Billy Snedden

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The Right Honourable
Sir Billy Snedden
Snedden in 1967
Leader of the Opposition
Elections: 1974
In office
20 December 1972 – 21 March 1975
Prime Minister Gough Whitlam
Deputy Phillip Lynch
Preceded by William McMahon[1]
Succeeded by Malcolm Fraser
Speaker of the House of Representatives
In office
17 February 1976 – 4 February 1983
Preceded by Gordon Scholes
Succeeded by Harry Jenkins Sr.
Party leadership positions
Leader of the Liberal Party
In office
20 December 1972 – 21 March 1975
Deputy Phillip Lynch
Preceded by William McMahon
Succeeded by Malcolm Fraser
Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party
In office
18 August 1971 – 20 December 1972
Prime Minister William McMahon
Preceded by John Gorton
Succeeded by Phillip Lynch
Ministerial offices
Attorney-General for Australia
In office
4 March 1964 – 14 December 1966
Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies
Harold Holt
Preceded by Sir Garfield Barwick
Succeeded by Nigel Bowen
Minister for Immigration
In office
14 December 1966 – 12 November 1969
Prime Minister Harold Holt
John McEwen
John Gorton
Preceded by Hubert Opperman
Succeeded by Phillip Lynch
Minister for Labour and National Service
In office
12 November 1969 – 22 March 1971
Prime Minister John Gorton
William McMahon
Preceded by Les Bury
Succeeded by Phillip Lynch
Treasurer of Australia
In office
22 March 1971 – 4 December 1972
Prime Minister William McMahon
Preceded by Leslie Bury
Succeeded by Gough Whitlam
Member of the Australian Parliament
for Bruce
In office
10 December 1955 – 28 May 1983
Preceded by Constituency established
Succeeded by Ken Aldred
Personal details
Born Billy Mackie Snedden
(1926-12-31)31 December 1926
Perth, Western Australia, Australia
Died 27 June 1987(1987-06-27) (aged 60)
Rushcutters Bay, New South Wales, Australia
Political party Liberal
Spouse(s) Joy Forsyth (m. 1950)
Children 4
Education Highgate State School
Perth Boys' School
Alma mater Perth Technical College
University of Western Australia
Occupation Commercial lawyer
Public servant

Sir Billy Mackie Snedden, KCMG, PC, QC (31 December 1926 – 27 June 1987) was an Australian politician who served as the leader of the Liberal Party from 1972 to 1975. He was also a cabinet minister from 1964 to 1972, and Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1976 to 1983.

Snedden was born in Perth, Western Australia. He served in the Royal Australian Air Force during World War II, and then studied law at the University of Western Australia. From 1951 to 1952, he was the inaugural federal chairman of the Young Liberal Movement. After a period working overseas for the Department of Immigration, Snedden returned to Australia in 1954 and settled in Melbourne. He was elected to the House of Representatives the following year, aged 28.

In 1964, Snedden was elevated to cabinet by Robert Menzies. He served as a government minister until the Liberal government's defeat at the 1972 election, under an additional four prime ministers. Snedden spent periods as Attorney-General (1964–1966), Minister for Immigration (1966–1969), Minister for Labour and National Service (1969–1971), and Treasurer (1971–1972). He was elected deputy leader of the Liberal Party in 1971, and replaced William McMahon as leader after the following year's election loss, thus becoming Leader of the Opposition.

Snedden led the Liberal Party to the 1974 federal election, which saw the Labor Party retain government with a narrow majority. Malcolm Fraser mounted two leadership challenges in early 1975, winning on the second attempt; by the end of the year he was prime minister. Snedden was elected to the speakership when the parliament next sat. He held the position for almost seven years, gaining a reputation for impartiality. In retirement, Snedden served as chairman of the Melbourne Football Club and on the board of the Victorian Football League. The unusual circumstances of his death in 1987 attracted much public interest.

