and is often known as the father of Australian "multiculturalism".[1][2]

Early life and state politics[edit]

He was born Albert Jaime Grassby in Brisbane, Queensland to parents of Spanish and Irish descent. His family lived in the United Kingdom during the 1930s and 1940s, and Albert was educated partly at schools in England.[3] During World War II, his father was killed in a German air raid.[4] After he turned 18, Grassby joined the British Army, serving in both infantry units and the British Intelligence Corps (1945–46).[3] [4]

Following the end of the war, Grassby returned to Australia, working as a journalist and information officer for the CSIRO in Griffith, New South Wales. In 1965 Grassby was elected as Member of the NSW Legislative Assembly for the electorate of Murrumbidgee representing the Australian Labor Party. Grassby served as Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Conservation between 1968 and 1969.[5] His high profile and popularity in the local community encouraged him to enter federal politics.

Federal politics[edit]

Grassby won the rural electorate of Riverina for the Labor Party at the 1969 federal election. Labor had not won this seat for 24 years.[2] Following Gough Whitlam's victory at the 1972 election, Grassby was appointed Minister for Immigration. In this role, Grassby became one of the more high-profile members of the Whitlam ministry and was best known for ushering in multiculturalism in Australia and burying the White Australia policy.[1] Grassby pushed for more immigration from non-English-speaking countries, "banned racially selected sporting teams from playing in Australia and repealed the law that required Indigenous Australians to seek permission before going overseas."[6]

As the White Australia policy had been formally revoked in 1973, Grassby's actions provoked disquiet among sections of the Australian community, including in his Riverina electorate and some of his ALP colleagues, who thought his reforms too radical for the period; but Grassby could point to his enormous popularity within multicultural Australia and the subsequent growth of support for the ALP from this section of the community as more than adequate recompense for any possible loss of support from white Australia.

In addition to his high-profile crusade for multiculturalism, Grassby also gained wide attention for his flamboyant dress sense, his colourful ties and suits setting him apart from the unwritten dress code for politicians of sombre dark suits and plain ties.[2]

Grassby's actions attracted criticism from anti-immigration groups, led by the Immigration Control Association, which targeted his electorate in a campaign at the May 1974 election. Partly as a result, Grassby was defeated by the National Party candidate, John Sullivan by just 792 votes. Grassby and his supporters accused these groups of mounting a racist smear campaign against him.[1]

Commission for Community Relations[edit]

Following his defeat, Grassby was appointed as the first federal Commissioner for Community Relations,[1][2] administering the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, which he had championed while in parliament. While he continued to work towards a multicultural Australia, Grassby couldn't escape controversy. In one case, Grassby nominated for preselection for the safe federal Labor seat of Parramatta following encouragement from Gough Whitlam, who sought to return Grassby to the ministry. However, Grassby surprisingly lost the preselection ballot, because many rank-and-file Labor members objected to an outside candidate being foisted upon them.

In another case, he became entangled in one of the more sensational political cases of Australian history when he hired Junie Morosi to work at the Commission for Community Relations, which brought her into contact with a number of government ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer, Jim Cairns. Cairns appointed Morosi as his Principal Private Secretary, a job traditionally held by a senior public servant. The ensuing controversy surrounding the appointment led to the downfall of Cairns and, while Grassby was not guilty of any misconduct himself, he attracted criticism by his connection to the case.

Grassby resigned in the wake of the Nagle inquiry, which found he had been involved in the attempts to table false claims about murdered political candidate Donald Mackay's family.[7]


Grassby published a number of books, including a biography of early Australian Prime Minister Chris Watson and various studies of multiculturalism in Australia.


In recognition of his pioneering work on immigration, Grassby was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in 1985. He received the United Nations Peace Medal in 1986.

Legal action[edit]

In 1980 Grassby was charged with criminal defamation when it was alleged that he had asked a New South Wales state politician, Michael Maher, to read in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly a document that imputed that Barbara Mackay and her family solicitor were responsible for the disappearance (and probable murder) of her husband Donald Mackay, a prominent Riverina businessman who had been a Liberal candidate against Grassby in 1974.[8] Maher, when asked why Grassby had made the request, replied that it was a matter of his own Sydney electorate's demographics: "I had the biggest concentration of Italians in Haberfield, Five Dock, Concord and Drummoyne. He [Grassby] thought I could play the Italian vote."[9] Grassby maintained his innocence and fought a twelve-year battle in the courts before he was eventually acquitted on appeal in August 1992. He was awarded $180,000 in costs.[2][10] Grassby had already lost a civil suit filed by Barbara Mackay, forcing him to unconditionally apologise.[11]

Death and subsequent media reports[edit]

Al Grassby, who had been treated for cancer, died on 23 April 2005, two days after suffering a heart attack, after several months' pneumonia. He was survived by his wife Ellnor Grassby and his daughter Gabriella Davis,[2] and his partner of 25 years, Angela Chan.[12]

After Grassby's death, a number of revelations were made in the media, particularly in relation to his alleged links with the Calabrian Mafia (known as the 'Ndrangheta) in Griffith and to the events surrounding the disappearance and probable murder of Donald Mackay. Beginning on 9 May 2005, the Melbourne Herald Sun ran a series of articles alleging that Grassby used his influence to thwart a National Crime Authority investigation into the Mafia, and to "let mafia criminals into Australia", and that he was "paid to do the mafia's bidding", including receiving a $40,000 payment from the Griffith Mafia to smear Barbara Mackay.[9]

Giafranco Tizzoni, a Mafia supergrass, identified Grassby as being at the "beck and call" of the Calabrian Mafia for at least 40 years and according to the National Crime Authority the Mafia funded Grassby's election campaigns. One of Al Grassby's closest associates was Toni Sergi, the man identified in court and in Parliament as the Mafia leader who ordered the execution of Donald Mackay.[13]

A decision, in 2009, by the Australian Capital Territory's Labor Chief Minister Jon Stanhope to erect a statue of Al Grassby in Canberra has been the subject of some controversy.[9] Grassby's various criminal connections were featured in the television crime drama Underbelly.[9]


  1. ^ a b c d "Whitlam government minister Al Grassby dies". The Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Media. 23 April 2005. Retrieved 2010-08-06. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Stephens, Tony (25 April 2005). "Grassby's legacy of tolerance, diversity". The Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 2010-08-06. 
  3. ^ a b Parliament of NSW, n.d., Mr Albert Jaime GRASSBY (5 November 2014)
  4. ^ a b Martin Lumb, Scott Bennett & John Moremon Commonwealth Members of Parliament who have served in war, Canberra: Parliamentary Library, p. 5.
  5. ^ "Mr Albert Jaime Grassby (1926 - 2005)". Members of Parliament. Parliament of New South Wales. Retrieved 25 February 2010. 
  6. ^ Weekly Hansard, 14 March 2007. Legislative Assembly for the ACT. Page 580. Debate: Theo Notaras Multicultural Centre—proposed statue of Mr Al Grassby. MR HARGREAVES (Brindabella—Minister for the Territory and Municipal Services, Minister for Housing and Minister for Multicultural Affairs)
  7. ^ "Mackay report hits at police chief, Grassby". The Age. 2 December 1986. p. 1. 
  8. ^ Grassby v R, 168 (High Court of Australia 1989).
  9. ^ a b c d Sheehan, Paul (16 February 2009). "Monuments to honesty and deceit". The Sydney Morning Herald. 
  10. ^ Heinrichs, Paul (24 April 2005), "Al Grassby, father of multiculturalism, dies", The Age, Fairfax Media, archived from the original on 20 January 2010, retrieved 2010-01-16 
  11. ^ Jenny Cooke (1 June 1988). "Prosection appeals over Grassby decisions". Sydney Morning Herald. p. 11. Mr Williams - partly due to the lengthly delay in bringing the charge and the fact that Mrs Mackay already had won a civil suit with an unconditional apology from Mr Grassby - permanently stayed the criminal defamation. 
  12. ^ Kerry-Anne Walsh (8 May 2005). "Al Grassby's double life". The Sun-Herald. Archived from the original on 9 May 2005. 
  13. ^ "Mafia Influence and the Whitlam Government". National Observer (Winter, 2005 ed.). 2005. 

External links[edit]

Parliament of New South Wales
Preceded by
George Enticknap
Member for Murrumbidgee
Succeeded by
Lin Gordon
Parliament of Australia
Preceded by
Bill Armstrong
Member for Riverina
Succeeded by
John Sullivan
Political offices
Preceded by
Lance Barnard
Minister for Immigration
Succeeded by
Clyde Cameron