Early life[edit]

Born in Perth, the son of a stonemason, Billy Snedden was educated at Highgate Primary School, Perth Boys School and Perth Technical College. He joined the Royal Australian Air Force in 1945. After the war he was discharged and attended the University of Western Australia, where he completed a law degree in 1950. It was at UWA as President of the Liberal Club that he first encountered Bob Hawke, who was President of the ALP Club. He was admitted to the bar in 1951. That year he represented Western Australia at the Australian Amateur Football Carnival in Melbourne.[3] In 1950 Snedden married Joy Forsyth, with whom he had four children. During this time he made three unsuccessful attempts to enter politics, standing for the Liberal Party at the 1948 Boulder state by-election and at the 1949 and 1951 federal elections (in Fremantle and Perth, respectively).[4]

Political career[edit]

Snedden c. 1955

In 1954 he moved to Melbourne, where he practised law until 1955, when he was elected to the House of Representatives for the outer suburban seat of Bruce. He defeated Keith Ewert, the former Labor member for nearby Flinders. Snedden defeated Ewert by a similar margin in 1958.

In 1961, Snedden faced Ewert again, and this time trailed in initial counting. However, he was elected on Democratic Labor Party preferences.[5] Snedden's narrow win was critical in the outcome of what was the closest election in Australian history up till that time. Had Labor won it, it would have toppled the Coalition after 12 years of rule. However, with Snedden's win, the best Labor could hope for was a hung parliament, though the Coalition was not assured of another term in government until later in the night, with its narrow victory in Moreton.

He served in the ministries of Sir Robert Menzies, Harold Holt, John McEwen, John Gorton and William McMahon. In March 1964 Menzies appointed him Attorney-General. In that capacity he played a significant role in the 1967 constitutional referendum affecting the status of Aboriginals. On 7 April 1965, the Menzies Cabinet decided that it would seek to repeal Section 127 of the Constitution, which excluded indigenous people from the population count, but made no firm plans or timetable for such action. In August 1965, Snedden proposed to Cabinet that abolition of Section 127 was inappropriate unless Section 51(xxvi) was simultaneously amended to remove the words "other than the aboriginal race in any state". He was rebuffed, but he gained agreement when he made a similar submission to the Holt Cabinet in 1966. The referendum went ahead on 27 May 1967, and was resoundingly approved.[6]

He was Minister for Immigration 1966–69, and Minister for Labour and National Service 1969–71, a difficult job which put him in charge of the government's highly unpopular policy of conscription for the Vietnam War. In 1967, following the death of Harold Holt, he was a candidate for the leadership of the Liberal Party, but his candidacy was not taken very seriously.

As Minister for Labour and National Service, Snedden commented on anti-war and anti-conscription activists' demonstrations. On the eve of the first Moratorium, he said in Parliament that the marchers were "political bikies pack-raping democracy".[7][8]

Rise to the Liberal leadership[edit]

In 1971, however, Snedden was appointed Treasurer by William McMahon, and was elected Liberal Deputy Leader, making him the heir apparent to the leadership. When McMahon was defeated by the Labor Party under Gough Whitlam in 1972, Snedden was elected as his replacement as Liberal leader, winning by a single vote over Nigel Bowen on the fifth ballot. Snedden promised a new and more "liberal" Liberal Party, but he suffered from his continuing image as a light-weight, and many Liberals believed he would never defeat Whitlam.

Snedden allowed himself to be persuaded to use the conservative majority in the Senate to block the Whitlam government's budget in 1974. Whitlam promptly called a double dissolution election for 18 May, at which he was returned to office, albeit with a reduced majority. Labor campaigned on the slogan "Oh no, not Snedden!". Snedden exposed himself to ridicule by refusing to concede defeat, insisting at a press conference that "while we didn't win, we didn't lose all"

Leadership challenge by Malcolm Fraser[edit]

After the election the conservative wing of the Liberal Party, led by Malcolm Fraser, challenged Snedden's leadership, but he was narrowly re-elected. When he failed to make any headway against Whitlam, Fraser mounted a second challenge, and Snedden was deposed in March 1975, becoming the first leader of the Liberal Party not to gain the prime ministership. He retired to the backbench until February 1976, when Fraser supported his election as Speaker of the House.

Speaker of the House[edit]

Snedden was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives on 17 February 1976, defeating the previous Speaker, Gordon Scholes, by a majority of 53 votes.[9] He was re-elected on 21 February 1978, defeating Labor MP Dr Harry Jenkins by a majority of 44 votes,[10] and on 25 November 1980, again defeating Dr Jenkins by a majority of 22 votes.[11]

He was the last Speaker of the House of Representatives to wear the formal regalia of full-bottomed wig and gown inherited from the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, believing that it would restore the dignity of the office of Speaker.[12]

As Speaker, Snedden sought to enhance the role and assert its independence. He preferred the Speaker to be recognised as an impartial umpire like the Speaker of the House of Commons.[13] In 1979, he published a paper outlining his proposals for adopting some of the Westminster conventions, namely that the Speaker remain in office for five to seven years then resign and hold no further public office, that the Speaker be unopposed by the major political parties at general elections, and that the Speaker resign from his or her party upon becoming Speaker.[14]

Snedden tried to strengthen the Parliament's ability to withstand pressures from the Executive.[15] He believed that it was contrary to Parliament's independence for the Executive to control the funds allocated to Parliament, so he authorised parliamentary officers to write a paper in 1976 entitled The Parliamentary Budget. He later wrote, "You could not have a situation where the Executive decided the level at which Members could operate efficiently."[16] This led to the introduction of the Appropriation (Parliamentary Departments) Bill in 1982.[17]

One of his most memorable actions as Speaker occurred in February 1982 when a Labor frontbencher, Bob Hawke, referred to then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser as a "liar" during question time. Fraser was answering a question about two joint royal commissions being conducted in Victoria at the time. Fraser allegedly selectively quoted a statement by the Victorian Leader of the Opposition, John Cain, which provoked Hawke to call Fraser a liar. Snedden followed parliamentary procedure and asked Hawke to withdraw the remark. When Hawke refused, Snedden named him and a motion for his suspension was moved. Snedden later wrote that "It was his [Fraser's] instigation which was making the Parliament unworkable, not the Opposition's response, like the classroom situation where the smart little man hits the fellow next to him who retaliates and is seen by the teacher".[18] Members of the Opposition had by that point taken up "liar" as a chant, which put Snedden in the position where he would have to name every Member, one by one.[19] After realising that the House would be unworkable for that sitting day, he declined to put the motion for Hawke's suspension.

Fraser was furious and attempted to intimidate Snedden to punish Hawke for not withdrawing or take his "punishment". Snedden refused and was convinced that he would no longer be Speaker, but once Fraser realised that he had no support in the Liberal Party to remove him from office, he sent him a conciliatory message.[20]

After the defeat of the Fraser Government in 1983 and the election of Dr Harry Jenkins Sr. as Speaker, Sir Billy Snedden resigned from Parliament on 21 April 1983. In doing so, he honoured a feature of his 1979 paper. He believed that if he stayed in Parliament, he might be called for advice on his successor's rulings and that could not happen as it would be undermining the Chair.[21] He said, "I am very conscious that, under the Westminster convention, when the Speaker leaves the chair he leaves the House. I think this is right."[21] He formally resigned from Parliament later that day.[22]

Later life[edit]

When the Fraser government was defeated by Hawke in 1983, Snedden immediately resigned from Parliament. He separated from his wife, Lady Joy Snedden, and was later to withdraw from public life as his health declined from atherosclerosis and heart disease. Snedden was Chairman of the Melbourne Football Club from 1981 to 1986, later a Director of the Victorian Football League and also Patron of the Professional Boxing Association of Australia.[4]


On 27 June 1987, just hours after attending John Howard's election campaign launch, Snedden suffered a fatal heart attack at the Travelodge motel in Rushcutters Bay, Sydney, while having sex with an ex-girlfriend of his son Drew.[23][24] Melbourne newspaper The Truth headlined its report "Snedden died on the job", while the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Snedden was wearing a condom and that "it was loaded".[25]

Personal life[edit]

His daughter Fiona Snedden was elected to the Melbourne City Council in 2004 after an unsuccessful candidature for the Liberal Party in the seat of Melbourne Ports in the 1998 federal election. She stood for re-election to council in 2008 but lost her seat.


Snedden was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) in January 1978.[26] He was appointed a Privy Councillor in 1972.


  1. ^ McMahon was made Leader of the Opposition in the interim period from 5 December to 20 December
  2. ^ Schedvin, Bernie. "Snedden, Sir Billy Mackie (1926–1987)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Australian National University. Retrieved 2016-05-10. 
  3. ^ "State Amateur Players". The West Australian. 67 (20,261). Western Australia. 27 June 1951. p. 11. Retrieved 13 July 2016 – via National Library of Australia. 
  4. ^ a b "Sir Billy Mackie Snedden KCMG QC" (pdf). Australian Prime Ministers Centre – Prime Facts. Museum of Australian Democracy. Retrieved 2011-08-31. 
  5. ^ 1961 election results in Victoria from Adam Carr's election archive
  6. ^ Juddery, Bruce (27 May 1997). "Unsung hero of blacks' progress". The Canberra Times. 
  7. ^ "Political bikies raping democracy". Sydney Morning Herald. 8 May 1970. p. 1. 
  8. ^ "Govt. bid to bait Opposition fails". The Age. 8 May 1970. p. 9. 
  9. ^ Australia, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 17 February 1976, p. 7.
  10. ^ Australia, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 21 February 1978, p. 7.
  11. ^ Australia, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 25 November 1980, p. 5.
  12. ^ Philip McCarthy, "(Formal) order in the House", The Age (Melbourne), 17 February 1976, 3.
  13. ^ Billy Mackie Snedden and M. Bernie Schedvin, Billy Snedden. An Unlikely Liberal, Macmillan, South Melbourne, 1990, p.219.
  14. ^ Michelle Grattan, "Make the Speaker impartial: Snedden", The Age (Melbourne), 12 October 1979, 12; Speaker of the House of Representatives, second edition: APH Archived 23 November 2011 at the Wayback Machine.
  15. ^ Speaker of the House of Representatives, second edition: APH Archived 23 November 2011 at the Wayback Machine.
  16. ^ Snedden and Schevdin, 1990, p. 219.
  17. ^ Australia, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 17 August 1982, p. 75.
  18. ^ Snedden and Schedvin, 1990, p. 222.
  19. ^ Australia, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 18 February 1982, p. 321; Snedden and Schedvin, 1990, p. 222.
  20. ^ Snedden and Schedvin, 1990, p. 224.
  21. ^ a b Australia, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 21 April 1983, p. 4.
  22. ^ Australia, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 21 April 1983, p. 17.
  23. ^ "Achievements: Billy's bedtime story". Sydney Morning Herald. 2006-09-25. Retrieved 2016-05-10. 
  24. ^ "Sir Billy and son 'shared mystery lover'". 2006-09-23. Retrieved 2016-05-10. 
  25. ^ "Time Capsule". The Australian. 2007-06-30. Retrieved 2016-05-10. 
  26. ^ It's an Honour
Parliament of Australia
New division Member for Bruce
1955 – 1983
Succeeded by
Ken Aldred
Preceded by
Gordon Scholes
Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives
1976 – 1983
Succeeded by
Dr Harry Jenkins
Political offices
Preceded by
Garfield Barwick
Attorney-General of Australia
1964 – 1966
Succeeded by
Nigel Bowen
Preceded by
Hubert Opperman
Minister for Immigration
1966 – 1969
Succeeded by
Phillip Lynch
Preceded by
Les Bury
Minister for Labour and National Service
1969 – 1971
Succeeded by
Phillip Lynch
Preceded by
Les Bury
Treasurer of Australia
1971 – 1972
Succeeded by
Gough Whitlam
Preceded by
Gough Whitlam
Leader of the Opposition of Australia
1972 – 1975
Succeeded by
Malcolm Fraser
Party political offices
Preceded by
John Gorton
Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party of Australia
1971 – 1972
Succeeded by
Phillip Lynch
Preceded by
William McMahon
Leader of the Liberal Party of Australia
1972 – 1975
Succeeded by
Malcolm Fraser
Sporting positions
Preceded by
Wayne Reid
Chairman of the Melbourne Football Club
1981 – 1986
Succeeded by
Stuart Spencer